Forbidden Photos of Everyday Life in East Germany

Werbetafel am Ostsee-Hotel im Ostseebad Kühlungsborn 1987
Werbetafel am Ostsee-Hotel im Ostseebad Kühlungsborn 1987

Are you tempted? This sign, from a hotel in Kühlungsborn on the GDR coast, 1987, reads “We’re Looking Forward to Your Visit”. Enough said …..

Rostock-Gro§ Klein. Ein neuer Stadteil in Plattenbauweise entstand in den 80er Jahren fŸr fast 20.000 Einwohner. WŠhrend die Bauerabeiter bereits weitergezogen sind, mussten die Bewohner noch mehrere Jahre in Matsch und mit Provisorien leben. Der "Erfolg" wurde nur in der Anzahl von gebauten Wohnungen abgerechnet.
Rostock-Gro§ Klein. Ein neuer Stadteil in Plattenbauweise entstand in den 80er Jahren fŸr fast 20.000 Einwohner.

Then this memorable image, from the newly-completed Gross Klein housing estate in Rostock, built in the 1980s in the prefabricated concrete style typical of communist East Germany. It had capacity for almost 20,000 people: progress in residential construction was measured solely in terms of the number of apartments built. The environment of those new homes was regarded as secondary. Siegfried Wittenburg took this picture in 1981 but was banned from exhibiting it at the time.

These images are part of a powerful new collection of ‘actually existing socialist’ goodies mostly taken in the 1980s by GDR photographer Siegfried Wittenburg:

ISIS executes 3,500 in Syria since declaring ‘caliphate’

An insight into the nature of the beast: over 400 of those killed by ISIS since June are reportedly their own forces – executed for ‘spying’. And over 2000 – a clear majority in other words – are allegecly civilians.

In addition, according to the UK based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, during the same period ISIS killed 930 members of a clan in the northeastern Deir al-Zor province of Syria, apparently in retaliation for showing opposition to their forces. Furthermore, over the past few months over 240 ISIS executions of rival rebels and Kurdish fighters, as well as 975 members of Syrian regime forces, have been documented.

I do not support UK or other Western air strikes on Syria. At the same time, it is crucial that we have no illusions about the pathologically destructive and violent nature – as well as the continuing murderous actions – of the forces that continue to terrorize large swathes of Syria and Iraq.


ISIS executes 3,500 in Syria since declaring ‘caliphate:’ activists

Agence France Presse, 30 Nov. 2015

BEIRUT: ISIS has executed more than 3,500 people in Syria, including nearly 2,000 civilians, since declaring its “caliphate” in June last year, activists said Sunday.

In the last month alone ISIS executed 53 people – including 35 civilians – in areas it controls in Syria, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The new figures from the Britain-based Observatory bring to 3,591 the number of people executed by ISIS in Syria since it declared its Islamic “caliphate” after seizing control of large parts of the country.

The new toll includes 1,945 civilians, including 103 women and 77 children, with civilians defined as those who are not taking part in the fighting.

Some were executed for alleged witchcraft, homosexuality and collaborating with the US-led coalition that has been bombarding ISIS in Syria since September 2014.

Members of Sunni Shaitat tribe account for around half of the civilians killed. ISIS killed 930 members of the clan in the northeastern Deir al-Zor province last year after they opposed the extremist Sunni Muslim group.

The monitor also documented 247 ISIS executions of rival rebels and Kurdish fighters, as well as the executions of 975 members of regime forces.

ISIS has also executed 415 of its own members it accused of crimes including spying, many of them captured as they were trying to desert the group, according to the Observatory, which relies on a network of activists, medical staff and fighters on the ground.

ISIS controls large swathes of Syria and neighboring Iraq.

In Syria, it controls areas in the Homs and Hama provinces in the center, Deir al-Zor and Hassakeh in the northeast, as well as Raqa and Aleppo in the north.

The jihadist group counts tens of thousands of fighters and carries out abductions, rapes, beheadings and stonings in the areas under its influence.

The United Nations has accused it of “crimes against humanity”.

More than 250,000 people have been killed and more than four million have fled the country since the Syrian conflict erupted in 2011.


France and England soccer fans unite to sing ‘La Marseillaise’

It’s all been stage-managed to a degree: some of the French players aren’t singing; and ‘RIP La France’ – as one placard proclaims – seems a monumentally inappropriate message in the circumstances. But still .. a glorious, fleeting, powerful moment of Ango-French solidarity before the kick-off of last night’s soccer friendly between the two countries.

Vive La France! Solidarité entre nous, citoyens européens et du monde entier!

More book extracts in Ceylon Today

Here’s an article published in Ceylon Today (15 November 2015) focused around extensive extracts from my new book – albeit on aspects of the story of Norwegian involvement in Sri Lanka that will probably be of most interest to students of the island’s recent history rather than the lay reader.

Still, both the stories Mohan hones in on are good ones: unfettered Indian – or more specifically, Tamil Nadu – support to the LTTE in the 1980s; and smuggling LTTE strategist Anton Balasnigham out of the country for an urgently-needed kidney transplant – with a bit of help from the Norwegians . ..

MGR was Prabhakaran’s ‘Cash Machine’


Political and cultural history of the tiny mango shaped island on the planet earth attracted the world, way back in the 60s when Sirimavo Bandaranaike was made the first woman Prime Minister in the world. But in the aftermath of the 1983 ‘Black July’, whenever a Sri Lankan introduced his or herself to anyone anywhere in the world, the immediate reaction one would get was that ‘Oh it’s that guerrilla fighting country isn’t it? That is how Sri Lankans were recognized and that level of popularity for Prabhakaran was due to the blessings ushered by former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu M.G. Ramachandran (MGR), ‘Ronald Regan of Tamil Nadu’, which cannot be disputed. Every time Prabhakaran ambushed and killed the government forces-

Political and cultural history of the tiny mango shaped island on the planet earth attracted the world, way back in the 60s when Sirimavo Bandaranaike was made the first woman Prime Minister in the world. But in the aftermath of the 1983 ‘Black July’, whenever a Sri Lankan introduced his or herself to anyone anywhere in the world, the immediate reaction one would get was that ‘Oh it’s that guerrilla fighting country isn’t it? That is how Sri Lankans were recognized and that level of popularity for Prabhakaran was due to the blessings ushered by former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu M.G. Ramachandran (MGR), ‘Ronald Regan of Tamil Nadu’, which cannot be disputed. Every time Prabhakaran ambushed and killed the government forces, the people in the world wondered how could he do it having a tiny set of armed militants and Prabhakaran himself admitted their strength came from MGR till he died in 1987.

Today, LTTE’s 30 years of war has been reviewed and retold by many persons locally and internationally exposing how the war began, and who were the actors who played for them and against them before being wiped out. Mark Salter, author of the book To End a Civil War: Norway’s Peace Engagement in Sri Lanka has done the very same, but with more information that was not revealed before.

Since Oslo’s involvement with then peace envoy Erik Solheim and Vidar Helgesen, who went on to become household names in Sri Lanka on account of their role in their country’s peace facilitation effort, Salter has some very interesting ‘inside stories’ of this association.

One of the chapters in Salter’s book talks about how MGR has been the ‘pillar’ of Prabhakran’s revolt. MGR’s (the silver screen’s) ‘revolutionary leader’ in fact adored the ‘real life revolutionary leader’ Velupillai Prabhakaran and this fact was revealed by Prabhakran himself.

Freedom fighter or war monger
From the year 1970 to mid-1987 Tamil Nadu government has been ‘dear’ to Prabhakran. The Tamil Nadu people recognized him as a ‘freedom fighter’ and admired his personality while others called him a ‘war monger’. Prabhakran himself recalled how MGR had been his backbone in running the LTTE’s strategic war operations and helped him to become the most powerful guerrilla outfit known in the world.

MGR heard about Prabhakaran when he and his rival – PLOTE leader Uma Maheswaran, exchanged fire at Pondy Bazaar and the Tamil Nadu Police arrested Prabhakaran and his fellow fighter Raghavan on the same day.

They were granted conditional bail. Prabhakaran recalled in an interview that ‘Tamil Nadu people started to see them and their politicians began to support them’. When Prabhakaran was about to be repatriated to Sri Lanka after the shoot, the first man to oppose it was MGR along with Nedumaran and Vaiko.

While number of Tamil militant groups were operating in Tamil Nadu, MGR attempted to unite them, had called a meeting of the leaders of those groups. MGR wanted to see who this man called Prabhakaran was, making news in the tiny island – Sri Lanka. Instead of Prabhakaran, his senior cadres Shankar, one Subramaniam and Dr. Anton Balasingham went to meet MGR in Chennai.

MGR – Prabha’s ATM
Prabhakran referred to MGR as ‘Anna’ (elder brother) while MGR assiduously promoted the struggle from the very first day he met Prabhakaran. MGR who met Sankar, Dr. Anton Balasingham (Bala) and Subramainam initially had promised he would do anything for the LTTE, in fact MGR could be called the ‘automated teller machine’ (ATM) of the LTTE.

On the second occasion it was Prabhakaran who met him along with Shankar. It is revealed that Shankar smilingly had told MGR that they needed weapons to protect their Tamil homeland. “How much do you want?” was the next question. “Is it possible to give us Rs 20 million posed Shankar, and MGR has queried “is that enough?” It is said even Prabhakaran was surprised when he had said he would not hesitate to give that cash. “We could not believe it when he agreed to give us that money. Was he saying he is going to give money?” Shankar and Prabhakaran could not believe their ears but looked at each other puzzled. The following day MGR met Prabhakaran and handed over the money he needed. It is said that MGR kept giving money for Prabhakaran every time he asked.
Salter’s book To End a Civil War Norway’s Peace Engagement in Sri Lanka also recollects MGR’s friendship with Prabhakaran as told by Bala to Solheim.

Bala revealed to Solheim that in the 1980s MGR was immensely popular among Indian Tamils; a popularity that stemmed partly from his having played the hero underdog in many films … MGR ‘adopted’ Prabhakaran and gave massive support to the LTTE.

Bala told Solheim how he and Prabhakaran had become the darlings of MGR, and received vast amounts of money as a result.

“On one occasion, for example, Bala related to me how by chance the LTTE had refused to attend a meeting of Tamil militant groups summoned by MGR’s main political rival Karunanidhi. That was much to the taste of MGR. The following day Prabhakaran and Bala were asked to meet him. The Tamil Nadu first minister simply asked them: ‘How much do you need?’ Prabhakaran mentioned an amount in millions of rupees and MGR apparently replied, ‘That’s far too little, you need more.’ Then he went to his bookshelf, picked up a huge pile of cash and put it into Prabhakaran’s hands—ten times the amount that Prabhakaran had asked for. Later, when the weapons had been purchased and delivered to Chennai harbour, MGR again came to the LTTE’s rescue. The military hardware was loaded into cars and taken with police escort to the safe house where Prabhakaran and Bala were hiding. Later it was transported across the Palk Strait to Sri Lanka,” Solheim narrates.

It is said on several occasions Prabhakaran ran to MGR and he just kept assisting without any hesitation. While the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister was increasingly protected and kept out of the public eye, Prabhakaran and his clan could always meet him. “He never treated us as talking to a Chief Minster. MGR told us to take the struggle forward till we capture Eelam,” in an interview Prabhakaran gave on Vanni

“He said in our struggle his part is always there and would support us throughout till we take the Eelam. I will give you weapons too he said. That support made us strong and could take forward the struggle successfully during that period,” the LTTE leader said. On screen and off screen the two ‘revolutionary’ leaders admired each other’s friendship as their thinking was on the same line – heroism, patriotism, nationalist, love for the people, mothers and children.

Despite the Indian government applying pressure on the LTTE to stop the arm struggle and applying conditions on him, Prabhakaran was adamant because MGR was there to say don’t listen to the Centre. MGR said the pressure was not from him, and the two leaders boosted each other’s on screen and off screen images till their deaths, many opined.

The kidney transplant saga
Bala, spokesperson and advisor to the LTTE had been ailing from a kidney related disease and was a chronic diabetic like Prabhakaran. However Bala suffered immensely till he met with his death. The book To End a Civil War Norway’s Peace Engagement in Sri Lanka quotes how Bala had to reach Oslo for a kidney transplant and then President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s (CBK) government knew about it.

The Government of Sri Lanka often had to ‘rough out’ or ‘rub shoulders’ with the LTTE due to their tactics and on this occasion where Bala fell seriously ill, thought it would be ideal to ‘fix a deal’ when the call to help move Bala out of Sri Lanka for medical assistance came from Prabhakaran.

A kidney transplant appeared to be the obvious solution” Solheim says in Salter’s book. “In Norway there are two ways to get an organ: through a close relative, or you sit in line and wait for one as a result of a traffic accident or some such event. Bala had found a relative, a Vanni Tamil with the right blood type who offered a kidney.

At a certain point Bala informed that the kidney donor transport had been organised, but he requested that the donor should be allowed to stay in Europe afterwards. ‘At our request the young man was brought to Jakarta by the LTTE. We had a very able ambassador there, Sjur Torgersen, with wide experience of ‘out of the box’ diplomatic activities. Sjur took care of him and put him on a plane to Europe. It was the man’s first trip outside Sri Lanka and I still recall his surprise over the escalators at Amsterdam Airport. He gave his kidney at the Norwegian National Hospital, and later went to the UK, where I think he remains to this day,” Solheim notes. The transplant took place in Oslo in February 2000.

Solheim explains further that the operation itself was kept secret, basically [out of deference to] Colombo. But the news was out in the Tamil community in Oslo within hours of his arrival in town. There were Tamils working at the hotel where he was staying as well as at the national hospital. They recognized him in a second, while no Norwegian even blinked. It speaks loudly for the discipline of the Tamil community that no one leaked this to the media. What was the reaction to all this from Colombo? ‘We kept them informed’, says Solheim. ‘They had no difficulty with the way in which Bala had managed to get out of Sri Lanka. Chandrika said it was a humanitarian issue. And after she announced the peace process, news of Bala’s kidney transplant was taken positively.’

The book states that after it became apparent that the terms for allowing Bala to exit the country being put forward by GoSL were unacceptable to the LTTE, a decision was taken to ‘smuggle’ him out of the Vanni by the Sea Tigers i.e. by ship to Phuket, Thailand on 23 Jan. 1999, ‘most likely with CBK’s knowledge and consent.

Events leading up to Bala’s departure from SL are also covered in some detail in Bala’s own book War and Peace and Adele Balasingham’s book ‘The Will to Freedom‘.

IS attacks and not playing their game

If there is a reliable strategic purpose to terrorism it is simply this: to shake things up. To change things. To kick over the table and play a different game instead. The best way, always, to win that particular game is not to accept the invitation to play.

Thoughtful, focused openDemocracy commentary on the IS Paris attacks.


President Francois Hollande. Demotix/ Zaer Belkalai. All rights reserved.

IS attacks and not playing their game


For the terrorists, best would be to be left alone to consolidate. Next best would be an epic all-out confrontation with western infidel ground forces. We should not give them what they want.

On Friday’s massacres in France, I predicted that the attacks would turn out to have been centrally organised by IS – as opposed to being by locals acting in their name, or by Al Qaida.

It was hardly going out on a limb, but it has indeed turned out to be accurate.

So, what now? It is always risky to read too much into any one terrorist attack. The Madrid train bombings, for example, have often been interpreted as the straightforward culmination of a jihadi strategic study, published online called Jihadi Iraq, Hopes and Dangers, which argued that Spain was the weak link in the ‘crusader’ alliance, and that knocking it out could create a domino effect that would severely undermine the US’s coalition in Iraq.

It was too neat though. It read back from the highly contingent fact that Jose Maria Aznar’s Partido Popular would go on to be defeated in the election that followed, to assume that this was what the attackers must have had in mind all along.

In reality, the electoral defeat had more to do with the discovery that Aznar had lied about the identity of the attackers than the attacks themselves, and the conspiracy behind the Madrid train bombings would turn out in any case out to have deeper, more complex origins.

It also forgot the longer history of jihadist violence in Spain, such as the El Descanso bombing in 1985.

There is a deeper lesson about terrorism here. Terrorist attacks are unpredictable in their effects. Indeed, they are inherently so. Where violence occurs in order to achieve a clearly comprehensible and immediate outcome, we tend to refer to it as something else. Those who don’t share the agenda of a given terrorist group almost inevitably cast around for tactical or strategic explanations, and often the terrorists do so as well. But the seeming rationality of strategic accounts is often illusory for all that.

Did IS attack France in order to deter? Or in order to provoke? Whichever it was will no doubt seem obvious in hindsight. Already, President Hollande is referring to the attacks as an‘act of war’. But was it so whenever this operation was being put together? Overrating the strategically rational motivations of terrorism is often, I suspect, to do with a failure to truly appreciate the seriousness (usually dealt with using the conveniently colourless word ‘ideology’) with which terrorists take the morality of their own acts.

From IS’s point of view, it is simple. It is fighting for Muslims against ferocious, predatory monsters who will do everything in their power to annihilate all it holds dear. Apropos of this, it is worth making the point that France – while not a particularly prominent country in IS’s official communiqués to date, is somewhere for which global jihadists arguably reserve a special hatred. In 2009, the pioneering jihadi ‘fan’ magazine Jihad Recollections published an article arguing the case for regarding Europe, and especially France, as even worse than America, and deserving a special priority on that account. When George W. Bush said after 9/11 that al Qaida hated America for its values, that really wasn’t reflective of AQ’s main priorities at the time. But this is a line Francois Hollande could more legitimately lay claim to this time around. Jihadis utterly despise secular republicanism.

This is all the more reason for France to truly live up to its promise of liberty, equality and fraternity for all French citizens, striving to deliver that promise unflinchingly, but without hypocrisy, inequality or covert racism.

Nonetheless, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the attacks on Paris yesterday reflect a genuine change in strategic choice by IS. Analysis of the group’s past statements has not encouraged the view that it has previously had a serious longstanding interest in ‘going global’ with its attacks, as opposed to consolidating its territorial all-but state. Besides which, the chillingly effective simplicity of the attacks themselves – striking for the most part at relatively nondescript targets that will never be a top priority for protection, using familiar and readily available weapons, argue against the idea that IS has been trying to do this for a very long time without success.

No doubt major attacks have been thwarted. But if this sort of thing is what IS, at its present level of capacity – really wants to focus on – then all the sophisticated intelligence sharing and surveillance in the world won’t be able to stop it completely from doing this sort of thing.

So what does this tell us? The most obvious implication is that the present strategy against IS is working. Up to now, pessimists have been swift to point out that air strikes have not apparently damped IS’s offensive dynamism or ability to control territory, while slow, painful advances against the group, as in Tikrit, have usually been rapidly compensated for by counter advances elsewhere. But as the analyst Will McCants observed in a BBC interview yesterday, that may be beginning to change.

The killing of Mohammed Emwazi (whose murderous brutality, revolting as it was, apparently posed no immediate strategic threat to the UK warranting the claim of self-defence) nonetheless does indicate that probably no one in IS, however high up, can expect to move around safely any more. The recapture of Sinjar by Kurdish forces is, similarly, a morale boost. But more than that, it is indicative in the bigger picture of the fact that IS, however much it tries to re-assert its momentum, is now locked into precisely the kind of war of attrition which fanatic passion and daring ingenuity cannot win.

For IS, losing to a coalition of local militias with air support is clearly the least optimal outcome. Best would be to be left alone to consolidate. Next best would be an epic all-out confrontation with western infidel ground forces.

If there is a reliable strategic purpose to terrorism it is simply this: to shake things up. To change things. To kick over the table and play a different game instead. The best way, always, to win that particular game is not to accept the invitation to play.

About the author


Gilbert Ramsay is a lecturer in International Relations at the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence (CSTPV), University of St Andrews.

UK Daily Telegraph on Sweden’s migration crisis

There’s some simplification, more than a few touches of stereotyping and hyperbole: it doesn’t offer any solutions; and it comes from a traditionally robustly conservative UK media soource. But in the main this article offers a well-articulated analysis of the serious challenges facing Sweden on the back of Europe’s continuing refugee crisis.

Choice quote: ‘Britain is a country that is unsure of immigration, but loves immigrants. In Sweden, sadly, it’s the other way around’.


How Sweden, the most open country in the world, was overwhelmed by migrants

Sweden used to pride itself on giving a warm welcome to outsiders. But as the refugee crisis grows, so too does its sense of injustice

The Daily Telegraph 12 Nov 2015

When it opened 15 years ago, the Öresund Bridge was seen as a glistening symbol of the new Europe. Sweden and Denmark had been joined together by a motorway with no border controls, fusing together economies and even blurring national identities. Many Swedes in Malmö have come to relish the city’s growing reputation as a suburb of Copenhagen, just half an hour away by train. It seemed to embody many dreams about the future: a continent where national borders would come to mean nothing. That dream was shattered at noon today.

After months of fretting, police finally introduced border controls on the Swedish side of the bridge: the latest symbol of Europe’s unravelling free movement project. There are many others: the razor wire separating Slovenia from Croatia; the border patrols on trains between Germany and Austria.

This has been painful for everyone, but devastating for Sweden because its main political parties barely know how to respond. Openness is the closest thing the Swedes have to a national religion, this policy is visibly failing – and there is no back-up plan.

When David Cameron set up the Northern Future Forum five years ago, it seemed like application for honorary British membership of Scandinavia. Then, it seemed to make sense. This was the land of snow, sea and supply-side economics – where tax cuts had steered the country out of recession long before any other European country. Sweden seemed to be lodestar to the world: George W Bush had copied its pensions policy, Tony Blair borrowed its hospitals policy, the Tories aped the free schools. The most socialistic country in the free word – yet still so entrepreneurial that it could sell cider to the English.

“Adjust for population size, and it’s like Britain finding space for a refugee population the size of Birmingham each year”


The headlines now suggest a country that is coming apart. Just last month, an asylum centre in the picturesque town of Munkedal was set alight, the latest in a series of arson attacks against refugees. Anti-Semitic incidents in Malmö have raised such concern that Swedes have now started “kippa walks”, gathering in their hundreds to accompany Jews home from the synagogue in a show of solidarity. The Sweden Democrats, a party routinely denounced by Swedish media as “neo-fascist”, is now leading in the national opinion polls. Economically, Sweden remains strong. But politically, it’s in crisis.

The problem stems from its famous openness. Swedes have long seen their country as a humanitarian superpower – one that may avoid military conflict, but stands in the front line of helping the world’s dispossessed. In the late Sixties, it welcomed Eastern Europeans who fled the Soviets, my wife’s parents among them. They were given everything by this wonderful country – food, accommodation, lessons in Swedish and even help to make sure their Stockholm-born daughters could still speak Czech. My family is one of many with reason to be grateful for Sweden’s habit of treating its openness as an article of faith.

But this became the problem. When the migration situation changed, Swedish policy did not. The numbers now arriving were never envisaged: this year alone, almost 200,000 are expected to arrive in this sparsely populated country. Adjust for population size, and it’s like Britain finding space for a refugee population the size of Birmingham each year. Sweden’s immigration agency has already run out of beds, and has been accommodating asylum-seekers at its head office.


Slovenia refugees 2303

Refugees crossing Slovenia, October 2015

The problem of professional Romanian and Bulgarian beggars is, for visitors, the most striking. They sit outside Stockholm’s underground stations and coffee shops, often piling their belongings in plastic bags on the street. This seems to advertise that the authorities have lost control. A violinist friend of mine who lives in one of Stockholm’s main shopping streets complains that, if she’d start busking, she’d be removed by police very quickly. But the beggars literally camped outside her front door are undisturbed. It doesn’t take a xenophobe to feel a sense of injustice – and yet, right now, the only party articulating the injustice is the Sweden Democrats.

Advert for the Sweden Democrats at a subway station in Stockholm. In a series of signs arranged along the ceiling of the escalator as commuters descend, it reads : "Sorry about the mess here in Sweden. We have a serious problem with forced begging! International gangs profit from people's desperation. Our government won't do what's needed. But we will! And we're growing at record speed. =)"A man ascends on an escalator as signs put up by the Sweden Democrats political party are seen at Ostermalmstorg subway station in Stockholm  Photo: REUTERS

If the finest political minds in Sweden had set out to incubate a far-Right backlash in the world’s most tolerant country, they could not have done better than what has happened over the last few years. First, run an open-door immigration policy making your country the top destination in the middle of a global migration crisis. Next denounce as “neo-fascist” anyone who raises objections. All of this has handed entire sections of the electorate on a plate to the Sweden Democrats. Its leader, Jimmie Åkesson, was on sick leave for five months – he need not have returned. His rivals have been doing all his work for him.

“Britain is a country that is unsure of immigration, but loves immigrants. In Sweden, sadly, it’s the other way around”

During the summer, I spent a few days at the Swedish political festival in Almedalen, in the island of Gotland. It was, itself, an advert for openness: an open-air party conference with no security checks. The Prime Minister wanders around, addressing anyone who pulls up a chair. At the time, David Cameron’s election victory was being much discussed. The Swedes were taken aback, some even appalled, at the language used: stopping migrants from claiming benefits for four years? Pulling out of the European Union? How can a globally minded nation like Britain have such dirty-sounding politics?

The explanation is simple: Britain is a country that is unsure about immigration, but loves immigrants. In Sweden, sadly, it’s the other way around. Britons fret about border controls, but we don’t hesitate to hire immigrants when they arrive. In Sweden, immigrants are twice as likely to be unemployed as natives, one of the worst ratios in the developed world. Accepting immigration at such a level, while being unable to integrate it, is the recipe not just for a political crisis but a national identity crisis.

A few weeks ago, a nursery near my wife’s family’s home announced that it would do its bit, by accommodating some asylum-seekers. The next night, it was set ablaze. Such stories would have seemed unthinkable only a few years ago. A surfeit of compassion is not the worst vice for a country to have – yet this has, now, ended up roiling far darker forces which it is struggling to contain. Sweden has spent almost 20 years being admired and imitated for reasons that are still valid. But in misjudging the immigration crisis, it now stands as a tragic example of what not to do.

Edward Snowden: in defence of freedom

Long, utterly brilliant Lena Sundström interview with Edward Snowden in today’s Dagens Nyheter. (Available in Swedish & English). Covers all the main issues raised by Snowden’s intelligence revelations in depth.

Here’s a sample quote: “The drone program creates more terrorists than it kills. There was no Islamic State until we started bombing these states. The biggest threat we [the US] face in the region was born from our own policies.”

Powereful, intelligent, and consistently thought-provoking. Snowden remains a brave – and much misunderstood – man. Truly essential reading! Here’s the English version:

DN meets Edward Snowden

Five hours with Edward Snowden

Suddenly he opens the door. DN’s Lena Sundström and Lotta Härdelin had a unique meeting with the whistleblower who has fans all over the world but risks lifetime imprisonment in the home country he once tried to save.

Läs artikeln på svenska

Talking to room service, Edward Snowden covers the mouth piece of the phone and shouts across the room.

– How would you like your steak?

– Medium rare, I answer.

– And to drink?

– Water.

– Still or sparkling?


– Wait.

He laughs.

– There’s actually more. Vegetables or mashed potatoes?

– Vegetables.

The choice of two left shoes of the former Soviet Union is, since decades, history in Russia. On my way here, I passed Cyrillic letters that were perfectly readable, even without any knowledge of Russian. Brands like McDonald’s, Starbucks, World Class Gym, Michael Kors and United Colors of Benetton are like a universal code language, making everything understandable, whether the signs are in Moscow, Stockholm, San Francisco or Bangkok. If you think you can measure totalitarian tendencies, freedom of speech and rule of law in a country, by the standard of the cars, the number of restaurants or Stella McCartney’s latest spring collection, you’re fooling yourself.

Poverty shows. Democratic deficit doesn’t.

I watch the traffic thickening through my hotel room window; if this is possible in a city, where the traffic constantly is so congested that you’re faster off walking.

Facts. Edward Joseph Snowden

Born: June 21, 1983 (32 years old)
Profession: Director at Freedom of the Press Foundation
Residing in: Russia and on the internet
Twitter handle: @Snowden, with 1.51 million followers.
Family: Lon Snowden and Elizabeth Snowden, older sister Jessica.
Grew up in: Crofton, Maryland, roughly 20 kilometers from the NSA headquarters in Fort Meade.
Girlfriend: Lindsay Mills.Professional background:
2004: US Special Forces, recruit program, Fort Brenning, Georgia.
2006: CIA
2007-2009: Foreign posting in Geneva for the CIA.
2009-2012: Dell, Japan/NSA, Maryland, USA
2012: Hawaii, Dell, placed at NSA Kunia regional SIGINT operation center.
2013: Booz Allen Hamilton, Hawaii
2013: Residing in Russia. Works for Freedom of the Press Foundation.

Not too long ago, I was sitting with the photographer, Lotta Härdelin, at our established meeting point, where our contact would pick us up, and take us further, wondering if something was wrong.

For months, I had emailed encrypted messages back and forth with contacts and lawyers.

We finally got a date and a message telling us to go to Moscow, where further instructions would follow.

Now we’re here, in a dim Russian hotel lobby. There’s no plan B and everything feels uncertain and unpredictable. The security measures, concern and need for total control of the past weeks have now been reduced to waiting and quiet powerlessness in a cream-colored armchair.

In the morning, our contact told us to be at a hotel, pointed out to us on a big Moscow map at 12:45 PM. We were told to quietly signal our understanding.

Now we fear that we agreed to it too fast.

– Are you sure this is the spot he pointed out?

12:45 turns into 1:00 that turns into 1:25.

What if we’re at the wrong place?

After a while, we pick up the map and start looking for buildings and hotels that could be mixed up with the place we’re at. We left our cell phones at our hotel, just as instructed, as did our contact. Neither of us can reach the other if something has gone wrong, and there’s no plan B.

The lobby is full of Russian military. Men boasting a low center of gravity step in and out of the lifts, ranks showing on their chests and in their eyes.

After a while, we order tea and croissants to try to blend in with the crowd. Everywhere we believe we see mysterious hotel staff and guests who don’t blend in. As if we’ve ended up in a Roy Andersson movie where you don’t know if the extras are actors or the actors are extras.

A woman is pointing a video camera in our direction. A man standing by a pillar is talking on his cell phone for a suspiciously long time.

We laugh, telling each other we’re being paranoid.

Then our contact finally appears.

The contrast when standing outside the actual meeting point surprises me. Everything suddenly makes complete sense. Any concern that the interview would be cancelled; that something would happen – broken bones, vomiting disease, visa problems – seems to have vanished.

Edward Snowden opens the door. I sit down on the couch. In a strange kind of way, this feels like a place you could drop by any Wednesday to talk.

Reality is of course less simple.

Ever since Edward Snowden in June 2013 went public as the whistleblower behind the leaked classified documents that revealed the US mass surveillance of its own citizens, he has been one of the world’s most hunted men. Back in the US he risks a lifelong sentence. Russia, which only should have been a stopover on his way to Cuba, is so far the only country that has granted him asylum. This made the country the only safe place in the world for him.

Two and a half years have passed. Edward Snowden – who has become a symbol of freedom of speech, an icon, a face without a body talking on giant screens through links – greets us with a disarming smile and a notebook in his hand.

He immediately asks what we want to eat. And looks so relaxed in his black shirt and three-piece suit that he makes it feel like something he would go jogging in. If he felt like it.

How are you doing?

He smiles.

– It’s hard for me to talk about what it’s like, because anything I say is going to be used by US critics. If I say good things about Russia, you know, like ”it’s not hell”, then they’ll be like ”he fell in love with the Kremlin” or something like that. If I say something terrible, then it’s the same thing. Then they’ll go ”oh, he hates it in Russia, you know he’s miserable.”

– So I try not to talk about it in general.

I say that I’ve heard that he lives like an indoor cat in Russia.

On the other hand, you can of course live like an indoor cat in Hawaii as well, where you used to live. How much has your life changed?

– The indoor cat thing is voluntary, that’s the way I’ve always lived. In Hawaii, occasionally, my girlfriend would drag me out of the house, into the beautiful paradise that it was. But generally, I spend most of my time in my head or on the internet. I’m not the type of person who’s always going out to go somewhere. Instead I’d rather have a conversation or think or plan or design. People have different personalities and that’s the sort of life I lived. It’s actually extraordinary… because of my lifestyle, because of my involvement on the internet I’m working more now, than I’ve ever done before. And I think I have a greater impact.

– Yes of course I lost things, yes I paid a price: I can’t go home.

Listen (26 sec)

What do you miss the most?

– My family. Of course. As it is for everybody. But I’m very comfortable with the choices I’ve made. I can still see my family when they come here to visit. I can still communicate with anyone anywhere. I regularly speak at the most prestigious universities in the United States for students who really care about these issues.

– It used to be, when people were pressed into exile, they’d lose their connections, they’d lose their significance, they’d lose their influence in the political debate.That’s why exile, as a strategy of response to political dissent, always has been so popular, whether it was the Soviet Union deporting authors they didn’t like or American dissidents going to Cuba. But technology is changing that. Exile as, a strategy, is beginning to fail.

– This is something that’s encouraging and something that really guides my future work. How can I help activists and dissidents who have something to say, something to contribute to the direction of their societies? To surmount these walls of opposition and say it doesn’t matter where I am, this voice will be heard. And I think there is something extraordinarily powerful in that, that’s really started to threaten governments.

On September 29th this year, he posted his first tweet: ”Can you hear me now?”And people could. Edward Snowden reached 1.5 million followers in no time. He only follows one himself – the NSA’s official account. His grim humor shines through in many of his tweets.

One of the first ones reads ”Thanks for the welcome. And now we’ve got water on Mars! Do you think they check passports at the border? Asking for a friend.” When the former NSA and CIA Director, Michael Hayden, implied that Snowden would be killed in Moscow, Snowden wrote ”He used to be more fun” and posted a picture of the two of them smiling together.

At the same time, he has a clear passion stretching beyond mass surveillance, to issues of democracy on a more general level. After the attack in Kunduz in October, when the US bombed a hospital in Afghanistan, he made continuous comments – relaying information that ”Not a single member of our staff reported any fighting inside the hospital compound prior to the US airstrike”, tweeting screenshots quoting the Geneva Convention and stating the need for an independent investigation.

Edward Snowden says that the most important aspect of social media is that you can get things out directly.

– You can take the story and simply quote the relevant part, simply signaling if the media didn’t headline it appropriately or if someone misleads the public intentionally for a political advantage. You can get the facts out there. I think that is actually valuable.

Do you live on American or Russian time here in Moscow?

– Two nights ago, I didn’t go to bed until 4:30 in the morning. A couple of days before that, I went to bed at like 9:30 in the morning. I’ve been really busy these last couple of months, working with organizations like the ACLU, the American Civil Liberties Union. Almost everything I do, all my associations, all my work is in English, which holds me back from trying to learn Russian. And when they’re eight hours off, or ten hours off, it’s hard. When they want you to speak at 9PM US Eastern standard time, that’s 4AM in Russia. But I’m a night owl in general. I like the night, it’s quiet, there’s not that much traffic. It’s easier to live.

Edward Snowden’s first tweet alluded to a well-known commercial for the US telecom giant Verizon, where a man in different environments, a cell phone to his ear, is asking if he can be heard. The first Snowden story, published in June 2013, showed that the NSA had access to all of Verizon’s data on their customers.

Later, people have merged the Verizon commercial with another well-known commercial on the internet. The Verizon guy asking: ”Can you hear me now?” And Obama answering: ”Yes we can.”

Edward Snowden was once one of those who believed in Barack Obama’s promises of change. Obama ran for president promising ”the most transparent administration in history”. He celebrated whistleblowers as ”noble” and ”courageous”, declaring that there would be no more spying on ”American citizens who’re not suspected of a crime, no more tracking of citizens who do no more than protest a misguided war, no more ignoring the law when it’s inconvenient”. Supported by the Espionage Act, he has since chased leaks with newfound strength, and during the Obama administration a total of eight people have been prosecuted – i.e. far more than any other administration in the history of the United States.Do you get to vote?

Edward Snowden laughs.

– Well we’ll find out. I’ll definitely be trying!

It’s about the symbolic value, he explains.

– I’ll send them my vote by mail. It’s not like it will count in a meaningful way because such a small portion of the votes come by mail. But that’s not the point; the point is the expression of it.

Have you decided who you will vote for?

– No, not yet.

Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump?

– Haha. If … No. I shouldn’t say that, it’s too inflammatory.

I ask if he saw the Democratic presidential candidate debate the other night. Senator Bernie Sanders defended Edward Snowden, saying he had played an important role in spreading knowledge to the American people. Hilary Clinton, however, claimed he had violated American law and that he had stolen important information that had ”fallen into the wrong hands”.

That’s also what Edward Snowden’s critics point out. That the documents might have ended up with the Russian or the Chinese, and that he should come home to the US and be brought to justice for what he’s done, rather than live in a country like Russia, becoming dependent on Putin. That he should have taken the fight at home, instead of running away.

Facts. The Snowden documents: 5 dates

June 5, 2013: The first documents are published in British The Guardian. The following day Washington Post publishes more material. A whole world is wondering who the leak is.June 9, 2013: Edward Snowden goes public. He says he does so to protect his former colleagues, who risk being suspected.

June 23, 2013: Snowden leaves Hong Kong to fly to Havana, Cuba. He gets stuck during a stopover in Moscow and seeks asylum in 22 countries – only one grants him asylum: Russia.

December 5, 2013: Swedish television program “Uppdrag Granskning” use the Snowden documents to reveal that the Swedish FRA is spying on Russian leaders and sharing their material with the American Intelligence Authorities.

October 29, 2015: The EU parliament urges the EU countries to give Edward Snowden protection as a “defender of human rights”.

About the Prism scandal:

  • The documents that Edward Snowden leaked showed that the NSA had access to communication from people all over the world through nine Internet firms, using the signal intelligence software PRISM.
  • PRISM does not deal with metadata, but with content, like photos and videos, voices and files in cloud services..
  • Between 2007 and 2012 a number of companies were forced to join PRISM: Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, Youtube, Skype, AOL and Apple.

Edward Snowden himself has said he knows exactly how many documents he was carrying when he flew from Hong Kong to Moscow: Zero. To avoid any risk, he had already handed over all the material to the journalists who published the revelations.

– I did see the debate live. It was actually extraordinarily encouraging. In 2013, they were calling for me to be hanged. They were using the word ”traitor” and things like ”blood on your hands”. Nobody on the stage, as far as I know, used the word traitor now. In just two years, that’s an extraordinary change.

He says that it took 30 years for that to happen to Daniel Ellsberg, one of the most famous whistleblowers of all times, who leaked secret documents about the Vietnam War in the 1970s.

Following Snowden’s revelations, President Barack Obama has welcomed the debate on surveillance, but has also said that the publications of the documents have ”been damaging to the United States and our intelligence capabilities, there were ways for us to have this conversation without that damage.” In the Democratic presidential candidate debate, Hillary Clinton expressed herself in the same way, about an American system with a tradition of protecting whistleblowers.

– The American tradition in regard to whistleblowers is to try to bury them, Edward Snowden says.

– But Hillary Clinton was roundly shamed for that in the press. They said, legally she’s wrong, historically she’s wrong and she’s wrong even rhetorically, because everybody knows that this isn’t the case.

Whistleblowers like Edward Snowden, Daniel Ellsberg and Chelsea Manning – who supplied WikiLeaks with secret documents – all bear witness to this. But there are more.

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PBS interviews Thomas Drake in 2013.

In 2007, FBI agents carried out so-called morning raids at the homes of people who worked or had worked at the NSA, and had tried to blow the whistle on a mass surveillance program they felt had gotten out of control. One man was dragged out of the shower in his home, a gun to his head, in front of his family. Another man opened his door and soon had the house full of black-clad agents in Kevlar vests searching his home until late at night. The home of Thomas Drake, a senior executive at the NSA, was searched, his passport was cancelled and he lived under the threat of 35 years imprisonment for four years, prosecuted under the Espionage Act. He lost his job, his pension and spent everything he owned on his defense lawyer. Today he works at an Apple store in Maryland and has been able to establish that the only person, who was investigated and prosecuted, after trying to talk to his superiors about the mass surveillance, was himself.

These were people who had dedicated their lives to the US Government. Many of them had worked with intelligence for the NSA for over 30 years. What they protested against was that the US had monitored its own citizens, despite the fact that the US Constitution clearly states that all Americans have the right ”to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches”.

Also people outside the NSA tried to talk about what was going on. A lawyer at the Department of Justice one day sneaked out at lunch, to call a New York Times reporter from a pay phone in the subway. After a phone call from the FBI, he resigned.

A woman at the Intelligence Committee of the House of Representatives had her house raided by the FBI at six o’clock in the morning, because she’d asked questions about the program.

The recurring problem: there were no documents, there was no evidence.

Edward Snowden has previously talked about the importance of Thomas Drake, senior executive at the NSA.

You’ve said that if it hadn’t been for Thomas Drake…

– …there couldn’t be an Edward Snowden. He followed every rule when he tried to raise the alarm. We see this in game theory, in sociological studies. Basically, each time you play a round of a game, people learn a little bit about it. They change their strategy and respond to it, so the way people play round ten is very different from round one.

And you learned from Drake…

– And even from Manning. I learned a lot from how the government responded. What happens when you’re required to report violations of a law to those who ordered those violations of the law?

Was it the mass surveillance or the lies about it that upset you the most?

– In early 2013, when I still had the chance to change my mind, I saw James Clapper (Director of National Intelligence) raise his hand and swear to tell the truth: ”Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?” ”No sir.” “It does not?” “Not wittingly.”

– Telling a lie under those circumstances is a felony.

The year before, Congress had questioned NSA Director Keith Alexander. His answers were the same. Does the NSA routinely intercept American citizens’ emails? No. Does the NSA intercept Americans’ cell phone conversations? No. Google searches? No. Text messages? No. orders? No. Bank records? No.


Keith Alexander 2012.

Edward Snowden not only knew they were lying, but also that the scope was much larger than anyone could imagine. During a 30 day period, the NSA intercepted more than three billion individual conversations just from American communication systems. 97 billion emails and 124 billion phone calls worldwide, in just one month’s time.

At his own desk, Edward Snowden could listen in on anyone – ordinary people, someone’s accountant, a federal judge – as long as he had a private email address.

– Being a whistleblower is not about who you are; it’s about what you’ve seen. Whistleblowers are elected by circumstance, anybody can do it. It’s about people who watch, who think, and who eventually respond. And it takes a number of years. When I first saw things, I really didn’t believe them. I grew up in the shadow of the NSA, my mother worked for the federal government, my father and my grandfather worked for the military. I couldn’t believe the government would lie to us. But eventually the evidence becomes so great that you can’t ignore it.

– When I was at the NSA, talking to my peers, we were seeing the Thomas Drake case in the media, and…

You talked about it at work?

– Yeah, you know, ”it sucks to be that guy”. When eventually I wanted to do something about it – I knew these programs were wrong and I was thinking about coming forward – I wanted to make sure I wasn’t a crazy person. So I showed my co-workers and my supervisors documents for example stating that we were intercepting more about Americans in the United States than we were about Russians in Russia – and said that this doesn’t make sense.

And you felt safe talking about it at work?

– Yeah, because everybody has their shoptalks. It’s not like anybody at the NSA is a villain. No one’s sitting there thinking ”how can I destroy democracy?” They’re good people doing bad things for what they believe is a good reason. They think the end justifies the means.

So there isn’t a silent culture?

– There is and there’s not. When you talk to your co-workers you talk to them in confidence, in trust. You’re alone with them. You say: ”What do you think about this? Do you think this is right? This is crazy.” But what you see is constrained. You don’t know what’s going on in the office next to yours. It’s an unlabelled office. It’s got letters and numbers on it. And you don’t think about how your piece fits into the larger picture.

– By virtue of my position I had a clearance which was called PRIVAC – privileged access – that meant that I could see across all these boundaries. I could see the whole picture. I could see the whole picture. Most people couldn’t. So when I talked to them about that, they were concerned, but at the same time they would immediately go: ”Don’t tell anybody about this. You know what happens to guys like that. You say something about this and they’re going to destroy you.”

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”The Pentagon Papers” leaked by Daniel Ellsberg in 1971.

When Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the ”Pentagon Papers” in 1971, decided to become a whistleblower, he secretly had to smuggle 7,000 pages of classified material out of his office. Night after night, he copied page after page on a Xerox machine which could only, slowly, manage one page at a time. To save time, Ellsberg stopped folding down the lid after a while, wondering whether he would go blind or to prison first.

Edward Snowden didn’t need to photocopy his documents. Certain things have become easier over the years, while other things are just as hard. The risk of being caught. And the following demonizing campaigns.

Daniel Ellsberg was so worried his children would hate him; he felt he had to try to explain why he did what he was doing.

Edward Snowden laughs, nodding.

– Yeah, I think his son actually helped him Xerox. But, to the best of my knowledge, you can’t charge a little child of espionage.

He says it would have been different if he’d told his girlfriend or his family. That would have made them accomplices. So all he did was leave a note in the house on Elue Street in Hawaii, where he lived with his girlfriend, saying he would be away for work.

– That’s the problem; that you can’t tell them. I had everything set up in such a way that my family could cut ties with me and condemn me if things went poorly. And I was okay with that; I was prepared to accept that.

Blowing the whistle was something he did for his own sake, he says. He’s never seen it as a self-sacrificing act.

– I simply saw something and I realized that you have to believe in something. And if you believe in something, you have to be able to stand for it. I don’t like the ideology of self-sacrifice. If a society is asking people to put themselves on fire, it’s very soon going to find itself without volunteers. I don’t believe in altruism. That can be a good thing in some cases, but not in the extreme cases. This was something that made me feel good, that I could be proud of.

Listen (8 sec)

All your life.– Yes, even if life would be cut short. I reject that kind of labelling because it leads to a ”waiting for Superman” way of thinking. People go ”we need a hero but it’s not me” and ”these people did great things, but God I wish someone would do something about that”.

My girlfriend actually understood, because she said ”That’s why I fell in love with you”. But she was certainly upset with me. For good reasons.

On May 20, 2013, he packed four laptops and such a large number of classified documents that no one still knows exactly how many. The only thing we can be sure of, is that the British authorities’ guess was too low when they, after the revelations, went to The Guardian saying: ”We are pretty aware of what you have got… We believe you have about 30 to 40 documents. We are worried about their security”.

Not even the NSA currently knows how many documents we’re talking about. Estimates claim that Edward Snowden had access to a total of 1.7 million documents and that he gave 50,000 to 200,000 documents to the journalists, Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras.

Experiences from previous whistleblowers had taught him that he needed documents to prove his claims, so that no one would dismiss them as lies. He’d also come to some other important insights:

He’d have to flee the country prior to the publications.

He’d have to be transparent in his operations, so that it would be clear that he was acting on his own and that he wasn’t funded by any foreign power.

He’d not publish anything on his own, but leave it to journalists to do the selection.

He’d choose journalists who had demonstrated that they would not allow themselves to be silenced by the White House.

He’d proactively make his name public, in order for his co-workers not to become subject to suspicion.

Laura Poitras was a journalist and an Academy Award and Emmy nominated documentary filmmaker who, like Thomas Drake, had experienced the totalitarian methods that can be accommodated in a democracy.

After her documentary on the war in Iraq ”My country, my country” from 2006, she was constantly harassed. She was stopped more than 40 times, when returning to the US after travelling abroad. Each time they held her, often three or four hours, and interrogated her about who she’d met and where she’d been. Her computer, camera and cell phone were confiscated and not returned for weeks. They copied her credit card and receipts at several of the occasions. They even took her reporter notebook.

Poitras developed her own methods. She stopped travelling with electronic devices. She became an encryption expert. And she avoided talking on the phone about work related matters.

After she’d been detained and threatened with handcuffs at Newark Airport, she contacted the journalist Glenn Greenwald, who wrote an article about her in April 2012.

For Edward Snowden, she and Glenn Greenwald were the perfect choices.

Laura Poitras, who had eventually moved to Berlin to protect her material. Glenn Greenwald, a former lawyer, who now was a journalist living in Rio de Janeiro, and writing for The Guardian.

The problem was that Glenn Greenwald didn’t have an encryption program, nor did he succeed in installing one. The months passed. Edward Snowden kept emailing him under the code name ”Cincinnatus”.

You never thought of giving up?

– The biggest problem for me was to get him to take me seriously. I don’t blame him. I mean, if some random person on the internet is like ”Hey, I got something you need to see, random journalist. It’s about government mass surveillance whatever, they’re just going to go, ”Ah…man, here’s another person thinking aliens are beaming signals through people’s teeth.”

He smiles, saying that it didn’t bother him particularly. Instead, he kept sending encrypting instructions. For months.

– Trying to get Glenn Greenwald to do it was a little bit like trying to teach a cat how to dance. But I can understand that. The problem is the language they use in the encryption programs, to teach it to people. They talk about public keys and asymmetric keys and nobody knows what the hell that means. But I’ve always enjoyed the process of teaching. When I was young, I wanted to do a lot of things, and teaching was one of them.

Read more

More information and trailer of the documentary ”Citizenfour”.

The documentary ”Citizenfour” shows Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald meeting Edward Snowden in Hong Kong for the first time. Their surprise when the source turns out to be a 29 year old in a t-shirt and jeans, instead of the senior man in a suit they were expecting. For Ewen MacAskill, who was sent from The Guardian to assess the credibility of the source, all the alarm bells went off, when he met Edward Snowden. A guy the same age as his own kids was saying he’d worked for the CIA in Geneva and for the NSA in Japan and in Hawaii. When he said that he had served in the Special Forces and broken both his legs, Ewen MacAskill felt that it was overwhelming. At the same time, he had documents proving everything. And whatever they asked him, he gave them long, extensive and detailed answers. Eventually, MacAskill was convinced and sent the agreed green light back home to The Guardian:

”The Guinness is good.”

You seemed very calm in the midst of all this. You even went to bed at half past ten every night and seemed to sleep like a child

Listen (58 sec)

– Yeah, it’s one of those things. I mean, it’s really weird, I don’t actually remember a lot from that period. I was so focused – everybody was so focused – I was in a state where I was functioning, working, being very lucid. But when I watched ”Citizenfour” it was almost like news to me, because it wasn’t in my memory as a lived experience, because I was so focused on information transmission. It was like, this slide shows… means this… explains this… None of us knew when the door would be kicked in. It was all very professional, hyper professional.

So when you seemed calm, it was simply because you weren’t there.

– I actually think that’s a stress response for me. I’m not very emotional; I don’t get very angry, I don’t get very sad, I don’t get very happy. I’m very mellow and that goes for a lot of computer people. This kind of stereotype about this little autistic computer guy, who…

Listen (01:26 min)

…who looks at your shoes instead of his own, if he’s an extrovert…

– Haha. Yeah, right, right, right. I’m not like that. I have a very rewarding relationship that has been going on for a long time. But every girlfriend I’ve had, every time we’re in an argument or something, they say ”you’re an emotionless robot”. Because they would be upset and I’d be thinking logically, ”what’s the problem?”, ”what can I do to make her feel better” and ”oh no, don’t cry!” As an engineer, my whole professional life has been about finding the problem and fixing it. But when it comes to relationships, people aren’t machines or computers… 

I laugh. Saying he can’t be a hopeless case, knowing that he made his girlfriend come all this way. To Russia.

He smiles.

– Yeah…

He pauses.

– That was kind of amazing… That she doesn’t hate me forever, because she didn’t know. She couldn’t know.

Was she mad?

– Actually she understood, because she said ”That’s why I fell in love with you”. But she was certainly upset with me. For good reasons.

When you first wrote to Laura Poitras, you wrote that you already knew how this would end for you.

– I was wrong. When I wrote that, I had an entirely other future in mind. I never expected to make it out of Hawaii. I thought I’d be arrested immediately. The idea that a single person, acting alone, could actually get the truth out from the NSA and share it with the press, for people to listen, was extraordinary. I’ve never been so glad to be so wrong.

Why Russia?

– I didn’t choose Russia. They chose Russia.

Have you thought about it being a deliberate choice on the part of the US?

– Yes, I have. I mean, they said they were afraid that I would start working for the Russians, which is ridiculous for a number of reasons…

And so you got stuck in Russia when they cancelled your passport?

– Right. Shouldn’t they do their damndest to make sure I’m out of that country? But instead, despite the fact that I applied for asylum in 21 different countries across the world, the largest portion in Western Europe, the US Government made phone calls to every one of these countries, saying: ”DON’T do it”.

President Vladimir Putin has compared Snowden to an ”unwanted Christmas present” but Russia finally granted him asylum and on August 1st, 2013 Edward Snowden could leave the airport.

Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport was initially just meant to be a stopover on his way to Cuba. Reporters from all over the world had already bought tickets for the Aeroflot flight SU150 to Havana, because there were rumors that Edward Snowden had a ticket for row 17 on that plane. A correspondent from the Finnish newspaper Helsingin Sanomat drew the winning ticket, managing to book seat 17 F, but minutes before departure, it became clear to the reporters that they would be flying to Cuba alone, without Snowden. An AP reporter tweeted a picture of the empty seat with the caption ”He ain’t here”. Some Russian journalists tried looking at it from a positive side, shouting ”champagne trip, champagne trip”. Whereupon cabin crew drily informed that the twelve hour flight to Cuba was a non-alcoholic flight.

The Finnish correspondent afterwards said that he had watched ”The Muppets” during the entire flight, which had felt appropriate for the situation.

If the Americans were worried that Edward Snowden would start working with the Russians, this would have been the fastest transfer in the history of the airport. Instead, he was now stuck in Russia.

– Initially, I just think they panicked. They expected that the Hong Kong Government would basically just turn me over. And when I was in the air on my way to Moscow, they had like ten hours. They decided to freeze it and they didn’t roll the decision back, ever. At this point it was an emotional attack, where it didn’t matter what I’d done. It was more like, ”Russia, Russia, Russia”, because Russia has such a bad international reputation right now. They could just pin me with that. But I don’t know.

When asked by the US, how Edward Snowden could walk through passport control at Hong Kong’s Chek Lap Kok Airport without being stopped, Hong Kong blamed it on inadequate information. Something the US, in turn, rejected.

The documents that were sent to the Nordic countries from the US authorities also seem to have been written in a hurry.

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NRK: USA asked Norge to arrest Snowden (august 2015, in Norweigan).

One read: ”Good Morning – I hope this email finds you all doing well. I am sending you a notification our service is providing to many of our partners regarding the current status of US citizen Edward Snowden. This information is being provided in the event he should enter your country from his current location in Moscow. Please feel free to call or email me if you have any questions. Thank you.”

In the slightly more formal request sent out separately (in any case to Norway, and certainly also to the other Nordic countries), the US embassy affirms its respect for the Norwegian Foreign Ministry, asking them to immediately inform the embassy and enforce the extradition of Mr. Snowden to the United States, should he show up.

The text was accompanied by this exhaustive description: ”He is a Caucasian male with brown hair and eyes, and wears glasses.”

If the Nordic countries were trusted to assist the US in the search for Snowden, US trust was considerably smaller when Bolivian President Evo Morales was flying home from Moscow. Allegedly, country after country – France, Portugal, Spain, Italy – suddenly denied the presidential plane airspace. The plane was forced to land in Vienna because it was suspected that Snowden was hidden on board.

The Bolivian President was furious, accusing Europe of running errands for the US.

When it comes to the CIA kidnappings, so-called ”extraordinary renditions”, the EU Parliament has, in an investigation, determined that at least 1,245 flights flew into European airspace or stopped over at European airports between the end of 2001 and the end of 2005. The ”War on terror” era is full of surveillance, harassment, kidnappings, torture and secret prisons.

At the same time it’s clear that the strategic values weigh heavily when it comes to the relationship with the US.

– It’s really just crazy, the way that the US Government has handled the issue of torture. Because it’s so clear that is what they’ve done. We’ve even had an investigation in the intelligence committee, which almost never does anything meaningful. They usually act more like cheerleaders for the intelligence community, than watch-dogs. When they get a report that’s so clear and when there were indications that there were people in the CIA, who wanted to talk about these things, but who felt stressed. Some even asked to be moved, because they couldn’t cope with the things they were witnessing and they wanted to do something about it. But instead of providing some path for these individuals to report the wrongdoings that they were witnessing, the CIA actually asked them to stop documenting the abuse.

And the only person, who, to this point, has been convicted of this kind of wrongdoings, is the CIA officer who reported the waterboarding.

– They reason that it’s better to avoid embarrassment and to hide or conceal a wrongdoing than to actually fix it, correct it, even though the failure to do so could create a far greater, more long-term threat. In the torture investigations, it was established that we never got any meaningful intelligence, despite the fact that we were torturing people over a period of years. The cost of this is not just the logistical cost for black prisons, or the money – we’re talking about hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars of taxpayers’ currency to torture people.

– Apart from the human costs for the people who are actually performing the torture and the people who are actually being tortured, there’s the cost of foreign relations. The fact that we’re asking groups, institutions and countries like Sweden to allow rendition flights or to enable them or countries like Romania and Poland to host black sites. The same thing with Thailand, where they had actual torture centers. These countries begin to think we’re okay with that, these are things we’re willing to do, because if America does it, it must be alright. As long as it’s a serious enough case, as long as there is some reason for it. But ultimately, these things come out. You can’t keep a secret that’s so horrendous forever. You can keep it for years; you may be able to keep it for decades. But eventually it will come out. And you pay a moral cost. We actually spend money to shoot ourselves in the foot.

So why is the rest of the world turning a blind eye to this?

– It’s legitimized by the threat of terrorism. Saying it will save lives and that anyone opposing it, risks getting blood on their hands.

Snowden says he also believes there’s a degree of self-defense, just as in the case of the mass surveillance.

– They feel like acknowledging it would illustrate some weakness, or somehow legitimize abuse in countries like North Korea, Russia or China. But the truth is the opposite. It’s a sign of strength to be able to say that we made mistakes, and then show that they can be corrected, show that they can be reformed.

The drone program creates more terrorists than it kills. There was no Islamic State until we started bombing these states. The biggest threat we face in the region was born from our own policies.

Suddenly the doorbell rings. The feeling of uncertainty, from when we were waiting at the meeting point earlier, slips back into the room for a few seconds.

But Edward Snowden calmly walks over and opens the door for the man from room service. I get my steak – medium rare – and Edward Snowden gets his hamburger with fries. The others in the room are having tea and scones. DN photographer Lotta Härdelin and our contacts: Ole von Uexküll and Xenya Cherny-Scanlon from the Right Livelihood Foundation, which awarded Snowden the Alternative Nobel Prize last year.

The announcement of the laureates, which usually is held in the Swedish Foreign Ministry, was temporarily banned last year by former Foreign Minister Carl Bildt. Edward Snowden’s father, Lon, attended the award ceremony in his son’s place.

Your father said he wishes Sweden would give you asylum. Would you feel safe in Sweden?

– It depends on the circumstances. But it would be important symbolically.

It’s clear that he’s proud of you.

He laughs.

– Yes, he’s a little radical now. He never used to be radical.


– Yeah! I mean he worked for the military for 30 years. He’s as conservative as it gets.

It was the same with Daniel Ellsberg’s father. Who later supported him.

– Right, right. Well, it was the same with Daniel Ellsberg, he led the marines and I signed up for the war in Iraq when everybody else was protesting against it. People get in the whole conservatives versus liberal thing, and they like to think of those conservative people as hateful people that don’t care. And that’s true of a small percentage, but we make a mistake when we generalize.

During the Bush administration, people were kidnapped all over the world and dumped in secret prisons, where they were tortured. During the Obama administration, the kidnappings, the secret prisons and the torture, have been replaced by death lists and extrajudicial executions of people, carried out by pilotless aircrafts, known as drones.

Read more

The Intercept: The Drone Papers (october 2015).

In October this year, the online magazine The Intercept published new classified documents, the so-called ”Drone Papers”. The documents show that nine out of ten of the people killed by drones weren’t the intended targets, but civilians who afterwards are categorized EKIAS, enemy killed in action, which looks better statistically. They also show which people decide who to target. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was one of the people in the chain of command.

The documents also show what Edward Snowden was talking about earlier.

– They’re not targeting individuals, they’re targeting phones. And they don’t know whether the terrorist is holding the phone or whether his mother is holding it. And this is why so many drone strikes go wrong, why so many wedding parties get hit. The information they use is dangerous and unreliable. When I saw the Drone Papers, there wasn’t a question in my mind that this was the most important security story of the year, he says.

I ask him about the terminology. ”Jackpot” is when they kill the person they intended to kill. ”Touchdown” is a drone attack targeting someone’s cell phone. ”Baseball card” refers to information about the people they want to wipe out. The hunted people are called ”objects” and get names like ”Brandy”, ”Post Mortem”, ”Lethal Aspen”, ”Ribeye”.

What is that? Is it jargon?

– It’s the military language, everything is an acronym, everything is euphemized. You don’t say assassinations, you say targeted killings. You say ”kill/capture operation”, even if nobody is going to be captured. They’ve got their own culture.

Is it about dehumanizing people?

– There’s a lot of abstraction in it, because you don’t want to think about the fact that you’re actually killing people. You don’t want to think about the fact that these people may have a family. You want to think of them as objectives, you want to think of them as goals, you want to think of them as a puzzle. You don’t want to think of you breaking into the heart of the most central infrastructure for communication in the world – Google. That you’re basically rummaging through everybody’s private life. You want to think of this as a piece of infrastructure that will be a valuable source of intelligence information.

I mention a quote in the Drone Papers. It’s when Obama’s former Director of National Intelligence explains the attraction of waging war by drone: ”It is the politically advantageous thing to do – low cost, no US casualties, gives the appearance of toughness, … it plays well domestically, and it is unpopular only in other countries.

Listen (57 sec)

Is it about fighting terrorists or about winning elections?– It’s just it’s still politically beneficial. They can show that they’re doing something. When they use the word security, they’re not talking about safety. What they’re talking about is stability. Like when they’re saying that they’re saving lives by bombing them. Stability is the new highest value. It’s not about freedom, it’s not about liberty, it’s not even about safety. It’s about avoiding change. It’s about ensuring that things are predictable, shapeable, because then they are controllable.

At least you think they are.

– Right. You think they are controllable.

Until IS comes along and destroys the whole idea.

– Right. Like with the drone program, which creates more terrorists than it kills. There was no Islamic State until we started bombing these states. The biggest threat we face in the region was born from our own policies.

Edward Snowden says that’s a recurring feeling.

– It’s like they have been thinking on an emotional level, not on a smart level. You get this immediate response that really doesn’t make sense. And to be honest, when you think about the US foreign policy over the last decade, that’s the only thing that could possibly explain what they’re doing. Because could anybody look at what we now spent 15 years doing and say this was a genius plan, like this was a grand strategy that really worked out. Sure there have been bright points right, but there have been clear things like, for example, the drone program, where they know it’s not working, and yet they continue it.

He says another quote stuck with him from the Drone Papers.

– It’s when he admits that the problem with the drone program is actually simply that it is creating more terrorists than it kills.

So why didn’t it get bigger headlines?

Edward Snowden nods, saying he’s still optimistic.

– What is important, is simply by having that material published, the whistleblower effected changes in both law and policy. We just don’t know it yet. Almost certainly as a result of seeing that information made public, the government has ordered internal reviews within their bureaucracies. And now advocacy organizations, representatives of the civil society and the non-governmental space, like the ACLU, will be able to bring legal challenges for those who have had their rights violated by these programs. Because previously, at least in the US, the government could flush these challenges out of courts by saying this is speculation, ”you can’t prove this happened”. Even if everybody knows that’s the case. And there’s no stronger confirmation of the government engaging in wrongdoings, than government documents detailing their own wrongdoings.

He says that way, the documents are very important for the future.

– Because if they can win a single court case, they can protect the rights of an entire generation.

You mean that we journalists aren’t as important as we like to believe we are?

– But yes, it’s disappointing that large institutional press, papers like The Washington Post, papers like The New York Times, try to avoid reporting on stories like this for competitive reasons, even when there’s a significant public interest in doing so. Headlines are important for public awareness, for holding people in account in terms of vote. You have to remember that even judges, even the heads of the intelligence agencies, even the parliamentarians who make our laws, are not in the position of virtually being the greatest geniuses in society. They are not some extraordinary people who know everything about everything. They read the papers too and are informed as a result of these. It’s not enough to simply have a free press. It’s not enough that you can write anything. Journalists should feel at least some sense of obligation that corresponds to performing a public service. Helping people understand what they need to know, just as much as what they want to know. They can only govern with the consent of the governed. But consent isn’t consent if it isn’t informed.

Daniel Ellsberg leaked the ”Pentagon Papers” in the 70s. He said he waited 40 years for someone to come forward with new documents. Then there was Chelsea Manning. Four years later, there was Edward Snowden.

And now roughly two years later, there’s another leak. You talk about a Hydra. If you chop the head of a whistleblower or source, you’ll have a new one. It seems to be going faster now. Can this source remain anonymous?

– I hope so. And who knows, it might be me.

He says it a tad teasingly, explaining what he means.

– There’s one beneficial thing with me. In court, anybody who releases documents that are older than May 2013 can use me as a fence since the NSA never identified all the documents that went walking.

We know that you took all these documents, due to the fact that you went to the press. The NSA still doesn’t know which documents you’ve got. So if spies do the same thing, they should be able to walk away with documents all the time, without anyone finding out?

– Yes, yes, absolutely. I just spoke with a former FBI Agent at an ACLU conference and he made exactly that point. He said that the government has started all these programs called the ”insider threat programs”. It’s basically the kind of model where you watch your co-workers, and what they’re doing and report if they do anything that’s an indicator of concern. For example if they have TOR stickers or EFF stickers (TOR enables anonymous communication; Electronic Frontier Foundation defends your digital rights) and they work for the NSA, they would say that’s an indication of split loyalties. Something like that. So you should report that.

They’ve learned their lesson, in other words. When Edward Snowden worked in Kunia in Hawaii, he had a sticker with the text ”Freedom isn’t free” on the door of his house. To work, he often wore a sweater sold by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, featuring a parody of the NSA logo. The eagle’s claws were carrying surveillance earphones instead of keys. And on his desk, he kept the US Constitution.

The odds of an intelligence officer from a foreign power walking around with their values written as clearly, might not be something to hope for too much. And just keeping track of intelligence service employees seems to require its own intelligence service.

After September 11, 2001, suddenly more than 1,200 government organizations and almost 2,000 private companies were working with terrorist control. Nearly five million Americans had some kind of security clearance, and about 1.4 million had access to top secret material. As someone described it – security clearances were handed out like Kleenex.

Even if the NSA is a public authority, it’s part of countless constellations of private companies, where many of the main functions have been outsourced. The agency employs about 30,000 people, but within the NSA, there are also approximately 60,000 contracted employees through private companies.

The intelligence community has also seen a transfer of power from senior agents, not quite mastering the new technology, to younger talents, like Edward Snowden, who was hired by the CIA at the age of 22. A former employee said that there was nothing in his background that could have prevented him from qualifying for a ”top-secret security clearance”, for the simple reason that ”He was so young. He didn’t have a history.”

When Edward Snowden secured a job at the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton in Hawaii, to get full access to the NSA’s unprocessed surveillance archive, the company prided itself, both online and in its annual report from the previous year, on the fact that ”In all walks of life, our most trusted colleagues and friends have this in common: We can count on them. No matter what the situation or challenge, they will be there for us. Booz Allen Hamilton is trusted in that way. You can count on us.”

So how do you know who to trust?

Edward Snowden says you don’t, of course. And he says that the former FBI Agent made that same point. That it’s crazy that the government is so obsessed with whistleblowers who are working with the press.

– No spy in the world involves the press. He also said that, asking an audience, who knows the name Edward Snowden, everybody raises their hand. Who knows Chelsea Manning? And a lot of people raise their hand. Who knows about Thomas Drake? A few people raise their hand. Who knows the name Jeffrey Delisle? Nobody raises their hand.

Who is Jeffrey Delisle?

Read more

Canadian The Star on Jeffrey Delisle (may, 2013).

– Jeffrey Delisle was a Canadian spy, who was arrested like a year ago. He admitted to having entered a top secret facility with a thumb drive, plugged his thumb drive into a computer, taken everything in the system and brought it to the Russian embassy, where he sold it to them directly. For four years. And they never knew about it.

The risks of having a mass surveillance system collecting data on your own citizens without adequate security are obvious. The claims that Edward Snowden’s leak would have put the lives of people at risk, as they said in 2013, have also proved groundless.

– CIA, NSA and DIA (Defence Intelligence Agency) Directors all have  been brought on the floor of the congress and they have been asked by my strongest critics, begged for any evidence, that any national security interest has been harmed, that any individual has come to harm. And not in any single case have they shown concrete evidence that this occurred.

After Snowden’s disclosures, a court of appeal in the US, established that the US government’s collection of data on the telecommunication of millions of citizens was illegal.

At the same time there’s a clear consensus among those defending the mass surveillance. A republican senator said: ”None of your civil liberties matter much after you’re dead”.

A famous radio host said that ”If you’re sucking dirt inside a casket, do you know what your civil liberties are worth? Zilch. Zero, nada.”

In brief: There’s got to be occasions where security interests precede law and civil rights.

What is most favorable to the citizen will, of course, depend on who you ask.

A federal judge noted that the US does not cite a single case ”in which analysis of the NSA’s bulk metadata collection” actually stopped an imminent terrorist attack.

NSA’s mass surveillance didn’t prevent the failed terrorist attack on an airplane bound for Detroit on Christmas Day 2009, the plan to bomb Times Square, or the plan to attack the New York subway system. Instead, observant bystanders and traditional police work stopped these cases.

Nor has the surveillance been able to prevent any of the massacres that actually have happened.

”If you collect everything, you understand nothing”, as Edward Snowden puts it.

That mass surveillance was aimed at controlling terrorists no longer felt that plausible, when it was revealed that the NSA had intercepted Angela Merkel’s private cell phone. Just like when it was revealed that the GCHQ, NSA’s partner in the UK, used their mass surveillance tools to monitor Amnesty.

Edward Snowden spreads his arms.

– Pardon my language; I’m actually not going to say it, but how…

He pauses for me to hear the unspoken words.

–…. is Amnesty threatening us?

So why are they doing it?

– Ultimately, it comes back to that same feeling when people put up cameras in their own homes to keep track of what’s going on. Even if there’s no threat, even if no one ever broke into their homes. It’s the attractiveness of believing you’re in control. You do it because you can do it.

Which also applied to the NSA employees who were caught having used the agency’s powerful spy tool to monitor their partners.

Read more

NPR on #NSApickuplines (august, 2013).

After the disclosures, the hash tag #NSApickuplines started featuring tweets such as ”I know exactly where you’ve been all my life” and ”I bet you’re tired of guys who only pretend to listen.”

This kind of privacy invasion is uncomfortable to most people. Steaming ten letters open – a common practice of the German Stasi during the Cold War – feels like a greater privacy breach than intercepting several billion emails.

– A single death is a tragedy, a million is statistics. Of course it’s a challenge. There is a point when the scope of a violation becomes so staggering that it becomes hard to understand, to imagine. It’s hard to accept so we turn away from it. ”We live in a free society but we’re being watched all the time.”

How do you explain mass surveillance to someone who doesn’t feel monitored? Someone who ”doesn’t have anything to hide”.

– It’s not about not having something to hide; it’s about having something to lose. What we lose when we’re under observation is our humanity. What shapes us, what makes us individuals, is the fact that we can think, we can develop.

Listen (38 sec)

– Arguing that you don’t care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide, is no different than saying you don’t care about free speech because you have nothing to say, or the freedom of press because you’re not a journalist, or the freedom of religion because you’re not a Christian. Rights in societies are collective, and individual. You can’t give away the rights of a minority, even if you vote as a majority. Rights are inherent to our nature, they’re not granted by governments, they’re guaranteed by governments. They’re protected by governments.

They say you can judge a society by how it treats its weakest members. I come to think of a few lines from Glenn Greenwald’s book about the Snowden documents:

”The true measure of a society’s freedom is how it treats its dissidents and other marginalized groups, not how it treats good loyalists. Even in the world’s worst tyrannies, dutiful supporters are immunized from abuses of state power.”

When The New York Times published the first excerpt of Daniel Ellsberg’s 7,000 page Pentagon Papers, a court order requested by the Nixon administration prevented the newspaper from publishing the documents. For 13 days, Daniel Ellsberg was at the center of something the press described as the ”biggest manhunt since the Lindbergh kidnapping”, while he continued to distribute the documents across the country to 17 newspapers that now relay published them, to mock the FBI. On June 30, a Supreme Court decision finally lifted the ban.

When it came to the Snowden documents, Guardian editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger, was determined to protect the material. He set up a special editorial room at the London office, which was guarded 24/7 by security guards with lists of who had access.

In the UK, the press is more independent than in the US, and not as close to the government. At the same time, British journalists don’t boast the same constitutional rights and freedoms as their American colleagues, so as the British government started becoming increasingly aggressive, Alan Rusbridger got in touch with The New York Times. The temperature in the UK was rising, he explained. The plan was that The Guardian would hide behind the US Constitution by transferring the material to their American colleagues.

A week later, two men from the GCHQ came, insisting that The Guardian either destroy or surrender the files. They called themselves ”Ian” and ”Chris”, but The Guardian nicknamed them ”The Hobbits”.

The man who went by the name Ian, said: ”You’ve got plastic cups on your table. Plastic cups can be turned into microphones. The Russians can send a laser beam through your window and turn them into a listening device.”

The GCHQ team then opened a bag and pulled out what looked like a large microwave. The Guardian staff was told that it was a demagnetizer and that its purpose was to destroy magnetic fields, and thus erase hard drives and data.

Ian said: ”You’ll need one of these”.

A Guardian employee said: ”We’ll buy our own degausser, thanks”.

Ian said: ”No you won’t. It costs GBP 30 000”.

The employee answered: ”Okay, we probably won’t then”.

The Guardian staff would then take turns to smash the computers, memory cards, chips and hard drives in the basement under the supervision of The Hobbits. It all took three hours.

Today, many investigative journalists in Western democracies work with handwritten notes, outdoor walks, encrypted coded correspondence and cell phones placed in microwaves when dealing with sensitive material. ”Just like during the Cold War,” as a New York Times reporter put it.

Surveys made after Snowden’s revelation, show that 58 percent of the journalists covering security policy issues in the US today have changed their working methods.

These are not people torturing people. These are people sitting behind a desk, thinking everything they do is completely legal.

Dusk is falling outside the window in Moscow. Lunch has started drifting to à la carte, as I ask Edward Snowden to write down his top five list of favorites among safe programs.

Just like in the documentary ”Citizenfour” I’m fascinated by how he, with all his computer skills, immediately steps down to another level. Like a Formula 1 driver who happily squeezes a child seat in the front seat, chugging along at 20 km/h. That extraordinary combination of IQ and EQ.

Facts. Snowden’s top 5 secure programs

1. Tor
Anonymization software which bounces traffic through several computers to conceal where it is coming from. The easiest way of using is through “Tor browser” – a web reader configured for Tor.2. Signal
Easy-to-use mobile application for IOS or Android which encrypts calls and chat conversations.

3. Off the record
Encryption method for chats which often is shortened OTR. Comes built in to some chat programs, for example Adium, exists as an add on to others.

4. Tails OS
Operative system specifically for integrity issues. Can be carried on a USB-stick and used in for example internet cafés. Leaves no traces on the computer.

5. Qubes
Operative system for the person who really cares about their security. Qubes splits the system’s parts and isolates them from each other, as if you had a computer for every program you were running, so that a security problem in one program will not affect other programs.

As he writes in my notebook, I can’t help noticing how he holds the pen. A grip that tells me he’s someone who’s used to typing on a keyboard rather than writing by hand. It feels like I’ve forced a hockey player to unlace his skates and run ten meters on ice.

He adjusts his glasses, then takes them off for a while.

The short-sightedness.

– I have to hold things this close to be able to see them.

He holds up a piece of paper ten centimeters from his face.

I’m thinking how strange it feels to meet people that you’ve already read so much about. I know he has -6.50 on one eye and -6.25 on the other. Unusually small feet, taking forever to find military boots his size at US Army base Fort Benning. That he doesn’t drink alcohol or coffee, and has never been drunk. So mysterious and quiet at private parties that his friends would compare him to the vampire Edward in ”Twilight”. At the same time, he’s one of the most verbal people I’ve ever met. A person who speaks clear American English in a voice that often emphasizes a word in each sentence, making also what’s hard understandable.

I say that my experience is that the main problem is installing these programs. Using them isn’t that hard once you’ve started.

He puts his glasses back on.

We want to make lower friction to lower the barriers. The problem is that these products are still too technical, I think, to pass the ”grandma test”. People say: please don’t use the grandma test because it’s disrespectful to ”grandma”.

We can also call it the ”Greenwald test”.

– Haha! Don’t do that! He’ll grouch at you on Twitter.

But why don’t the internet companies make it easier for us to use encrypted communication?

– There are a lot of reasons. One is, if it’s not making money, they don’t have any incentive to do it. Two is, now their governments are complaining about it, so they’re a little bit worried of picking and choosing sides, but I think they need to think really hard. Because if you work for one government you work for all the governments. Because if you give the US special back door access, you’re not going to be able to sell your iPhone in China, unless you also give them a back door. The same in Russia.

Read more

The Wire: NSA hacked Google (october 2013).

I say that I’ve been surprised by how shamelessly the NSA brags about what they do, like when they had drawn a map of how they broke into Google’s system. One document even had a little smiley, saying encryption “added and removed here”.

– These are not people torturing people. These are people sitting behind a desk, thinking everything they do is completely legal, and even if it isn’t, it’s never going to become public, because it’s all classified. For them it’s just solving a series of puzzles, to them it’s just an interesting problem. They go: ”We want to be able to read what Google is doing, but Google is encrypting stuff, so what can we do? How can we get around it?” And somebody probably spent six weeks on it…

He laughs.

– … or actually more like six minutes.

Some people have had a hard time understanding how a 29 year old man could give up his high salary, his job, his life and his family, to defend the democratic values most of us claim we want to live by.

In totalitarian states around the world, 29 year old men and women are standing up for the right not to be monitored, the right not to be harassed, rule of law and freedom of speech, even when it means risking death penalty, lashing, life time imprisonment or exile.

Facts. The writer, the photographer and the meeting

Lena Sundström is an author and journalist: She has been nominated for the August literature prize twice – once for the book “Spår” about the expulsion and torture of two Egyptian Swedes. She has also been nominated for the Swedish Grand Prize for Journalism. She has also been awarded the “Gold Spade”, Torgny Segerstedt’s “Freedom pen” and the Swedish National Press Club’s great prize.

Lotta Härdelin is a photographer at Dagens Nyheter. She has come second in the competition ”Picture of the year” and is the photographer behind the pictures for Björn af Kleens story “The occupied landscape” which is nominated for the Swedish Grand Prize for Journalism 2015.

The interview with Edward Snowden was carried out in late October 2015.

Many journalists can bear witness to the fact that it can be easier to find sources willing to take great risks in countries where they risk more than in democracies, where people just risk silence in the coffee room or losing their jobs. I ask Snowden what he thinks is the reason.

– Ultimately, in many cases, people are, on the large scale, rational actors. Living in a country where the worst case scenario is losing your job, at the same time they see that the system is very stable, very robust. Which means: The politicians will talk, the press will write something about it, they will move around some letters in some legislation. But the ultimate outcome of their sacrifice will be very small. There will be nominal changes to law or policy, as opposed to structural reforms. Whereas if you’re in a weaker state, you’re in a less stable regime, you have the chance of basically being the action, the spark that lights the fire, and changes the country for the better in a real and lasting way.

– But hey…

He laughs.

– I’m just speculating.

I come to think of something I heard Edward Snowden say of himself at some point. That he’s an ordinary guy in an extraordinary situation. That is probably true. He maintains his right to be ordinary, despite the extraordinary circumstances. Someone who opens the door himself, takes food orders and meets us without lawyers for a several hours long conversation, because he likes travelling by talking – both in real life and on the internet, which he loves precisely because it’s a ”shark tank” where you are forced to sharpen your arguments, rather than a more pragmatic ”think tank”.

The symbolic value that materializes when an anonymous leak becomes a whistleblower with a name, a face and a context, someone who can carry a story with a weight that doesn’t require medals on the chest.

Earlier in the conversation, Snowden mentioned there being a motto when he worked for the CIA: ”Mission first, mission first.”

Maybe just the mission has changed. The question that I’ve been pondering over for two years was probably put the wrong way from the start. Edward Snowden didn’t give up his country to become a whistleblower.

He’s here because he never gave up.


An article by

Text: Lena Sundström
Photo: Lotta Härdelin
Editor: Axel Björklund
Art direction: Lotta Ek
Digital presentation: Robert Piirainen, Rickard Frank
Video editing: Lars Lindqvist
Translation: Karolina Mårn
Additional translation: Evelyn Jones, Ingmar Nevéus



Luke Harding: ”The Snowden Files”
Daniel Ellsberg: ”Secrets”
Glenn Greenwald: ”No place to hide”
Laura Poitras: ”Citizenfour”
James Risen: ”Pay any price”
­Frontline/PBS: ”United States of Secrets”
Andy Worthington: ”The Guantanamo Files”
Larry Siems: ”The Torture Report”, ”The Torture Report Diary”,
Michael Gurnow: ”The Snowden affair”
Brian Martin: ”Whistleblowing – A practical guide”
Mohamedou Ould Slahi: ”Guantanamo – En dagbok”
Stephen Grey: ”Ghost Plane”
Armando Spataro: ”Ne valeva la pena”
Alfred W McCoy: ”A question of Torture”
And articles and segments published and shown in: The Intercept, The Guardian, Independent, Washington Post, New York Times, The Huffington Post, Der Spiegel, Reuters, Corriere della Sera, Wired, Salon, Vanity Fair, Fokus, BBC, PBS, CNN, NRK, TV4 och SVT.

© Dagens Nyheter AB 2015

Oslo Launch Report

Some good photos and a brief report (in Tamil) by Sarawanan Nadarasa from Monday’s  launch at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO), Oslo for To End a Civil War: Norway’s Peace Engagement with Sri Lanka.

"Iselin Frydenlund (Senior researcher, PRIO), Anne Julie Semb (Professor, University of Oslo)"
  • Anne Julie Semb, Professor, University of Oslo
  • Iselin Frydenlund, Senior researcher, PRIO
"Erik Solheim"
Erik Solheim (former Norwegian Development Minister and Special Envoy to Sri Lanka)
"Mark Salter (Author), Erik Solheim"
Mark Salter (Author) and Erik Solheim
"Erik Solheim"
Erik Solheim, Iselin Frydenlund and Moderator Henrik Syse (Senior Researcher, PRIO)


இன்று ஒஸ்லோவில் வெளியிடப்பட்ட “To End a Civil War: Norway’s Peace Engagement with Sri Lanka” என்கிற நூல் ஒரு முக்கியமான நூல். 550பக்கங்களைக் கொண்ட பல தகவல்களை உள்ளடக்கிய இந்த நூலை எழுதியவர் Mark Salter. எரிக் சுல்ஹைம்மின் நூல் ஒஸ்லோவில் வெளியிடப்படுகிறது என்கிற ஒரு புரளி இந்த சில நாட்களாக பலர் மூலம் அறியக்கிடைத்தது. இலங்கையிலிருந்தும் கூட சில ஊடக நண்பர்களும் சில ராஜதந்திரிகளும் கூட என்னோடு தொடர்புகொள்கையில் எரிக் சுல்ஹைமுடயது என்றே கூறினார்கள். நான் அவர்களுக்கு விபரங்களை அனுப்பி இல்லை என்று மறுக்கவேண்டியதாயிற்று. அப்படியான சிலர் இன்றைய கூட்டத்திற்கும் வந்திருந்தார்கள்.

நிற்க, Mark Salter இந்த நூலுக்காக கையாண்ட பல தகவல்கள்; மூலத் தகவல்களை உள்ளடக்கியது என்பதால் மிகவும் முக்கியத்துவமுடையது. குறிப்பாக எரிக் சுல்ஹைம், வீதார் ஹெல்கீசன் மற்றும் முக்கிய பலருடன் நட்புடையவர். இவர்கள் பொதுவாக ஊடகங்களுக்கு பகிரங்கமாக வெளியிடாத தகவல்கள் கூட இந்த நூலுக்காக பகிர்ந்திருப்பதை அறியக்கூடியதாக இருக்கிறது.

நூலை முழுவதும் வாசித்து முடியவில்லை ஆனால் இதில் வெளியாகிய பல தகவல்கள் இன்னும் பலவற்றை அறிவதற்கான தேவையையும், அதற்கான துணுக்குகளையும் தந்திருக்கிறது என்றே கூறலாம்.

Mark Salter யுத்தத்தின் பின்னர் எரிக் சுல்ஹைம் மற்றும் வீதார் ஹெல்கீசன் போன்றோருடன் திறந்த நேர்காணலுக்காக நான் பல முறை முயற்சித்தபோதும் அதிலிருந்து தப்பிகொண்டோ, தவிர்த்துக்கொண்டோ சென்றிருக்கிறார்கள். குறிப்பாக இலங்கை ஊடகங்கள் என்றாலே மிகுந்த எச்சரிக்கையும் பயமும் அவர்களிடத்தில் உள்ளது. எரிக் சுல்ஹைமுடன் எனக்கு இருக்கின்ற மரியாதை ஒருபோதும் வீதார் ஹெல்கீசனுடன் இருந்ததில்லை. வீதார் ஹெல்கீசன் ஒரு வலதுசாரி தேசியவாத கட்சியின் அமைச்சர் என்பதை அவரது அரசியல் அணுகுமுறையும், தனிப்பட்ட அணுகுமுறையும் எப்போதும் நிரூபித்துக்கொண்டே வந்துள்ளதை கண்டிருக்கிறேன்.

இன்றைய கூட்டத்திற்கு நோர்வேஜியர்கள் அளவுக்கு பல தமிழர்களும் கலந்து கொண்டிருந்தார்கள். எனக்கு மிகவும் மகிழ்ச்சியைத்தந்த ஆழமான கேள்விகளை உடையவராக நான் இன்று கண்டது Iselin Frydenlund ஒரு சிறந்த நோர்வேஜிய ஆய்வாளர். குறிப்பாக பௌத்த பயங்கரவாதம், தேசியவாதம் குறித்த ஆய்வுகளில் ஆழமுள்ளவர். “இலங்கை யுத்தம் பக்கசார்பான வெற்றியை வழங்கியதில் பௌத்த மதத்தின் பாத்திரம் என்ன என்பது பற்றி சற்றும் இந்த நூல் ஆய்வு செய்யவில்லை, அதைப் பொருட்படுத்தவுமில்லை என்று பகிரங்கமாக விமர்சித்தார். நோர்வே மத்தியஸ்தர்களின் தோல்வியில் பாரிய பங்கு அதற்குண்டு என்று விமர்சித்தார். அந்த விமர்சனத்தை ஏற்றுக்கொண்ட எரிக் சுல்ஹைம் “நாங்கள் விட்ட பெருந்தவறு அது” என்று கூறியபோது முதற்தடவையாக இப்படி ஒரு சுயவிமர்சனத்தை நோர்வே தரப்பில் வெளியிட்டிருப்பதை ஆச்சரியமாகவே பார்த்தேன்.

1997-2009 காலப்பகுதியில் நோர்வேயின் சமாதான செயற்பாடுகள் குறித்து நோர்வே செய்த சுயவிசாரணையின் போது (Evaluation of Norwegian peace efforts in Sri Lanka, 1997-2009) அந்த விசாரணை குழுவின் தலைவரிடம் நான் சமாதான முயற்சியின்போது சிங்கள பௌத்த பேரினவாதம் குறித்த அசட்டையான போக்கு குறித்து பல விடயங்களை குறிப்பிட்டிருந்தேன். அப்படிப்பட்ட ஒரு பார்வையை Iselin Frydenlund வைத்திருக்கிறார். அவருடன் தனியான ஒரு பேட்டிக்கு ஒழுங்கு செய்திருக்கிறேன். Mark Salter இன்னும் சில நாட்கள் ஒஸ்லோவில் இருப்பார் அவருடனும் ஒரு நேரத்தை கேட்டிருக்கிறேன். ஒரு விரிவான குறிப்பை எழுத விரும்புகிறேன்.

Oslo Book Launch

Here are a few shots from yesterday’s Norwegian book launch at the Oslo Peace Research Institute (PRIO). Good discusssion at a well-attended event – and once again, we could have sold double the number of books available…. Note to the best-seller lists: here we (don’t) come . . . .

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London launch: Sri Lankan media coverage

Here’s a piece from the weekend edition of The Island, also reprinted in the Sri Lankan Guardian. The reporting of Erik Solheim’s speech is surprisingly accurate. And he, of course, is very much in the limelight. More of this to come, I suspect . . . .

‘MR was prepared to give self-rule to Tamils within Sri Lankan state’ — Solheim

Without calling for elections in the region


From left: Mark Salter, Erick Soheim, Vidar Helgersan, Suthaharan Nadaraja and Prof. Michael Hutt (Chair at the meeting)

By Sujeeva Nivunhella in London

Former Norwegian Norwegian Development Minister and peace envoy to Sri Lanka, Erik Solheim claimed last week that the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa was willing to give self-rule to Tamils within the Sri Lankan state without calling for elections in that region.

“Rajapaksa wanted to do a backroom deal to make Prabhakaran the leader there. He portrayed himself as the great savior of the Sinhalese, but was ready for any dirty deal for his own survival and if it helped his political fortunes”.

Solheim was speaking at the launch of Mark Salter’s book “To End a Civil War – Norway’s Peace Engagement with Sri Lanka” at the Brunei Gallery Lecture Theatre at School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London on Wednesday.

The other key speaker at the event was former Norwegian Deputy Foreign Minister and incumbent Minister for Europe, Vidar Helgesen.

Recalling his engagement in Sri Lanka, Solheim asserted that the then President Rajapaksa told him that he was ready to hand over the North to Prabhakaran as he did not want a long and protracted peace process, which will undermine his support in the South.

He said there is no doubt that war crimes were committed by both sides, but the atrocities of the LTTE leadership cannot be pursued because all their leaders are dead. There should be a mechanism to bring the perpetrators before the law in Sri Lanka itself. That’s the best. If this cannot be done, it should be done internationally.

The responsibility for war crimes from both sides rested with the leadership. No were no freelancers. Any one killed by the LTTE were on Prabakaran’s orders and for anyone killed outside this scope, the onus was with the government, the former Nowegian peace envoy said.

Solheim described President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe as “decent”. With their election, there is an enormously hopeful situation in Sri Lanka now for economic growth and prosperity. There will be many difficulties, but there is an opportunity to find a solution to the Tamil problem which should be some sort of self-rule in Sri Lanka.

He assured the support of the Norwegian government, but said it will come only on request by the Sri Lankan government.

He recounted that except for Anton Balasingham, nobody else within the LTTE had international exposure. The downfall of the LTTE was due to an isolated war lord sitting there basically taking all the decisions not based on proper information.

Solheim also pointed out that the peace process broke down due to bickering between the SLFP and UNP. When one side agreed to give a substantial offer to the Tamils, the other side always opposed it. They were fighting each other more than fighting the LTTE.

That was an enormous problem. Both the Sri Lankan government and Prabhakaran missed opportunities to resolve the problem.

In 2002, Ranil Wickremasinghe’s new government was ready to talk with the LTTE with the blessings of then President Chandrika Kumaratunge, but that opportunity was missed due to Prabhakaran’s fault. The commitment displayed by the International community was also poor. Due to the conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan, they could not give much attention to Sri Lanka, he noted.

There was lack of vision on the part of Prabhakaran. He had a violent response for every issue. He could not embrace vastly accepted federalism. He postponed and postponed, and at the end, it could not be achieved.

He said that based on intelligence at the time, India told them that neither the Sri Lanka government nor the LTTE could win the war and they would come back to the negotiating table at the end.

However, when the LTTE was cornered, the Norwegians suggested to Prabhakaran to surrender to the ICRC under International supervision so that scores of lives could be saved. But, Prabhakaran refused.

Minister Vidar Helgesen said that Ranil Wickremesinghe made great sacrifices for peace. Chandrika Kumaratunga was willing to make sacrifices when she started the peace process. On the LTTE side, Balasingham was the man willing to make sacrifices. Ranil is back as the Prime Minister. For the people of Sri Lanka and the politicians, it is a challenge to bring about lasting peace. Let’s hope Ranil Wickremasinghe be successful as a ‘peace hero’

Dr. Suthaharan Nadaraja a lecturer at the SOAS also spoke.

The Sri Lanka Guardian version, with a rather mournful looking shot of Erik replacing the launch panel, is here: