Last summer I did a post saying that Terry Gross of Fresh Air, one of the best interviewers around, doesn’t care about Edward Snowden. Since then, Snowden has come up at least twice on her show, with Gross using the forceps of a mainstream media voice to pick up the topic. Last September she interviewed Barton Gellman of The Washington Post. And last week she interviewed Brian Burrough about Snowden. (There may be other references, but I couldn’t find them in a cursory search.)
Burrough wrote about Snowden for Vanity Fair. “From Geeky Dropout to NSA Leaker,” is the NPR headline, and Gross pushed the notions that Snowden is driven by ego (as if that is not a layer of everyone’s motivation) and that reporters who publicized his leaks were irresponsible. But her probing questions produced Burrough’s admission that Snowden has changed the way he understands government: he used to reflexively dismiss conspiracy theories, but now that Snowden pulled back the curtain, he understands that is a naive stance. In fact, the conspiracies just “mushroom,” he says. “And the only thing that surprises me now is when I’m told that there’s something the NSA can’t do.” From the exchange:
GROSS: So you’re leaning toward thinking that Snowden’s motivation – or at least part of it – was ego. Let me quote something that Snowden said, and I think this is what he communicated to you: “Every person remembers some moment in their life where they witness some injustice, big or small, and looked away because the consequences of intervening seemed too intimidating. But there’s a limit to the amount of incivility and inequality and inhumanity that each individual can tolerate. I crossed that line and am no longer alone.”
So that’s what he says in response to why he did it. How much weight do you give that? And why are you giving so much weight to ego?
BURROUGH: I actually – I believe he did it for the reasons he stated he did it. In terms of secondary motivations, I think ego is strong. I mean, that’s a very dramatic, diplomatic way to put things that he probably had a little bit of help with, I suggest…
GROSS: So last week a George Polk Award, a very prestigious journalism award, was given to stories that were broken based on Snowden documents, broken by Laura Poitras, Glenn Greenwald, Ewan MacAskill, and Barton Gellman. This week they won Pulitzer Prizes, those stories. So these stories have been very acclaimed in the world of journalism. I’m wondering if you think these stories are also controversial at all in the world of journalism.
BURROUGH: I actually don’t. I think that they are widely acclaimed. And I think that people have made the case that this is, you know, the biggest leak, the biggest whistleblower situation since the Pentagon papers. One of the biggest, you know, journalism scoops since Woodward and Bernstein in Watergate. I think that their work was exemplary.
GROSS: Now, this is hardly the first long piece you’ve written about intelligence. You worked on the Vanity Fair piece on the path to 9/11 which was about dysfunction in the nation’s intelligence agencies and the security failures that left us open to attack. You were a writer on the Vanity Fair piece “The Path to War” about how the Bush administration used false intelligence to justify invading Iraq and now you’ve written – you know, now you’re the lead author on this piece about the Edward Snowden leaks.
So when you add this new piece to the other pieces about intelligence that you’ve written, how does that change the picture that you have of American intelligence?
BURROUGH: I don’t cover American intelligence regularly. I get called in every now and then to contribute to these large pieces that our editor Graydon Carter does. So I’m really not an expert on intelligence. I have to say my working theory about all these things – keep in mind I’m typically brought in when something goes wrong – has always been against conspiracy theories and in favor of human fallibility.
I must say that what Snowden has put out there suggests that I need to be a little bit more aware of the conspiracy theories because, in this case, many, many things that were said that the NSA could do, which sound like a conspiracy theory – you know, eavesdropping on Angela Merkel or the Indonesian prime minister’s mistress – I might have scoffed at.
And we now know are not only capable of being done but have been done. And the only thing that surprises me now is when I’m told that there’s something the NSA can’t do. Because when you’re in the middle of reporting and researching one of these stories, you just – the sense of the NSA’s capabilities just – they mushroom.
And you just come to believe that they can do almost anything. So, you know, I think it’s going to be interesting going forward in terms of we now have these capabilities to listen in on basically everything in the world to warehouse that information internationally and domestically. And I can see that the Obama administration wants to somehow put this genie back in the bottle.
And I question, you know, ultimately whether that either can be done or whether, in fact, there will be the political will to have it done. We’ll see.
A wonderful epistemological moment on mainstream media. Burrough is too sophisticated intellectually not to grapple with the consequences of Snowden’s revelations, and brave to make this admission. We will be better readers for it, and writers too. Nice work by Terry Gross.
P.S. In the Gellman and Burrough interviews, the brave leaker Chelsea Manning only came up once, and in a derisive manner. I’d suggest that Gross or others at NPR get Chase Madar on to explain her significance.