Marc Steiner continues his conversation with Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of The Nation, who recently interviewed Edward Snowden in Moscow
MARC STEINER, RADIO HOST, WEAA 88.9 FM: This is Marc Steiner, and we’re talking with Katrina vanden Heuvel, publisher of The Nation magazine, about her recent interview, along with Stephen Cohen, of Edward Snowden that took place at his apartment in Moscow.
KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL, EDITOR AND PUBLISHER, THE NATION: Thank you, Marc.
STEINER: You know, when we talk about what President Barack Obama did not do and what Snowden released revealed to the rest of us–and I talk to Congressman about this all the time and can never get a really straight answer. But what would have really happened if President Barack Obama did put Dick Cheney on trial, did investigate Dick Cheney? If that actually happened, both politically, inside the intelligence community, politically between Republicans and Democrats, progressives, conservatives, and liberals, I mean, there would have been–.
VANDEN HEUVEL: No. I think there would have been a civil war. The media would have contributed to in different ways.
But there were other steps. I mean, President Obama did say, we’re going to end the torture regime, but there could have been more disclosures, Marc. I mean, you didn’t need–there’s something between putting Dick Cheney on trial and the fact that we still have not seen to this day the Senate intelligence report on the CIA. I mean, that is a scandal. And the fact that you have an intelligence community pushing back so hard against that committee and its chair–let’s be honest: Dianne Feinstein, Senator Dianne Feinstein, has been a supporter of the intelligence community. When she stepped up and stood out and said, enough, and knew her staffers were being harassed or surveilled, she understood something about this deep state and how they’re going to protect their own. So I think there are intermediate intermediate steps which–even those haven’t been taken. And that’s, I think, part of the grave disappointment.
STEINER: You know, one of the things that–in this piece that you talk to him about, you have this great clip when you talk to him about what happened in the Church Senate committee. And in that here he talks about the garden of liberty and protecting our liberty.
EDWARD SNOWDEN, NSA WHISTLEBLOWER: And so when we think in the context of the last decade’s infringements upon personal liberty and the last year’s revelations, it’s not about surveillance. It’s about liberty. When people say, I have nothing to hide, what they’re saying is my rights don’t matter, because you don’t need to justify your rights as a citizen. That inverts the model of responsibility. The government must justify its intrusion into your rights. If you stop defending your rights because you go, well, I don’t need them in this context or I can understand this, that, or the other, those are no longer rights. Right? The concept of that as a right, whatever it was, you have ceded. You’ve granted that as a privilege now to the government that can be abrogated at their convenience. And that has diminished the measure of liberty within a society.
STEINER: And that was pretty moving, I mean, in the sense that he’s wrestling with what this meant in a larger sense for him and for the rest of us.
VANDEN HEUVEL: Yes. As I said, he’s a real constitutionalist and he’s a believer that there were terrible excesses, and that at least with the Church committee you had some measure of accountability. But since then we’ve just seen erosion of those rights. But if people give up their rights, that means part of the end of fighting for that garden of liberty. And he’s trying to explain why freedom from surveillance is a fundamental civil liberty. And unless you understand that, you’re at risk of ceding, of giving up your rights to those who might well abuse than.
STEINER: So when one of the things that really hit me I’d never thought about before or never read about before, really, or maybe I just didn’t pay attention, didn’t see it, but when you ask him about these times of the troubles that we’re facing in the world and in America, one of the things he said was that in the wake of all these surveillance revelations, rush-through laws, other countries rush through laws that were basically ghostwritten by the National Security Agency to enable mass surveillance without court oversight. Now, what does that mean?
VANDEN HEUVEL: Well, he’s very consumed–and we didn’t make this is clear as we might have–with what’s going on in New Zealand, Australia, in Britain, this sort of circle of four or five countries, and the erosion of rights there, even worse in some cases, because there’s less of a Bill of Rights legal framework for privacy, for protection of these rights. So he sees his revelations both playing a role in sparking change–some countries–for example, Germany, as you know, is very much involved now in trying to pass through a set of laws in the new year that will restrict surveillance. But other countries do have these kinds–they could be written by their own intelligence agencies, they’re so permissive in terms of what can be done in the name of security to spy, to surveil people.
STEINER: So when you see Edward Snowden talking about wanting to not be known as an activist, not to take this role of a public spokesman, which he’s become despite that, but seeing himself more as organizing around technocratic issues, I mean, what did you take away from that?
VANDEN HEUVEL: We pushed back. We kept pushing back.
STEINER: You did. You did. You did. You did. You did.
VANDEN HEUVEL: And at one point he does say, I have a sneaky way of making change or making [crosstalk] change, because he’s not going to confront the powers that be head on. But he does see and kind of admits that technical changes are political changes. And so the idea of finding digital rights or building out a system of internet governance that can be protected despite national laws is something quite powerful. I’m not an expert on it, but he’s very engrossed in this project and working with key people. And it’s global. I mean, Brazil is part of it. Other countries.
So he also ends in a curiously reformist way. I’m not sure he’s, with all respect, right when he says what’s missing in Congress is you don’t have anyone who really understands technology. He may be right, because Silicon Valley and these telecom companies, these companies have become such major forces in our culture and our political and other lives that you need people who understand that. On the other hand, you could get people in there who just want to build out the power of such.
I thought the ending was quite moving, because he wanted to–he’s known here politically as a quite libertarian force. But he says, I’m not the arch-libertarian I’ve been made out to be. Clearly he’s reading a lot about how he’s portrayed. He says, believe in the rights of women to make their own choices, and I also believe in a basic income for those who don’t have meaningful work, because he sees inequality–and we have an interesting sort of back-and-forth about Occupy Wall Street, which he believes did not fail. My husband and I have an ongoing argument about this, ’cause Steve thinks it didn’t work out. I see, as Snowden does, that social movements often zigs and zags. It’s not a linear thing. But the fact that inequality now is discussed in the ways it is–of course we need the changes that will end, have, do something with the staggering inequality, but Snowden really thinks that it made an impact. And that he’s thinking those things suggest that he’s much more of a complex person politically than the linear one-sided view arch-libertarian. Of course the libertarian community does see in him someone who’s taking on an intrusive government, but that doesn’t mean he’s one point, one note along that spectrum.
STEINER: Well, you can see this arc. I mean, he talked about it in terms of his own changes inside of when he was working in the intelligence community and what’s happened to him since. He clearly is still evolving in lots of ways.
VANDEN HEUVEL: Exactly. And that was very interesting. You could almost–I mean, we did spend four hours with him. You could almost in that period see is mind at work thinking through new things. And I think if he can continue to lead a life where he does have access to the outer world and engage with it, he has a very verdant mind, and I think he could play a very interesting role moving forward, as these debates are only going to sharpen and intensify.
STEINER: One of the intense interactions the two of you had with Edward Snowden was around his coming back to stand trial or not coming back to stand trial. I found that fascinating. And, I mean, before I ask something specific, just describe that for us, from your perspective, sitting with him, when you and Steven were sitting with Edward Snowden.
VANDEN HEUVEL: Yeah. He clearly wants to return. But he’s aware and he’s careful, because he’s sitting there with two journalists, editors without legal representation, and he wants to be careful because he would like to find a way back home. But he feels that the misuse of the Espionage Act of 1917, which was designed for other purposes, the use of that in his case, the use of it against journalists, other whistleblowers, has mitigated the chances of a public interest defense, which would be quite something. And Steve keeps pushing back the idea that they’re going to allow you to subpoena various people or documents just doesn’t seem in the cards.
But he does speak–and I’m not sure he’s right about this, but this is his view, that the elite, the establishment, is basically supporting him. And then he cites The Guardian and The New York Times. I mean, you could also say CBS, NBC, Meet the Press, all of that is also establishment, and they certainly haven’t supported Snowden. But The New York Times called for clemency and called for a way to bring Snowden home, at least to have a fair trial, which is impossible under these circumstances.
But he does have a lawyer, ACLU lawyer who’s been very active, a lawyer in Germany.
But you can see also how angry he is, because he feels that because he exposed the intelligence community’s failures, as opposed to, like, do a Zero Dark Thirty, right, which he talks about, there is great impetus inside that community to push back and to demonize him and to traitor-ize him. And so that makes a fair trial much more difficult.
STEINER: When you see–when he sees that Chelsea Manning has this huge, long prison term and that even in the day of Daniel Ellsberg, he had to go underground to hide, not to be put into prison, you’ve got this Sterling, the former CIA officer, facing many years. They’re going after Risen. So you can see his termination about wanting to come back to stand trial and wondering if it could even be fair.
VANDEN HEUVEL: Absolutely. I mean, the other thing that really–and I wrote a column in The Washington Post a few days after the interview came out called “Justice for Edward Snowden”. It is a measure of the lack of accountability in our system that the national director of intelligence, James Clapper, went to Congress, lied–it is now clear from the record that he lied when asked by Senators Udall and Wyden if Americans were–their data were being collected and spied on. And Snowden looks at the fact that Clapper is firmly ensconced and that he, Snowden, is in exile and may well not find a way to come back even through trial, and he finds that a measure of a true failure of American–the system of accountability.
And I think he’s right. I mean, if there was justice, Clapper would be investigated–as Snowden says, hey, even baseball players [get] called up to Congress to be investigated–that Clapper would be under investigation, if not more, and there would be a way found for Snowden to come back and at least to meet a fair trial, if not some kind of clemency from the president.
STEINER: Right. And I think that with this article coming out and Citizenfour coming out, I wonder if this is going to create some new conversation, because here we are in November, the trial for Sterling could have happened in January, Risen could be brought back into the picture again. We could be seeing kind of an arc of a national conversation growing out of all of this now.
VANDEN HEUVEL: I hope so, Marc. I think you’re going to see more action. I’ve been in touch with a few people. I think more action in Europe, where there’ll be some legislation inspired by Snowden’s revelations.
Tomorrow, again, is the midterm. One of the key senators who’s really challenged the NSA, Mark Udall, is in a very tough fight in Colorado. So that’s not hopeful. And there are not enough (as you know; you follow this closely) in the Congress who really want to make this an issue. On the other hand, it is one of the few kind of what I call trans-partisan, cross-partisan issues, with a Rand Paul taking it up.
But you’re not seeing much movement in, I think, really taming the surveillance state. There’s a lot of talk about the abuses. But the key next step is to find real ways, through movements and through legislation, to make real changes or there will be what Snowden is working on, the technical changes. We talk about the iPhone 6. Don’t grill me on that.
STEINER: Yeah, that was great. I love that part. Don’t grill me on that either.
VANDEN HEUVEL: Yeah, I know. But, I mean, I was struck the week or a week or so before we knew we were going to do this interview that there were headlines in the newspapers about post-Snowden revelations, iPhone 6 has encryption that–. You know, so it was kind of linked to Snowden’s revelations, as if the companies were reacting. And did some ways they are, whether it’s for moral reasons–doubt it, but it’s for competitive reasons. There’s an anger at the government, because the companies already gave them sort of permission. And then the NSA and others took even more. But he, Snowden, thinks that again you have a kind of created, manufactured crisis by the FBI and some key people in intelligence law enforcement about the dangers of this encrypted phone, because you can still, through, like, geolocation or through warrants, get the information you need if there’s kidnapping of trafficking.
STEINER: Well, I think this interview brought back to us here is a very important piece of work, and I was looking forward to this ever since it was sent to me to talk with you about this. And I appreciate the work you do and the work that you would Stephen Cohen did, and I think that it’s critical in those next steps of us addressing this issue of what happens to our liberty and what Risen has brought out. So, Katrina vanden Heuvel, once again thank you so much for all you’ve done.
VANDEN HEUVEL: Thank you, Marc. And thank you for having our correspondents Norman Solomon and Marcy Wheeler on to talk about the Risen case, which we also covered.
STEINER: Thank you for joining us for this conversation with Katrina vanden Heuvel, publisher of The Nation magazine. And I’m Marc Steiner for The Real News Network.
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