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Steve Braunias' Campaign Diary: Day 9

Sep 14, 2014 Politics


Photos: Don Rowe.


Election 2014, postcode Auckland 0793! To rural Coatesville, on a dark and stormy Sunday morning – a notice at the only store for miles asked if anyone had seen a householder’s rubbish bin which was blown away in the storm on Tuesday night. A bag of alarmingly large carrots cost $1.99. Another notice advertised a ram for sale. Yours for $50. A ram, or carrots? What was it going to be? So many questions, and more were scheduled around the bend from the store, behind the low stone wall, through the security gate where a security guard extinguished his cigarette butts in a jar of water, up the drive, beside the servant’s quarters, and inside the great big mansion occupied so famously and perhaps so desperately sadly by Herr Dotcom.

But mein host was not to be seen. He was said to be upstairs with his children. He was not the point of the visit; the invitation had come to meet his guest, Glenn Greenwald, the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who flew in on Friday and had already inspired Prime Minister John Key to memorably cut him down to size as “Dotcom’s little henchman”.

Good line! And it was true that Greenwald was small, and slight, and he trotted down the stairs on little soundless feet. Greenwald will appear at tomorrow night’s keenly anticipated Internet Party spectacular at the Auckland Town Hall.

The event is billed as the Big Reveal. Little henchmen, big reveals – and over yonder in the fields, the long neck of a giraffe. The life-size sculpture should have inspired awe, or delight. But it just looked kind of lame. There used to be a rhino sculpture, too, but it got blown over in a storm. Maybe it was in pieces in the rubbish bin that got blown over in a storm.

So much was missing. There wasn’t a single picture on the walls. There weren’t any flowers. The mansion felt deserted. It felt depressing, more like the lobby of a hotel than a home. There were rooms with drawn curtains. There were a lot of black leather chairs. A black chandelier. A black table. The carpet was black. No, wait, some colour! Tropical fish, in the amazing aquarium, in the kitchen. The aquarium was built into the wall over the stove. Strange to think of the fish waggling to and fro in the blue water while someone sizzled fillets in the pan.

Whose turn to make dinner? A staff list in the servant’s quarters listed two chefs, also two housekeepers, three security, and four nannies, including a woman called Lovely. On top of a stack of bills was a letter from the TSB Bank for Mrs M V Dotcom – Mona Dotcom, who had left the mansion, and the marriage, earlier this year. Broken home, cold to the touch.

In the absence of love, the home served a purpose. It was a kind of barracks, a military headquarters, a political hub for Dotcom’s Internet Party. In the rooms, factotums came and went, one or two ladies, mainly gents. They included two dudes sitting outside next to the heated pool. They were drinkin’ coffee, and smokin’ big cigars – and readin’ John Roughan’s pitiful biography of the Prime Minister. Weird. But what wasn’t weird? The invitation to meet Greenwald came from a party member whose function was listed thus: Special ops. Special ops!

And so to the interview with Greenwald around a big glass table. Also in attendance was Dotcom’s attorney, Ira P Rothken, who flew in from San Francisco. The two Americans in the employ or care of a vast German in an empty Gatsby-like mansion in Coatesville… Yes, kind of like really fucking strange, but the matter at hand was what Greenwald has to say, about secrets and lies.

Greenwald is the journalist who was given tens of thousands of classified documents hacked from the NSA computers by Edward Snowden. Much of the content relates to evidence of state surveillance; and Greenwald claims they contain proof that New Zealand, too, conducts secret spying on its own citizens. Key says this is a nonsense. Well, wait till even more is revealed tomorrow night at the Big Reveal, counters Greenwald.

But in the meantime, an exclusive interview with Steve Braunias’ Campaign Diary: Day 9.

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Have you been called a little henchman before?

No, this is a first. It’s kind of exciting! It’s not every day you get to arrive in a new country and find yourself in a public dispute with the Prime Minister less than 24 hours after you’ve arrived.

But usually when there’s been name calling and ad hominen attacks, most world leaders will have an underling do it rather than to do it themselves, simply for the sake of appearing statesmanlike and dignified. That doesn’t appear to be a concern to Prime Minister Key.

Did his comments take you by surprise?

I think the reason he’s become so aggressive, so unhinged really, in his attacks, is obvious. There’s six or seven days away from a national election. It makes perfect sense that he feels an urgency to attack the story that we’ve been working on. But the documents we have are very clear.

Well, name calling aside, Key has made an unusually long rebuttal to your claims. Normally he answers these kinds of accusations with a brief blandishment. This time he’s spoken at comparative length, and he’s said the government looked at the question of surveillance of New Zealanders, and decided against it.

They did a lot more than just look at it. This was much more than a mere proposal or a mere idea. It was something that was adopted and embraced at the highest levels of the New Zealand government, and affirmatively implemented.

If there are documents he can produce that show they changed their minds, and reversed themselves, and undid what our documents show they did, then I’d be very interested in seeing them.

You say you would be “very interested” to see those documents. Key says they will prove he is right and you are wrong.

No, because – I mean – even if they radically changed their minds and undid everything they did, that will never change the fact they implemented a programme of mass surveillance at exactly the same time they were publicly denying it.

It’s certainly possible that at the last minute the Prime Minister or somebody else said, ‘You know what, we’ve changed our minds, let’s undo all of the steps we’ve taken to implement these systems.’ But there’s certainly nothing in the NSA archives to suggest that anything like that ever happened.

Why would Key want a programme of mass surveillance on New Zealanders?

I’d assume for the same reason that every other government engages in mass surveillance – it invests extraordinary power in governments to know what your citizenry are doing. And there’s a lot of pressure from the other members of the Five Eyes alliance to engage in it as well.

Do you think this government stinks?

That’s for other people to decide.

Do you think it stinks?

I think their statements they were making about not engaging in mass surveillance were at best very misleading. Even the fact Prime Minister Key came out yesterday and acknowledged for the very first time that they were considering doing a programme of mass surveillance, after being so categorical that this new bill did not have the power to do, is pretty extraordinary in and of itself. The fact just of my being here and raising these issues forced that very significant admission.

You say “very misleading”. You mean he was lying, don’t you?

I think that the statements he made do qualify as lies. At the very same time he was making those claims about the GCSB bill, his government was making exactly the opposite claims in secrecy, namely that this bill does in fact provide exactly the power for them to engage in mass and indiscriminate surveillance.

So when you have something that contrary, between one’s public statements and one’s private statements, I do think there are very few other words, if there any other words, besides lying, that apply. It’s certainly very deceitful.

If, at the very last minute, they changed their minds suddenly, and undid everything they did, and took out the equipment that enables access to the south seas cables that New Zealanders use to communicate with the world, then I suppose one could describe that statement as highly misleading but not actually a lie.

He says he has documents that you don’t have.

I have all of the documents that my source has furnished me. I don’t have every single document that exists in the NSA archives.

Well, let’s call these documents cards. Consider this: Key is going to play a card you have not seen, and it will trump you.

I’m not here to play a game. I’m here to do journalism and to have the truth be disclosed to the public so they can make informed choices about the politicians they want in power. I’m here to report on what the documents I have reveal, as honestly as I can.

But Key says your documents are incomplete.

Well – I mean – you know – there’s always theoretically the possibility there’s some things you’re not aware of that exist. But my documents are very clear. And it’s very hard to imagine there being documents which negate these documents.

If what you are saying is correct, how was the surveillance actually conducted?

Through access, physical access, to the underwater cables that transmit the digital communications that New Zealanders transmit via the Internet. And then doing probes into the metadata.

Are we going to have our minds blown tomorrow night?

It depends what blows your mind. I consider conclusive evidence of a government doing and saying things in private that are the exact opposite of what they are doing and saying in public to be pretty mindblowing.

I suppose other people might be more cynical and might think, ‘This is just what politicians do, they mislead the public for their own purposes, they conceal their own behaviour, and I don’t consider it that mindblowing.’ But I consider the revelations very significant, which is why I travelled to New Zealand.

Is your stuff the big reveal as hyped tomorrow night?

There are several different topics. Not just surveillance, but things involving the negotiations of trade agreements, and the role the government played in the raid of Kim Dotcom’s house and what the Prime Minister knew about that.

Greenwald 2


Why are you here, at Dotcom’s house? You must have carefully considered this. Why didn’t you just work with local journalists, as I think you have done in other countries?

I think it’s entirely legitimate for a journalist to think about how to maximise public awareness of the reporting that you’re doing. And I knew that by physically travelling here, at this time, when the citizenry is most engaged politically, that would present an excellent opportunity to bring as much attention as possible to these matters.

But there is definitely other journalism that will be done about New Zealand and surveillance, and that will be done in conjunction with local journalists.

Is one of those journalists Nicky Hager?

I’m not going to talk about partnerships until they’re all sorted out.

Are you aware of his book Dirty Politics?

I haven’t read the book, but I followed the fall-out. The fact it resulted in the resignation of a very high-level government official here is a testimony to its accuracy. It seems to me like it was very solid, high-impact journalism, of the kind that is journalism in its most noble form, which is uncovering the secrets of the most powerful factions in society.

You rate him, then.

I have high regard for his journalism, sure.

Well, Nicky was asked in a meeting on Monday about you coming here as Dotcom’s guest. And he allowed himself a very long pause before he finally said he was “surprised”, and that he didn’t hold with it.

Different journalists have different views on what the proper role a journalist is. I’ve been very clear that I’m not neutral on the question of mass surveillance. It’s dangerous and I oppose it. I’m supportive of political parties around the world that have made it an important part of their platform to work against it, whether it be the Green Party in Europe or the Green Party here, or the Internet Party, or the Techno Pirate party in Sweden.

But was it really a good call to accept his invitation? Doesn’t it compromise your independence?

Oh, look. Politicians, when faced with disclosures that are threatening to their political power, attack the messenger. This is just a millennia-old tactic to distract attention away from the revelations.
What was Greenwald like to meet? He was a man who seemed pretty goddamned stoked with himself. He was lucid, and businesslike, and confident.

He has the backing of eBay founder and billionaire Pierre Omidyar, who has committed $250m to finance First Look Media and the online publication The Intercept, where Greenwald serves as editor. He lives in Rio with his Brazilian partner David Miranda.

The interview was scheduled for exactly 35 minutes by special ops, but Greenwald was happy to sit in his black leather chair and talk for as long as required.

Wikileaks and your project are not just new media models, they’re kind of like new media monoliths.

One of the fascinating aspects of the Snowden whistle-blowing is that he didn’t just not go to the New York Times, he purposely chose to exclude them in every possible way in order to make the point that their relationship to the government has been inappropriate. As a whistleblower, you would not feel confident risking your life and your liberty to bring that amount of information to the New York Times because more likely than not they are going to end up concealing rather than reporting.

And I think a lot of whistleblowers are looking for more independent ways of bringing information to the public. They have a lot more options now. And I think more independent media outlets, whether it’s Wikileaks or us, will be increasingly appealing. I think we are already starting to see that.

According to the US government, we now have a very significant second source who has been feeding us important classified information. I’m not going to comment on whether that’s true or not. But I think you are going to see people inspired by Snowden, and seek out alternatives that are more independent of the government.

But they see what happens when you do.They see Assange, some kind of physical wreck, confined to a room without sunlight. Manning, banged up. Snowden’s okay except he’s trapped in fucking Moscow.

The goal of the US government it to very flamboyantly punish people who challenge it simply as a means of deterring others. They can’t prevent information from leaking, but what they can do is frighten people out of doing it.

So the fact that Snowden was able to evade being captured, and the images of him are not in an orange jumpsuit shackled in a courtroom and being sentenced to 40 years, but is relatively free, and recognised as a hero, is extremely important to deflating the climate of fear and motivating other people to do it.

When you interviewed him that week in Hong Kong, and got the big story, you’ve written that it all ended very dramatically when the media descended and were 20 minutes away from discovering him and probably preventing him from getting away to a safe haven. What happened?

The media descended upon Hong Kong and began to search for him. They found my hotel. We were in separate hotels. I was at the W, and he was at the Mira. They not only found my hotel, they found my room – they obviously bribed people at the front desk. Then they found Snowden’s hotel.

I was put in touch with two human rights lawyers in Hong Kong and I met with them very early in the morning, the day after we had revealed Snowden’s identity. I put them in touch with Snowden, online, and he agreed to have them represent him, and they rushed over to his hotel while I distracted the media with a press conference in the lobby. Snowden and the lawyers ran out the back door and into a cab and they took him to a safe house.

What do we know about Snowden? He seems so serene, kind of vague, a rather dreamy figure.

He was one of these guys who grew up alienated and sought refuge in the internet as a means for navigating and exploring the world. He never really found his place in the world. He was alienated from school; he was obviously extremely smart, and he just kind of became a creature of the net, somebody who lived most of his life online.

He was also this political idealist, who spends a lot of his time thinking about his philosophy of life, and moral codes, and these kind of ethereal, abstract questions, and I think this moral framework had came very clear to him and very well-developed.

So he had no regrets of any kind about whistleblowing. He was so completely at peace with the choice that he made, that he did almost have this unnatural serenity. You would expect someone plagued with all kinds of anxiety and fear. But I never saw an iota of doubt or reservation at all. There was this tranquility that came from the conviction that he was doing was so clearly the right thing to do.

And, you know, Snowden was so focused on making sure this information got to the public before he was found, that he spent almost no time thinking about his own welfare and how to protect himself. In fact, his assumption was he was going to be arrested, and sent to prison for decades. That was the working assumption he had.

The complicated Assange, the tranquil Snowden, Bradley Manning who is now Chelsea Manning – these are the people who are driving this new revolution of uncovering secrets. And there’s you. What sort of rooster are you?

I do think politics is inextricably linked with personality. I grew up gay, which gives you a sense of alienation. You know, ‘I am something that society has deemed wrong, and bad.’ There are different ways of taking that on. A lot of gay teenagers kill themselves because they think they think they are inherently defective. Or, you can take it on as, ‘I don’t accept this judgment of yours, and actually the question is, what is wrong with society?’

I think it just makes you a more critical person, you think more independently, and are more willing to place yourself at odds with the prevailing order.

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Are you wrong about things?

Sure. I think the process of being wrong is one of the most important ways you learn. I think the ability to admit you are wrong, and come to the conclusion you’ve made a mistake, is in that world where learning takes place.

You could be wrong about Key.

I’m not wrong about what I said. It’s certainly possible that he got to the position where he completely changed his mind about everything and undid all the things that he’d done. I can’t prove a negative, that it didn’t happen. But I am not wrong about what these documents show.

Is your house in Rio de Janeiro like this house?

No. My house is considerably smaller and less baroque. Few houses in the world are like this house.


Previously: The last remaining Indians of the Act Party tribe are discovered – and our correspondent steals a dinghy.



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