During a unique conversation hosted by the New School and the New York Times on Thursday, the three people most responsible for bringing the story of mass global surveillance programs orchestrated by the U.S. National Security Agency were brought together for the first time since they first met in a Hong Kong hotel in 2013.
Filmmaker Laura Poitras and journalist Glenn Greenwald sat with the New York Times media columnist David Carr on stage while the whistleblower himself, Edward Snowden, appeared via videolink from Russia where he remains under asylum protection.
"Yes, governments possess extraordinary powers—but at the end of the day there are more of us than there are of them." —Edward SnowdenCitizenFour, the documentary film by Poitras which tells the story of Snowden and the NSA revelations he first entrusted to her and then Greenwald has now won numerous awards and been nominated for the upcoming Acadamy Awards. Discussing both the making of the film and her investigation into the world of NSA surveillance, Poitras described how once you recognize how "pernicious and ominous" the world created by the NSA has become, "it does give you that sense of not being able to sleep" because you come to understand "how deep these powers go."
Greenwald, who along with his colleagues at the Guardian, won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the Snowden documents, said during the talk, "The realm of privacy is critical to human freedom, to political activism and is something that we've always sought out."
Rejecting the idea that "only people who have something to hide" should be worried about government surveillance, Greenwald continued by arguing that what those people are saying "is that 'I've agreed to turn myself into such a submissive, pliant, uninteresting person that I actually don't think the government is interested in me.' That in itself is an extraordinary damage—that you accept that bargain or that that bargain even exists. But I think for all of us, just the knowledge that we might be watched at any given moment is very psychologically damaging," for individual people and for society as a whole.
On why the revelations have touched such a nerve around the world and why he tends to sleep well at night despite the situation he now finds himself in, Snowden said, "The reality is that people care about our ability to communicate and associate without being monitored and judged based on private activities. And as long as we have that, we will win regardless of the efforts against us."
He continued, "When it comes down it—and, yes, governments possess extraordinary powers—but at the end of the day there are more of us than there are of them. And as long as we work together and as long as we value our rights, we will be able to protect them and assert them."
In a sad twist, Mr. Carr, a book author and long-celebrated staff writer for the Times, died just hours after hosting the event, making his discussion with Snowden, Poitras, and Greenwald his final public appearance and very last piece of journalistic work.
Watch the conversation: