The mainstream media still doesn’t call our situation what it is: a climate emergency. This week on Intercepted: Betsy Reed, editor-in-chief of The Intercept, fills in for Jeremy Scahill. Senior correspondent Naomi Klein imagines what real climate justice could look like and talks about her new book, “On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal.” The Intercept’s Sharon Lerner tells Intercepted’s Elise Swain about her groundbreaking reporting on toxic industrial chemicals called PFAS, and how she uncovered 40 new chemicals that have alarming risks. National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden reads an excerpt from his new memoir, “Permanent Record,” and reflects on his time since revealing the broad scope of NSA surveillance with Micah Lee, First Look Media’s director of information security.
James Franco as Saul Silver: This is it, man. This is what your grandchildren are gonna be smoking.
Donald J. Trump: Wow.
JF: Future. The future. Let’s smoke this fucking thing.
DJT: I’ll try it, you know. I want to vape.
DJT: How crazy is this? Getting very tired. Tippy-top shape. I’ve gotten extremely cautious. The light’s no good. I always look orange. The universe is so big. It’s like whatever you want, whatever you want. It’s all about space.
Americans of all walks of life rose up these obstacles…carrying…all applicable…law markers, and you understand that very well. Buttigieg, Buttigieg, Buttigieg, Buttigieg.
Don’t vape. Don’t vape. We don’t like vaping. I don’t like vaping.
Jeremy Scahill: This is Intercepted.
Betsy Reed: I’m Betsy Reed, editor in chief of the Intercept, coming to you from our offices in New York City. And this is Episode 100 of Intercepted. I’m sitting in for Jeremy Scahill this week.
Protesters [at Climate Strike]: What do we want? Climate justice! When do we want it? Now! What do we want? Climate justice! When do we want it? Now!
BR: After a summer of one terrifying weather event after another — the hurricanes, the melting glaciers, the deadly heat waves and burning forests all around the world — the mainstream media still doesn’t call our situation what it is: a climate emergency.
This past week, The Intercept, along with 250 news organizations, participated in an initiative called “Covering Climate Now” aimed at confronting this emergency with all the urgency it deserves. We published a series of articles under the rubric “Climate Crimes” — because here’s something else that mainstream media too often forgets: The fossil fuel industry, while cloaking itself in feel-good green rhetoric, is committing crimes against our future, aided and abetted by political elites that they have bought and paid for, both here in the U.S. and around the world. Thanks to the rising global youth movement, public consciousness of what’s at stake has surrounded the U.N. Climate Action Summit this week in New York, where speakers like Greta Thunberg addressed the assembled dignitaries on Monday.
Greta Thunberg: This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be up here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet, you all come to us young people for hope. How dare you? You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words and yet, I’m one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you?
BR: Ever since NASA climatologist James Hansen testified before the Senate in 1988, we’ve known that our planet is warming to dangerous levels because of human activities. And yet, since 1988, 100 companies have been responsible for 70% of continued greenhouse gas emissions. We know who to blame for polluting our air, and heating our oceans. We know who is responsible for this emergency. But still, the culprits have slithered out of accountability. The tides are turning though, and it’s clear that the younger generations won’t rest until they can extract a measure of what they call climate justice: meaning that those who have committed these crimes will pay a price, while those who have suffered as a result will find safe haven and relief. It’s a simple idea, really. The 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg has become controversial for making a point that should be obvious: Corporations should be held to account for what they’ve done.
GT: If there’s something we are not lacking in this world it’s money. Of course, many people do lack money but I mean, governments and these people in power, they do not lack money. And also we need to have the polluters to actually pay for the damage they have caused.
BR: About a year ago, Greta began school strikes for the climate in her native Sweden. On September 20th, four million people joined her across the globe.
[Protesters chanting at Climate Strike.]
BR: So, it’s heartening and moving to see a global movement arise from one teenager’s actions, but it’s important to remember that at the same time, as my colleague Naomi Klein writes: “Fascist and militaristic reactions to the climate breakdown are on the rise and present a likely endgame for climate denialism.”
We’ll bring Naomi on in a moment. But also, coming up in the show today, we’re going to hear from investigative reporter Sharon Lerner. Sharon has been working on a beat at the Intercept for several years uncovering the way the toxic chemicals are invading our everyday life and our bodies thanks to corporate greed and government inaction. Her series is called “Bad Chemistry,” and she spoke about her work with Intercepted Associate Producer, Elise Swain.
Sharon Lerner: It was already in all of our bodies. It was in our blood. It was in the blood of wildlife. It was in water, as it became clear to me in 2015, around the country.
BR: We’re also going to hear from NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, whose disclosures, of course, rocked the political and media world six years ago, and whose archive of materials has been the basis of over a hundred Intercept investigations. He will be in conversation about his new memoir with First Look Media’s Director of Information Security, Micah Lee.
Edward Snowden: It’s a very serious thing being sued by the United States government and this is only further evidence they will do anything they can to make my life harder and to discourage the public from hearing the things that I have to say.
BR: But first, Intercept Senior Correspondent Naomi Klein. Naomi has a new book out that tries to answer some of the questions we started talking about today: Can we ward off a grim future where the planet is warming faster than we thought possible, where right-wing authoritarians are leading us straight towards a climate catastrophe? What would real climate justice look like and what would it take to achieve it?
Naomi’s new book, is called, “On Fire: the Burning Case for a Green New Deal.” As she writes, “The idea is a simple one: in the process of transforming the infrastructure of our societies at the speed and scale that scientists have called for, humanity has a once-in-a-century chance to fix an economic model that is failing the majority of people on multiple fronts.”
BR: Naomi Klein, welcome to Intercepted.
Naomi Klein: Thank you. It’s great to be with you, Betsy.
BR: So congratulations, Naomi on your new book “On Fire.” It’s a great book. And it also got a great and well deserved review in the New York Times. It began with the sentence: “If I were a rich man, I’d buy 245 million copies of Naomi Klein’s “On Fire” and hand deliver them to every eligible voter in America.” Now, I assume that’s not happening. No rich man has done that for you. But how is it going?
NK: Yeah, the tour has been fantastic so far. The book events have really turned into organizing meetings, people really want to get involved. They want to figure out how they can help make a Green New Deal happen. And for the book to be coming out the same week that we have these historic climate strikes around the world has also just been really exciting. Because when we talk about the climate crisis, people feel really overwhelmed and I’m trying to create a space where — you know, it’s not all hope. I mean, there’s a lot to be afraid of, there’s grief, there’s loss, but if that’s all we’re feeling, and then you know, you think that you have to solve all of it as an individual, I think it can be completely overwhelming. So the fact that people are educating themselves at the same time as they’re seeing millions of people organizing collectively and feeling that sense of collective power. It’s as good a place to be as I think we can be, given the circumstances.
BR: This point in history feel so momentous with four million people taking to the streets and when so much depends on what happens next. So do you feel hope or dread or some combination of both?
NK: It’s a complicated map of certainly emotions that I feel in terms of, every day, there seem to be multiple reports telling us in different ways that we are seeing ecological unraveling at a speed that really is ahead of schedule in terms of what we were expecting. You know, whether it is species collapse, whether it is glacial collapse, sea-level rise, historic storms, it’s all happening so very, very quickly. And so, there’s terror there and I think we have to be honest, but at the same time, we are seeing a level of climate mobilization that I’ve never seen in my life. A clarity, a moral clarity coming from particularly young people who really understand that they are fighting for their futures. They’re fighting for the right to plan, the right to have options in their lives, to not have lives that are just punctuated by massive disaster. So, we’re hearing that from the streets. And I think even more than that, we’re also hearing — particularly in the United States, thanks to the Sunrise Movement, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the way that dynamic redrew the map and put the Green New Deal on the political agenda — we are also hearing a vision for a response to the climate crisis that isn’t just better than total ecological breakdown, but is actually in a lot of ways better than the kind of economy we have right now.
BR: Well, you lay out in the book, you know, a very compelling sort of roadmap to a Green New Deal, and there’s a lot you know, to be encouraged about, but also, you write about how the fires of climate breakdown are already intersecting with the fires of white supremacy and surging xenophobia around the world. Why is the Green New Deal the answer to that crisis?
NK: Well, I think the rising white supremacy, xenophobia, you know, this is a global phenomenon. We just saw the “Howdy, Modi!” rally in Houston.
DJT: We are going to take care of our Indian American citizens before we take care of illegal immigrants that want to pour into our country.
NK: And that points to the fact that this phenomenon of these right-wing demagogues is global. And it looks different in different contexts. In the United States, it’s the invading army of migrants that he’s always invoking. For Modi, these same others take different forms. We see it in Kashmir. We see it in his creating all of these out-groups throughout the country and on the borders and using similar tactics, similar technologies, similar contractors, taking inspiration from the way Israel is creating this infrastructure of exclusion. So, you know, I think it isn’t a coincidence that these figures are rising in a moment where people understand, whether they admit that it has anything to do with climate change or not, that we are entering an era or are in an era when really unprecedented numbers of people are on the move. We are also in the rubble of the neoliberal project where there is so much economic insecurity and precarity.
And so, this sort of formula that all of these guys have, whether it’s Duterte or Modi, or Bolsonaro or Trump, it’s a very similar strategy of speaking to the economic insecurity of the age, which is not to say that they’re speaking to the most economically vulnerable. They’re not. They’re generally speaking to the more economically secure. But within a neoliberal economy, everybody feels this sense of precariousness and directing attention away from the responsibility of elites, from the responsibility of their own nexus of corporate players that they all represent in their various countries and directing it towards the most vulnerable. So I think we’re going to see more of this. And I don’t think that we will have a response to it that doesn’t address these underlying causes, that isn’t fundamentally about building a fair economy, that isn’t fundamentally about redressing deep, deep historical injustices and exclusions. And that is what the Green New Deal has the potential to do.
And I say the potential because there are various iterations of what a Green New Deal might be and some of them are quite sort of shallow and nationalistic. And some of them are deeper reckonings with the debts that are owed to black and indigenous people in the United States and also what the United States as an economy, which is the world’s largest historical emitter of greenhouse gases, owes to the countries on the frontlines of the impacts of climate change, that have done almost nothing to create it because the people there are too poor to emit carbon at high levels. You know, I really do believe that we are at a crossroads, which is really about what kind of people we are going to be as we face a future of more and more dislocation, of more and more disasters. I mean, that’s already locked in even with a best case scenario of keeping warming levels below 1.5 degrees Celsius.
And you know, we have a choice to make as a species about whether or not we are going to become even worse versions of ourselves, which is I think what the road that Trump and Modi, et al represent or whether there’s going to be a real shift in values, ideas, like every human being’s life is of equal value. Nobody can be allowed to be left to die, because this is the formula that we’re seeing, you know, thousands upon thousands of people left to drown in the Mediterranean, and the emergence of this sort of archipelago of migrant concentration camps, from Libya to Manas to Nauru to Texas.
BR: So, that is a really powerful response to the way Trump and others tie their rejection of climate reality to appeals to national identity and nationalism. So why do the Democrats instead respond by talking about cheeseburgers?
Kamala Harris: Just to be very honest with you, I love cheeseburgers from time to time, right? I mean, I just do and I think —
NK: The truth is that there are real changes that we who over-consume in the wealthy world and around the world, we are going to have to consume differently. We are not going to be able to continue to act as if there are no limits to our consumption. If we look at these temper tantrums, whether it’s about light bulbs —
DJT: They took away our light bulb. I want an incandescent light. I want to look better, OK?
NK: Or hamburgers —
Sebastian Gorka: They want to take away your hamburgers. This is what Stalin dreamt about, but never achieved.
NK: Or straws. It really cuts to the heart of this narrative of these are places of limitless nature, limitless growth. And it’s really embedded in the stories that underpin settler colonial states like the United States and Canada. And it explains why it is so incredibly hard to reckon with the reality of ecological breakdown that we’re living in right now and why it feels like such a personal attack. Because if you build your worldview and you define freedom as the right to infinitely exhaust nature, and that’s deeply embedded in these national narratives, then when something comes along, like climate change and says, “Well, actually, we’ve hit the wall and we are going to have to adjust. We are going to have to change. There are areas where they are going to have to be contractions in how much we consume,” it doesn’t feel like a scientific truth. It feels like an existential attack. It feels like an identity attack. And this is why I think we’re in this utterly irrational tape loop about what our response is going to be.
BR: Anytime progressives start to make that kind of argument, we’re reminded of the moment when Jimmy Carter went on television wearing a sweater.
Jimmy Carter: We must face the fact that the energy shortage is permanent. There is no way we can solve it quickly. But if we all cooperate and make modest sacrifices, if we learn to live thriftily, and remember the importance of helping our neighbors, then we can find ways to adjust.
NK: It is a political truism in Washington that you just can never, ever tell Americans that they may have to consume less.
JC: Too many of us now tend to worship, self indulgent, and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does but by what one owns.
NK: There’s a real backstory to that, which is interesting because there was a version of that speech and Carter had help from the cultural theorist Christopher Lasch. According to Lasch, he advised Carter and he had proposed language in that speech where he said, you know, if you are going to ask Americans to consume less — and this is in the context, you know, of an energy crisis — you also have to go after the rich you have to go after the big players as well. There has to be a justice element to this or people will reject it. And Carter didn’t listen to him on that. And so, the speech only really talks about regular people making sacrifices. But there isn’t a message that these sacrifices are going to be distributed in a way that is fair, so that the people who are the biggest sort of consumers and the biggest polluters will have to sacrifice more, right? And so we don’t actually know how Americans would have responded to that speech if Carter had listened.
BR: That’s really fascinating. And I think a lot of people don’t understand that.
NK: You know, I think this idea that you just simply can’t ask people to change without paying this huge political price, I don’t think the evidence is there for that. I think the evidence is there for the fact that you cannot ask people to change within an unfair economic architecture.
BR: So, what do you take from all that with elections looming?
NK: The need for a fairer economic and social system is not an add-on to the need for bold climate policy. If we do not center justice, we will not get it done. There will be a backlash. That was true in the 1970s before these massive economic inequalities opened up, before, you know, what little social safety net there was, was shredded. And it is most certainly true in 2019, that unless the task of radically lowering emissions is married to the imperative to build a radically fair economy and society, it will be rejected.
And so, I hear all the time from these supposedly sort of serious practical climate experts saying, “Well, why are you weighing us down with all this justice stuff? Why can’t we just have a carbon tax and isn’t that so much easier than linking this with healthcare and unionized jobs and reparations for slavery? You’re just making it so much harder.” And my argument is unless we link these intersecting crises together into a holistic response, we will not get any of it done. There will be a popular backlash. We are seeing it again and again and we will lose the decade we have, and we just can’t.
BR: So, the climate debate here in the U.S. and throughout the world has been galvanized by a 16-year-old girl. Someone remarked to me recently, “Wow, you know, we’re really in trouble if we, you know, we’re relying on this 16-year-old to lead us.” I see it differently. And perhaps it’s after the evening that we had with Greta at the Ethical Culture Society recently.
GT: I’m not the enemy, at least I hope not, but many people seem to think that, but they cannot argue against — because I’m only saying what the science is saying. You can’t argue against physics, you cannot. So, that’s why they go after me and these other activists who are trying to communicate this. And if there’s a fire there and I, and I say, it’s a fire that we need to put the fire out. It’s like, the most reasonable reaction will be that you look at the fire and say like, “We need to put it out.” But now, they seem to be like, they look at the fire and they look at me like, what are you wearing?
BR: Why has she been so powerful a voice in this moment?
NK: It’s interesting that people make those remarks because, of course, when Great testified on Capitol Hill last week, she submitted as her entire testimony, the 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the 1.5 report that told us that we had to slash global emissions in half in 12 years now, just 11.
GT: I am submitting this report as my testimony because I don’t want you to listen to me. I want you to listen to the scientists and I want you to unite behind the science and then I want you to take real action.
NK: She is just telling them that they should do what they have all said they should do. Yeah, I think Greta is absolutely remarkable. I think she’s a prophetic voice. I’ve met many young people in the climate justice movement who also have just tremendous moral clarity and they don’t get the platform that Greta has, and I think it’s been really moving watching her try to share this huge media spotlight that is on her right now and to make space for other young people, particularly young people from those frontline communities, indigenous young people, African American young people, you know, who are impacted more than her by the reality of both of climate impacts and also of having fossil fuel industries in their backyards.
BR: So, do you think Greta — I mean, she’s obviously been hugely successful in igniting this movement of youth around the world — Do you think she’s actually getting through to policymakers?
NK: You know, it’s hard to say and I don’t think it’s just about Greta. I think it’s that you know, Greta is now representing this global movement of children who have been coming out in huge numbers and shaming their politicians. We saw it recently in the United States as part of the Global Climate Strike on the 20th. Now this has become a true political phenomenon. I think in the United States, the Sunrise Movement has had a massive impact. To think that we are in a situation now where the majority of the people who want to lead the Democratic Party have to at least claim they support a Green New Deal. You know, this is a game changer. So young people across the board, not just Greta, are having a huge impact already. We’ll see whether we end up with a scenario where there is actually a candidate that comes out of the Democratic primaries who gets this, who puts a Green New Deal at the center of their platform, and then uses it to run against Donald Trump because that’s going to be the real measure of whether or not policy changes come out of this.
BR: Naomi, thank you so much for this conversation. It’s been incredibly enlightening, as always, and congratulations on your book.
NK: Thank you so much, Betsy. It’s such a pleasure to talk with you.
BR: Naomi Klein is a senior correspondent at the Intercept. Her book “On Fire” is out now.
[Protesters chanting at Climate Strike]
Elise Swain: How old are you guys?
Kid: I’m nine.
Kid: I’m ten. I currently look like I am five.
ES: What do you guys think about Greta?
Kid: Only a year ago, she did the school strike and no one was with her but she still kept on doing it, so I think it’s really interesting that she did that.
Kid: Climate change has been a major problem for a while now.
Kid: Some people don’t really think that young people can make a difference but we’re proving them wrong and we’ll make sure that we prove them wrong and make sure that that idea turns into action.
Kid: I’m not the best at sounding inspirational, cause look at me, I just have one message: anybody small can make a difference.
[Drums and clapping.]
Darren Aronofsky: My name is Darren Aronofsky and I’m a filmmaker and also a board member of the Sierra Club Foundation and the School for Field Studies. I think incredible crisis creates an opportunity to have tremendous ambition. You know, I am an optimist, and I believe that there is a far side of this that will be a habitable, beautiful earth.
Bill McKibben: Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org. I’m here because I’ve been at every climate, global climate rally there’s ever been and this is the biggest. Our crew from all over the world has been checking in minute by minute and in every corner of planet earth people are showing up in staggering numbers. Our job has been to change the zeitgeist and the zeitgeist is changing. Days like today make it impossible for the people who lead us to just go back to business as usual.
Protesters [at Climate Strike]: What do we want? Climate justice! When do we want it? Now! What do we want? Climate justice! When do we want it? Now!
Kid: I feel like being 14 and doing this, I feel like more people should be doing this. It’s really nice to see kids who are even younger than me here doing this. They make it seem like it’s something that adult radicals have to do. But no, it’s something everyone should be doing, participating and speaking about and enjoying. It’s nice to see on Instagram and people like post hashtags and whatever. It’s really nice. People are talking about it.
ES: I’m Elise Swain. I’m the associate producer on this podcast and I want to tell you about an environmental nightmare that is largely invisible. Within my bloodstream, and yours, there are chemicals that are so persistent and widespread that it’s hard to find anyone alive that has not been contaminated. I’m talking about a class of chemicals called PFOS.
This story begins back in the 1940s, when American companies began manufacturing and using new chemical substances that revolutionized domestic products. DuPont’s trademark “Teflon” was the non-stick miracle that made cleaning cookware so much easier.
Commercial announcer: Even burnt food won’t stick to Teflon so it’s always easy to clean. Cookware never needs scouring if it has DuPont Teflon.
ES: But the chemical used to make Teflon, PFOA, or sometimes called C8, was highly toxic. So was PFOS, a similar compound that was used in things like Scotchgard and firefighting foam. And these slippery compounds and others in their class were used in countless products, like waterproof clothing; stain-proof coatings, fire-fighting foam; fast food wrappers; microwave popcorn bags; bicycle lubricants; ski wax; communications cables; and even, pizza boxes.
While these toxic chemicals have gone on to make all of those products, it was back in 1961 that DuPont had already confirmed that PFOA was toxic. And in 1978, 3M, the company that introduced and made both PFOA and PFOS, knew that PFOA was accumulating in their worker’s blood. Fast forward all the way to 1999, when a farmer in West Virginia, named Wilbur Tennant, discovers that the water on his land near a DuPont factory has poisoned his cows.
Wilbur Tennant: That water shouldn’t look like that. There’s something wrong with this water. I’ve taken two dead deer and two dead cattle off of this river right here.
ES: Tennant then sues DuPont and this sets off a series of events that was covered extensively by our next guest, Sharon Lerner.
The events were as follows: DuPont eventually gets fined over $10 million and agrees to phase out their use of PFOA. Then, in 2015, DuPont spun off its PFOS business to a company called Chemours and has since undergone multiple corporate transformations.
So here we are in 2019, and the reporting on the toxicity of PFOA and PFOS has gone mainstream. There was even a documentary that featured some of Sharon’s reporting called “The Devil We Know.”
Ken Cook: It’s used in consumer products, manufacturing products, the applications were endless. These Teflon and Scotchgard chemicals permeated the living world.
ES: And just this month, there was a House Oversight Committee hearing on PFAS contamination. They called the hearing: “They Devil They Knew.” And representatives from all 3 companies — DuPont, or New DuPont, Chemours, and 3M were all there.
Harley Rouda: These companies with us here today have screwed up and we need to hold them accountable for doing so. I hope the people representing those companies here today will admit their mistakes so we can all move forward and achieve what I believe is our common goal.
ES: Sharon is still covering this and now, she’s discovered 40 new chemicals that are cause for grave concern. These are the invisible substances that are unknown, and that her reporting is revealing for the first time.
I talked to Sharon about all of this.
Sharon Lerner: So, in the summer of 2015, we published a three-part series about PFOA, which was a chemical pretty much no one had heard of at that point, and had been found in the water in West Virginia and Ohio near this DuPont plant.
WT: The state of West Virginia issued the DuPont company a permit for them to run their contaminated waste water down through two farms here, out into this stream of water.
SL: And I reported on litigation around that. It turned into sort of a very big piece about what DuPont had known about this chemical, and it’s release into the water.
WT: They were trying to keep everything hushed up, like it’s some kind of big secret of some kind that they’re dumping it in here. But they won’t tell us what it is. They don’t want to talk to me, because I’m just an old dumb farmer. I’m not supposed to know anything.
ES: Sharon, for people that may not know what are PFOS chemicals and what are the sorts of things that they’re used in?
SL: So PFOS chemicals are these industrial compounds that have been used, famously for Teflon, but really for all sorts of things, including firefighting foam and all sorts of weird chemical processing that none of us think about or hear about. And it turns out that these chemicals that we’ve been using for more than 50 years also cause a huge range of health effects and are in the blood of most everyone at this point.
KC: Today, every baby probably on the planet but certainly in the developed world where all of these chemicals are widely used, every baby is born with at least some level of C8, of PFOS and PFOA in their blood.
SL: It was already in all of our bodies. It was in our blood. It was in the blood of wildlife. It was in water as it became clear to me in 2015, around the country.
ES: How did that happen?
SL: So the contamination initially came from industrial sites, places like Parkersburg, West Virginia, which we reported on in 2015, and Minnesota, and Decatur, Alabama, where they have these big industrial sites and in each case, the chemicals have leaked off the plant and into drinking water but more broadly, since 2015, we’ve realized that firefighting foam is a major source of water contamination and that these chemicals are all around us.
ES: What effect do these chemicals have on our bodies?
SL: So, for a long time, nobody knew for sure. There was this group of scientists, epidemiologists, who in 2011, and ’12, linked PFOA to six different diseases, including testicular cancer and kidney cancer, elevated blood lipids, preeclampsia. But since then, it’s been clear that there are many other associations including obesity, developmental problems, and also what’s become clear through my reporting and others is that there was lots of evidence that these chemicals had caused serious problems in lab experiments on animals, cancers and other things, going back decades.
So, on September 10, the House Oversight Committee held a hearing on corporate responsibility for PFOS contamination.
James Comer: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. We’re here today for the subcommittee’s third hearing this year on the large group of chemicals collectively known as PFOS.
SL: They had Darryl Roberts.
Daryl Roberts: My name is Daryl Roberts and I’m the chief operations and engineering officer for DuPont.
SL: Paul Kirsch from Chemours.
Paul Kirsch: My name is Paul Kirsch and I’m the president of the fluoroproducts products business at Chemours.
SL: And Denise Rutherford from 3M.
Denise Rutherford: My name is Denise Rutherford and I am the senior vice president of corporate affairs at 3M reporting directly to our chairman and CEO.
SL: You really saw a lot of pushback, particularly from Rutherford from 3M, who shockingly, after all this happens still insist that the chemicals don’t cause health problems.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: In the lobbying materials by the coalition, it states and I quote, “The weight of current scientific evidence does not show that PFOS or PFOA cause adverse health effects in humans at current rates of exposure.” Miss Rutherford, do you agree with this statement?
DR: Congresswoman, I absolutely agree with that statement.
AOC: This statement goes against 3M’s own scientists who for decades have been studying these chemicals and terming them “toxic.”
SL: I thought it was a stunning statement. It was really bold because there’s so much science showing that they do have health effects. I’ve also done a piece last year I believe it was, that really dug into some of the documents that 3M had on these compounds that showed how they could make such a statement. And that is that a lot of what they made public kind of twisted the research. So you can’t prove it in the medical literature, right? Because they are the ones that have the information. Their studies are their own and for many years, no one else saw them. Eventually, the EPA fined them for withholding that information. But the fine was really, really small compared to the profits that came out of that chemical.
DR: The focus of today’s hearings is PFAS. The new DuPont does not manufacture PFAS like many other companies today we use some PFAS materials. However, our use is extremely limited. Nevertheless, we recognize these are important issues. And that’s why we support legislative proposals addressing PFAS.
SL: That was DuPont’s Daryl Roberts and it is wonderful that they’re talking about taking action on PFOA and PFOS but we’re still talking about PFOA and PFOS. And the problem is when you look at the science and you realize, OK, they knew about the toxicity of PFOA in the 1950s, right? So we’re trying to hold them account for that, like 70 years later.
ES: OK, so while all of this is happening with the committee hearing, and the EPA trying to regulate the PFAS chemicals that we’ve known about for a very long time, what’s been happening in the meantime?
SL: They’ve already created all these other chemicals and profited from them. So in 2016, I came upon the identifying number for this chemical called GenX, which was DuPont’s replacement for PFOA. And this became a big deal because the number allowed me to look on EPA’s website to see if they had any information about it, and when I plugged it in to the right place, actually they did. They had 16 studies showing that it was incredibly dangerous in lab animal experiments, and it was causing cancer.
ES: And this is the replacement?
SL: This is the replacement. So, the replacement causes the same problems that the original does. Not the first time we’ve seen this in chemistry, but really a gross, you know, really intense example of this, right? So this was one chemical. And it occurred to me not that long ago, that I should look more broadly at the time, you know, PFOA and PFOS was sort of all we knew. And then as time has gone on, it’s been clear, it’s a much, much bigger class. And so I decided, why don’t I look for all the compounds in use that have these reports on them, PFAS compounds? And I did. I came up with 40 and these are 40 compounds that have reports on them, that they cause substantial risk to health or the environment. So that’s really a pretty staggering number. And the other thing that I found in my reporting, which sort of blew me away, is that these are the compounds that are public. So, I got them from this list called the TSCA inventory, which is EPAs list of chemicals in use. But it turns out that there’s a part of the TSCA inventory, that’s secret, you can’t find the risk report. So there very well may be many more than 40 that cause these problems, but I can’t know for sure because they’re secret.
ES: So, of the 40 in use right now that you found what are these reports saying?
SL: Rats dying, sperm production decreased, developmental toxicity, convulsions, liver cancer, broken teeth, totally alarming stuff. Stuff that you would want to know if say this was in your water.
ES: How long do these chemicals last in the environment?
SL: These chemicals persist, essentially forever. And that’s what they’re called, forever chemicals. They don’t degrade by themselves, which means that even after humans are gone from the earth, these chemicals will remain, they’re going to outlast us. So when you make a mistake with them, when you make a mistake by “Okay, go ahead and make them and we’re not going to actually look at where you’re releasing it,” which we’ve done now many, many, many times over. It’s a mistake that has planetary consequences, like forever.
ES: Do you think that will ever be able to hold DuPont, Chemours, 3M accountable in any meaningful way?
SL: Well, I mean, are they going to pay out more than what they made off them? No, they’re not but the other piece is are they going to undo the damage they’ve done? And that is a resounding no. It’s completely impossible. So all these chemicals are already in all of us. You can’t undo that, right? They’re in water. You can’t undo that. They’re in wildlife. And you can’t, you literally cannot ever clean them all up. They have changed the planet.
ES: Sharon Lerner covers health and the environment for the Intercept. Her collection of reporting on this topic is called “Bad Chemistry.”
Harris Faulkner: Fox urgent: I’m Harris Faulkner. An American has come out of the shadows to tell the world he is responsible for leaking information.
Newscaster: The man behind what’s been called the biggest intelligence leak in the history of the National Security Agency. He is 29-year-old Edward Snowden.
Newscaster: This is Edward Snowden.
Newscaster: 29-year-old Edward Snowden.
Newscaster: Snowden says he did it in his words, because the U.S. government is “destroying privacy and basic liberties around the world.”
Micah Lee: I’m Micah Lee, First Look Media’s director of information security.
The first time I heard from Edward Snowden was in January 2013, five months before he proved to the world the NSA was spying on billions of innocent people without any probable cause. At the time I had no idea who he was or even what his name was. He sent me an encrypted email from an anonymous email address that he only ever logged into using the Tor network. “Micah, I’m a friend,” he said. “I need to get information securely to Laura Poitras and her alone, but I can’t find an email and GPG key for her. Can you help?” Over the next several months I acted as a sort of encryption and operational security expert, helping make sure that Ed could communicate securely over the internet with Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald, while he was preparing to meet them in Hong Kong.
Over the last nearly seven years we’ve kept in touch, occasionally working on projects together. Today, we are both board members of Freedom of the Press Foundation, where Ed serves as president.
Edward Snowden: Okay, then let me go ahead and just start with the passage and you guys can edit around it or put voiceover before it or whatever you need.
The term mass surveillance is more clear to me, and I think to most people than the government’s preferred “bulk collection,” which to my mind threatens to give a falsely fuzzy impression of the agency’s work. Bulk collection makes it sound like a particularly busy post office or sanitation department, as opposed to a historic effort to achieve total access to and clandestinely take possession of the records of all digital communications in existence.
But once a common ground of terminology is established, misperceptions can still abound. Most people even today tend to think of mass surveillance in terms of content, the actual terms they use when they make a phone call or write an email. When they find out that the government actually cares comparatively little about that content, they tend to care comparatively little about government surveillance. This relief is understandable to a degree due to what each of us must regard as the uniquely revealing and intimate character of our communications, the sound of our voice, almost as personal as a thumbprint, the immutable facial expression we put in a selfie sent by text. The unfortunate truth, however, is that the content of our communications is rarely as revealing as its other elements the unwritten, unspoken information that can expose the broader context and patterns of behavior. The NSA calls this metadata.
The term’s prefix “meta,” which traditionally is translated as above or beyond, is here used in the sense of about. Metadata is data — about data. It is more accurately data that is made by data cluster of tags, markers that allow data to be useful. All the records of all the things you do on your devices and all the things that your devices to on their own. Take a phone call, for example, its metadata might include the date and time of the call, the call’s duration, the number from which the call was made, the number being called, and their locations. An email’s metadata might include information about what type of computer it was generated on, where, when, or who the computer belongs to, who sent the email, who received it, when it was sent, and received and who, if anyone, besides the sender and recipient accessed it and where and when.
Metadata can tell your surveillant the address you slept at last night and what time you got up this morning. It reveals every place you visited during your day and how long you spent there. It shows who you were in touch with and who was in touch with you. It’s this fact that obliterates any government claim that metadata is somehow not a direct window into the substance of communication.
With the dizzying volume of digital communications in the world, there’s simply no way that every phone call could be listened to or every email could be read. Even if it were feasible, however, it still wouldn’t be useful in any way. Metadata makes this unnecessary by winnowing the field. That’s why it’s best to regard metadata not as some benign abstraction, but as the very essence of content. It is precisely the first line of information that the party surveilling you requires.
There’s another thing too. Content is usually defined as something you knowingly produce. You know what you’re saying during a phone call or what you’re writing in an email, but you have hardly any control over the metadata you produce because it is generated automatically, just as it’s collected, stored and analyzed by machine it’s made by machine too without your participation, or even your consent.
ML: And Ed joins me now to talk about his new book “Permanent Record.” Welcome back to Intercepted, Ed.
ES: Thanks for having me, Micah. It’s good to be here.
ML: The day that you published your book, the Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against you for not letting them read it and censor it beforehand. How does that make you feel?
ES: Incredibly grateful. I should send the Attorney General a thank you card. You know, look, it’s a very serious thing being sued by the United States government. And this is only sort of, further evidence they will do anything they can to make my life harder, and to discourage the public from hearing the things that I have to say. When the government came out and said, you know, this is a book we very much don’t want the public to read, even though they said you know, we’re not going to stop publication of the book, they didn’t do that because they didn’t want to stop publication of the book, they did it because they couldn’t under the Constitution. The Fourth Amendment barred them from doing so. And that naturally made everybody go, “Whoa, what’s in this book? Maybe we should pay attention to this if the government doesn’t want us to see it,” and we went from basically number 25, I think, on the sales charts right up to number one in a single day.
ML: Well, congratulations, all you need is a Trump Tweet, and you’ll be, you’ll be good.
ES: The biggest book of the year.
ML: So it’s been almost seven years since you blew the whistle. Is NSA still spying on everyone?
ES: Yeah, of course they are. I didn’t come forward to shut down the NSA. I wasn’t trying to burn down the building, that would have been easier to do without telling anybody about it because I was what they call a systems administrator at many points in my career. This means I had access to really do anything I wanted to their network. I came forward for something different, which is this idea that prior to 2013, you know, people knew at least some people, academics, researchers, technologists, people who were following reporting very closely that these capabilities were possible. But there’s a difference between speculating these programs exist, seeing unconfirmed reports that they exist. And actually having a factual understanding that not only could the government or anyone technically monitor the internet and the phone network on a massive, meaning on targeted sort of dragnet scale, but it was actually happening.
And this is the importance of 2013 and the revelations of mass surveillance and largely whistleblowing generally, you don’t want a whistleblower to say, “Look, I’m the president of the moment. I’m going to say this is how you need to live. This is what the law should be.” No, that’s not what it’s about. It’s about changing the conversation from speculation to fact, because in a democracy that’s everything. The government derives its legitimacy from the consent of the governed. When we vote, right, we’re supposed to be imposing a mandate on the government to rule.
But if we don’t know what the government is doing, and worse if the government is actively lying to us as they were in that moment, our consent is not meaningful because it’s not informed and we’re no longer partner to government, right? We’re no longer holding the leash. We are subject to government and in a real way being leashed ourselves. Now we understand what’s going on in a large way. We haven’t completely reformed the system, although we have had some of the most important reforms in intelligence since the 1970s. But this is not a question for me to answer. It’s really a question for us. We see the NSA is spying on us. We see every intelligence agency in the world is now spying on us. We see that Facebook and Google are increasingly spying on us. The question before us is, what are we going to do about it?
ML: When you left Hong Kong, you are on your way to Ecuador. When you first landed in the Sheremetyevo airport, you wrote about getting pulled into a conference room where you were approached by FSB agents and the FSB, it’s the Federal Security Services, sort of like the FBI of Russia. And they gave you a cold pitch where they asked you if you wanted to work for them, and you immediately refused. So, since you’ve been in Russia, have you been approached by any other government officials from Russia?
ES: No, because I refuse to meet with them. What I was worried about was not agreeing to cooperate with the Russian government, because that was never my intention and for the record, I never have and I never will cooperate with the Russian government in any form. I’m no longer going to cooperate with any intelligence service as a matter of principle. But what we had in this moment was, I was really one of the most famous people on earth at least for the week. I was on every TV channel. I was on the front page of every newspaper because the U.S. government had decided to chase me around the world.
Wolf Blitzer: The man behind one of the biggest leaks in the history of U.S. intelligence.
Scott Pelley: Who is Edward Snowden? How did he steal top secret files?
Alisyn Camerota: Big news, Edward Snowden is on the run at this hour.
WB: From Hong Kong to Moscow, and maybe, maybe we just don’t know, beyond.
ES: I never intended to end up in Russia. I was actually on route to Latin America when the United States government, once they heard I had left Hong Kong, they canceled my passport which meant I couldn’t leave. And so the Russian government, of course, as any government would, they approached me and they said basically, will you help us? Will you cooperate? But the thing is, they don’t actually need you to cooperate in order to compromise you, in order to sort of destroy your reputation. All they need to do is to catch you on tape thinking about it and this is why I so aggressively immediately sort of shut it down. I had to be polite, right, because the last thing I need in the world at this moment is more enemies. But I also need to make it very clear that I’m not going to cooperate with them now, or ever again. They realized I think, they’re not sure what to do but they know I don’t have any information with me. I destroyed it before I got on the plane to Hong Kong. Only the journalists had this.
ML: You mentioned that you never intended to stay in Moscow. You never, you were on your way to Ecuador. You got your passport revoked, and you were stuck there. And I thought that the part of your book where you discussed the like, 40 days and 40 nights in the airport, and all of the massive amount of work you did to try to get asylum in various countries was interesting. Can you just talk a little bit about why you ended up being stuck there?
ES: So in this period, because I refused to cooperate with the Russian intelligence services. I was in very difficult position, right? If I had said, “Yeah, sure, guys, I’ll tell you anything you want.” I would have been driven out of the airport day one and a limousine and living in a palace. Instead, I said, “No, look, I don’t want to be here. This is not my choice. What I’m going to do is I’m going to ask the world for justice.” And so I applied for asylum in 27 different countries around the world, places like Germany, places like France, places like Norway, that really nobody’s afraid of and everybody’s comfortable with. Every time I would hear that one of their governments was starting to lean in the position of, where they would grant asylum, there would be a new story, or I would get an apology from someone from one of those countries’ governments that would say we just got a phone call from our foreign ministry, and it was always one of two people: It was then the Secretary of State.
John Kerry: I wonder if Mr. Snowden chose China and Russia as assistance in his, you know, in his flight for justice because they’re such powerful bastions of internet freedom.
ES: Or it was the vice president of the United States.
When we look at that period, they said, “Look, we don’t care that he does qualify for asylum. We don’t care that he has been charged with political crimes. We don’t care that under the international human rights law context, this is persecution, not prosecution. If you do anything to help this guy, we’re going to retaliate. There are going to be consequences.” They wouldn’t say what those consequences were, but it was a very serious phone call. And immediately these countries would go “Ah, let’s let this be someone else’s problem.” This was sort of a long, dark period.
And it’s only at the very end of this, that I was allowed to leave that Russian airport. And that’s when I said, “Well, Russia, will you let me out of this airport?” And they said yes, and I think it’s because honestly, they just didn’t know what to do. This was a period where they would look weak if they sent me back to the United States government. And everyone knows, however much you don’t like the Russian government, they don’t want to look weak. And if they’re being pushed around by the White House that looks very bad to the Russian public. And so they let me out and I’ve been trapped here ever since. But I’m still, by the way, happy to go to France or Germany or anywhere else, if they’ll open their doors.
ML: So why won’t you just come back to the United States and face the trial?
ES: There is no fair trial that’s offered under the laws that I’m being charged with. And this is an extraordinary thing that almost no one knows and the government has worked very hard to keep the public from understanding. Under the laws of the United States, there is a very rare type of crime called a strict liability crime. A strict liability crime means you are forbidden from telling the jury why it is that you did what you did and the jury is forbidden from considering whether or not what you did was justified. Even in the worst crimes that we have, even in the case of murder, murder is not a strict liability crime.
But in the case of talking to journalists, when you work for the CIA or the NSA, you’ve signed one of these secrecy agreements. If you report that the government itself is breaking the law, to a journalist, the government says that’s a strict liability crime. This is what’s called the Espionage Act. And it applies the same to actual foreign spies, people who are selling secrets for their own private profit, as it does to whistleblowers, people who are giving information of critical public importance to journalists for no personal benefit. And so this is the thing that I’ve said to the government: “I will go and face the trial any day of the week —” and this has been the negotiating position of my legal team since year one — “All you have to do is guarantee that whistleblowers will have a right to a public interest defense,” right?
Now, all this means is that the government has to have the jury consider two questions: One, was the law broken? Two, was it justified? And the government says, “Look, we don’t want to have that conversation. We don’t want the jury to have to consider evidence that yes, the United States government didn’t break the law. Yes, the United States government did violate the constitution. Yes, the United States government did violate the rights of these fine people sitting on the jury,” because that would be a very uncomfortable conversation, I think for them, and they worry that the jury might be more inclined to side with me and the public more broadly than they would be to side with the government. The minute that changes, I’ll be back to face a trial.
ML: And I think that that’s true with the other whistleblower — Espionage Act — cases too.
ES: This is actually quite a timely question because just last week, in the case of another American whistleblower, a young man by the name of Daniel Hale, who is alleged to have given up documents about the U.S. government’s drone program, right? And we’re talking about extrajudicial killings. Because the government has made a secret finding that this person’s dangerous, a secret finding that they’re a terrorist, right? But that finding’s never been reviewed by a court and in some cases, under the Obama White House, these drones have actually been used to kill people who are American citizens in the case of Anwar al-Awlaki, and his son, who were actually killed separately. The son was actually I think only 15, 16 years old when it happened. Daniel Hale is accused of not giving secrets, you know, to the enemy, not being a spy. His crime is the same as my own. The government accuses him of aiding and abetting an act of journalism, which is a crime under the Espionage Act.
And so, the government just submitted a filing last week that said they want the judge to do exactly what I just said. They want the judge to forbid the jury from hearing why he did what he did. They want the jury to be forbidden from considering whether these programs are legal. And they want the jury to be completely forbidden from considering whether or not the public benefited from this young man’s courage in telling journalists about what the government was actually doing behind closed doors. If the jury, if the American people are forbidden from considering whether the crime itself is revealing the government’s crime, how do you have a fair trial? If the jury can’t ask the question: well, who exactly is the real criminal here?
ML: One thing that I found really interesting reading your book was the whole chapter about heartbeat and how when you were working at the NSA facility in Hawaii, you managed to get such a giant trove of documents that in a way that it wasn’t tied directly to your name and to your login. Could you just talk a little bit about what heartbeat was and how that worked?
ES: Well, so it was and it wasn’t connected to my name. It was connected to the Office of Information Sharing. But it turned out, I was the Office of Information Sharing. This is a little historical irony.
But yeah, so how this works is imagine that you’re working at the NSA. Imagine over the course of a pretty long career in intelligence — working in different agencies with the CIA and the NSA, working in both technical and operational positions, right — you have discovered the government is probably breaking the law. You’re not 100%. But you think people should hear about this. You’re not just going to throw these things up on the internet. Because what if you’re wrong? So, you want to work through journalists. You want people who can fact check this. You want people who can basically decide for the public, what the public really needs to know. But what do you do? And how do you get it to journalists when all of these documents are buried in a secret facility, top secret facility, in fact, under a pineapple field in Hawaii, called the tunnel?
Let’s say you’re the director of the National Security Agency, you’re supposed to have access to all the secrets. But all these secrets are held on computers. And you’re not a computer specialist. You know, you’re an old political science major or something like that, or an MBA that the government’s appointed to oversee this agency. And you say, “Hey, I want to know about this. I want to know about this.” Well, somebody has to get that for you. Somebody has to run the system, somebody has to have total control over it. Somebody has to have all the keys. And that guy happened to be me.
And so what I did in the Office of Information Sharing was I constructed this system that I called the heartbeat, which went into basically every major repository of classified information both at the NSA and in other agencies. And it acted as a kind of aggregator, like a news aggregator. If you think about going to a Google News page, or Reddit or your Twitter feed or Facebook, you know, there’s some algorithm somewhere in that that’s saying, “These are the most relevant stories of the day for you, Mr. User.” And I was creating the classified equivalent of this that looked at the entire work of the U.S. intelligence community. But the byproduct of this was suddenly that I was at the center of the network. I could see everything happening everywhere.
And the more I saw, as I understood the big picture, and I understood all my previous work in my previous positions in intelligence work, all of the little cogs that I had been building in isolation, not knowing the big picture, had in fact been a part of a larger machine. And all of these little things that I had helped build, my labor over the course of my professional career had in fact helped produce this system of mass surveillance, and there were so many teams and so many offices who are doing the same thing and they had no idea what was happening because so few of us could see the big picture. And now, seeing it all come into context, seeing the whole puzzle fit together. You go, what do you do? And this begins the phase of the book for those who are interested about how it is exactly that I actually hacked the NSA.
ML: One of the reasons why I’m so curious about this specific phase is because in all of the recent whistleblower cases, government whistleblowers where the whistleblowers got caught, it was largely because of this, because they have to use computers to access documents, and the computers are logging every single thing that they do. Given this, given that, you know, everybody is being watched, and especially government workers with security clearances, what advice would you give to a government worker today?
ES: The first and foremost is not a question for whistleblowers at all. It’s for us as a society. If we don’t create structures to guarantee whistleblowers some form of protection, if we don’t give people the ability to report evidence of serious crimes to the public, right — not to the people who are responsible for the perpetuation of those crimes — we need whistleblowers or those accused under the Espionage Act, access to a fair trial, right? They need that public interest defense.
But you have to look at things from the side of the investigators. The government sees a newspaper publish a story that they don’t like. Instantly, they are going to call for an investigation. Instantly they’re going to go “Alright, this document that’s in the newspaper, give me a list of everyone who’s accessed this document on the network.” And if you’re careful as a whistleblower, you know, this group of people can be quite large. If it’s a popular document, a big document, that a lot of people have had to read, that could be a thousand people on the list. If it’s a very specialist document, the number of people who read the document could be 10. Or it can be one, just you. And then that investigation can be quite short, and then you’re in a lot of trouble. It doesn’t matter how careful you are in terms of operational security practices, doesn’t matter if they can’t find any hard evidence on it. It’s not going to be hard for them to build just a circumstantial case to the jury that they should convict you.
And we have to remember in the United States, juries convict almost all the time. Then we have to go, “All right, this is limiting what kind of information whistleblower’s sources can provide to journalists safely.” So, then we have a hard question, do we act safely or do we act freely? To maintain a free and open society means assuming some level of risk. That means recognizing you can have a sort of bad outcome here. And when we look at these cases, the Terry Alburys, the Daniel Hales, and most especially, I think the Reality Winners. One of the common criticisms of these people is that, oh, they made so many mistakes in the way they went about this. They left all of these big trails on the network. The government was always going to find out who they did you know, the journalists couldn’t protect them. And that may be true. But that misses the point.
I think there’s a better way of looking at it, which is, they knew exactly what was going to happen. But they did it anyway because they cared about what was going to happen to this country if we didn’t know about these things. They thought about what was going to happen to their families. They thought about what was going to happen to the future if the government could continue to engage in unethical or unlawful behavior without the public’s knowledge and awareness and because of that, even though they knew they were likely to get caught, they took these risks anyway and they took them for us. The question is not how these whistleblowers can protect themselves. The question is how do we protect them?
ML: Well, we’re going to leave it there. Thank you for being on the show Ed.
ES: Always a pleasure. Thanks so much for bringing me by.
ML: That’s Edward Snowden. His new memoir, “Permanent Record” is out now.
BR: Well, that does it for this week’s show. You can follow us on Twitter @intercepted. If you like what we do, support our show by going to TheIntercept.com/join to become a sustaining member. Intercepted is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. I’m the editor in chief of The Intercept. Our lead producer is Jack D’Isidoro. Our producer is Laura Flynn. Elise Swain is our associate producer and graphic designer. Our executive producer is Leital Molad. Rick Kwan mixed the show. Transcription for this program is done by Nuria Marquez Martinez. Our music, as always, was composed by DJ Spooky.
Thanks for listening. Jeremy Scahill will be back soon.
I’m Betsy Reed.