On Thursday 6 June 2013, our fifth day in Hong Kong, I went to Edward Snowden‘s hotel room and he immediately said he had news that was “a bit alarming”. An internet-connected security device at the home he shared with his longtime girlfriend in Hawaii had detected that two people from the NSA – a human-resources person and an NSA “police officer” – had come to their house searching for him.
Snowden was almost certain this meant that the NSA had identified him as the likely source of the leaks, but I was sceptical. “If they thought you did this, they’d send hordes of FBI agents with a search warrant and probably Swat teams, not a single NSA officer and a human-resources person.” I figured this was just an automatic and routine inquiry, triggered when an NSA employee goes absent for a few weeks without explanation. But Snowden suggested that perhaps they were being purposely low-key to avoid drawing media attention or setting off an effort to suppress evidence.
Whatever the news meant, it underscored the need for Laura Poitras – the film-maker who was collaborating with me on the story – and I to quickly prepare our article and video unveiling Snowden as the source of the disclosures. We were determined that the world would first hear about Snowden, his actions and his motives, from Snowden himself, not through a demonisation campaign spread by the US government while he was in hiding or in custody and unable to speak for himself.
Poitras had spent the previous 48 hours editing the footage from my first interview with Snowden, but she said it was too detailed, lengthy, and fragmented to use. She wanted to film a new interview right away; one that was more concise and focused, and wrote a list of 20 or so specific questions for me to ask him. I added several of my own as Poitras set up her camera and directed us where to sit.
“Um, my name is Ed Snowden,” the now-famous film begins. “I’m 29 years old. I work for Booz Allen Hamilton as an infrastructure analyst for NSA in Hawaii.”
Snowden went on to provide crisp, stoic, rational responses to each question: Why had he decided to disclose these documents? Why was this important enough for him to sacrifice his freedom? What were the most significant revelations? Was there anything criminal or illegal shown in these documents? What did he expect would happen to him?
As he gave examples of illegal and invasive surveillance, he became animated and passionate. But only when I asked him whether he expected repercussions did he show distress, fearing that the government would target his family and girlfriend for retaliation. He would avoid contact with them to reduce the risk, he said, but he knew he could not fully protect them. “That’s the one thing that keeps me up at night, what will happen to them,” he said as his eyes welled up, the first and only time I saw that happen.
The relatively lighter mood we had managed to keep up over the prior few days now turned to palpable anxiety: we were less than 24 hours away from revealing Snowden’s identity, which we knew would change everything, for him most of all. The three of us had lived through a short but exceptionally intense and gratifying experience. One of us, Snowden, was soon to be removed from the group, likely to go to prison for a long time – a fact that had depressingly lurked in the air from the outset, at least for me. Only Snowden had seemed unbothered by this. Now, a giddy gallows humor crept into our dealings.
“I call the bottom bunk at Gitmo,” Snowden joked as he contemplated our prospects. As we talked about future articles, he would say things such as: “That’s going into the indictment. The only question is whether it’s going into yours or mine.” Mostly he remained inconceivably calm. Even now, with the clock winding down on his freedom, Snowden still went to bed at 10.30pm, as he had every night during my time in Hong Kong. While I could barely catch more than two hours of restless sleep at a time, he kept consistent hours. “Well, I’m going to hit the hay,” he would announce casually each night before retiring for seven-and-a-half hours of sound sleep, appearing completely refreshed the next day.
When we asked him about his ability to sleep so well under the circumstances, Snowden said that he felt profoundly at peace with what he had done and so the nights were easy. “I figure I have very few days left with a comfortable pillow,” he joked, “so I might as well enjoy them.”
Revealed to the world
At 7.27pm, British summer time on Sunday 9 June 2013, the Guardian published the story that revealed Snowden to the world: “Edward Snowden: The Whistleblower Behind the NSA Surveillance Revelations.” The article told Snowden’s story, conveyed his motives, and proclaimed that “Snowden will go down in history as one of America’s most consequential whistleblowers, alongside Daniel Ellsberg and Bradley [now Chelsea] Manning.” We quoted from Snowden’s early note to Poitras and me: “I understand that I will be made to suffer for my actions … but I will be satisfied if the federation of secret law, unequal pardon and irresistible executive powers that rule the world that I love are revealed even for an instant.”
The reaction to the article and the video was more intense than anything I had experienced as a writer. Ellsberg himself, writing the following day in the Guardian, proclaimed that “there has not been in American history a more important leak than Edward Snowden’s release of NSA material – and that definitely includes the Pentagon Papers 40 years ago”.
Several hundred thousand people posted the link to their Facebook accounts in the first several days alone. Almost three million people watched the interview on YouTube. Many more saw it on the Guardian’s website. The overwhelming response was shock and inspiration at Snowden’s courage.
Poitras, Snowden and I followed the reaction to his exposure together, while I also debated with two Guardian media strategists over which Monday-morning TV interviews I should agree to do. We settled onMorning Joe on MSNBC, followed by NBC’s Today show – the two earliest shows, which would shape the coverage of Snowden throughout the day.
But before I could get to those interviews, we were diverted by a call at 5am – just hours after the Snowden article was published – from a longtime reader of mine who lives in Hong Kong, with whom I had been communicating periodically throughout the week. He pointed out that the entire world would soon be looking for Snowden in Hong Kong, and he insisted that Snowden urgently needed to retain well-connected lawyers in the city. He had two of the best human-rights lawyers standing by, willing to represent him. Could the three of them come over to my hotel right away?
We agreed to meet a short time later, at around 8am. I slept for a couple of hours until he called, an hour early, at 7am.
“We’re already here,” he said, “downstairs in your hotel. I have the two lawyers with me. Your lobby is filled with cameras and reporters. The media is searching for Snowden’s hotel and will find it imminently, and the lawyers say that it’s vital they get to him before the media finds him.”
Barely awake, I threw on the nearest clothes I could find and I stumbled to the door. As soon as I opened it, the flashes from multiple cameras went off in my face. The media horde had obviously paid off someone on the hotel staff to get my room number. Two women identified themselves as Hong Kong–based Wall Street Journal reporters; others, including one with a large camera, were from Associated Press.
They hurled questions and formed a moving half-circle around me as I walked to the elevator. They pushed their way into the elevator with me, asking one question after the next, most of which I answered with short, curt, unhelpful replies.
Down in the lobby, a new swarm of cameras and reporters joined the group. I tried to look for my reader and the lawyers but could not move two feet without having my path blocked.
I was particularly concerned that the swarm would try to follow me and make it impossible for the lawyers to get to Snowden. I finally decided to hold an impromptu press conference in the lobby, answering questions so that the reporters would go away. After 15 minutes or so, most of them dispersed.
I was then relieved to stumble into Gill Phillips, the Guardian’s chief lawyer, who had stopped off in Hong Kong on her way from Australia to London to provide us with legal counsel. She said she wanted to explore all possible ways for the Guardian to protect Snowden. “Alan [Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian] is adamant that we give him all the support we legally can,” she said. We tried to talk more but had no privacy with the last few reporters lurking. I finally found my reader, along with the two Hong Kong lawyers he had brought with him. We plotted how we could speak without being followed, and all decamped to Phillips’ room. Still trailed by a handful of reporters, we shut the door in their faces.
We got right down to business. The lawyers wished urgently to speak to Snowden to get his formal permission to represent him, at which point they could begin acting on his behalf.
Phillips frantically used her phone to investigate these lawyers, whom we had only just met, before turning Snowden over to them. She was able to determine that they were indeed well-known and established in the human rights and asylum community and seemed quite well connected politically in Hong Kong. As Phillips performed her impromptu due diligence, I signed on to the chat program. Both Snowden and Poitras were online. Poitras, who was now staying at Snowden’s hotel, was certain that it was only a matter of time before the reporters found their location, too. Snowden was clearly eager to leave. I told him about the lawyers, who were ready to go to his hotel room. Snowden said they should pick him up and bring him to a safe place. It was, he said, “time to enter the part of the plan where I ask the world for protection and justice”.
“But I need to get out of the hotel without being recognised by reporters,” he said. “Otherwise they’ll just follow me wherever I go.”
I conveyed these concerns to the lawyers. “Does he have any ideas how to prevent that?” one of them asked.
I passed the question on to Snowden.
“I’m in the process of taking steps to change my appearance,” he said, clearly having thought about this previously. “I can make myself unrecognisable.”
At that point, I thought the lawyers should speak to him directly. Before being able to do so, they needed Snowden to recite a formalistic phrase about hereby retaining them. I sent Snowden the phrase and he then typed it back to me. The lawyers then took over the computer and began speaking with Snowden.
After 10 minutes, the two lawyers announced they were heading over to his hotel immediately to meet Snowden as he attempted to leave the hotel undetected.
“What do you intend to do with him after that?” I asked.
They would likely take him to the UN mission in Hong Kong and formally seek the UN’s protection from the US government, on the grounds that Snowden was a refugee seeking asylum. Or, they said, they would try to arrange a “safe house”.
But how to get the lawyers out of the hotel without being followed? We came up with a plan: I would walk out of the hotel room with Phillips and go down to the lobby to lure the reporters, still waiting outside our door, to follow me. The lawyers would then wait for a few minutes and exit the hotel, hopefully without being noticed.
The ruse worked. After 30 minutes of chatting with Phillips in a shopping centre attached to the hotel, I went back up to my room and anxiously called one of the lawyers on his mobile phone.
“He got out right before journalists started swarming the floor,” he said. “We met him in his hotel room and then we crossed a bridge into an adjacent mall” – in front of the room with the alligator where Snowden had first met us, I later learned – “and then into our waiting car. He’s with us now.”
Where were they taking him?
“It’s best not to talk about that on the phone,” the lawyer replied. “He’ll be safe for now.”
I was immensely relieved that Snowden was in good hands, but we knew there was a strong chance we might never see or speak to him again, at least not as a free man. Most likely, I thought, we would next see him on television, dressed in an orange prison jumpsuit and wearing shackles, inside a US courtroom, being arraigned on espionage charges.
As I digested the news, there was a knock on my door. It was the general manager of the hotel, who had come to tell me that the phone was ringing nonstop for my room (I had given an instruction to the front desk to block all calls). There were also throngs of reporters, photographers, and camera people down in the lobby waiting for me to appear.
“If you like,” he said, “we can take you out a back elevator and through an exit nobody will see. And the Guardian’s lawyer has made a reservation for you at another hotel under a different name, if that’s what you want to do.”
That was clearly hotel-manager-ese for: we want you to leave because of the ruckus you are creating. I knew it was a good idea anyway: I wanted to continue to work with some privacy and was still hoping to maintain contact with Snowden. So I packed my bags, followed the manager out the back exit, and then checked into a different hotel under the name of the Guardian’s lawyer.
The first thing I did was sign on to the internet, hoping to hear from Snowden. Several minutes later, he appeared online.
“I’m fine,” he told me. “In a safe house for now. But I have no idea how safe it is, or how long I’ll be here. I’ll have to move from place to place, and my internet access is unreliable, so I don’t know when or how often I’ll be online.”
He was obviously reluctant to give any details about his location and I did not want them. I knew that my ability to be involved in his hiding was very limited. He was now the world’s most wanted man by the world’s most powerful government. The US had already demanded that Hong Kong authorities arrest him and turn him over to American custody.
So we spoke briefly and vaguely, expressing mutual hope that we would be in touch. I told him to stay safe.
When I finally got to the studio for the interviews for Morning Joe and the Today show, I noticed immediately that the tenor of the questioning had changed significantly. Rather than dealing with me as a reporter, the hosts preferred to attack a new target: Snowden himself, now a shadowy figure in Hong Kong. Many US journalists resumed their accustomed role as servants to the government. The story was no longer that reporters had exposed serious NSA abuses but that an American working for the government had “betrayed” his obligations, committed crimes, and then “fled to China”.
My interviews with both hosts, Mika Brzezinski and Savannah Guthrie, were acrimonious and acerbic. Sleep-deprived for more than a full week now, I had no patience for the criticisms of Snowden embedded in their questions: journalists, I felt, should be celebrating, not demonising, someone who had brought more transparency to the national security state than anyone in years.
After a few more days of interviews, I decided it was time to leave Hong Kong. Clearly, it would now be impossible to meet or otherwise help Snowden from Hong Kong, and at that point I was completely exhausted, physically, emotionally, and psychologically. I was eager to return to Rio.
I thought about flying home via New York and stopping for one day to do interviews – just to make the point that I could and would. But I was advised by a lawyer against doing so, arguing that it made little sense to take legal risks of that sort until we knew how the government planned to react. “You’ve just enabled the biggest national security leak in US history and gone all over TV with the most defiant message possible,” he said. “It will only make sense to plan a trip to the US once we get a sense of the Justice Department’s response.”
I didn’t agree: I thought it was unlikely in the extreme that the Obama administration would arrest a journalist in the middle of such high-profile reporting. But I was too drained to argue or take the risk. So I had the Guardian book my flight back to Rio through Dubai, nowhere near the US. For the moment, I reasoned, I had done enough.
• This is an extract from No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the US Surveillance State by Glenn Greenwald, published on 13 May 2014 by Hamish Hamilton.
A fortnight after Greenwald left Hong Kong, Snowden fled the former British colony. Realising that he could only hold off US extradition requests for a matter of months – at best a year – he headed for Latin America but was stopped in transit in Moscow. He has been stuck in Russia since.
The three reporters who interviewed Snowden in Hong Kong – Greenwald, Poitras and Ewen MacAskill – received the Polk award last month for their Snowden coverage and are part of a Guardian team to be awarded a Pulitizer prize in New York later this month. Snowden hopes that one day he will be able to seek asylum in western Europe or, even better, be allowed to return to the US as a free man.