Is Disclosure of Podesta’s Emails a Step Too Far? A Conversation With Naomi Klein

Naomi Klein and Glenn Greenwald discuss WikiLeaks, the privacy implications of the Podesta archive, and the ethics of reporting on hacked emails.

trump_091316 Photo Illustration by The Intercept. Getty Images, AP Image.

Some news organizations, including The Intercept, have devoted substantial resources to reporting on the newsworthy aspects of the archive of emails of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta that was published last week by WikiLeaks. Numerous documents from that archive have shed considerable light on the thought processes and previously secret behavior of top Clinton campaign aides and often the candidate herself. While the significance of particular stories has been debated, there is no denying that many of those disclosures offer a valuable glimpse into campaign operatives who currently exercise great political power and who, as of January of next year, are likely to be among the most powerful officials on the planet.

Despite her agreement with those propositions, the author and activist Naomi Klein believes there are serious threats to personal privacy and other critical political values posed by hacks of this sort, particularly when accompanied by the indiscriminate publication of someone’s personal emails.


The fact that the individual whose emails were hacked wields significant power may mitigate some of those concerns, but, she believes, it does not remotely obviate them. She also believes that while a public service has been performed by the reporting on some of these emails, media organizations (including The Intercept) have not sufficiently emphasized the dangers to personal privacy posed by the hacking of someone’s email inbox.

Earlier this week, Klein and I discussed her views and concerns about these issues. The discussion has been lightly edited into a 30-minute podcast, which you can listen to on the player above. A transcript is also provided. Klein, invariably, is extremely thoughtful and insightful, and so I believe the discussion is well worth listening to.

This transcript has been edited for space and clarity.


GLENN GREENWALD: Hi, this is Glenn Greenwald of The Intercept, and I am very excited that my guest today is one of the world’s most influential and accomplished journalists, activists, and thinkers, who also happens to be my good friend, Naomi Klein. Hi, Naomi. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk today.

NAOMI KLEIN: Hey Glenn, it’s great to be with you.

GG: So the principal impetus for this conversation is that over the last two or three weeks, there has emerged this spirited debate prompted by the publication of many thousands of emails from the account of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta.

Nobody knows for certain who actually hacked them. The U.S. government says the Russian government was involved — although they presented no evidence for that — but there are a lot of people who believe Russia was at least implicated in some way. Whoever did it gave it to WikiLeaks, which instead of curating any of it or trying to figure out what would be in the public interest and what wouldn’t, simply took it all and dumped it on the internet.

And from what I’ve seen, at least, the debate that has ensued — as news organizations went through this archive and began to report on material they thought was newsworthy and in the public interest — was this dichotomized debate. So on the one hand, you have these actors who caused all of John Podesta’s emails — without discrimination about their impact or content or whether they had anything to do with public interest — to be published on the internet, which was the hackers combined with WikiLeaks.

And then you have this separate debate once that happens. Once these materials are made available, for better or for worse, what is the duty of journalists? Should they ignore it on the grounds that it’s illicitly obtained or might incentivize future similar bad acts? Should they weigh the fact that there’s been a massive privacy invasion against the journalistic value that can undoubtedly come from some of the specific materials? And obviously, we at The Intercept have been centrally involved in that debate, because we did make a decision to do so much reporting on the documents that we believe shed light on the person highly likely to be the next president of the United States.

So those are the contours of the debate — there’s certainly a lot of disagreement within them — but I guess I’m curious about whether you think that’s the right way to think about this debate, whether that’s the right way to carry it out, whether there have been things that have gotten distorted or not gotten enough attention. What are your overall thoughts on this?

NK: I really appreciate the chance to talk about it with you. I think a lot of that is exactly how we should be thinking about it, but there are some things that need a little bit more emphasis. I would add that it’s not just that they didn’t curate it and dumped it all. They are dumping it, but they are doling out the dumps to maximize damage. So they’re not just saying, “Hey, information wants to be free, here is everything we have. Journalists, have a field day, go through it.” They’re very clearly looking for maximum media attention and you can tell that just by looking at the WikiLeaks Twitter feed and at how they are timing it right before the debates. Now everybody uses leaks as a political weapon, including the Clinton campaign, which we already knew but we have lots more evidence of, thanks to these emails. They’re constantly talking about leaking information to their own benefit.

The other thing I would say is I think there’s a particular responsibility for you as a journalist — and others at The Intercept — because you’re the ones who brought us the Snowden files, and I am one of many people who are tremendously grateful for that line in the sand about our rights to electronic privacy. You are one of three or four people in the world who have done the most to defend that principle for our electronic communications — because we live our lives online, we can’t distinguish that from our right to privacy, period. These leaks are not, in my opinion, in the same category as the Pentagon Papers or previous WikiLeaks releases like the trade documents they continue to leak, which I am tremendously grateful for, because those are government documents that we have a right to, that are central to democracy. There are many things in that category.

These leaks are not, in my opinion, in the same category as the Pentagon Papers or previous WikiLeaks releases like the trade documents they continue to leak, which I am tremendously grateful for.

But personal emails — and there’s all kinds of personal stuff in these emails — this sort of indiscriminate dump is precisely what Snowden was trying to protect us from. That’s why I wanted I wanted to talk with you about it, because I think we need to continuously reassert that principle.

As journalists — now that it’s out there — we do have to go through it and talk about the parts that are politically important and newsworthy. But at the same time, we have a tremendous responsibility to say that people do have that right to privacy. I heard you defend [the leak] to some degree on the grounds that these are very powerful people. Certainly Podesta is a very powerful person, and he will be more powerful after Hillary Clinton is elected, if she’s elected, and it looks like she will be. But I’m concerned about the subjectivity of who gets defined as sufficiently powerful to lose their privacy because I am absolutely sure there are plenty of people in the world who believe that you and I are sufficiently powerful to lose our privacy, and I come to this as a journalist and author who has used leaked and declassified documents to do my work. I could never have written “The Shock Doctrine” or “This Changes Everything” without that. But I’m also part of the climate justice movement, and this is a movement that has come under incredible amounts of surveillance by oil industry-funded front groups of various kinds. There are people in the movement now who are being tracked as if they were political candidates, everywhere they go.

So how are we defining powerful? Because once we say this is OK, and I’m not saying you’ve said it — you’ve made that distinction — but I think we need to say it louder. And particularly you, as the guy who brought us the Snowden files, need to say it louder.

GG: There’s an amazing irony here in some sense because I’ve been defending the news value of the WikiLeaks archives over the past several months, not just the Podesta but also the DNC archive. And I’ve defended WikiLeaks in the past, long prior to the Snowden archive. There are a couple of really fascinating nuances that I think set the stage for the kinds of distinctions that you’re urging be drawn.

When I first started defending WikiLeaks back in 2010, one of my primary arguments was that WikiLeaks, contrary to the way they were being depicted by the U.S. intelligence community and their friends, was not some reckless rogue agent running around sociopathically dumping information on the internet without concern about who might be endangered. And in fact, if you look at how the biggest WikiLeaks releases were handled early on — the Iraq and Afghanistan war logs, as well as the State Department cables — not only did they redact huge numbers of documents on the grounds that doing so was necessary to protect the welfare of innocent people, they actually requested that the State Department meet with them to help them figure out what kind of information should be withheld on the grounds that it could endanger innocent people.

So they were very much an ardent and enthusiastic proponent of that model — that when you get tons of information that belongs in the public eye, you have the corresponding responsibility to protect not only people’s physical security but also their privacy. I used to defend them on that all the time.

Somewhere along the way, WikiLeaks and Julian decided, and they’ve said this explicitly, that they changed their mind on that question — they no longer believe in redactions or withholding documents of any kind.

During our reporting on the Snowden material, we did not just take the archive and dump it on the internet, as a lot of people called for. We spent years very carefully curating it and keeping parts of it secret that might endanger individual privacy, harm people’s reputations unjustifiably, or otherwise put them in harm’s way. And WikiLeaks publicly and viciously attacked us for years. They continue to, actually, over the fact that we were the so-called gatekeepers of information. It was always my view — and continues to be — that it would have been incredibly hypocritical for us to say that these documents need to see the light of day because people’s privacy is being compromised, and then in the same breath, release documents that would destroy people’s privacy because they’re too lazy or don’t think it’s justifiable to go through and redact.

So there’s debate, even among people who believe in radical transparency, over the proper way to handle information like this. I think WikiLeaks more or less at this point stands alone in believing that these kinds of dumps are ethically — never mind journalistically — just ethically, as a human being, justifiable. I think that debate has been vibrant and healthy, and I do think you’re probably right that it needs to be even more so now that we have so many more examples, like the leak of climate scientists, of Sony executives, and other leaks that are inevitably coming.

I think WikiLeaks more or less at this point stands alone in believing that these kinds of dumps are ethically — never mind journalistically — just ethically, as a human being, justifiable.

We do need to figure out a way to say both at the same time: Powerful institutions and powerful actors need the kind of transparency these leaks can provide, but at the same time, even people who are in powerful positions and wield influence continue to retain the right to privacy, and there should never be any publishing of personal matters or things that aren’t directly in the public interest.

Is that what you mean when you say this needs to be more prominent? Is that the distinction that you think is crucial?

NK: I think we have a very strong interest in continuously reasserting the right to electronic privacy, particularly when we’re talking about people who are not elected officials.

It’s just so subjective what criteria we’re using to define powerful, because that word is flexible. And I’m not saying that emails are out of bounds — I think about emails that came out about legitimizing torture during the Bush administration. But those were particular, relevant emails, rather than: “You’ve just lost all your electronic privacy. We’re dumping the whole thing, or rather, we’re dumping it in stages to maximize damage.”

We need to defend that because certainly in the climate movement, we are up against forces that will always have massively more resources than the movement does. We can encrypt our emails, and we should encrypt our emails, but the principle still has to be defended because we lose if this gets blurry.

GG: But let me ask you this. We started out by saying that with this particular leak, because of WikiLeaks’ philosophy, the hacker went in and grabbed everything, which sometimes hackers will do even if they’re well-intentioned — because you don’t have time to grab only the relevant material, you hope that the people to whom you then give the material are going to do that. That was Snowden’s theory: I’m going to take as much as I can but make sure I’m only giving it to journalists who promise to safeguard the material and let the public see the stuff they should see, not what they shouldn’t.

Let’s say you had a good faith hacker who said, “I’m going to take all of John Podesta’s emails and I’m just going to download them. And instead of giving them to WikiLeaks, I’m going to give them to this organization and tell this organization, ‘What I want you to do is go through them and get rid of the ones where John Podesta is talking about the emotional difficulties staff members are having, or personal conversations he’s having with family members or friends, and pick the ones that really shed light on what the Clinton campaign is doing that affects public policy and discourse.’” Would you have qualms about that process?

NK: No. I think they set themselves up for the bank speeches coming out because they refused to release them. They should have released them, and what’s interesting is that some of the most relevant, newsworthy information is not in email traffic — it’s in documents like that. Or, for instance, an attachment that’s a transcript of Hillary Clinton’s conversations behind closed doors with labor leaders in which she says that climate activists should “get a life” rather than coming to her events. That’s not an email. To me, that doesn’t fall into the same category. I wouldn’t have a problem with it if it were curated.

It’s also the way in which it’s being released, to clearly maximize damage, and the recklessness about the implications of that when it comes to electing Trump. You’ve written about how dangerous it is for media organizations to take such a highly political approach to this election because they don’t want Trump to get elected, so they’re engaging in what you described as “journalistic fraud.” I agree with you.

But we have to acknowledge how political WikiLeaks and Julian are being here.

GG: It’s interesting. All we can do is speculate because it involves what’s going on in somebody else’s head, in this particular case, a person who’s even in the best of times quite complicated, who’s been trapped in a single room for five years, who literally has not seen the outdoors in many years, and who doesn’t have much of a future to see one shortly — so it’s hard to assess what’s going on in the mind of a person like that.

Still, as somebody who does know Julian, and that includes you and me as well to varying degrees, are you persuaded by this idea that Julian’s goal here is this conventionally partisan objective, that he has simply sided with the Republican candidate over the Democratic candidate and is doing what he can to help Trump? Or do you think it’s more about Julian harboring a substantive philosophical animosity toward U.S. empire and U.S. hegemony as a force for evil in the world, and looking for any opportunity to undermine and burn it?

To the extent that Hillary Clinton represents that, that she’s a target of his anger, on top of his view of her as desiring his imprisonment and therefore there’s this personal anger too — that goal isn’t the way Paul Begala wants the Democrat to win and the Republican to lose. I don’t think Julian has these simple partisan motives. I think it’s more about wanting to see things burn, out of a combination of political philosophy and personal resentment. I’m curious what you think about that.

NK: I don’t know. I don’t know him well. I’ve met him and I’m not sure I can answer that. I have to be perfectly honest with you, Glenn, I’m actually nervous about it, because there is clearly a vendetta element going on, which is understandable, because Hillary Clinton’s State Department is massively responsible for his lack of freedom. So I can understand that, but at the same time, Assange is not the only person who has lost their freedom for standing up for their beliefs.

I’m not comfortable with anybody wielding this much power.

I spoke recently with a guy named Rodney Watson, who has spent seven years in a church in the downtown Vancouver East Side, also not seeing the outdoors, not seeing his son, because he refused to go and fight in Iraq. He went to Iraq, he saw war crimes, he refused to go back, and he fled to Canada. He wants a pardon. He’s angry. But he’s not trying to burn it down — this is a principled war resister. I am very disturbed by this seeming willingness to burn it down. I am disturbed by the ego of seeing this election through one’s personal lens when the stakes are so incredibly high. All of us have personal issues — not as much as Assange, obviously — invested in this, but a lot of people are seeing the big picture as well.

GG: It’s interesting, this burn it down model. I remember one of the first distinctions that Edward Snowden drew when we met in Hong Kong — not to keep drawing this Assange-Snowden distinction, but it’s one that is actually quite fundamental that I think a lot people have overlooked.

He made a fascinating point when I asked him: You have this incredibly sweeping trove of unimaginably sensitive information, which if published on the internet would instantly destroy huge numbers of U.S. surveillance programs, including ones you strongly dislike. Why didn’t you just do that? Why didn’t you just upload it to the internet? Why did you need to work with us, to have journalists as the middleman and mediators to process this information and take the decision-making out of your hands about what the public will and won’t see?

And he said: Think about how incredibly sociopathic, how narcissistic it would be for me, Edward Snowden, to decide that I have the right, singlehandedly, to destroy all of these programs simply because I don’t like them.

He said he doesn’t want to destroy anything, that his goal instead is to take the information that gives human beings around the world the ability to know what it is their governments are doing, what is being done to the internet, so that those people, democratically and collectively, can make that choice about should these programs continue? In what form? Do we need safeguards? Do we need pushback? Do we need citizen movement? All of that. He felt very uncomfortable with the idea that his role could ever be anything other than facilitator of information that allows others to make that choice.

I think Julian quite clearly views himself and his activism in a much more, I guess you could call it aggressive, and even solitary way. That he is content and does believe he has the prerogative to burn things down — and sometimes institutions that are real acts of evil — and when they burn down, that you can argue it is actually an event of good in the world.

But there are also very extreme concerns from vesting so much power in one person. It’s sort of ironic given that the NSA scandal and all these other scandals arose out of the idea that a tiny number of people, in secret, with no accountability, have been making these choices. And now you have other people posing as their adversaries creating a similar framework for themselves.

NK: This is why I say I’m nervous. I’m not comfortable with anybody wielding this much power.

I am not comfortable when it’s states, but I’m also not comfortable when it’s individuals or institutions. I don’t like people making decisions based on vendettas because the message it sends is: “If you cross me, this could happen to you.” That’s a menacing message to send. Now I acknowledge that this could be over the edge, but I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s had that thought, and I think we have to acknowledge that this is how fear spreads. It isn’t only states that are capable of sending that message .The level of ego makes me uncomfortable given the role of ego in this election cycle and people thinking these elections are just all about them personally. We don’t need somebody else treating it like that.

GG: I started off saying —

NK: I just want to add something else, which is the way you’re describing the care with which Edward Snowden treated that information is why he is seen as a hero around the world, why these revelations were so incredibly important, why he is such an easy guy to defend based on principle. And this is why it is so important for you, as the person who has worked — along with Laura [Poitras] — so closely with him, to be saying the things you’re saying now.

GG: I don’t want to get a little bit ahead of at least where I think things should be. Chelsea Manning is also regarded as a hero; even though the way in which her material was published, at first, was incremental and careful, it ended up just published indiscriminately. But I do think there are types of information where this concern you’re expressing, which I share, is less compelling.

You’re talking about logs of military fighters who are simply describing what they’re seeing every day in the field in Iraq and Afghanistan. To publish those doesn’t really have a lot of privacy implications the way a private email inbox would. Same with diplomatic cables — it might make embarrassment between countries, and there may be other reasons not to do it, but I think different types of archives present different kinds of privacy concerns. When you’re talking about hacking into the personal email inbox of somebody — although they are quite powerful and in three months will probably be the chief of staff of the United States White House — there are still serious privacy implications from dumping it indiscriminately, and the problem is that this is going to continue. There’s not a lot that can be done about it because these hackers and WikiLeaks believe in this model.

NK: I think the main thing we’ve learned from these emails is that the folks around Hillary Clinton are just as venal and corrupt as we thought they were, for the most part, with all the conflicts of interest. I don’t think we’re learning a huge amount. Your colleague Lee Fang tweeted yesterday that the WikiLeaks emails show that Hillary respects and values the opinion of rich people, lobbyists, loyal partisans — while activists are losers.

What it really does is just reinforce that because all you have to do is look at the way she treated Black Lives Matter activists on the campaign trail — the absolute disdain. The way she practically spat “I’m so sick of this” to a young climate activist who asked her about her fossil fuel money. We knew this.

GG: We knew it —

NK: We’re getting it reinforced. If the price of having it reinforced, or having more people know it, is this idea that once you go into politics you lose all privacy, my concern is that decent people seeing this who do not have these values and these conflicts of interest will just go, “There’s no way I’m going into politics. I will not give up my privacy.” I know a lot of people who feel that way.

GG: We have drawn this important line that if you exercise public power — public power meaning you’re a public official exercising power given to you by the public, and it’s exercised over them — you definitely give up a huge amount of what ordinary private citizens would enjoy as privacy, just under the law. We’ve already created a framework where that’s the case.

NK: But then you have the knowledge. I think what people would worry about is retroactively losing their privacy.

GG: One of the things that very well may happen from all of these hacks — and if you go back and read WikiLeaks’ philosophies and theories early on, it’s consistent with it — is that the more people start to fear that their emails are going to end up hacked and public, the less they’ll use emails. They’ll just stop using emails for anything beyond cursory transactions, and institutions will become more closed. They’ll be less capable of communicating internally. Julian thought that was a great thing because that was the way he wanted to weaken them —by bringing so much transparency that they fly blind as an authoritarian institution.

But I absolutely agree with you that there are very profound concerns about individual privacy that are being trampled over with these leaks and certainly with the ones to come. And we probably haven’t given that enough thought, primarily because what ends up happening is the leaks happen; journalists like me give lip service to the fact that it’s too bad they weren’t curated, they should have been; and then everyone starts digging into them for newsworthy stories. Maybe it’s been rewarding that approach, maybe it’s just not given sufficient attention to it, but I’m not sure what the answer is, because as long as the capability exists, I think people are going to continue to do it.

NK: I’m not sure either except for front-loading the fact that we do believe people have a right to electronic privacy. The issue is not the illegality; as you pointed out, we have relied on leaks that are technically illegal for incredibly important information. But there is a distinction between the fact that we live our lives on email now, and we use this the way we use talking on the phone or in person. And if we give that up, we are giving up a huge amount.

GG: All those discussions from 2013 about the dangers of having privacy eroded by the state certainly apply to having privacy eroded by these stateless actors who are hacking and publishing people’s private communications indiscriminately. That too kills privacy in a really profound way. And it’s hard to care about one but not the other.

NK: It’s a little bit hard to see an upside for how we get out of this. I’m not sure where this goes.

GG: I guess the only upside I can think of — one of Edward Snowden’s primary objectives was not only to show the world the extent to which their privacy was being compromised and their communications were vulnerable, but to teach people how to safeguard against it, just like homeowners are increasingly cognizant about the need for home alarms, or building fences, or building communities to keep them safe. There are steps organizations can take to make it a lot harder for this to happen.

One of the things that’s remarkable is that very powerful people — like the Clinton campaign, even political leaders in Brazil, where there was so much reporting on Snowden and the way they were compromised — seem not to have taken that very seriously.

It’s an unsatisfying and kind of ancillary response, but it nonetheless is true that the more you see of this, the more I would hope people understand the need to start using these technologies to make it much more difficult for people to get ahold of their data.

NK: I agree, it’s completely shocking. Talk about reckless. It speaks to their sense of impunity is all I can think of — that they could write like this and it wouldn’t come out.

GG: They know better than anybody how easy it is to spy because they’re all part of the operations that do it.

NK: And they don’t think the rules apply to them. The problem is they do apply to the rest of us.

GG: Exactly.

Well, this has been really helpful, Naomi. For me personally, I’ve been gliding back on this dichotomy that I started with, like “Oh yeah, OK fine, WikiLeaks and the hackers acted wrong. I wouldn’t do it, but anyway, now let’s get on to the duty to do journalism.” I think you’re right to say that’s not really an adequate response, or at least it’s not an adequate emphasis on this first part of the equation, which needs a lot more attention.

NK: Thanks for giving me the chance to chat with you, it was really fun.

GG: It’s always fun, Naomi, let’s do it anytime.

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