CSIS and Desist: Interview With Glen Greenwald

Greenwald Discusses Reporting on Canadian State Surveillance and Media Reaction to Alleged Terrorism

  • Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Glenn Greenwald said he will publish more on Canadian state surveillance during his visit to Concordia Friday. photo Alex Bailey

When Glenn Greenwald was looking for a partner to help publish Edward Snowden’s revelations of Canadian state surveillance, the pickings in Canadian media were slim.

The former constitutional lawyer and investigative journalist, who won a Pulitzer Prize this year for his coverage of the Edward Snowden story, cut ties with The Globe and Mail after the paper didn’t follow through on an agreement with him to publish a 20-page document detailing Communications Security Establishment Canada’s monitoring of one of the country’s airport WiFi connections.

Greenwald took his reporting to the CBC instead, media commentary website Canadaland reported last week.

However, the partnership with the CBC took a similar turn.

“There was just one person at the CBC who basically hung up the reporting,” Greenwald told student media before his talk at Concordia Friday night. “He has pretty conservative views and seems to like surveillance and didn’t want to report on it.”

That person was CBC’s senior correspondent Terry Milewski, Greenwald revealed to Canadaland.

But resistance on the part of Canada’s mainstream media hasn’t stopped Greenwald from striving to reveal CSEC and Canadian Security Intelligence Service secrets.

“Now that I think the relationship has improved, I think we’re going to do a lot more reporting,” he added before his talk.

It was unclear which relationship he spoke of because former CBC news content director David Walmsley, who worked with Greenwald on his reporting with the public broadcaster, is now editor-in-chief at the Globe.

“The CBC was actually a really good reporting partner until the two people who were working with me left,” Greenwald said. “One actually went to go become the editor of The Globe and Mail and he’s a really aggressive editor.”

Though CSEC hasn’t experienced as much coverage as its American equivalent, the National Security Agency, Greenwald said Canada’s surveillance activities shouldn’t be seen as separate from the other countries in the Five Eyes Alliance, which consists of Canada, the United States, Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom.

“Virtually all surveillance that the Five Eyes alliance engages in, they engage in jointly,” Greenwald said.

And despite people typically seeing state surveillance as “a little bit more remote of a threat,” he added, “I think that the stories we were able to do here in Canada—the limited number—got a huge amount of media attention and created a lot of debate. And I think the [stories] that we’re going to do will continue to do that.

“Human beings instinctively understand why privacy is so critical.”

“The coverage did have this tone of hysteria, almost like wallowing happily in the melodrama of it all,” –Glenn Greenwald

On Canadian media’s reaction to the Ottawa shootings
One threat that does seem to hit close to home in many places in North America, though, is that of “terrorism.”

And yet, “you have a greater chance of dying slipping in the bathtub and hitting your head or being struck by lightning than you do being killed by a terrorist attack,” Greenwald said.

According to Greenwald, mainstream media is complicit in creating the irrational fear of terrorism, a fear which he says benefits federal governments.

When attacks like those targeting Canadian soldiers last week in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu and Ottawa straddle the lines separating terrorism from murder, people tend to demand governments
implement “preventative measures.”

Prime Minister Stephen Harper was swift in labeling last Wednesday’s shooting an act of terrorism and making a push to fast-track a bill that would increase CSEC and law enforcement powers.

The reaction was quick. Shaken by what had happened a few days earlier, people questioned whether Parliament’s security was adequate.

“The coverage did have this tone of hysteria, almost like wallowing happily in the melodrama of it all,” which validates citizens’ fear and government appeals to conduct pre-emptive surveillance and imprisonment, Greenwald said. He added that in spite of these reactions, there had been voices of restraint in Canadian media this week.

Peter Mansbridge was praised for his live television reporting. “It’s on days like this, where a story takes a number of different pathways, [that] a number of changes occur, and often rumors start in a situation like this,” Mansbridge said soon after news of the shootings broke. His statement was repeatedly quoted in reflections on the crisis and praised in international media.

Often the powers governments take on as a response threaten “civil liberties that have existed for centuries,” Greenwald said.

And in the past week’s emphasis on “terrorism”, it appears the government and media may have missed part of the story.

“By all appearances in each case it seems to have been a single individual acting alone with some mix of psychological, emotional, political, ideological and religious motivations,” Greenwald said.

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