The second episode of our new video program, SYSTEM UPDATE, is now available on YouTube. It explores several of the under-discussed components of the coronavirus pandemic and our responses to it, including: Are we vesting too much power in the hands of governments and corporations? Are we allowing our fears to drive our deliberations and choices rather than rational calculations? how do we ensure that official orthodoxies, pieties and consensus can be meaningfully questioned and challenged? What lessons are there to learn from the fear-driven climate that arose after the 9/11 attack? What are the enduring political, social and cultural effects of sustained isolation? and what is the role of animal agriculture in the outbreak of new deadly pathogens over the last couple of decades?
To explore these questions, I spoke to three guests: the NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, now President of the Board of the Freedom of the Press Foundation; Andray Domise, a contributing editor of the Canadian newsmagazine Maclean’s who has written and spoken in a very insightful way about these issues; and Cassie King, a young, courageous and experienced investigator and activist with Direct Action Everywhere, who has been inside numerous factory farms in the U.S. and has worked extensively on the impact on the public health from these industrial practices.
The full show can be watched on The Intercept’s YouTube channel — to which you can subscribe in order to be notified of all of our new content — or on the player below. A transcript is also below:
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System Update – Edward Snowden, Andray Domise and Cassie King
Welcome to a new edition of System Update. I’m Glenn Greenwald.
This episode focuses on several of the under-discussed and under-explored ramifications of the choices we’re collectively making in response to the coronavirus pandemic:
How do we protect civil liberties and political rights while at the same time vesting powers necessary power in governments and corporations in order to manage the pandemic? What are the enduring social, cultural, political and psychological consequences — ones that will endure even after this pandemic is brought under control — from being in isolation and segregated from one another and quarantining and socially distancing?
And then finally, what is the role that animal agriculture and industrial factory farms, the way that we feed ourselves as a planet of almost 8 billion people have to do with the outbreak of highly new and frightening pathogens?
Joining me to explore these topics are three guests. The first is NSA whistleblower and president of the Board of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, Edward Snowden. The second is the contributing writer at Macleans’s magazine in Canada, Andray Domise, who writes and thinks about these topics in very thought provoking and insightful ways. And then the third is Cassie King, a very courageous, young and experienced investigator and activist with the animal rights group Direct Action Everywhere, who has been inside of many of the largest and most disease-ridden factory farms.
It seems like much more time than this, but it’s only been a few weeks since most of us have been in isolation and quarantine. The first European country to really drown in this crisis was Italy, and the Italian government ordered a nationwide lockdown only on March 9, just about exactly one month ago. And it was only after that that other countries in Western Europe and North America, such as the United States and Canada and in Latin America, began doing the same. So it’s only been a matter of a few weeks that we all have been in this isolation and been segregated from one another.
And in that time, we’ve seen a very wide array of responses from different states for how to deal with this pandemic. Everything ranging from educational campaigns designed to encourage voluntary behavior of social distancing to the implementation of new surveillance systems in order to enable contact tracing of the type that we saw in South Korea to police enforced quarantines where people can be fined or even arrested for leaving their homes without permission or without justification under the law: things that we’re seeing not only in places like Singapore, but also the United States and throughout Latin America and Europe. And then finally, the ultimate expression of authoritarianism in Hungary, a member of the EU state, that quickly seized on this crisis in order to essentially turn itself into despotism, into rule by emergency decree by a strongman.
In the meantime, there are billions of people on the planet who have had their lives radically and suddenly disrupted in fundamental ways. Obviously just having to be in our homes without being able to go out, the fear of a scary and unknown new virus and the looming threat of sustained economic crises, perhaps even a Great Depression, has upended all of our lives in ways that just three months ago were unthinkable.
And it’s precisely for that reason, precisely because of that, that it is imperative that we think very hard, very rationally, very deliberatively and very freely about the choices that we’re now making in terms of what powers do we want to invest in governments, what powers do we want to invest in corporations? Because these choices have profound and long-lasting effects about the society that we’re going to be.
And in thinking about those questions, I think three points are imperative. The first is that it is crucial that we all collectively vigilantly create the space and safeguard the space in which we can have free debates on these questions, in which pieties can be challenged and orthodoxies questioned.
To really learn that lesson, I think that we can look at an event that was maybe not as cataclysmic as this pandemic, but certainly was traumatic, which most of us lived through, which was the attack of September 11th in 2001, in which the immediate aftermath brought a climate based on fear in which very little dissent was tolerated, it was immediately stigmatized or worse. One way that you can see that is by looking at the now infamous Patriot Act, which was enacted on October 25th, 2001 – so just six weeks after the September 11th attack – it passed the Senate by a vote of 98 to 1. Just one senator, Democratic Senator Russ Feingold from Wisconsin, was willing to stand up on the Senate floor and vote against it on the grounds that it vested radical and excessive surveillance and detention powers in the US government.
Even more illustrative is the Authorization to Use Military Force, which empowered George Bush and the Bush/Cheney administration to use violence, military force and war against anybody that they deemed, in their unilateral and sole discretion, to be responsible in any way for the 9/11 attacks. It passed on September 14th, 2001, roughly 72 hours after the attack, and it passed the Senate by a vote of 98 to zero. So nobody was willing to stand up and oppose it. And it passed the Congress, the House of Representatives, by a vote of 420 to 1. Just one lone member of Congress, the courageous Barbara Lee of California, stood up on the floor of the House and warned that this authorization would lead to endless war.
And she, Congresswoman Lee, was so stigmatized, so demonized, for her lone vote against that authorization that she received a tidal wave of very credible death threats and was forced to use state-provided security for months in order to prevent any attacks on her. That was the climate that quickly emerged in the wake of 9/11.
And now we know that Congresswoman Lee was correct in warning that the AUMF would lead to years and years of endless war. We know that Russ Feingold was correct to stand up and warn of the dangers of the Patriot Act. And yet there was so little dissent and debate permissible because of the climate of fear that arose, that very little deliberation or rational discussion or rational debate was possible. I think it’s imperative that we avoid that mistake.
There was a column by the Israeli writer, Yuval Noah Harari, in the Financial Times on March 20th, which underscored this point very potently. He wrote: “The decisions people and governments take in the next few weeks will probably shape the world for years to come. They will shape not just our health care systems, but also our economy, politics and culture. We should also take into account the long term consequences of our action when choosing between alternatives. We should ask ourselves not only how to overcome the immediate threat, but also what kind of world will we inhabit once the storm passes? Yes, the storm will pass. Humankind will survive. Most of us will still be alive, but we will inhabit a very different world.”
It’s precisely for that reason that the decisions that we’re now making are genuinely momentous, are genuinely profound, that no matter where you fall on the spectrum of how these competing values ought to be calibrated and navigated. It’s in all of our interests not to demonize or stigmatize those who question prevailing orthodoxies, because we see how often those prevailing orthodoxies are wrong, but to safeguard their right to do that, so we’re having rational debate rather than fear-driven debate about the kinds of decisions that we’re making.
The second point I think it’s vital to recognize is that there really is no such thing in a crisis as temporary powers vested in power centers. We can say that we’re in favor of things like enhanced surveillance authorities or enhanced police power to enforce quarantine or the ability of governments and corporations to more comprehensively track what it is that we’re doing just until the crisis blows over. But the reality is much different. It’s almost inevitable that powers that are vested in the hands of corporations and governments in the name of a temporary emergency end up being anything but temporary. They end up being permanent and they expand rather than contract even once that original crisis is over.
Again, I think probably the best example are the measures adopted in the wake of 9/11, beginning with the Patriot Act, which was recognized even while the World Trade Center was still in its rubble as being genuinely radical, as threatening and menacing as any piece of legislation seen in the United States in decades. And yet the answer given by those who are advocates of its enactment was, “oh, don’t worry, we’re putting into the bill a sunset provision to to ensure that it will expire after a few years once the threat of Muslim terrorism has been managed, and it will only be a temporary part of our political system, not anything permanently new or radical”.
Perhaps illustrating this mentality in its purest distillation was an Oct. 14, 2001 New York Times invoked exactly that argument, writing: “The House of Representatives approved legislation today to give the government broad new powers for the wiretapping, surveillance and investigation of terrorism suspects. But in recognition of many lawmakers, fears of the potential for government overreaching and abuse, the House included a five year limit after which many of those powers would expire.”.
And yet here we are almost 20 years later, and none of the powers of the Patriot Act have expired. Each time the Patriot Act comes up for reauthorization, not only does it pass, it passes overwhelmingly by votes in the Senate of 91 to 9 or 90 to 8. And not only has it not been rescinded, even attempts to reform it are rejected. And if anything, the Patriot Act has expanded radically beyond its original interpretation to something much broader and darker. And yet it’s still impossible to retract it. Nobody really talks anymore about rescinding the Patriot Act. It’s become a permanent part of the fabric of American life.
The same is true of the Authorization to Use Military Force, which was enacted in the wake of 9/11 on the grounds that it would enable the president to eradicate those who were responsible for the 9/11 attack. And yet, 19 years later, President Bush and then President Obama and now President Trump still invoke it as purported legal authority to bomb or otherwise use military violence against groups that didn’t even exist at the time of the 9/11 attacks, let alone bear responsibility for it.
Another very potent example is the Defense Production Act of 1950, which many have urged President Trump to invoke more prolifically in response to this crisis. That was a bill that was passed under the Truman administration that allowed U.S. presidents essentially to commandeer industry and force it to work for the national defense of the United States. And the justification at the time was it was necessary to win the Korean War, to force industry not to produce its own products for profit, but to produce weapons and steel and other materials to enable the U.S. to win the war.
Yet here we are 70 years later. And not only is that law still very much in place, and not only are people urging President Trump to invoke it, but the meaning and reach and scope of that law have wildly expanded so that national defense now means not just things like winning wars, but even enabling the government to address public health crises. That is the reality of powers that we acquiesce to now on a temporary basis. They are likely to be permanent. And they are likely to expand far beyond their original expression.
Again, Harari warns of this in a very clear way in the Financial Times article he wrote where he writes: “you could, of course, make the case for biometric surveillance as a temporary measure taken during a state of emergency. It would go away once the emergency is over. But temporary measures have a nasty habit about lasting emergencies, especially as there’s always a new emergency lurking on the horizon. My home country of Israel, for example, declared a state of emergency during its 1948 War of Independence, which justified a range of temporary measures from press censorship and land confiscation to special regulations for making pudding. I kid you not.”
He goes on to note, of course, that 72 years later, those emergency temporary decrees are still very much in place, and they now empower the Israeli government to do far more than even their original advocates ever envisioned. It’s one thing to defend and advocate new powers in the hands of governments and corporations in the name of fighting this pandemic. But it’s crucial to be realistic about it, which means that we must recognize that those powers, even if you want them to be temporary, are highly unlikely to be that.
The last point I think is very important to start thinking about and to acknowledge are the serious and profound cultural, social, psychological and political changes that are being fostered by a lot of the measures, including ones in which we’re voluntarily engaging and that are almost certain to endure once this pandemic is over. If you think about it, the fact that we are all physically separated from one another is itself a momentous change. And not only are we physically separated from one another, but we’re being trained to regard each other not as fellow citizens with whom we can connect and with whom we can work in pursuit of common goals. But we’re being trained to regard one another as threats, as vectors of a fatal disease who are to be avoided.
And what that means is that we see power centers strengthening rapidly as a result of this pandemic, states gaining previously unthinkable powers, corporations watching their smaller competitors go out of business as a result of the economic standstill, while the giants like Amazon and Wal-Mart become even bigger. And we’ve lost our ability to unite, to do any kind of meaningful protest because we can’t even gather together on the street with one another because we’re all segregated physically from one another.
We saw this very disturbingly in the case of the attempt by a handful of Amazon warehouse workers to organize a strike. And Amazon then fired the organizer of that strike and its spokesman, former Obama White House press secretary Jay Carnay, justified the firing on the grounds that by organizing a protest, he violated social distancing guidelines and endangered the health of other Amazon workers, including the ones who voluntarily participated in the protest, so we’re already seeing protests being pathologized, being criminalized, on top of the difficulty of joining together when we’re all in physical isolation from one another.
Here in Brazil, when people want to protest, as they often do increasingly, the unhinged and sociopathic response of the Bolsonaro government to the coronavirus pandemic, they go to their windows, pick up pots and pans and spoons and bang with the spoons on those pots and pans. It’s a traditional form of Latin American protest. It creates a lot of noise, but under the circumstances it’s not very menacing, since the government knows none of them can go out onto the street and gather together and protest and march. That is creating a very meaningful imbalance between power centers, which are strengthening, and we the citizenry which are weakening even to the point of physically weakening by being confined to our homes, prevented from engaging in our normal exercise regimen, the mental health costs that come with it as well. I think it’s crucial, critical that we begin to think very deeply and very clearly about what these effects are likely to be.
And related to that is the question of what is the animal agriculture industry’s role in spawning a lot of these new never before seen pathogens. We obviously don’t know for certain what the origin, what the genesis of Covd-19 is. There are certainly theories that it leaped from animals to humans, that it’s a zoonotic virus, as we’ve seen so many others of that kind. We don’t know for certain, but what we do know is that we in the west love to deride and condemn and mock what we regard as Asian agricultural practices. People are blaming wet markets in which animals are killed on the spot or the consumption of animals that we in the west don’t consume, such as bats or snakes or dogs, when in reality, industrial agriculture in the West, especially in the United States, is a festering ground for disease and pathogens and viruses, not just the way that they enter our body through food consumption, but the way that the waste is dumped in our communities. And I think it’s well past time that we begin to think about what the effect is of industrial agriculture in creating antibiotic resistant bacteria, and in introducing new viruses and pathogens into the human species.
So the main point, the overarching point of this episode for me is that wherever you fall on the political or ideological spectrum, however you think these competing values should be balanced and navigated and calibrated in a time of what obviously is a true crisis, which is the coronavirus pandemic, I think it is absolutely imperative that we work to ensure that not just ourselves, but our fellow citizens have the ability to question orthodoxies and to ask what the long term ramifications are or even the mid-term, the ramifications are of a lot of these measures.
We’ve already seen social media sites like Facebook and Google and Twitter prohibiting certain arguments from being made on the grounds that they’re unscientific and there’s a part of all of us, certainly me, that is relieved when it’s applied to the president of Brazil, or influential evangelical pastors can encourage people to go believe that there is a cure or to go gather in large crowds. But there’s another part of me that makes me very wary of vesting Silicon Valley tech companies with the control to manage our discourse, to regulate what isn’t isn’t being permitted to be expressed, even if they’re clinging to scientific consensus when doing so. Because as we’ve seen over and over, consensus from experts of all types so often is wrong.
And this debate that we are going to have and need to have can only happen if we’re all dedicated to ensuring that it can happen. So I constructed this episode and chose the guests that I chose to speak to with the goal of ensuring this kind of debate being fostered. And I hope that it contributes to everybody thinking a little bit more deeply and a little bit more insightfully. I know each of these guests helped me to do that, and I hope that they help you to do that as well. So enjoy the new episode.
Guest: Edward Snowden
Glenn Greenwald: So I have a special guest to join me to explore these issues. NSA whistleblower, the president of the Press Freedom Group, Freedom of the Press Foundation, on whose board I also sit, the president of the board of directors of that group and the author last year of a book about surveillance called Permanent Record. Welcome to System Update, Edward Snowden, thanks so much for taking the time to talk me.
Edward Snowden: It’s good to be with you, Glenn. Thanks for having me on.
Glenn Greenwald: Yeah. If memory serves, I think we’ve talked once or twice before, but I’m delighted to talk again. So the reason why I decided to focus this episode on these questions of civil liberties and investing the state with authority vs. the individual liberties and civil liberties that we cherish is because I know for myself, once, in a visceral way, I started appreciating how dangerous this pandemic truly was — how lethal this virus was, how easily it spreads, I found myself for the first couple of weeks kind of almost instinctively relinquishing my general defense of, and clinging to, civil liberties and almost wanting the government to seize authorities that prior to this I would never have dreamed about supporting. And I realized that our psyches are constructed in a way that when the first-order survival need is imperiled, we’re very easily manipulated – or even not necessarily manipulated – but we’re very easily persuaded – that we ought to give up a lot of civil liberties. It was only after a couple of weeks when that started alarming me did I start trying to calibrate for myself, how that balance should be maintained.
So I’m curious, just on a kind of general level, when you have a global pandemic of this kind, what is your view about the proper balance between civil liberties and individual rights, on the one hand, and investing governments with added authorities on the other.
Edward Snowden: I think when you were getting into the question, the most important point was there: that you yourself, who have been, you know, for years, a pretty strident critic of the spread of authoritarianism, the rise of unlimited executive privileges and authorities in country after country, even you go, hey, you know, I’m worried about this, maybe they can track the virus better if they start doing this stuff or the other. As long as we stop this thing, this crazy, inhuman thing, it’s worth it. And even if, you know, a moment of reflection, you catch your breath, a week goes by, three weeks go by, the headlines don’t have as much sting, you start to adjust to the new normal, lean back and think about it in a more considered way. On reflection, and you start to go, well, you know, maybe, maybe I was a little bit rash there. Recognize that, as somebody who has like a self-identity as a critic of governments, but you’re still very much ahead of the curve. And this is, I think, the most teachable moment from the current pandemic, something that we so often forget, whenever there is a crisis in any corner of the world that begins reshaping laws and reshaping societies and the boundaries of our rights that we live in and defend and over time try to expand. And that is that human emotion is itself viral. This is one of the basic principles for the Internet and social media. You know, they’ve done studies on this and they’ve seen the emotions that have the largest contagion are anger and fear, right? And what we are seeing is we’re seeing hysteria spread. And remember, fear can be rational. This is a serious problem. This virus is a serious threat to public health and well-being and safety. And we should do what we can to mitigate it. But what we’ve seen is a panic sweep across the entire world. The political class, the media class, the sort of commentariat. And you can see it on the Internet. You know, there’s one group of people who are trying to bury any suggestion that this is serious at all, absolute denialism of any facts and evidence that there could be some danger to this, that we should put economic limits in place, whatever. And then the other side of this that says this is the end of everything we’re all going to die, everyone is gonna get this. And, you know, it’s just you may kiss your relatives goodbye cause you’re never going to see them again.
And the reality, of course, is it is more complex. It’s somewhere in the middle. But that moment of intense, instantly transmissible fear is what happened to us in 9/11. It’s what happens to us in the lead up to every war. It’s what happens to us, whenever the government is trying to start a campaign to gather new authorities, they say, you know, we’re gonna protect you from roving gangs, we’re going to protect the children, we’re gonna do whatever we can. And that moment, that window of vulnerability, where rationality goes out of the window, goes out of the room, we are all susceptible to it.
And that is what we are seeing now. We are only now beginning to get our feet under us. And in the time that we now take a breath and start looking at what’s happened, we see governments around the world, in country after country have already begun helping themselves.
So, for example, the mass movements of everyone everywhere to the maximum extent of their capability, which they say is for tracking the spread of the virus. But all of the questions that, you know, in a more considered time, we would have looked at like, one, does this work? Is it effective? And if it is effective, is it worth the cost that we’re paying? And how will we make sure that this is not permanent? This is not the kind of emergency measure that we got, you know, 20 years ago now after September 11th, that never ended.
Glenn Greenwald: Mm-Hmm. Let me let me stop you there for a second if I could, on this, this comparison between the aftermath of 9/11 and the fear mongering that was successfully exploited to do things like introduce the Patriot Act with almost no dissent and then ultimately a 19 year war in Afghanistan and invasion of Iraq, powers of detention without due process, creating prisons in the middle of islands. Things that had previously been unimaginable that were justified in the name of terrorism.
I know the civil liberties community, including myself, spent along a lot of time arguing, not necessarily that measures of that sort are never justified, but that they are not just – maybe some of those measures are never justified, like imprisoning people without charges – but that a lot of the argument was about the nature and the magnitude of the threat, that the threat itself was being exaggerated, because 3000 people died, horrible deaths, but in a country of 270 million people at the time, with the great difficulty of pulling something off like that again, it did seem like the cost-benefit analysis had gone way off track, in favor of nothing but fear without any kind of calculation.
Here, even though in the U.S., for example, we’re nowhere near the peak of the pandemic. Far more have already died from this virus than have died, than died on 9/11 – to say nothing of the death totals all around the world.
So does that work into your calculation at all, the idea that if we don’t take steps that we might otherwise be very resistant to the death total itself is going to completely dwarf 9/11, rendering that comparison a little bit invalid?
Edward Snowden: Well, no, we… Everyone looks at these things and considers emergency measures, right? It’s natural and it’s appropriate in the context of human experience: when you have for a short time in a short period, a level of sacrifice that needs to be made for the good of the individual, for the good of the community, for the good of society. Right, think about, you know, you’re on a raft in the middle of the ocean. You don’t drink all your water on the first day, even though you might be thirsty. The thing that I have a problem with is that we see, for example, in the economic context of what we have going on right now, we have a history, at least in American society, but I think really global society, when we look at the last half century, of repeatedly asking sacrifices of those who have the least capability to make those sacrifices.
Everybody is freaking out about the economic crisis that has been provoked by the fact that we’re all at home, we’re all shut-in, we’re socially distancing, we’re engaged in trying to flatten the curve of infections, right? Just the logarithmic curve for those who aren’t following around, where the virus rates of infection keep doubling and doubling, doubling, doubling will overload the hospitals, right? So we’re trying to insert a breather by sending everybody home going, you’re not going to see anybody, therefore, you’re not going to transmit anything, and this will take the heat off the hospitals.
And again, this can make sense. And I think it does make sense. The real problem that we’re about to run into next is when they have to let everybody out and then infection rate begins to rise again. And there was a study that just came out of, I think, the Chan School of Public Health from Harvard, where they were saying this system of pumping the brakes, or of intermittent quarantine, where they sent everyone home and then they we let them out and then they sent every home and let them out will actually continue into next year. And if we don’t, that’s in the best case, actually.
Glenn Greenwald: Yeah.
But Ed, let me let me ask you about that, though, because that’s, I mean, that’s a really momentous thing to say, right? That, okay, social distancing works. Isolation works. It’s something that’s necessary not to protect each individual, so each individual can decide to take the risk. Because the reality is, if you don’t socially distance, if you go out on the street, you’re endangering not only yourself, but you could overload the entire health care system, which prevents other people who need medical attention from getting it. So it’s a collective and a societal interest as well. So you incurred social distancing and then a lot of people do it, but a lot of people don’t.
Does it then become justifiable to support powers of coercive quarantine? I mean, one of the most draconian powers you can invest in a government, to bar people from leaving their own homes, arresting them if they do. Where do you fall on that spectrum of the kinds of measures, not that we ought to just encourage people voluntarily to follow, but that we ought to empower the state to compel and enforce?
Edward Snowden: Well, I think this depends on your personal perspective and philosophy as to what the role of government is and where those lines are drawn. For myself, I actually don’t think the government should have the mandatory authorities say, look, nobody goes out, you can’t leave, you can’t do this, that or the other. But that’s also… Part of the reason that I feel that way is that I don’t believe it’s actually necessary. I believe the government makes recommendations and we have the kind of public education that’s of a quality that can convince people and persuade them rationally that they should limit the amount of time that they spend outside, that they spend in crowds, you know, that they’re in basically zones of potential infection and transmission, they will make the right decisions themselves.
This actually gets into the contact tracing thing that we talk about as well. Is it better for the government just to, you know, break out the jackboots and the batons and go, look, nobody is out of their house or it’s off to the paddy wagon? Alternately, do you tell people, look, this is dangerous to you, it’s dangerous to your family. This is a global pandemic. You can reduce the risk to yourself, your community, if you follow this kind of recommendation. And here’s why we make these recommendations. Here’s the basis for it, here are the facts. Here’s the best of our evidence and our science. I think most people go along with it. This is similar to the idea of contact tracing.
Glenn Greenwald: So let’s just let me, let’s stop there for a second, because I want to do something that in a million years never thought they was going to do, which is make a pro-surveillance case. Not necessarily because I believe in this case, but because I think that it’s far more plausible than it was, say, three months ago, and I’m interested in your thoughts on it.
So we’ve seen in the first three months of this pandemic or so, starting in December in Wuhan, a wide, very wide array of responses from different countries. So on the one hand, you have what would you could say is like the most repressive means of dealing with the pandemic, which is what we saw in China and probably Singapore, which are authoritarian countries to begin with, that used a lot of brute force of literally dragging people out of their homes when there were fevers detected or other indicia of the virus and forcibly quarantining them in essentially prison hospitals.
Then you have kind of on the other spectrum Western democracies where individual liberty is more valued, where people are much more defiant of even suggestive government messaging, let alone compulsory ones like in in Western Europe, where the virus has really ravaged places like Spain and Italy and is now doing the same in the U.K. and France.
And so the kind of middle ground model that a lot of people have held up as a country that avoided the harshest repression of China, but handled it much better than Western Europe is South Korea, which relied heavily on the kind of electronic surveillance that you and I spent a lot of years advocating against in order to do things like contact tracing and find where people who had the virus interacted with other people in order to then remove them from the population or quarantine them or reward them.
And although it’s unclear how every country is doing, because these official counts are not very reliable, it does seem clear that South Korea did a better job than most countries, if not all countries, in managing the initial outbreak by using electronic surveillance. Does that make you, Edward Snowden, more receptive to the idea that perhaps we ought to allow states, governments, a little bit more leeway, a little bit more authority on a temporary basis, if that such a thing exists, to use that kind of surveillance data with the noble goal of trying to get this pandemic under control without having to use more repressive measures like we saw in Singapore, in China.
Edward Snowden: Nice try. I would say, look, there’s a lot of presumption in the sort of example on the question there. One of them is that South Korea relied heavily on this. It is true that they did sort of embrace quickly in these kind of location tracking measures. It is not clear how much it helped. It is actually, it could be argued, that South Korea’s case is exceptional for a number of ways, one of which the largest spread came from a very specific region because it was a religious community that was very tightly knit and it was spreading through them. They were in a local region and then you could look at that.
There is also the distinction between Asian cultures, the in-group versus outgroup importance.So what you see when you look at like a Japan or a South Korea are countries that already have a culture of whenever someone gets a cold, they put a flu mask on. I lived in Japan. I saw this, right? And that’s without a pandemic.
They also remember the SARS pandemic and they made preparations in response to it. So I would say actually what you saw was South Korea doing an across the board push to grasp at any capabilities that they had, applying them to the maximum extent that they could, and that – this is crucial – the public listened to expert recommendations that were coming from health authorities. They made some voluntary individual, took voluntary individual actions like mask wearing, hand sanitizing, things like that that could limit the transmissibility and infectiousness of it. And what we see is that collective voluntary action can be very effective.
Now, when we look at the counterexample that you have here of an authoritarian society of China, we go, well, what if South Korea took a Chinese example here? Would they have been more effective in halting the spread of the virus if they had just welded people into their homes, right? If they had changed people’s doors, turned off the elevators, you know, blocked the stairways, set up cameras outside the homes, you know, said people can’t leave without a special pass from the government, all of these things, it’s not clear that that would have been more effective. In fact, I think there’s a very strong argument that it actually would have been worse.
When you look at the example of China, we need to understand that given the Chinese Communist Party and their, shall we say, tenuous relationship with factual reporting, it is very possible that the response to the pandemic and the manner in which it was taken in China caused more harm than what would have happened in a South Korean style response. We have direct, documented cases where they chain the doors to people’s house. They wouldn’t allow them to go home from the hospital. And they had dependents at home. Children with disabilities and things like that who literally starved to death in the absence of their caretakers.
Now, putting all of that on the table, acknowledging that, is there a case where some surveillance can be useful? Obviously, yes. I mean, look, I signed up to work for the CIA and the NSA. I know surveillance can be effective and can be useful.
Glenn Greenwald: And just to remind people, one of the arguments both you and I made during the height of the controversy triggered by your whistleblowing, was not that the case that was being made that caused you to come forward was in wholesale opposition to surveillance, quite the country. You were in favor of targeted surveillance with safeguards against people for whom a court had decided there was evidence that they were engaged in terrorist acts or other dangerous acts, right? You’re not against such warrants or wiretaps approved by a court. What you were opposed to was mass surveillance abuse without any constraints or safeguards.
So that kind of leads me into that question brought into this context, which is, and you were getting to this and I just want to remind people of what your prior posture was and mine to apply it here, which: is is there a framework of targeted, limited, controlled, responsible surveillance that you could get behind if done with the proper motives and under the right conditions, with the right safeguards?
Edward Snowden: I think what people are presuming here – and this was the presumption of the question put me before – is the idea that this is a choice between mass surveillance or just a completely uncontrolled spread of an infectious virus that can cause serious disease. And I don’t think that’s accurate. In fact, I know that is inaccurate. I mean, you know, I know a little something about how surveillance works here.
What we are being asked is to accept involuntary mass surveillance in a way that has never been done before at this scale. In the context of a real crisis, they go, look, we’re just gonna do this, the data already exists. Phone companies, we’re going to apply it to sort of a new use case. We’re going to take this surveillance infrastructure that exists, but or rather, we’re going to take this communications infrastructure that was not designed for surveillance – or rather, it’s told to us that would not be used or abused for surveillance – now we’re going to use it for precisely that, but for a really good reason.
Now, they say that this is necessary. They say that there is no alternative. They say that if you want to save lives, you have to do this. But that’s not true. Again, the question here is between the involuntary surveillance of everyone that has been carrying a phone over the last however many weeks, or months, or years that they want to look back to. Because remember, these records of your movements of your phone, at least by AT&T in the United States, are reported to go back to 2008. Everywhere your phone has traveled since 2008, they know that there’s no laws regulating how long they can retain this information, in large part in the United States.
Now, imagine an alternate. You go to th e hospital, you are diagnosed with an infection and the doctor goes, it would be really helpful for you to be able to voluntarily share the movements of your phone.
So you go in with your app, you show them, “oh, hey, I was sitting next to a guy who I don’t know who they are, but you just said they were infected”. You now get priority access to this kind of testing. You can get priority access to treatment because it is clear that you have potentially been exposed. And none of this requires privacy sacrifices. None of this requires any sort of involuntary or intrusive violation of rights.
And the funny thing is these capabilities are not difficult to create. This platform could have been slapped together in four days by a bunch of university researchers working together, if they had had the kind of funding in the mandate and the support.
Glenn Greenwald: So let me let me let me ask this, because I think this, I think – and this leads to to what I had intended to be the last question – which is a lot of your answers are predicated on the desirability not of government coercion, but a voluntary conduct that is not only in the individual’s enlightened self-interest, but in the interest as well of society, which in turn means that there’s a flow of information that’s accurate and reliable and trustworthy, that people put their faith and confidence in, as kind of a reliable font of authority for them to form their understanding about how the pandemic functions.
And maybe, not sure, but I suspect it’s the case that there are countries in which there is faith in some kind of centralized authority, whether it’s scientists or the government or media outlets that they trust to get this information, and it can be effective. But in other countries, certainly in the U.S. and it’s true in here in Brazil and it’s definitely true throughout Western Europe, there’s a collapse of trade trust in these institutions of authority where people aren’t sure anymore what to believe.
And so, for example, here in Brazil, one of the things we have is on the one hand, you have a lot of scientists, you have the big media outlets disseminating what is the scientific consensus throughout the West and in Asia about how the pandemic functions, about the need for social distancing and isolation, about the threat and lethality of this virus. But then on the other hand, you have a lot of power centers, including the president of the country, his family, his media outlets, his followers, evangelical pastors, saying entirely inaccurate things, just scientifically false claims about there’s no need to socially isolate, there’s no need to socially distance, the threat of the economic harm is much greater than the threat of this virus that only k ills people above 70 if you’re already sick.
And what has happened is companies like Facebook and Twitter and Google that control our discourse online have started censoring and deleting messages from the president of Brazil, high level officials – the same thing happen in Venezuela – on the ground that they’re disseminating information that is contrary to the scientific consensus. So on the one hand, your solutions of voluntary conduct need and depend upon the citizenry being persuaded about basic scientific facts and what’s in their own interests, which in turn means that they can’t be misled or deceived into doing things that are irrational. On the other hand, there are dangers, I think, to having companies like Facebook and Google and Twitter control our discourse to the point of even censoring the messaging that comes from democratically elected leaders as unhinged and extremist and authoritarian as they may be.
So if your solution, your vision for how this can best be calibrated relies on an informed citizenry, does that make you more amenable to having these tech companies exert a little bit more control, while we’re in this crisis, over people’s ability to deceive people with misinformation or even falsehoods and lies?
Edward Snowde: When we, when you ask this question, look, you know, am I comfortable with Facebook and, you know, Google, YouTube, whoever, but it’s like for properties that basically run the world today. Jeff Bezos decides what you can and can’t buy an Amazon. You know, Facebook decides what you can and can’t post on social media. You know, Jack Dorsey or whatever gets dragged into this and has to be the politics police. Is that correct? Because some people abuse their authority. And no, I don’t think the solution to the abuse of authority is to create more platforms for the abuse of authority. I don’t believe making Mark Zuckerberg the central authority for the things that can and cannot be said is an improvement on the situation.
What we are seeing in exactly the situation that you describe with Bolsonaro, with Donald Trump, with all of these people denying basic facts is intentional. It’s not a mistake. It is a sustained campaign that’s been running for more than a decade now to reduce trust in some of the most important institutions, when we’re talking about expert understanding of complex, nuanced subjects, because the facts are not in their favor. This is a political struggle for influence. And when the facts are against them, they go, well, why don’t we undermine the facts? This is centrally, in my mind, an abuse of authority.
It is their platform, their trust from their voters who believe that they will do what’s best for these voters and they go and use it for, you know, callous and self-interested political ends to improve their own lot in the next election, right? But I think what we are seeing as a result of this is we’re seeing more harm from the abuse of authority than we are suffering from a lack of authority.
The government today in basically any country you point to, is more powerful than it has ever been in any moment in human history. And all of these institutions, all of these different political parties in all of these different cultures, all of these different languages are now coming to their people simultaneously around the world going: “well, the problem, see, is we don’t have enough power”. That’s not persuasive to me. And I think what we see right now, in fact, is that this is the turning of an age. This pandemic, I believe, which is a serious problem, don’t mistake me as downplaying the severity of this. What we are seeing is it is revealing structural flaws, not just in our system of government, but in the System, broadly, capitalized, proper noun.
There is an idea that governments, you know, going back hundreds of years exist only for certain reasons. The government is there to provide a basic level of security. You know, this idea of a sense of order, economic well-being, right? It is providing for individuals, for people that they cannot provide for themselves. And what we are seeing in places like the United States and around the world is, in fact, these are the very governments that have unbalanced the system economically, that have engaged in the kind of aggressive wars, endless wars under the Bush and Cheney administration that then were underwritten by the Obama administration, now adopted by the Trump administration, wars without end. Sort of taking a pet crime like terrorism, which is a serious crime, but it is still a crime nonetheless, and now making it a matter of state, right? We are elevating criminals to the levels of equal sovereigns, right? ISIS is being treated like it’s a nation, as opposed to very large organized crime syndicate.
And when you look at the fact that they’re not maintaining a sense of order, in fact, our countries are becoming more fractious and divided. They’re not providing the security that we’re being asked where they’re not being good stewards of the public’s health, the public’s economy or crucially, the public’s rights, which I think is really what we should be saying. People have trouble with guaranteeing themselves at that scale, right? Justice. Can you say the governments today are doing a good job ensuring sort of uniform access to justice?
You wrote an entire book, and the United States, or about the U.S. justice system’s, unequal access to justice. I think was called liberty and justice for some. That’s a free plug for the audience there.
Glenn Greenwald: We won’t be editing that part out.
Edward Snowden: Yeah. Yeah. Now, the idea here is when when you look at these things broadly and you look at all of these governments panicking, what has begun now is a race between governments to entrench their power to rentrench the system that has failed us and is continuing to fail us. And that in a very real way for people who are dependent upon it economically, and now medically, it has betrayed us. And a race has begun between all of the crises that this system has produced that are now working to persuade people that maybe the system needs to be replaced and the people who are benefiting from those systems to hold it in place.
And I think this is the unanswered question of where this is going to go. But this story of the next 100 years or more is going to be has the system that has served us to this point, is it under our control politically, publicly, ideologically? Is it serving our needs? And is the problem simply that it doesn’t ha ve enough power? We need to move closer to sort of this Chinese model of unlimited authoritarian demands in response to emerging crises? Or do we need to actually look for something that’s got a little less authority that is available for abuse?
Crises are always exploited by political actors to gain authorities that would otherwise be forbidden to them. And we can understand as people who are impacted by these policies that there can be benefits. But at the point these policies are being sought, these benefits are theoretical. Often there is no evidence for them and they may never materialize. But the consequences of granting these authorities are inevitable. There has never been a moment in history where we have created what is being stood up today, a system where a government, any government, can know the location of every person at every time. This is the architecture of repression. They’re saying they’re not turning it on. They’re saying they’re not using it for, you know, marching people off to camps. And right now, I believe them.
But do you want a government that at any moment can round up people of any political persuasion, of people who clicked on this link, of people who were at this place at that time? And you know, even if they say it’s anonymous data, right. We don’t know these people, we’re just looking at the movements of the population broadly, not an individual scale. We want to see who’s breaking quarantine. And they go, well, look, there’s 30 people congregating in park who shouldn’t be there. Maybe it’s a religious group. Maybe it’s a political group. And you know what? That capability will exist in three months, in three years and in 30 years if we allow it to be implemented today.
Glenn Greenwald: Yeah, I think I think that’s the key point. And exactly for that reason, you know, I think a lot of us have had a good few weeks of this kind of first thinking about our own health and our own safety and that of our families, kind of trying to get a hold on what this pandemic is and what the basic scientific facts of it are and the political facts of it are. And now it’s definitely time to start questioning in a serious way everything that’s being proposed in the name of curbing it, of limiting it and stopping it. And that, more than anything, is the reason why I wanted to talk to you, because I knew you you would be one of the ideal people to start raising these questions in an rationally and compelling way. So I’m super glad that we got to take some time and talk about this. And I have a feeling that it’s going to take more than just one conversation to sound the alarm about the need to be vigilant that your rational fears aren’t exploited for ends other than what people are claiming they’re being exploited for.
Edward Snowden: Oh, yeah. Just for anybody out there who’s listening right now, who’s struggling, because this has been not a good few weeks. This has been a very difficult few weeks for everyone, really, everywhere.
It’s not wrong, it’s not weird to be scared. I have family members who have lost their jobs. I think everybody has. We are in a vulnerable position and we are being made to depend on a system that we do not really understand and do not have that much control over.
Ask yourself why, for decades, you have been asked to give more and more. And when a moment of crisis comes and Congress starts throwing money around, we are getting the smallest portion of the resources. And then think about now the only thing that we have left, our rights, our ideals, our values as people. That’s what they’re coming for now. That’s what they’re asking us to give up. That’s what they’re asking to change. And remember that from a perspective of a free society. A virus is a serious problem, it is harmful. But the destruction of our rights is fatal. That’s permanent.
Glenn Greenwald: Yeah, and it takes work to think about the second, whereas our survival instincts very easily let us think about the first and that’s where the imbalance can arise.
Ed, thank you so much for this discussion. I think it was extremely illuminating. I think it was the right moment to have it. And I really appreciate your taking the time to talk.
Edward Snowden: Thank you. Stay free.
Guest: Andray Domise
Glenn Greenwald: So I’m delighted to welcome to System Update Andray Domise, who is, among other things, a contributing editor at the Canadian newsmagazine Maclean’s, as well as a writer and activist who focuses on a broad array of civil liberties issues concerning protest movements, state authority and the like. And he’s here to help us explore some of what I think are the overlooked aspects of the pandemic and the state’s response to them.
So just to provide the context for what has brought us here, this is not the first time we’ve spoken in the last week. It’s actually the second. The first came about because you had emailed me to say that you were working on an essay for Maclean’s about what you called some thorny issues concerning this pandemic that you thought weren’t getting sufficient attention, and you had identified for me in the email a couple of them, including the fact that we’re all kind of living our lives digitally and therefore turning over huge amounts of information – more than we ever did before – to companies that may or may not be trustworthy, and also some of the kind of sociological or political implications that are likely to endure even once this pandemic ends.
And I actually was happy to talk to you because I hadn’t given much thought to any of those topics. And I think we’ve both found that the conversation was thought provoking for each of us and agreed that we would do it in this format as well.
So let me begin by asking you, what are the kind of two or three thorny issues that you think aren’t getting the attention they deserve with regard to this?
Andray Domise: So one of the things that stood out to me immediately was that when we when governments began shrinking the acceptable number of people that can congregate in one place for obvious reasons – the more people congregated in one place, the easier it is for the disease to spread, you’re creating a disease vector. So for very obvious reasons, there’s been restrictions on civil liberties and the ability to organize in one place. The problem with that, though, is that as we’ve always seen in the past, governments tend to veer towards overreach. So, for example, when the Canadian government, or rather the other liberal government in power in Canada right now, was trying to put together a package for the covid-19 relief response, one of the provisions that ended up in a draft of the bill that they were putting together, but didn’t make it through the final vote, was that they were going to concentrate the power of spending and taxation within one Federal Cabinet. That is, the Ministry of Finance. So essentially one minister, Bill Morneau, would have the ability to direct spending and taxation for the entire country, but it wouldn’t be subject to parliamentary assent. So if there are no opposition members inside of that cabinet, then essentially the Liberals can just pass, you know, unilateral spending and taxation measures, which is a huge problem. Now, had that gone through with the final vote and if people decided that they wanted to organize a mass protest against that ability, well, it would be technically illegal. And this is what always happens when there is a disaster scenario that the government begins its campaign overreach, that private companies start licking their chops and figuring ‘ok, where can we make money off of all this’ and the ability of the average citizen, your average human being who doesn’t pay attention to this stuff for a living, may be affected by it, is having trouble covering rent or having trouble covering their mortgages, seeing work hours cut and so forth, they they get the entire blowback of that, like all of the economic fallout falls on their shoulders. But they have no ability to resist that. So that’s that’s kind of what raised the hair on the back of my neck.
Glenn Greenwald: So one of the points you raised and had asked me about was something that I really hadn’t given any thought to before, and then once you described it really started alarming me and I thought about it a lot since and wanted to talk about it more with you here, which was this idea that we have on the one hand, states that are obviously acquiring more power than they ever had before in in a lot of instances, power that a lot of us never would have dreamed of acquiescing to, and yet are now, if not comfortable with at least seeing the validity of them acquiring on the short term. And then you also simultaneously have large, powerful corporations that are becoming even more powerful as a result of competitors going out of business. And the big giants that are going to remain standing like Amazon and Facebook and Google and others in the supply chain are going to be more powerful than ever.
So you have this increase in power on the one hand of both public and private power centers.
But then on the other hand, and this is the point that you had raised and I think that I’m really interested to hear your thoughts on it more is while that’s happening, not only are we not really being very concerned about it, because we kind of have this obsession by instinct where this first order, concern of survival, so it’s harder to think about these kind of second order considerations like civil liberties and individual freedom, and I know I had that challenge when I was doing the Snowden reporting, you had to you get people who are scared of having their children blow up in a terrorist attack to care about the government reading their emails? But here it’s even more acute right, because the fear seems even more tangible.
But beyond that kind of standard ability for governments to demagog based on fear, we’re all by necessity physically separated from one another. We’re all, I’m not able to go fight to Montreal or or Toronto and meet with you and meet with other Canadian activists because I’m confined to my house just like you are, we’re only able to interact digitally. And one of the things that you had raised was the implications for one of the few weapons that we as citizens have in the face of corporate or government overreach, which is the ability to protest. What is it that you see happening with regard to that critical weapon that we have as a result of these changes from the pandemic?
Andray Domise: There was the assistant manager at an Amazon warehouse named Christian Smalls, who raised several alarms and raised some workplace safety issues, said that he had gone to his bosses and spoken to people from Amazon HQ, that conditions in their warehouse were unsafe.
That people were able to get paid leave if they tested positive for covid-19. But if they hadn’t tested positive and decided to stay home because they didn’t want to risk infecting the workplace, well, then they would have unlimited unpaid time off, but they wouldn’t be paid for that. So obviously if you’re not paying people to come in, but their rents are still due they still have to eat, they still have to buy food, etc, well, they’re going to go into the workplace. So he’s saying that he was turning people away from the workplace and because he raised that alarm and gave an interview to the Jacobin magazine, he was sent home. And not only was he sent home, but Jay Carney, the former spokesman for the Obama administration, the former press secretary. Jay Carney writes a tweet to Bernie Sanders saying, ‘hey, I’m not sure if you know about the background of the situation’, but then he goes on to tell sort of Amazon HQ’s side of the story. So on the one hand, you have this one worker, you know, this like the one of the lowest people on the corporate ladder, that speaks up about safety conditions. And then on the other hand, you have Amazon’s senior V.P., former press secretary for the Obama administration, that’s basically singling him out and making him look like he was violating safety rules and that they sent him home for his own safety and the safety of his colleagues. So the ability for Amazon workers to stand up en masse and say, absolutely not, we’re not going to take these conditions, it makes it harder for them to collectively organize. But how can they collectively organize? How can they plan a mass walk? How can construction workers all leave the mass on site and start picketing? Well, they can’t do that because there are city bylaws now that are being adopted piecemeal, municipality by municipality saying that ‘hey, listen, if you want to collectively organize, you go ahead, but make sure that you stay at least six feet away from each other, or we’re gonna put you in jail and give you a $5000 fine’.
Glenn Greenwald: Well, what then? I mean, so there’s, there are increasingly legal constraints on our ability to gather in protest. But there are also health concerns, right? I mean, we are kind of confined to our house, not for invented, concocted, fabricated reasons, but for genuine medical ones. And, you know, I was thinking about this, you know, one of the reasons why the concerns you raised resonated with me is because here in Brazil, where the Bolsonaro government has been incredibly reckless and to the point of being sociopathic about its response to the pandemic in a way that has turned to even a lot of previous supporters of the government against the president, there have been these mass, what have been called protests, and what I kind of considered to be protests for a while. But the protests consist of people going to their windows, of the apartments and houses to which they’re confined, and picking up a pot and a spoon and banging on it. It creates a lot of noise, and it’s a pretty dramatic news story and it indicates a lot of discontent among the population. But it’s not very menacing, right? We’re kind of like caged animals, all separate from one another. And that’s the most that we can actually do.
And then on top of that, you know, I think that one of the things that our conversation made me realize is that not only are we physically segregated from one another, which prevents us from collectively resisting any kind of incursions into our liberties, like the examples that you just gave, even small Amazon strikes, that can be kind of pathologized or criminalized as a violation of public health. But even psychologically, you were kind of now being trained to regard one another as not as comrades or as people with whom we can join in order to fight against injustice, but as threats, right? As vectors and carriers of lethal disease. And I know that when people come near my house or come deliver something, you order, you know, you just, without wanting to, you see them as a danger that needs to be avoided rather than someone with whom you can create a connection or with whom you can collaborate.
And it just does start to seem like power centers are radically strengthening, while at the same time we’re becoming fractured, not just isolated, in terms of isolation physically, and not just in our psychological makeup to view one another as enemies. But even physically, right? We’re kind of like weakening in terms of our inability to do exercise, and we’re just kind of staying at home, which is kind of a metaphor for how we’re all weakening. And I just wonder what that imbalance is is going to entail for our future even once this pandemic is over.
Andray Domise: Well I was talking to my fiancee yesterday and she said it’s it’s funny, we’re now all becoming the humans of the future from that movie Wall-E. You know, we’re we’re all just like sort of like a digitally connected, we’re completely alienated from one another away, sort of like operate on these. Like, you know, our households are basically like those moving pods and we’re all just sitting around waiting for something to happen. The problem with the isolation and alienation part that you’re mentioning, that humans are social creatures. We’re not meant to live in isolation. So it’s becoming really difficult for me. I can’t visit some of my older relatives. And, you know, having to check up on them and make sure that they’re OK is one thing, but actually being able to see them, give them a hug and so forth, that that’s just part of my culture that I’m having a really hard time dealing with right now, that I can’t go see my grandmother, I can’t go see my great uncles and so on.
The other part is, as you mentioned, the comrades that we would normally collectively organize with, well, they’re now alienated from us because we’re all othered. All of us kind of see each other as a possible vector of disease. And this is, I mean, the implications of this are bad because not only do we have a hard time trusting each other under a imperialist, a capitalist system as it is, like we have a hard time trusting one another, that we’re not trying to just like get one over on our colleagues so that we can climb the ladder a little bit faster than anybody else. But now we can’t have in-person conversations. I can’t call up some people in the neighborhood and sit down and have a coffee with them or sit down over breakfast and talk about, hey, what do we do next? We can’t do that.
Everything is now mediated over to these digital platforms that we know have been collecting information on us. I don’t know that, you know, for example, like Skype or Google or anyone is interested in tuning in on our individual conversations. But the data that they pull from those conversations has been used against us in the sense that they use the information that they collect, for example, from self-driving cars to mediate the possibility of managing risk for insurance companies. You know, making sure that drivers are driving safe and slowing down and so forth. If I turn on my Google Maps while I’m driving, I keep track of how fast my vehicle is going. If I’m talking to you right now, there’s metadata flowing that shows that I’m having a conversation with Glenn Greenwald. Now, the problem is when the Trump administration, for example, reaches out to these social media companies, reaches out to these digital media communication companies and says, hey, we’d like to get a hold of the data from people’s phones, like from their mobile devices and from the software they’re using, to figure out how we can track the spread of this virus. I mean, sure, that that is a valid use for that data. I mean, we’ve seen, for example, in South Florida how groups of spring breakers get together. And the tracking of all of their cell phone data showed that as they congregated together in one beach and then spread apart, they themselves became disease vectors. That’s useful information. But then what other information can be pulled from that? If we decide, hang on a second, we’re not okay with these conditions anymore. And now we’re going to look at collectively organizing, what else can that data be used for? We don’t know that because we’re not told. The data that’s being collected on us, we’re not being told exactly what is being used for. That’s the part that worries me.
Glenn Greenwald: Yeah, you know, so I… There were a couple of books written in the last two years that I think are, while controversial, incredibly thought provoking, and in lots of ways valid, both by the British journalist Johann Hari. One was about addiction, the other one was about depression. And they essentially asked similar questions about each of those pathologies, which is the Internet when it was born, the promise of it was it was going to be this technology that was going to connect human beings in an unprecedented way. We’re all going to be connected to one another. We could talk to people around the world, right? You’re in Canada. I’m in Brazil. You and I can have a conversation and see each other as we do with ease. And actually, it’s free to do it over Skype and other services. So on the one hand, we are kind of more connected.
And then the question becomes, well, if that’s the case, if we’re all more connected than ever and in touch with one another and can explore the world, why in advanced Western democracies, where this technology is more available than anywhere else, are things like depression and addiction and suicide skyrocketing?
And he has a lot of complicated answers, including the fact that, you know, neoliberalism and capitalism has just stripped our communities and stripped our lives of the things we most need. But one of his principal answers was that this connectivity that the Internet provides is actually very partial. It’s very incomplete. The analogy that he makes is it’s like having sex through pornography. It performs some of the functions, but it deprives you of the vibrancy and the actual fulfillment on the deepest and most meaningful level. And that’s how he sees digital connectivity, that the more we interact with each other digitally, the more we’re deprived on a psychological and social level. And now that’s our lives. I mean, other than the people with whom I’m isolated, I don’t remember the last time I interacted with anybody in a non digital way.
So, you know, that has to have enduring psychological effects beyond just the trauma of having our lives upended in a very rapid, fundamental and unexpected way with very little warning. But I guess then the question becomes, this is what you and I spent some time talking about, I still don’t quite know the answer to it. Is how is it that we navigate and reconcile these concerns with the very real danger this pandemic poses, right, like for the war on terror and the debates that we had over fearmongering versus the erosion of civil liberties, for me, it was a little bit easy because to me it seemed clear that the threat of terrorism by Muslim extremist groups was radically exaggerated by states deliberately to put the population in unwarranted fear and in order to to to gain more power.
In this case, I don’t think it’s entirely unwarranted. I’m not going out unless I absolutely have to. And I don’t want my family members going out either, because I think the threat is very real. So what are you doing? What do you see as that proper approach to make sure that we’re not, on the one hand, being reckless with our own health and the health of the society, but on the other hand, not caving into you or capitulating to a kind of, you know, panic or fear mongering that that makes it excessive. Where does that balance?
Andray Domise: For me, the thing that I’ve felt found most helpful is to, you know, help out where needed in the neighborhood. Up until this past week, I was going out for grocery runs. And, you know, if there were people who were disabled, for example, that couldn’t leave their homes to go to the grocery stores, people who are immunocompromised, people who simply couldn’t afford food, etc, to go out and just buy things, just make oneself as useful as possible.
But because I have older relatives that I have to check up, check up on. Now, I can’t really take that risk anymore, so I’m just making donations. So I think like the best thing you can probably do right now is just to reach out to the people around you. You know, the people in your neighborhood, the community associations, the food banks, whoever, just like get to know who they are. Get to know their names. Ask how everyone’s doing if they’re okay, if there’s anything that you can do to help. And if you can help. Absolutely do.
I think that to your point about the sort of alienating effect that the Internet has is that it has also sort of pulled us out of our immediate communities so I can plug into the Internet and have a conversation with you all the way down to Brazil. And I’m in just outside of Toronto, Ontario, Canada. I can have this conversation with you, but if I don’t know who my next door neighbor is, if I don’t know if they need anything, if I don’t know the people on my block, that’s a bit of a problem. And that’s one of the things that the Internet has done, is sort of, I wouldn’t say it made it more difficult, but it’s made it a lot easier for us to connect to people that are not geographically close to us and alienated us from our immediate communities. But that’s the thing that we absolutely need right now, is to be closer to our immediate communities.
To your point on meeting these conversations through the Internet like this, you also have to keep in mind that when we’re having conversations, for example, like I’m on Twitter a lot, I’m heavy on the streets of Twitter, which is I mean, it’s part of it, stress relief. Part of it is like news-gathering and so forth. But you also have to keep in mind that Twitter is a platform that is designed to make money off of the ability to tell advertisers they can sell you things.
Hal Varian, who is Google’s chief economist, gave a speech back in 2010. He was the other Richard T. Ely Lecturer for the American Economics Association. And he talks about the wonderful possibilities that are available through computer mediated transactions. You know, aside from being able to facilitate new forms of contracts, being able to get more data, being able to analyze that data – because suddenly data becomes a valuable thing, data is now a goldmine – being able to personalize and customize services for for individual needs. But then there was one more thing that he added, which raised a lot of alarm bells and made it into a book by Dr. Shoshana Zuboff, the author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, and that is facilitate controlled experimentation that, you know, is social media platforms, digital platforms, possibly have the ability to alter human behavior. There are ways you can sort of tweak the way that we respond to things.
So on the one hand, you know, it’s great that we can get information very quickly. We can get accurate information quickly. We can make sure that we propagate accurate information quickly. At the same time, if you’re dumping your entire life into the online space, but you’re not out in the real world getting fresh air, talking to the human beings around you, then you subject yourself to those processes of experimentation and behavior modification.
Glenn Greenwald: Yeah. You know, it’s interesting because obviously there’s immense amounts of suffering in and, you know, not just physical and medical suffering, but economic suffering as a result of this pandemic. On the other hand, there is an aspect to it which I don’t want to call it positive, but I think it’s important to find some silver linings, which is in some sense it has forcibly simplified our lives. I mean, I know speaking for myself and it’s funny to hear you talking about just the kind of asphyxiating or claustrophobic feeling of isolation since we’re only in our second or third week, depending where we are. And we at least have, you know, another eight, or 12, 14 weeks or minimum.
Andray Domise: What I tell you, the honry post that I normally see posted after like 1 a.m. on Twitter are now reaching into the daytime timeline. That’s when I know we’re headed towards chaos.
Glenn Greenwald: Yeah. You see behavioral change taking place in very real time, and, you know, when I look at my own life and I mean, I notice, you know. For example, my husband is a congressman. He works half the time in Brasilia, flies home to Rio, so half the time he’s away out of the house. Because of my work, you know, I’m often traveling as well. Our kids go to school, they’re there for the whole day, they have people help take care of them. And yet, because of this isolation, you know, we haven’t gotten on a plane in three weeks and aren’t likely to for quite a while. We’re not going to be, you know, jetted to the other side of the world in a metal tube across time zones. We’re not getting into cars and frantically running away from each other. We’re spending more time with one another than we have in years. And although maybe five or 10 percent of the time, I actually want to, you know, murder them and suffocate them, in a lot of ways, it’s actually been kind of gratifying, this kind of simplification of our lives, this forced effort to say: have our lives become a little bit too modernized and therefore a little bit too fractured? Which explains the kind of social pathologies I was describing earlier regarding depression and suicide and addiction.
But on the other hand, you know, and this is what I’d like to just kind of to end our discussion by asking you with regard to the macro dangers of investing states with greater powers because of fear and then the impossibility, virtually, of wrestling that away from them, even though it’s intended to be temporary. Are we doing enough? I mean, do you think that we’re erring on the excessive side of fear and need to be resisting these apprehensions of government authority more, or do you consider that the states are more or less being rational and balanced in how they’re trying to manage this pandemic?
Andray Domise: I can’t answer the question as to whether states are being rational. I would assume that states are acting in the state’s interest. But behind the state are, you know, a coterie of people that manage the levers of the state. So the question is, are they being rational and are they being reasonable? Well, from the perspective of trying to mitigate a virus, a viral outbreak, I would assume that having people stay at home and not gathering together in large groups is a rational response. At the same time, look at what’s being passed in the meantime. What is happening in the meantime? So we see a gigantic bailout, for example, of American airline companies. We see that there are people that are going to fall through the cracks both in Canada and the United States, which is where I’ve been keeping up with the covid relief most closely, because of the trip wire of qualified income. There are a lot of people that are not going to be able to qualify for the relief. So in Canada, for example, if you were a gig worker or if you were self-employed and didn’t make very much money, if you basically are, like, on the bottom margins of society, you may not even qualify for the relief. In the United States, it’s easier for you to qualify, but there’s still the possibility that if you can’t show the qualifying income, you’re going to fall through.
So is there a rational and reasonable response? I would say so, probably, yes, in the sense that we’re made to stay home. But then what’s being passed in the meantime? Is it going to be adequate enough? Who is it helping the most? In Canada, for example, we just gave a gift to the oil extraction companies. And this has been a contentious issue in Canada for the last several years because we’re fighting to stop being a petrol state, we’re fighting to stop being an imperial disaster that commits genocide against indigenous peoples, that breaks land treaties, violates contracts, and runs roughshod over their rights to self-determination. Now, because we’re in the middle of a pandemic response, we’re looking at passing these measures and injecting cash into these companies at the very same time that we’re talking about trying to green our economy and shift away from a carbon based energy industry. So I don’t know the answer to that. What I do know, though, is that here’s what we’re looking at. Small businesses are suffering. A lot of small businesses are going to go away, right? So your local, your restaurants, your mom and pop shops, your corner stores and so on, those are going to suffer through this crisis. A lot of them are not going to make it. A lot of the landlords, even though they’ve gotten mortgage relief, if you don’t have tenants and nobody has the ability to raise money to buy a business and set up shop in one of the buildings that you own, then the price of real estate ends up going down. So once you’ve been able to scoop out sort of like alllike the all the lower tier businesses, but the larger businesses, companies like Amazon are not only making an influx of money because we’ve shunted our commercial activities to these online purchasers. So companies like Amazon, companies like Wal-Mart, but also companies like Costco are now being able to hire more people. Amazon is talking about hiring 100,000 more workers, hiring more people, but they’re going to be hiring people that are probably overqualified for their positions.
So you have this massive substrate of qualified and educated people that are taking jobs that are below their pay grade and below their education level. We’re all competing for this. You have this gigantic surfeit of labor. And when you have a gigantic surfeit of labor and fewer employers than the employers have the leverage in that conversation. So that’s the part I think that we need to watch out for, especially as we come out of the tail end of this pandemic, is, first of all, get to know the people in your community, but second, organize, organize, organize, make sure that you’re keeping your eye on the ability to, once we’re past this disaster, get a whole bunch of people together in the same place at the same time and say, absolutely not, we’re not going to take this. You know? Absolutely not, we’re not going to have like the Wal-Martification and the Amazonification of our local neighborhoods like, no, we’re going to support our small businesses. You know, no, we’re not going to have Amazon continue its union busting practices and fire employees who who raise safety hazard awareness. We’re just not going to tolerate that. So I think, like, coming out of this, that’s going to be the most important response, not just to pay attention to what our governments are doing, but also be able to… Because, I mean, at the end of it, there are really only three ways that you can create social and systemic change. One is to have the money to us, to have the guns and three is to have the people. Well, everyone’s going to be broke, so we’re not going to have the money. The government has all the guns. So all we have left are people,our ability to get to bring together masses of people. And that’s all that we’re gonna be able to rely on when we come out of the end of this is each other.
Glenn Greenwald: Yeah, unfortunately, right now we’re very fractured, we’re very afraid, and we’re not even able to leave our homes, except in limited cases and a lot of people are less able to do it than others. So it presents real challenges, especially since we don’t know how long we can continue to be the case for.
Andrey, let me take the opportunity to thank you very much. Not just for spending the time talking to me today, but also for reaching out to do that interview. It really spurned a lot of thought that I had kind of been avoiding. Just I think the instinct when something like this happens is you start in the first instance worrying about your own health and the health of your family. And we kind of have the responsibility, especially those of us with public platforms, to pay attention to these broader issues and to resist those kind of instinctive fears that we quite naturally have as part of our psyche. And the conversation that we had helped me do that. And I hope, and believe, that the one we just had will help others do that as well. So thanks very much.
Andray Domise: Thank you so much – alright, take care.
Guest: Cassie King
Glenn Greenwald: Joining me now to discuss a grossly overlooked aspect of the Corona virus pandemic, namely the relationship between lethal viruses and other diseases on the one hand, and the practices of industrial agriculture and factory farms on the other, is Cassie King, who is a very courageous and experienced investigator and activist with the animal-rights group Direct Action Everywhere. Cassie, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me.
Cassie King: Thank you so much for having me on and for discussing this issue.
Glenn Greenwald: Yeah, absolutely. Then I think it’s an issue that needs to be discussed because over the past few years, I do think the animal rights issue, the cause of animal rights has received a lot more attention than it did previously, a lot more support than it did previously.
Often it’s because of the ethical concerns over the systemic torture of animals, other times more recently, it’s because of the environmental impact of factory farms and industrial agriculture. But there’s also a very significant harm that comes to the public health from the practices of industrial culture. You’ve been inside numerous factory farms as part of your work with DxE, so talk if you could about what it is that you’ve seen and what it is that you’ve learned about the relationship between this industry and public health harms.
Cassie King: I think you’re definitely right that as these issues are getting closer to home because we’re experiencing the impacts of them in the environment, in public health, the public is paying more attention to what’s happening inside of animal agriculture facilities. And it just happens that what is best for these animals and the best conditions and the best way to live for them is also better for our public health concerns.Sickness and disease are absolutely the norm inside any facility that is exploiting animals for profit, which typically means confining them by the thousands , by the tens of thousands, in a way where they are exposed to one another’s, not just their own breath, not just breathing on each other constantly or trampling on each other constantly, but exposed to one another’s feces and urine.
And this makes them highly susceptible to both viral and bacterial infections. So what we should be talking about with this is an opportunity for us to elevate is zoonotic disease, which is the common tie here, that even the CDC has said that three out of four new emerging infectious diseases are coming from animals to people. And that’s what we’re looking at today. So I’m really grateful for the opportunity to talk about this, because I have seen, like you said, I’ve been investigating factory farms with Direct Action Everywhere for four years now, and I have seen these animals, and seen them sick, seen them panting and struggling to breathe right in front of me. I’ve been inside of pig farms in North Carolina in a DxE investigation of Smithfield, the largest pork producer in the world. I’ve seen mother pigs with these tennis ball sized abscesses on their bodies. And in many cases, they build up and the pressure builds up to the point that they pop. And so you see a lot of open abscesses as well and just pus and blood and all kinds of secretions mixing with the feces and urine in these facilities and creating the perfect breeding pot for future diseases like covid-19.
Glenn Greenwald: Yeah. You know, I think one of the things important that’s important to underscore is that you yourself have witnessed all of these conditions you’re describing firsthand through your work with the DxE of having gone into these facilities, filmed it without authorization, done a great public service by bringing attention to the practices taking place. There’s laws that have been passed, as a result of these industries control over lobbyists and the state legislatures in which they reside, to essentially criminalize the filming or people getting jobs with the intention of publicizing, called Ag-Gag Laws because they know that the practices that are there are so repulsive, morally, ethically, but also in terms of the public health that this industry can only survive if – much like the war machine or imperialism – if they hide the truth of what it is they’re really doing.
So I think it’s important to note, first of all, that you yourself have seen what you’re describing firsthand in these industries, in these factories. But also, you know, Corey Booker, who is a pretty controversial figure on the left in and in lots of circles, for a while, was a vegan. But he’s a really committed animal rights activist. And one of the points he makes is that the communities in which this waste is often being dumped is disproportionately affecting poor communities and racial minorities. That’s where these companies, these corporations dump all the sludge and all this waste and all this fecal matter that’s likely infected.
Beyond that, these are not animals being naturally raised in some organic setting. They’re being genetically altered and mutated to be enormous, to be incredibly unhealthy. We don’t even know what the ultimate effects are. And that’s really what interests me a lot, is there’s a lot of talk in the West about, in this very kind of judgment away about the animal consumption and agricultural practices in China. People consuming dogs or bats or snakes. There’s definitely been an uptick in that kind of discourse over the last three months because of the attempt to blame China for the coronavirus. How does that compare: what we think about China in terms of their unhygienic practices when it comes to animals, with what you’ve seen as part of these investigations with the U.S. or other Western countries, industrial agricultural practices?
Cassie King: I would ask anybody who is pointing the finger at these practices in China if they’ve been inside of a factory farm in the United States. Because if you’ve walked inside one of these places, and you’ve been hit in the face with this stench and looked around you and seen diarrhea everywhere. And in the midst of a moment in North Carolina just a few years ago, where porcine epidemic diarrhea virus was an endemic issue and the world was talking about it, at least in in the pork industry, quote unquote, and seen actual signs all around the facility like we did: “Warning: PEDV” (porcine epidemic diarrhea virus), “Warning”. You know, because that was a disease at that time that was going around pig farms in over 30 states in the US that was causing nearly a 100 percent fatality rate in piglets.
Because, you know, not to be too graphic, but what that causes, you can guess from the name, is just incredibly severe, watery diarrhea, which in turn leads to dehydration. And so in bigger pigs, you can lose that weight, they would just get sick. But in piglets, it was basically certain death.
And so farms in the United States were terrified of that entering their facilities. And that’s a major reason that farms practice biosecurity – or say that they do and encourage their employees to – but we actually consulted with veterinarians about the biosecurity measures that we take to get them approved and to always stay up to date on the latest research, and we take far more biosecurity precautions than what we’ve actually witnessed employees taking.
And so there’s this major threat, even at the time that it’s going around a few years ago, that it’s not actually it’s not actually changing what’s happening, that the answer to this question is not “what can we do to stop the root cause of these issues?” It’s just to blame others and to keep it out of the media spotlight.
And so in an issue or in a moment right now, with Covid-19, it’s on everyone’s mind, we see the same thing: it’s being called the Chinese virus. And it’s not you know, it’s about wet markets, it’s about bats, it’s about wild animals. But there’s so many infectious diseases throughout history where we could be talking about factory farms. I mean, swine flu, pandemic of 2009, all kinds of avian flus. There’s an avian flu right now, H5N1, that has a 60 percent fatality rate in human beings. And right now, it hasn’t mutated to be easily infectious to human beings. So there’ve been some cases in humans, but it’s not a full-blown pandemic, fortunately. But how long are we going to wait for that to happen? Because when we’re seeing enough destruction, as we are right now with Covid-19, which has a fatality rate in the single digits, how can we know which, experts do, that there is this other disease out there that has a 60 percent fatality rate in human beings that all we can do right now, and all we’re doing right now, is to try to prepare a vaccine for when that eventually might reach a pandemic state.
Glenn Greenwald: Yeah. You know, I think that one of the focal points of people’s thought process over the past three months is this pandemic. And the horrific reality of it has begun to some suckin altering all of our lives in radical and previously unthinkable ways is to begin to wonder what is it about our practices as a species, as a planet, as as this kind of advanced technological, modern society that is causing the earth to revolt in in in in ways that can be apocalyptic, whether it’s climate change, or the appearance of antibiotic resistant infections and bacteria, or pandemics of this type.
And we think a lot about flying in airplanes and dependency on fossil fuels, but clearly, the way that we’re consuming food and feeding a planet of over 7 billion people through mass industrial agriculture has nothing to do with family farms, let alone more organic, bucolic imagery of the kind this industry likes to promote is obviously something that has changed fundamentally in the way that we treat the planet, we treat our bodies, we treat the ecosystem. Obviously, if you’re a human being and you want to avoid that, one way is to simply refuse to eat meat, to eat products that are derived from animals, and only to eat food that comes from plants.
But for people who aren’t prepared to or interested in or willing to right now, at least to do that full vegan solution, what alternatives are there for people who want to avoid supporting an industry that has such devastating impacts on our communities and on our public health? Is it to look for more humane treatment of animals on the part of specific companies or genuinely organic food? Are there other kinds of food or ways of consuming? Food that is healthier? What do you have to say to people who are now concerned more so than ever before and want to alter their behavior but aren’t necessarily ready to go the full route of becoming vegans?
Cassie King: The fact is, there is so little information out there for people who want to make informed decisions when it comes to antibiotic usage, and the kinds of disease that are present in these factory farms. And to give you one specific example, in the North Carolina Smithfield investigation, we found entire rooms full of antibiotics, important drugs for human health, things that could be used to treat human meningitis, human malaria, all these other infections that humans can experience. And we also found the use of Carbadox, which is actually a known carcinogen. It’s a drug that’s been banned already in Australia, in Canada and in the entire European Union. And the FDA actually warns the public about it on their website. But if you read the FAQ, if you’re one of those concerned consumers who decides, “I don’t want Carbadox, this carcinogenic antibiotic being put into my body, how do I know what products to buy, how do I know what facilities not to buy from?” You can go to the FDA website and their FAQ to will tell you ‘we can’t actually tell you what facilities are using Carbadox, even though we advise against it’, because these companies aren’t required to report what antibiotics they use.
Glenn Greenwald: Yeah. Yeah. So I should say, you know, in the course of having done reporting on Smithfield in conjunction with DxE investigations and other animal rights groups, whistleblowers and the like, Smithfield insists that they use the most modern means of sanitary conditions and biosecurity and hygiene in their facilities. They have committed, at least by words and on paper, to introducing reforms of the kind mandated by the EU that’s not yet mandated in the U.S., in terms of giving animals more space, so they’re not necessarily right on top of each other.
But anyone can go and look at videos, not just of Smithfield, but of almost every single large industrial agriculture corporation and factory farm, and draw your own conclusions about whether the way in which animals are being caged and treated in order to feed huge numbers of people for profit is anything remotely approaching sanitary, natural, hygienic or healthy. And I do think that now that we’re in the middle of a pandemic, people are going to start paying a lot more attention to the relationship between this industry, which goes almost entirely unregulated, and not just the ethics of torturing animals or the deleterious effect on the environment and global warming, from deforestation for cattle and methane emissions from this industry, but also on the public health, on the kind of festering disease that exists in many of these these factory farms. .
Cassie King: Well, what we need to do is to pressure our government leaders to acknowledge this link, because experts, scientific experts, already have. The United Nations already has issued a report saying we have no time to wait, their report last year actually says that by the year 2050, antibiotic resistant pathogens are expected to kill 10 million people annually. And our government’s not even talking about it in any substantive way. And that’s a major failing in our response to this virus right now, because we’re doing nothing to prepare ourselves for the next one. Not only are we running out of masks and running out of supplies, we’re not thinking about the root cause and what needs to be done to address animal exploitation.
Glenn Greenwald: Yeah. So can you tell me thank you not only for taking the time to talk to me about this incredibly important matter, but also for your work and the work of your colleagues at DxE. A lot of you end up, including you, facing criminal prosecution and criminal charges for what the state regards as the crime of entering these facilities, either to rescue animals from these torturous conditions or simply to document what’s taking place in these corporations that are responsible for our food supply. So you’re doing incredibly courageous work. I know that you’ve faced criminal charges that I believe are continuing to face criminal charges. So thank you for that work. Keep up the great work. And thanks for taking the time to talk to me as well. I really appreciate it.
Cassie King: Thank you, Glenn. I’m facing eight felony charges here in California. Court is being delayed, so we’ll have to see what happens. But that’s certainly not going to stop us from continuing to expose, among other things, reovirus and other infections right here in California.
Glenn Greenwald: I have no doubt that it won’t. Thanks again, Cassie. Really appreciate it.
Cassie King: Thank you.