Barton Gellman on Edward Snowden and the Threat of ‘Turnkey Authoritarianism’

Barton Gellman
Former Washington Post reporter Barton Gellman welcomes Edward Snowden’s warning about the danger of ‘turnkey authoritarianism.” (Credit; Commonwealth Club)

I recently spoke with Barton Gellman, former Washington Post reporter and author of “Dark Mirror: Edward Snowden and the American Surveillance State.” The book comes seven years after Gellman was one of three reporters whom Snowden entrusted with a trove of NSA documents about the inner working of dozens of top secret U.S. surveillance operations.

Gellman is the last of the four participants to give a first-hand account of the Snowden affair. Filmmaker Laura Poitras made Citizen Four, an Oscar-winning film about Snowden. Columnist Glenn Greenwald wrote No Place To Hide, a civil liberty lawyer’s brief excoriating the NSA and the U.S. government. And Snowden published a memoir, Permanent Record, in which he explained how his techie adolescence led him to become a whistleblower.

To the work of an artist, an activist and a geek, Dark Mirror adds the perspective of journalist who explicates two dimensions of the story not emphasized by others. One is sheer technical detail: how does the NSA’s surveillance system work, from the naming of secret operations to the penetration of Google’s servers. The other is historical perspective—how did this mass surveillance system come to be—and come to be exposed.

Our Zoom conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

MORLEY: You raised the question early on in the book, Who elected you? Who elected Snowden? These secret activities were authorized by acts of Congress. Who elected you to make them public? How did you address that or answer that in your own mind?

GELLMAN: I see the issues of secrecy and  transparency in systemic terms, and specifically in the sense that there is an ecosystem of information, and that as, a starting principle, a self-governing people cannot accept the principle that the executive gets to decide what they know. Full stop. That’s the end of it. It can’t be right, in terms of accountability, and in terms of ultimate source of power for the executive, which is the consent of the people.  

How would you feel if the government did experiments on its own soldiers to see how much radiation would make them sick–which did happen and was classified. I have a  whole list of examples like that in my book. My claim is that a well-ordered republic should not allow the government to decide on its own that no one needs to know that.

So I don’t think reporters have the final say on what should be classified and what shouldn’t.  But in the ecosystem–one in which the journalists compete to try to find out information, and the government tries to keep information secret, the people who do the arbitrage on the on the boundaries, usually have the public interest in mind in one way or another

MORLEY: Do you think those conversations, which happen all the time in the newspaper business between senior editors and government officials, have changed as a result of Snowden? Are senior editors more aggressive or more inclined to hold their ground now than they were before because of what we learned [from Snowden]?

GELLMAN: I think the changes began after 9/11 and really they dated back to Watergate and the Pentagon Papers when the government started telling news organizations–mostly newspapers back in those days–that it would be a grave harm to the republic to publish something. And then they found out it was a history of the Vietnam War which exposed lying by presidents.

After 9/11, the press became bolder and bolder, the more the government stretched the boundaries of national security, and the more it did so in secret. So when you find out about torture or rendition, or warrantless surveillance and so forth, you’re just less and less likely to take the government’s word for it that everything is fine and being done in the best interest of the public.

Laura Poitras
Laura Poitras, filmmaker.

MORLEY: Can you think of a case where you felt that senior editors were too soft in negotiating with government officials?

GELLMAN: My experience was with The Washington Post, and I found it that its backbone was just fine. There were always good reasons [not to publish something]. And usually what happened was, we didn’t cut something out entirely. We rephrased it in such a way that it didn’t blow sources and methods. Or we made the general public policy point.

MORLEY: You note “just how systematic the gaslighting of the public has become” on issues of mass surveillance. I thought that was a great phrase. Were you aware of that before you received the Snowden material?

GELLMAN: What I was aware of, and used to, is when people use very carefully crafted language to seem to be saying something while they’re really saying something else–the famous “non-denial denial.”

[After Snowden] I found it on an enormous scale. The one that blows me away every time is the FBI saying, “We’ve only used this business records authority under the Patriot Act 21 times this year.” They don’t mention that with two of those, you got a trillion phone records.

I am still always shocked when government officials actually flat out lie to my face. I haven’t lost that innocence. But I don’t like to believe it. And I’m pissed off about it.

Snowden book cover
Memoir of a whistleblower.

MORLEY: You record in some detail your conversations with people who are initially very hostile and then sort of warmed up a little bit. I’m thinking of people like [former admiral] William McRaven and [former NSA director] James Clapper. Did they learn something from your coverage and from the whole Snowden experience?

GELLMAN:  I think they did. I think on the one hand, with time, they genuinely began to see that there was an important public debate. They saw enough had happened in Congress, or in the world of consumer marketing, in the world of public opinion, that they realized they had fallen down on the job of explaining themselves, that they had assumed power to act on our behalf, an agency that we hadn’t authorized. And they realized that was a problem for them.

The military is very big on hearts and minds. And it’s a kind of parallel here in the national security establishment. They realized that they had lost the confidence of the American people by overstretching. They saw that as a necessary debate. They tended to say it just shouldn’t have happened the way it did. It should not have happened by this outrageous leak. Nobody was ever able to explain to me how we could have had this kind of debate without the information being put into the public domain. And they started to admit that.

On the other hand, there was an early emotional reaction in which I became a pariah and I was classed with Snowden, sometimes as his “accomplice” or his “agent.” Those words had meaning in law, which concerned me.

I was essentially expelled from my  observer status in the national security establishment. I had been sort of tolerated as someone who came to their conferences. I talked to them and they understood that I understood a little bit about their world, and they were happy to talk to me. And now suddenly they weren’t.

And then Trump came in, as one of them told me, “This a national emergency and you are first responders,” that the press had a role that was indispensable, to holding power accountable. They sort of got over their hurt feelings and started talking again.

MORLEY: When people told you that Snowden did enormous damage and made the case to you, were you ever persuaded by what they said?

GELLMAN. I think there’s a definitional issue, about first of all, what counts is damage. And if you say there was a loss of collection, then there are two kinds of damage that could be done.

Glenn Greenwald
Glenn Greenwald, columnist

You could be talking about Snowden blowing a technical method and adversaries correcting for that and disappearing. Of course, they’re just as likely to run to some other platform, that is also available. I mean, as Snowden said to me, NSA is a prodigiously creative factory of sources and methods. They make new ones every day, and they have to, because the world is changing constantly.

It’s impossible to doubt seriously that the Snowden revelations lost a bunch of collection on technical grounds. He disclosed too many methods. Even the stories that I wrote necessarily disclosed certain methods in the service of what I thought were greater public interest reasons.

But there’s another kind of damage, which is what happens when something comes to light, and people don’t like it. If consumers don’t like it, they demand greater privacy. If Internet companies don’t like it, they start encrypting their links. If litigants don’t like it, they  go to court. If Congress doesn’t like it, they pass the USA Freedom Act that somewhat restricts the Call Records program.

All of these things are the system working the way it should. This is not a bug. It’s a feature. The NSA is losing collection because the society has made a considered judgment, at that moment, that it shouldn’t do that stuff.

MORLEY: Were you surprised at the surveillance of yourself? You write about discovering the existence of 435 documents about you at ODNI (Office of the Director of National Intelligence) and a 76-page [Department of Homeland Security] report on every international flight that you had taken since 1983.

GELLMAN: Yeah, I was surprised, actually. I always thought it was sort of self-dramatic to imagine that you are the one they are watching. I’ve been in communication many times over the years that people who imagined that they were being watched, and they were not persuasive on that front. So it was a shock for me to find my name in the NSA archives, to find that I was named in a memo from the NSA director to the attorney general talking about ‘dangerous leaks’ that needed to be investigated.

And I was not encouraged by even the limited amount I was able to learn [through the Freedom of Information Act].  The CIA gave me a Glomar  response, which they refused to confirm or deny even the existence of the records that would be pertinent to Bart Gellman. That was a little disturbing.

MORLEY: Was this going on before you cooperated with Snowden?

GELLMAN Yes. I mean, when I found my name in the documents, it was about a set of stories I’d written in 1999, 14 years before Snowden. They were about by this guy at the U.N. and Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. The FBI told the judge that they could not comply with a FOIA request to release records from their electronic surveillance database because if they did so, even the names of the files would reveal operations and techniques that were not publicly known in multiple cases.

So it couldn’t all be Snowden. It had to be other stories that I had done as well. It’s a creepy world of all these classified operations.

James Clapper
James Clapper, former NSA director.

MORLEY: I want to ask you about Snowden’s concept of “turnkey authoritarianism.” Here’s the NSA’s powerful surveillance machine. You can argue that it wasn’t abused for political purposes, but that could change, for example, if there was a different kind of president. Are we vulnerable to turnkey authoritarianism?

GELLMAN; It’s is his central argument, and it’s his most persuasive one to me. Interestingly I even got James Clapper to worry about a little bit. He acknowledged that he hadn’t worried about abuse of the machinery when he was in government because he trusted himself. He trusted the other senior leaders around him, and he trusted ultimately the president, whether it was Republican or Democrat, to restrain themselves. From his decades of experience he thought that was a trust he could give.

And then along comes Trump, someone who does not respect legal boundaries or normative boundaries. He tends to accuse other people of things he’s already doing or plans to do, and he starts going on and on about surveillance. That’s not a happy sign.

And [Clapper] said, ‘Yeah, I mean, you know, maybe I’m not so comfortable with this machinery after all.’ But when I said, “Is it something that should be stepped back, scaled back? Was it too dangerous to build?” He said, “We know how to do it now. You can’t unlearn that.” And you can try to put a regulator on the system. You could try to put filters on it. But if you presume a non-compliant top authority, the negative can stripped off in an instant. You could change the code, or you change a semicolon in one of the internal regulations, and all bets are off.

Now Rick Leggett, a deputy director at NSA who I admire and who has always been very straight with me, just said he didn’t believe that Trump could suborn the system so much that it crossed red lines.

I said, “Don’t you think, given the variety of human nature, that there must be some people in there who feel like their hands have been tied unnecessarily over the years by these restrictions?” He said, yes, there’s always people like that. I said, “Isn’t it possible that Trump finds allies in there? Isn’t it your observation that Trump has managed to drag a lot of people across gray lines and then black and white lines they never imagined they would cross. He’s a genius at that.”

And he just kind of got off the bus. He didn’t want to talk about about anymore. Ultimately, he thought it [the idea of “turnkey authoritarianism”] was science fiction. And I don’t I think I think it is. I think it’s a dangerous system to build.

MORLEY What did you make of the appearance of the senior military men at Trump’s photo op in Lafayette Park [on June 1]  and then the blowback? That seemed like a test of the national security system. Trump was really pushing things to a level that we had never seen before in terms of bringing in the military to deal with peaceful protest.

GELLMAN; There’s been a constant ebb and flow of battles between Trump and the permanent government. I mean, I hate the term “deep state” just because of all its weird implications. These are career public servants. Right. And they are institutions that have their own institutional norms, for good reason. So here’s an example, a moment when the chairman [of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] and the defense secretary crossed a line and then regretted it. They were made to regret it by people whose opinions they cared about all their peers, and former peers, and they announced that they were henceforth not going to do any such thing again and took a chance on being fired. But I mean, that’s the right lesson to learn. They got burned.

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