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How I Met Edward Snowden

[This essay is a shortened and adapted version of Chapter 1 of Glenn Greenwald’s new book, No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Security State [1], and appears at TomDispatch.com [2] with the kind permission of Metropolitan Books.]

On December 1, 2012, I received my first communication from Edward Snowden, although I had no idea at the time that it was from him.

The contact came in the form of an email from someone calling himself Cincinnatus, a reference to Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, the Roman farmer who, in the fifth century BC, was appointed dictator of Rome to defend the city against attack. He is most remembered for what he did after vanquishing Rome’s enemies: he immediately and voluntarily gave up political power and returned to farming life. Hailed as a “model of civic virtue,” Cincinnatus has become a symbol of the use of political power in the public interest and the worth of limiting or even relinquishing individual power for the greater good.

The email began: “The security of people’s communications is very important to me,” and its stated purpose was to urge me to begin using PGP encryption so that “Cincinnatus” could communicate things in which, he said, he was certain I would be interested. Invented in 1991, PGP stands for “pretty good privacy.” It has been developed into a sophisticated tool to shield email and other forms of online communications from surveillance and hacking.


In this email, “Cincinnatus” said he had searched everywhere for my PGP “public key,” a unique code set that allows people to receive encrypted email, but could not find it. From this, he concluded that I was not using the program and told me, “That puts anyone who communicates with you at risk. I’m not arguing that every communication you are involved in be encrypted, but you should at least provide communicants with that option.”

“Cincinnatus” then referenced the sex scandal of General David Petraeus, whose career-ending extramarital affair with journalist Paula Broadwell was discovered when investigators found Google emails between the two. Had Petraeus encrypted his messages before handing them over to Gmail or storing them in his drafts folder, he wrote, investigators would not have been able to read them. “Encryption matters, and it is not just for spies and philanderers.”

“There are people out there you would like to hear from,” he added, “but they will never be able to contact you without knowing their messages cannot be read in transit.” Then he offered to help me install the program.  He signed off: “Thank you. C.”

Using encryption software was something I had long intended to do. I had been writing for years about WikiLeaks, whistleblowers, the hacktivist collective known as Anonymous, and had also communicated with people inside the U.S. national security establishment. Most of them are concerned about the security of their communications and preventing unwanted monitoring. But the program is complicated, especially for someone who had very little skill in programming and computers, like me. So it was one of those things I had never gotten around to doing.

C.’s email did not move me to action. Because I had become known for covering stories the rest of the media often ignores, I frequently hear from all sorts of people offering me a “huge story,” and it usually turns out to be nothing. And at any given moment I am usually working on more stories than I can handle. So I need something concrete to make me drop what I’m doing in order to pursue a new lead.

Three days later, I heard from C. again, asking me to confirm receipt of the first email. This time I replied quickly. “I got this and am going to work on it. I don’t have a PGP code, and don’t know how to do that, but I will try to find someone who can help me.”

C. replied later that day with a clear, step-by-step guide to PGP: Encryption for Dummies, in essence. At the end of the instructions, he said these were just “the barest basics.” If I couldn’t find anyone to walk me through the system, he added, “let me know. I can facilitate contact with people who understand crypto almost anywhere in the world.”

This email ended with more a pointed sign-off: “Cryptographically yours, Cincinnatus.”

Despite my intentions, I did nothing, consumed as I was at the time with other stories, and still unconvinced that C. had anything worthwhile to say.

In the face of my inaction, C. stepped up his efforts. He produced a 10-minute video entitled PGP for Journalists.

It was at that point that C., as he later told me, became frustrated. “Here am I,” he thought, “ready to risk my liberty, perhaps even my life, to hand this guy thousands of Top Secret documents from the nation’s most secretive agency—a leak that will produce dozens if not hundreds of huge journalistic scoops. And he can’t even be bothered to install an encryption program.”

That’s how close I came to blowing off one of the largest and most consequential national security leaks in U.S. history.

“He’s Real”

The next I heard of any of this was 10 weeks later. On April 18th, I flew from my home in Rio de Janeiro to New York, and saw on landing at JFK Airport, that I had an email from Laura Poitras, the documentary filmmaker. “Any chance you’ll be in the U.S. this coming week?” she wrote. “I’d love to touch base about something, though best to do in person.”

I take seriously any message from Laura Poitras. I replied immediately: “Actually, just got to the U.S. this morning… Where are you?” We arranged a meeting for the next day in the lobby at my hotel and found seats in the restaurant. At Laura’s insistence, we moved tables twice before beginning our conversation to be sure that nobody could hear us. Laura then got down to business. She had an “extremely important and sensitive matter” to discuss, she said, and security was critical. 

[1]First, though, Laura asked that I either remove the battery from my cell phone or leave it in my hotel room. “It sounds paranoid,” she said, but the government has the capability to activate cell phones and laptops remotely as eavesdropping devices. I’d heard this before from transparency activists and hackers but tended to write it off as excess caution.  After discovering that the battery on my cell phone could not be removed, I took it back to my room, then returned to the restaurant.

Now Laura began to talk. She had received a series of anonymous emails from someone who seemed both honest and serious. He claimed to have access to some extremely secret and incriminating documents about the U.S. government spying on its own citizens and on the rest of the world. He was determined to leak these documents to her and had specifically requested that she work with me on releasing and reporting on them.

Laura then pulled several pages out of her purse from two of the emails sent by the anonymous leaker, and I read them at the table from start to finish. In the second of the emails, the leaker got to the crux of what he viewed as his mission:

The shock of this initial period [after the first revelations] will provide the support needed to build a more equal internet, but this will not work to the advantage of the average person unless science outpaces law. By understanding the mechanisms through which our privacy is violated, we can win here. We can guarantee for all people equal protection against unreasonable search through universal laws, but only if the technical community is willing to face the threat and commit to implementing over-engineered solutions. In the end, we must enforce a principle whereby the only way the powerful may enjoy privacy is when it is the same kind shared by the ordinary: one enforced by the laws of nature, rather than the policies of man.

“He’s real,” I said when I finished reading. “I can’t explain exactly why, but I just feel intuitively that this is serious, that he’s exactly who he says he is.”

“So do I,” Laura replied. “I have very little doubt.”

I instinctively recognized the author’s political passion. I felt a kinship with our correspondent, with his worldview, and with the sense of urgency that was clearly consuming him.

In one of the last passages, Laura’s correspondent wrote that he was completing the final steps necessary to provide us with the documents. He needed another four to six weeks, and we should wait to hear from him.

Three days later, Laura and I met again, and with another email from the anonymous leaker, in which he explained why he was willing to risk his liberty, to subject himself to the high likelihood of a very lengthy prison term, in order to disclose these documents. Now I was even more convinced: our source was for real, but as I told my partner, David Miranda, on the flight home to Brazil, I was determined to put the whole thing out of my mind. “It may not happen. He could change his mind. He could get caught.” David is a person of powerful intuition, and he was weirdly certain. “It’s real. He’s real. It’s going to happen,” he declared. “And it’s going to be huge.”

“I Have Only One Fear”    

A message from Laura told me we needed to speak urgently, but only through OTR (off-the-record) chat, an encrypted instrument for talking online securely.

Her news was startling: we might have to travel to Hong Kong immediately to meet our source. I had assumed that our anonymous source was in Maryland or northern Virginia. What was someone with access to top-secret U.S. government documents doing in Hong Kong?  What did Hong Kong have to do with any of this?

Answers would only come from the source himself. He was upset by the pace of things thus far, and it was critical that I speak to him directly, to assure him and placate his growing concerns. Within an hour, I received an email from [email protected]******. Verax means “truth teller” in Latin. The subject line read, “Need to talk.”

“I’ve been working on a major project with a mutual friend of ours,” the email began. “You recently had to decline short-term travel to meet with me. You need to be involved in this story,” he wrote. “Is there any way we can talk on short notice? I understand you don’t have much in the way of secure infrastructure, but I’ll work around what you have.” He suggested that we speak via OTR and provided his user name.

My computer sounded a bell-like chime, signaling that the source had signed on. Slightly nervous, I clicked on his name and typed “hello.” He answered, and I found myself speaking directly to someone who I assumed had, at that point, revealed a number of secret documents about U.S. surveillance programs and who wanted to reveal more.

“I’m willing to do what I have to do to report this,” I said. The source—whose name, place of employment, age, and all other attributes were still unknown to me—asked if I would come to Hong Kong to meet him. I did not ask why he was there; I wanted to avoid appearing to be fishing for information and I assumed his situation was delicate. Whatever else was true, I knew that this person had resolved to carry out what the U.S. government would consider a very serious crime.

“Of course I’ll come to Hong Kong,” I said.

We spoke online that day for two hours, talking at length about his goal. I knew from the emails Laura had shown me that he felt compelled to tell the world about the massive spying apparatus the U.S. government was secretly building. But what did he hope to achieve?

“I want to spark a worldwide debate about privacy, Internet freedom, and the dangers of state surveillance,” he said. “I’m not afraid of what will happen to me. I’ve accepted that my life will likely be over from my doing this. I’m at peace with that. I know it’s the right thing to do.” He then said something startling: “I want to identify myself as the person behind these disclosures. I believe I have an obligation to explain why I’m doing this and what I hope to achieve.” He told me he had written a document that he wanted to post on the Internet when he outed himself as the source, a pro-privacy, anti-surveillance manifesto for people around the world to sign, showing that there was global support for protecting privacy.

“I only have one fear in doing all of this,” he said, which is “that people will see these documents and shrug, that they’ll say, ‘We assumed this was happening and don’t care.’ The only thing I’m worried about is that I’ll do all this to my life for nothing.”

“I seriously doubt that will happen,” I assured him, but I wasn’t convinced I really believed that. I knew from my years of writing about NSA abuses that it can be hard to generate serious concern about secret state surveillance.

This felt different, but before I took off for Hong Kong, I wanted to see some documents so that I understood the types of disclosures the source was prepared to make.

I then spent a couple of days online as the source walked me through, step by step, how to install and use the programs I would need to see the documents.  

I kept apologizing for my lack of proficiency, for having to take hours of his time to teach me the most basic aspects of secure communication. “No worries,” he said, “most of this makes little sense. And I have a lot of free time right now.”

Once the programs were all in place, I received a file containing roughly twenty-five documents: “Just a very small taste: the tip of the tip of the iceberg,” he tantalizingly explained.

I unzipped the file, saw the list of documents, and randomly clicked on one of them. At the top of the page in red letters, a code appeared: “TOP SECRET//COMINT/NO FORN/.”

This meant the document had been legally designated top secret, pertained to communications intelligence (COMINT), and was not for distribution to foreign nationals, including international organizations or coalition partners (NO FORN). There it was with incontrovertible clarity: a highly confidential communication from the NSA, one of the most secretive agencies in the world’s most powerful government. Nothing of this significance had ever been leaked from the NSA, not in all the six-decade history of the agency. I now had a couple dozen such items in my possession. And the person I had spent hours chatting with over the last two days had many, many more to give me.

As Laura and I arrived at JFK Airport to board a Cathay Pacific flight to Hong Kong, Laura pulled a thumb drive out of her backpack. “Guess what this is?” she asked with a look of intense seriousness.


“The documents,” she said. “All of them.”


For the next 16 hours, despite my exhaustion, I did nothing but read, feverishly taking notes on document after document. One of the first I read was an order from the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court, which had been created by Congress in 1978, after the Church Committee discovered decades of abusive government eavesdropping. The idea behind its formation was that the government could continue to engage in electronic surveillance, but to prevent similar abuse, it had to obtain permission from the FISA court before doing so. I had never seen a FISA court order before. Almost nobody had. The court is one of the most secretive institutions in the government. All of its rulings are automatically designated top secret, and only a small handful of people are authorized to access its decisions.

The ruling I read on the plane to Hong Kong was amazing for several reasons. It ordered Verizon Business to turn over to the NSA “all call detail records” for “communications (i) between the United States and abroad; and (ii) wholly within the United States, including local telephone calls.” That meant the NSA was secretly and indiscriminately collecting the telephone records of tens of millions of Americans, at least. Virtually nobody had any idea that the Obama administration was doing any such thing. Now, with this ruling, I not only knew about it but had the secret court order as proof.

Only now did I feel that I was beginning to process the true magnitude of the leak. I had been writing for years about the threat posed by unconstrained domestic surveillance; my first book, published in 2006, warned of the lawlessness and radicalism of the NSA. But I had struggled against the great wall of secrecy shielding government spying: How do you document the actions of an agency so completely shrouded in multiple layers of official secrecy? At this moment, the wall had been breached. I had in my possession documents that the government had desperately tried to hide. I had evidence that would indisputably prove all that the government had done to destroy the privacy of Americans and people around the world.

In 16 hours of barely interrupted reading, I managed to get through only a small fraction of the archive. But as the plane landed in Hong Kong, I knew two things for certain. First, the source was highly sophisticated and politically astute, evident in his recognition of the significance of most of the documents. He was also highly rational. The way he chose, analyzed, and described the thousands of documents I now had in my possession proved that. Second, it would be very difficult to deny his status as a classic whistleblower. If disclosing proof that top-level national security officials lied outright to Congress about domestic spying programs doesn’t make one indisputably a whistleblower, then what does?

Shortly before landing, I read one final file. Although it was entitled “README_FIRST,” I saw it for the first time only at the very end of the flight. This message was an explanation from the source for why he had chosen to do what he did and what he expected to happen as a result—and it included one fact that the others did not: the source’s name.

“I understand that I will be made to suffer for my actions, and that the return of this information to the public marks my end. I will be satisfied if the federation of secret law, unequal pardon, and irresistible executive powers that rule the world that I love are revealed for even an instant. If you seek to help, join the open source community and fight to keep the spirit of the press alive and the internet free. I have been to the darkest corners of government, and what they fear is light.

Edward Joseph Snowden, SSN: *****
CIA Alias “***** ”
Agency Identification Number: *****
Former Senior Advisor | United States National Security Agency, under corporate cover
Former Field Officer | United States Central Intelligence Agency, under diplomatic cover
Former Lecturer | United States Defense Intelligence Agency, under corporate cover”

Glenn Greenwald, a former constitutional lawyer and a Guardian columnist until October 2013, has earned numerous awards for his commentary and investigative journalism, including most recently the 2013 George Polk Award for national security reporting, and the Pulitzer Prize. In early 2014, he cofounded a new global media outlet, The Intercept [3]. This essay is adapted from his new book, No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Security State [4] (Metropolitan Books), published today.

Excerpted and adapted from No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Security State [4] by Glenn Greenwald, published by Metropolitan Books, an imprint of Henry Holt and Company, LLC.

Copyright 2014 Glenn Greenwald

15 Comments (Open | Close)

15 Comments To "How I Met Edward Snowden"

#1 Comment By EliteCommInc. On May 13, 2014 @ 11:34 am

I am find this extremely interesting. But I want to watch the frontline documentary tonight on the subject of intelligence.

But I am going to reiterate what I have believed from 2001.

We did not need the Patriot Act, HMS or an expansion of the NSA.

Every act that occurred b y the terrorists was already against the law. The appropriate agencies new who they were and that many were on the terror watch list, they had already violated their visas protocols.

The Sept. 11 crime could have been prevented and responded to — using existing law.

It is a highly dubious claim that any of the concerned oragnaizations would have deciphered,

” . . . birthday Cake with two sticks . . .” or similar communication, ” . . . let’s do it on your birthday, september 11 . . .”

I love security/intelligence agencies — but please

#2 Comment By Michael On May 13, 2014 @ 1:42 pm

There was no wrongdoing by the NSA. Snowden really focused on NSA collection of foreign governments. More and more this is looking like a Russian op with Snowden a witting agent, and Greenwald…?

#3 Comment By mrscracker On May 13, 2014 @ 2:13 pm

I think it’s naive to not believe that all emails can be visible to the powers that be.Assuming they have a reason to be interested in the contents.
It might be disturbing, but how else do they gain intelligence? Asking permission first kind of defeats the purpose.

#4 Comment By Jude On May 13, 2014 @ 2:35 pm

A failing of both parties is both continue to support massive security agencies and surveillance programs with not only little evidence to effectiveness but significant Constitutional concerns. Equally important, but often overlooked, is the almost lack of individual control over online data.

In the “land of the free” citizens have far few online data privacy rights and far fewer than EU citizens. For example a ‘right to be forgotten’ — people will be able to delete their data if there are no legitimate grounds for retaining it.

#5 Comment By EliteCommInc. On May 13, 2014 @ 9:27 pm

“There was no wrongdoing by the NSA. Snowden really focused on NSA collection of foreign governments. More and more this is looking like a Russian op with Snowden a witting agent, and Greenwald…?”

I am not in the Edward Snowden cheering section. And your conspiracy suggestion could be real. However, there are those in the intelligence community who echo the same sentiments and claim they did so in 2002 — 2003. Frontline is going to air some of these men and women this evening..

I listened to a preview on Fresh Air — and while I was unsympathetic to claims of guilt because they could have stopped the attacks, if only the powers that e had listened. The overall subject is interesting.

But given what we knew — the fault lies in not acting on data they had that didn’t ned much in the way decryption hardware or software algorithms.

When I think how easy it is to end with devastated life at the hands of local police — it’s hard to by any of the arguments about not taking any corrective or investigative action against those in the country illegally. It is a very tough sell.

And I my comments are not any indication of some of the conspiracy theories that abound. More carelessness in my view.

#6 Comment By Fran Macadam On May 13, 2014 @ 10:45 pm

The sense of betrayal against all that I believe and believed, that those in our government have done, goes against the very core of my being.

I can only hope that, despite killing all that is good in our American soul, they are forgiven, because they knew not what they were doing.

Beyond that, is a horror.

#7 Comment By jk On May 14, 2014 @ 6:52 am

Snowden and Greenwald are morally ambigious figures trying to promote themselves as fighting for the common man/libertarians – when in reality they are cowardly rentiers trying to hide and make a nice fat paycheck (which is obviously working for Greenwald).

Snowden defected to Russia with very dangerous information. Greenwald is a typical leftist quick to spew the typical leftist talking points at the US (sometimes, rightly so with his critique of TSA and the US tut-tutting of the world).

Yet he turns a blind eye to accomodating Russia or to live in peace in his residence down the street from the PM of Brazil with its morass of social problems and inequities.

Snowden is no Ghandi, MLK, Socrates or whatever he thinks he is. He was a US government parasite (I mean contractor) that made a six figure salary which he profited from in addition to the windfall he got.

He ran from the US authorities into Putin’s lap. I hope Putin continues to lash out at the west in addition to crushing Ukraine just to destroy any ounce of Snowden’s credibility (well, not really though).

All that said, I do like RT for a change of perspective from the ironically neocon-Pravda like Fox News.

#8 Comment By EliteCommInc. On May 14, 2014 @ 12:09 pm

Correction: The challenge to the security establishment response to 9/11 was almost immediate — in 2001.

I remain unmoved from position that we had the means to prevent the initial attacks via basic adherence to what known by several agencies.


a leadership shell shocked as was most of the nation, should be given some breathing room in their response. What is very clear from last nights program is that the NSA “Program” was indeed highly controversal at the highest level of government. And while more might have been done to challenge it. It might have been much worse than it was — is.

President George Bush was ill served by his closest advisors — and I still love the man.

What went on in Attorney General Ashcroft’s hospital room and the framing of Dr. Drake and others was as you say, Fran Macadam a betrayal, and a shame. To literally reclassify documents for the purpose of prosecution is devastatingly depressing, confirming that authority will engage in such practice would suggest that we have people who have no soul of ethical value or so driven by fear that they

Which brings me to a hard place. Because I now have to concede that either Pres. Bush did not tell the truth when he stated that there were no warrantless searches (wiretaps) or had not yet grasped what was going on by those who pushed the program under the guise of protecting the US.

I think we need to train our execs in crisis response — the tendency to overkill for far to long a period. seems far to easy.

And it must be triple the depression for those who voted for the current executive. The previous admin did what they said they were going to do. This admin laid a foundation opposing nearly all of it and instead has expanded the same with congressional approval.

And while to have one’s concern’s validated by those involved. All soul’s are not lost. It is very clear from last night’s Frontline (which I found a little manipulative) that there are plenty of citizens with courage, and a sense of what it means to have the Constitution we have. And while, I think many are owed an apology and more, as with many during those days, I want to applaud Attorney General Attorney Ashcroft for being a man of character, substance —- even at death’s door(?). Sir upon sir.

I remain a proud conservative.

#9 Comment By wrd9 On May 14, 2014 @ 1:41 pm

I’m very much in Snowden’s corner. He did a great service to Americans. The Obama regime is extremely dangerous and badly needed to be exposed in all of its repressive tactics and intimidation. It’s very unfortunate that journalists like Greenwald are so incredibly stupid about protecting sources by being technically incompetent. We all know how the DOJ is going after govt leakers with a vengeance. Techies should be volunteering to teach journalists and promoting secure communications to potential sources and the everyday masses.

#10 Comment By Sixth Estate On May 14, 2014 @ 3:12 pm

… and now comes word that Dean Baquet is replacing Jill Abramson as executive editor of the New York Times. Presumably his willingness while at the LA Times to spike stories about the NSA qualifies him for the job.

The old “fourth estate” has become a sick joke.

#11 Comment By EliteCommInc. On May 14, 2014 @ 8:29 pm

My problem with Edward Snowden is the method by which he ‘whistle blew’.

I am not a fan of this kind of whistle blowing. I find it hard to believe that there were no other choices. National security may be an overblown phrase, but it is important.

And I understand the issue that the government has not embraced those who blow the whistle, even when they act in accordance with established procedures. That s a serious problem.

But national security is no joke and given that so many peripheral operations might be at stake in which people’s lives might very well have been at stake — data dumping of this sort, makes me nervous.

#12 Comment By Lazarus On May 16, 2014 @ 5:33 pm

jk sez: “Snowden defected to Russia with very dangerous information.”

Snowden didn’t defect to Russia. He was passing through Russia and was awaiting a flight to South America when his passport was canceled by the American government.

The remainder of jk’s commentary is similarly flawed.

#13 Comment By charles hurst author On May 17, 2014 @ 8:05 pm

Simple fact is this. The NSA or government has no right to monitor phone calls regardless of reason any more than a police officer has the right to randomly search houses. And our federal court system is now corrupt so it is not up to us to wait politely for our rights to be given back. This is no different than the illegal search and seizure the British used to engage in. Illegal as in against the natural rights
of man.

There is something called probable cause. If the government thinks someone is a terrorist or linked to then get a warrant explaining why. Just like a police officer can use probable cause—ie he smelled like weed out of his mouth so I searched his vehicle. You can’t just randomly search or monitor at the government’s whim. And by the way thanks a lot Bush for starting this whole invasion with the Patriot Act.

As I have written, we are becoming accustomed to losing our freedom due to apathy. America has not had a real problem since WW II. Not on a tyrannical type scale. We are too interested in reality TV and Fantasy Football. We have become too fat from the Whopper to run for freedom. Many in America just don’t care. Half of the youth can’t even name the Vice President.

And when you have a nation like that it will be very easy to implement tyranny. As long as there is vodka and a shack nearby. Because it happened before when there was the shack and vodka. And our genetic makeup isn’t any different than a Russian’s.

Charles Hurst. Author of THE SECOND FALL. An offbeat story of Armageddon. And creator of THE RUNNINGWOLF EZINE

#14 Comment By seydlitz89 On May 18, 2014 @ 11:20 am

Amazing. In America today the patriot is Edward Joseph Snowden in exile in Russia and half the population is too confused and self-deluded to see it. Or is it simply their knee-jerk subservience to authority, or a bit of all three?

Doubt what I’m saying? Consider that Snowden is simply the latest of a whole series of NSA-related intelligence officers who have come forward . . . Tice, Binney, Weibe, Drake . . . all at considerable cost to their careers/economic survival . . . and this whole history simply gets flushed down the memory hole . . . never is brought up . . .

Then of course there’s torture as state policy, the current administration allowing itself the power to assassinate its own citizens without process, a war mongering foreign policy built on lies (hear anything about the revelations coming out of Turkey regarding the Sarin episode in Syria last year?). . . yes boys and girls it all fits together . . .

#15 Comment By Arkansas On May 25, 2014 @ 5:55 pm

Free Edward Snowden!