Guardian's Glenn Greenwald Schools NBC's Guthrie on NSA Snooping

Updated with video

Appearing on Monday's NBC Today, Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald corrected co-host Savannah Guthrie on her framing of the NSA phone and email surveillance controversy after she inaccurately cited government leaker Edward Snowden: "Snowden makes what I consider to be a rather remarkable claim stating, quote, 'I, sitting at my desk certainly had the authorities to wiretap you'....He didn't say that he had the ability to do it....He said he had the legal authority to do it." [Listen to the audio or watch the video after the jump]

Greenwald responded: "That isn't what he said. He didn't say he had the legal authority. That's a word you included in the statement that he didn't actually include....he said authority, not 'legal authority,' which is what you just quoted him as saying. And what I'm telling you is that is a misquotation..."

He then questioned Guthrie's journalistic skills: "...what he [Snowden] was clearly saying was that – and the point that you ought to be interested in as a journalist more so than the one that you asked – is that people who sit at the NSA desk, thousands of them, have the authority, meaning the NSA has given them the power to be able to go in and scrutinize the communications of any American."

Complaining about the inability of citizens to successfully sue the federal government over such matters, Greenwald argued:

I think the really important point here is there have been many efforts on the part of the ACLU and other advocacy groups to go into court and to challenge the constitutionality of the surveillance system and to ask federal courts to rule about whether or not what the Obama administration, and Bush administration before them, is doing is actually consistent with the Fourth Amendment. And rather than let those lawsuits proceed, the government has continuously said it is too secretive to allow courts to review and because we do all of this in the dark, nobody can prove they've been eavesdropped on and therefore don't have standing to sue.

So if this is really legal, why doesn't the government allow federal courts to rule on whether or not our constitutional rights are being violated as citizens? It's because they do everything in secret, which is why we need whistle blowers to come forth, like Mr. Snowden, so that we can have some transparency on political officials.

Guthrie provided the administration's defense: "The government comes in, makes the argument that this is protected by the State Secrets Privilege, then a federal judge rules on that, and in this case, a federal judge has said that the State Secrets Privilege was asserted properly. That is within the law, is it not?"

Again Greenwald provided a correction: "Actually that's not at all what happened. What happened was the ACLU went into court and asked for a ruling on the constitutionality of the law and what the federal government said is, 'You have no ability to prove that your clients were actually eaves dropped on. You can't prove they were subjected to surveillance because everyone that we surveil, we keep that a secret. And therefore your clients have no standing to sue.'"

Referencing an interview between foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell and National Intelligence Director James Clapper aired during a prior report, Guthrie noted: "Clapper called these revelations 'literally gut-wrenching.' In response, you tweeted, 'Save some melodrama and rhetoric for coming stories. You'll need it.'"

Greenwald replied:

There is not a single revelation that we provided to the world that even remotely jeopardizes national security. The only thing that has been jeopardized is the reputation and credibility of the people in power who are engaged in this massive spying program and wanted to do it in the dark. And as journalists, I think our number one obligation should be not to allow government officials to scream "terrorist" and try and scare people every time there's transparency brought to them, but instead scrutinize whether those claims are valid. And there's not anything that we disclosed to the world that can remotely or conceivably be said to harm national security in any way.

In the interview with Clapper, Mitchell wondered: "Why do you need every telephone number? Why is it such a broad vacuum cleaner approach?" Clapper remarked: "Well, you have to start some place."


Here is a full transcript of Guthrie's June 10 exchange with Greenwald:

7:04AM ET

SAVANNAH GUTHRIE: Glenn Greenwald is a columnist for The Guardian who broke this story. Glenn, good morning to you.

GLENN GREENWALD: Good morning.

[ON-SCREEN HEADLINE: NSA Source Revealed; Greenwald On the Man Behind the Leaks]

GUTHRIE: As we just heard, the Department of Justice has now opened a leak investigation. When was the last time you spoke with Edward Snowden?

GREENWALD: I spoke with him probably around 5 or 6 hours ago.

GUTHRIE: Have there been any contacts to him by the U.S. government, any agency of the U.S. government, as far as you know?

GREENWALD: No, I don't believe there has been any. I'm not sure that they actually know where he is or how to communicate with him and they have not communicated with him to my knowledge.

GUTHRIE: Glenn, in the video, as we just saw, Snowden makes what I consider to be a rather remarkable claim stating, quote, "I, sitting at my desk certainly had the authorities to wiretap you, your accountant, a federal judge, even the President if I had a personal e-mail." Let's make a distinction here. He didn't say that he had the ability to do it, for example, if he went rogue. He said he had the legal authority to do it. Did you follow up and ask him what legal authority that purports to be?

GREENWALD: That isn't what he said. He didn't say he had the legal authority. That's a word you included in the statement that he didn't actually include. What he meant clearly was that given-

GUTHRIE: He said authority.

GREENWALD: Yeah, he said authority, not "legal authority," which is what you just quoted him as saying. And what I'm telling you is that is a misquotation because what he was clearly saying was that – and the point that you ought to be interested in as a journalist more so than the one that you asked – is that people who sit at the NSA desk, thousands of them, have the authority, meaning the NSA has given them the power to be able to go in and scrutinize the communications of any American.

It may not be legal, but they have the power to do it. And because all of this takes place in the dark with no accountability and no checks, that's the reason why he felt so compelled to inform his fellow citizens about the capabilities this massive surveillance apparatus provides, because it's so conducive to abuse.

GUTHRIE: But it is an interesting point, right? I mean he's saying it is conducive to abuse but what he isn't saying is that doing so would be within the strictures of U.S. law. In fact, in other words, that U.S. law allows him to do something like this?

GREENWALD: Well, I think the really important point here is there have been many efforts on the part of the ACLU and other advocacy groups to go into court and to challenge the constitutionality of the surveillance system and to ask federal courts to rule about whether or not what the Obama administration, and Bush administration before them, is doing is actually consistent with the Fourth Amendment. And rather than let those lawsuits proceed, the government has continuously said it is too secretive to allow courts to review and because we do all of this in the dark, nobody can prove they've been eves dropped on and therefore don't have standing to sue.

So if this is really legal, why doesn't the government allow federal courts to rule on whether or not our constitutional rights are being violated as citizens? It's because they do everything in secret, which is why we need whistle blowers to come forth, like Mr. Snowden, so that we can have some transparency on political officials.

GUTHRIE: The government comes in, makes the argument that this is protected by the State Secrets Privilege, then a federal judge rules on that, and in this case, a federal judge has said that the State Secrets Privilege was asserted properly. That is within the law, is it not?

GREENWALD: Right, actually that's not at all what happened. What happened was the ACLU went into court and asked for a ruling on the constitutionality of the law and what the federal government said is, "You have no ability to prove that your clients were actually eaves dropped on. You can't prove they were subjected to surveillance because everyone that we surveil, we keep that a secret. And therefore your clients have no standing to sue."

Part of what the documents include that he turned over is a list of the people that the U.S. government has been targeting. And one of the reasons he did that was so those lawsuits finally can proceed so that we can now know who has been subjected to this surveillance so they can go into court and ask a court ruling – for a court ruling on whether or not this is a violation of the Constitution to have this massive surveillance system aimed at millions of Americans regardless of whether there's evidence of any wrongdoing.

GUTHRIE: And then finally, as you well know, the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper called these revelations "literally gut-wrenching." In response, you tweeted, "Save some melodrama and rhetoric for coming stories. You'll need it."

GREENWALD: Right, because in every single case over the past four to five decades when there are revelations of wrongdoing that is done in secret, what the strategy of the U.S. government is, is come out and try and scare the American public into saying, "These people have jeopardized you. There's going to be a terrorist attack." There is not a single revelation that we provided to the world that even remotely jeopardizes national security.

The only thing that has been jeopardized is the reputation and credibility of the people in power who are engaged in this massive spying program and wanted to do it in the dark. And as journalists, I think our number one obligation should be not to allow government officials to scream "terrorist" and try and scare people every time there's transparency brought to them, but instead scrutinize whether those claims are valid. And there's not anything that we disclosed to the world that can remotely or conceivably be said to harm national security in any way.

GUTHRIE: Alright, Glenn Greenwald, thank you for your perspective this morning, we appreciate it.

GREENWALD: Thank you for having me.

Kyle Drennen
Kyle Drennen
Kyle Drennen is a News Analyst for MRC