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Marc Steiner talks to Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of The Nation, who recently interviewed Edward Snowden in Moscow

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MARC STEINER, RADIO HOST, WEAA 88.9 FM: Hello. This is Marc Steiner. Welcome, everybody, here to the Marc Steiner Show on WEAA 88.9 FM, the Voice of the Community, and on The Real News Network.

We’re about to control talk to Katrina vanden Heuvel, who’s publisher of The Nation. She and Stephen Cohen, contributing editor to The Nation, did an extensive interview with Edward Snowden in Moscow.

And, Katrina, welcome. Good to have you back.


STEINER: So this seems to me a fascinating interview on many levels. First of all, you began this conversation about him and his life in Moscow. I’m curious just what you took away from that. Maybe we didn’t see in the article about his life in Moscow. I know in the new film Citizenfour, that’s a big piece of what goes on. So I’m very curious. What did you walk away with?

VANDEN HEUVEL: I walked away with someone who’s very thoughtful, very engaging, quick to laugh in interesting ways, has a lot on his mind, but does not like talking about himself. I mean, that’s not just he doesn’t like to talk about his life in Moscow. He just feels it’s more sort of trivialities compared to the enormous issues he wants to talk about.

So it took us–the interview ran 33,000 words. What ended up in The Nation, is a hefty 9,000.

But we did push a little. One of my favorite parts of the interview is where he talks about going into computer stores in Moscow and he’s recognized. They say, hi, Ed. And that he’s watching American television, he’s watching the Game of Thrones, he’s watching Boardwalk Empire, he’s watching House of Cards. And he’s set up a studio. He says he’s not a TV whiz, but he does have the equipment that allows him to communicate with the world, which he cares a lot about, communicate with the–he comes into–beams into South by Southwest or TED talks. He was awarded the Ridenhour whistleblowing award by the Nation Institute in April, beamed into the National Press Club, has testified to the German parliament. So he’s not–as he said when asked what he would advise a young man or woman in terms of the risks he took and what has happened to him, he’s aware that someone like Chelsea Manning isn’t able to walk the streets of anything. And while he doesn’t feel very at home in Moscow–he’s kind of not interested in engaging in the city or, really, the politics of the country–he’s there, but he’s free to move around.

STEINER: A lot of people who listen to The Real News, read The Nation, listen to our program may take something for granted, but a lot of people listening do not that are watching, which is that here we have Edward Snowden in Moscow. He talks about his being in Moscow. And the conversation he had on camera with Putin that a lot of the people who even supported, support Edward Snowden kind of question why he would do that. Why would he have this conversation that was, like, a setup by Putin, even though the question he asked–you had an interesting conversation with him about that.

VANDEN HEUVEL: Yeah, we did. I mean, part of this, I think, to step back a moment, Marc, is I think a lot of people don’t understand that Edward Snowden is living in Moscow of his own choice. His passport was revoked by the U.S. government as he flew from Hong Kong to Russia thinking he would be in transit. And his hope was to fly to Latin America, Bolivia, Ecuador. There were even journalists, if your listeners remember, who were live Tweeting–the plane he was supposed to be–the plane he was supposed to be taking to fly to Havana to get to somewhere in Latin America.

He regrets now having participated in Putin’s press conference earlier this year. This is a press conference Putin does annually. And he–Snowden says in our interview, God, that blew up in my face. What he had hoped was that he could confront Putin as he would have liked to confront National Director of Intelligence James Clapper and ask Putin, hey, you’re surveilling thousands, millions of Russians; can you admit that to your people? Didn’t work out. And so he speaks of the regret.

But more deeply I think what’s happened, which personally, as someone who’s studied Russia, as has my husband, Stephen Cohen, for many years, been going there for more than 30 years, it’s a tragedy that Snowden has become a kind of pawn, in a sense, in a relationship, the U.S.-Russian relationship, that is at its worst point in 30 years, as you know and your listeners know. I mean, this has been described as a new Cold War. So there he is.

But he’s not engaged. He’s not engaged in the politics. And he’s able to find his own life and engage with the outer world and participate in projects like this Magna Carta for the internet he’s working on with Tim Berners-Lee, who is considered one of the fathers of the World Wide Web.

STEINER: I guess there are a couple of things here. Just to stay with Russia for a moment, because so many people that I talk to about this will always say, boy, he’s in Russia, he was in Hong Kong; they must see everything that’s on his computer; they must be using this information against the United States; yes, I like what he did, I like the fact that he exposed the surveillance against our citizens, but who is he really working for? I mean, I think that there’s a lot–you know what I’m saying? I think–.

VANDEN HEUVEL: I know. There’s absolutely–I mean, you just–you know, China, Russia, especially in these times–. Listen, I’m not an expert on technology, on encryption. Snowden really prides himself on being a kind of philosopher and practitioner of encryption, of knowing the technology, working in the belly of the beast. Laura Poitras, the very fine journalist whose documentary Citizenfour has come out in the last few weeks, also is someone who prides herself on encryption. They speak as to how Snowden sent on his files, and that the Russians nor do the Chinese have access to this. And I would turn to them, I would read what they have written, I would read what Snowden has written with some detail as to why it’s not in his hands and they don’t have access to it, they being the Russian or Chinese government.

But for those who want to believe, they will invoke national security. Yet even the current head of the CIA has said the sky isn’t falling. The president’s own review panel–and we talk about this in the interview–has said they have not found any breaches of security that have led to danger and breach of national security for the American people. So there’s a lot of hysteria. And Snowden talks of the Sunday talk shows where they’ve essentially–some of them have called for a high-tech lynching of Edward Snowden or called him a traitor or called the journalist Glenn Greenwald an accomplice to treason. I mean, this is a lot of talk, which produces some of the fearmongering we have seen but doesn’t contribute to more national security.

STEINER: One of the things that really struck me about this interview that you did with him was towards the end of the interview that you printed in The Nation where you talk about Daniel Ellsberg and Chelsea Manning, and it seems as if Edward Snowden, like many of the others, like Daniel Ellsberg, kind of grew into understanding something was amiss. Like, it has to come from the inside to come out for any of this ever to happen. It can’t be, like, somebody exposing them, like you or me, and as a journalist. But as somebody from the inside working on these intelligence operations, something happens and clicks.

VANDEN HEUVEL: Yes. No, it’s very interesting. I mean, in some ways, in a curious way, Edward Snowden is a very traditional patriotic American who believed–and listen, I work at a place–we’re very patriotic, but I’ve worked with people–and let me step back. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the late senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, used to call every year for the abolition of the CIA. I work with people who believe many of these intelligence agencies should be abolished. Edward Snowden believes in surveillance. What he doesn’t believe in is mass, illegal, unlawful surveillance in violation of a constitution he believes he swore an oath of duty toward. So when he’s in the belly of the beast and he sees what’s happening and he tries to go through channels to express his outrage or concern about a violation of the Constitution, nothing happens. He takes–he has predecessors. And that’s why Daniel Ellsberg is someone he values–not only Daniel Ellsberg, but he cites Thomas Drake, William Binney. There are others who have come forward–and the expression is blown the whistle or been whistleblowers–to expose abuses of the Constitution.

Interestingly, Snowden said in our interview he doesn’t love the word whistleblower, ’cause he believes it other-izes you. And while he very much admires Daniel Ellsberg and these others, he thinks that Americans, ordinary Americans, not just heroic Americans, should call it as they see it if they believe constitutional violations are occurring. So there’s something quite traditional and conservative about an Edward Snowden which has been lost in the hysteria or sensation about this. I found very moving, if I might, Marc, another part where my husband again, who has been a student of Russian and Soviet history, taught it for many years, in listening to Snowden–and he was–really found Snowden fascinating and thoughtful for such a young person, but also he, Steve, had only seen some of the big interviews and found Snowden–thought he might be a little arrogant. He’s not. But then he, Steve, says, you know, you remind me of Andrei Sakharov, who was–

STEINER: Oh, I remember. That’s a great part. Yes. Right.

VANDEN HEUVEL: –yeah, who was a cofounder of the Soviet hydrogen bomb, somebody who became one of the Soviet Union’s most famous dissidents, who was exiled to Gorky, outside of Moscow. But he, Sakharov, was someone who was very much part of the system, but also saw abuses being committed, violating a constitution he believed was the law of the land. So he too spoke out, and he became a dissident, an other thinker. And he suffered for that for many years, that as did his wife, Yelena Bonner. And it’s interesting. Snowden hadn’t really heard of Sakharov. There’s nothing to say there, except he had heard of the prize given in Sakharov’s name. But what it prompted in Snowden was a very interesting reflection on drawing a parallel between what the atomic moment meant for physicists like Sakharov or Robert Oppenheimer, an American dissident, and for the computer engineers, the technologists who work on surveillance. What they have unleashed in the politics and the system, he felt, was akin in certain ways to the atomic moment for physicists and had unleashed a set of anxieties and a lot of conscious concerns, conscience, had aroused conscience in people like Bill Binney, who had been the architect of a program that he later wished he had not given to a system which, in his view, [had run amok (?)].

STEINER: Right. You know, I was thinking there was a piece in here–and the piece, I just want to read it–where Snowden responds to you, saying:

“The surveillance revelations are critically important because they revealed that our rights are being redefined in secret, by secret courts that were never intended to have that role–without the consent of the public, without even the awareness of the majority of our political representatives.

I mean, so what I think he’s laying before the American people here, I think, is what the country’s wrestling with right now.

VANDEN HEUVEL: Exactly. It’s a fundamental question about what does a representative democracy mean. And if people don’t have the information they need to know what the government is doing in their name, how can they take action? How will change come about? And he really believes that he’s given people the information they need. He doesn’t see people–he’s realistic. He understands that people have other concerns that they’re not in the streets about these surveillance revelations. But he does see a shift, particularly in Europe, and people responding to these abuses in ways he had hoped they would.

He is interesting about President Obama. We’re here on the eve of the midterm, and President Obama has, of course, factored in and figured into this midterm in many ways. But he says he didn’t release these revelations before November 2008. He had hopes that President Obama would fulfill and be held accountable to the promises he had made on the campaign trail to disclose and end the torture, to remedy the abuses which had been launched under President Bush and Vice President Cheney after 9/11. He became increasingly disappointed, and he feels that President Obama–this is Snowden’s personal view–the greatest disappointment he has has less to do with the economic social legacy of President Obama’s administration or time as president, but more the fact that Obama had that famous line, we’re going to move forward, we’re not going to look back. But it’s very hard to move to a next chapter without understanding the previous one. And that is very deeply embedded in Snowden’s analysis of what he feels of problems and the frustrations he has with an American political system.

STEINER: Let me tell you this, a little digression that–I was thinking about this as you were just speaking, and also what you and Stephen wrote in the interview, when Snowden says that he thought that President Obama–I forget the exact words; I can find them in a moment–but was scared of the intelligence agencies, was wary of them. And I’m curious what you make (A) of that statement, and (B) what your own analysis is in all these years of covering this about what happened with President Barack Obama around this own intelligence question.

VANDEN HEUVEL: Well, that’s a–Marc, we can maybe take up 42,000 radio shows. That is a big question.

But the question of President Obama being fearful of the intelligence community, it links to something else we spoke to Snowden about, which is the deep state, the deep state, which Snowden says, I have seen it. And this this is something you’ve talked about, Bill Moyers talks about. It is something that is like the permanent campaign. This is what stays. It’s entrenched. It’s gotten–it’s metastasized post-9/11 with the kind of national security contractor surveillance state. These people don’t go home. Presidents come and go.

Now, I’m not a paranoid. There is the possibility of leadership. There’s the possibility of change through leadership elected and social movements. But, boy, is this a tough system. And I do think President Obama came in. I think there were missteps. There was–you do confront an intelligence community which is probably saying, listen, if another 9/11 happens on your watch, you’re a–.

STEINER: It’s your fault.

VANDEN HEUVEL: –you’re–yeah. And so the grave mistake is that we haven’t managed to learn to live with a measure of threat, that we’ve so militarized it that the intelligence community has become ever more powerful. And it’s not new. I mean, again, Snowden speaks of how Nixon taped one room. It’s a little bit of an understatement. And look what happened. And now the whole country’s being tapped, in collusion with some of these corporate telecom companies, and what’s happening? So it speaks to both the hemocratic system, the end of accountability, but also how the system has metastasized.

And he is very critical of President Obama, but there’s no question that 9/11, as your listeners may know–you do, too–was a turning point for him. He wanted to enlist and go fight in Iraq. He was injured, with broken legs, I think. But he sees the toxicity of what Bush and particularly Cheney seeded in our system. And he had hopes, as so many of us did, that we could make a pivot away from that. He doesn’t see that now, but he does see the possibility of reforms coming through technical means. I mean, he’s very keen on that. I’m not sure exactly if that’s the case.

And I also think–and Steve and I push him–he’s a little disingenuous when he keeps saying, I’m not a political animal.

STEINER: Right. Right. Right. He was backpedaling from that a lot. No, I’m not, I’m not, I’m not.



Thank you for joining us here for this conversation with Katrina vanden Heuvel, publisher of The Nation magazine. I’m Marc Steiner for The Real News Network. And please stay with us for another segment of our conversation with Katrina vanden Heuvel.


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Marc Steiner

Host, The Marc Steiner Show
Marc Steiner is the host of "The Marc Steiner Show" on TRNN. He is a Peabody Award-winning journalist who has spent his life working on social justice issues. He walked his first picket line at age 13, and at age 16 became the youngest person in Maryland arrested at a civil rights protest during the Freedom Rides through Cambridge. As part of the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968, Marc helped organize poor white communities with the Young Patriots, the white Appalachian counterpart to the Black Panthers. Early in his career he counseled at-risk youth in therapeutic settings and founded a theater program in the Maryland State prison system. He also taught theater for 10 years at the Baltimore School for the Arts. From 1993-2018 Marc's signature “Marc Steiner Show” aired on Baltimore’s public radio airwaves, both WYPR—which Marc co-founded—and Morgan State University’s WEAA.