Q&A: The amateur spies and analog story behind the Snowden leak

The US government was rocked in 2013 by a series of stories detailing the extent of the surveillance state. Edward Snowden, an NSA contractor who was the source behind those stories, has become famous for his role in leaking information that would eventually be published in The Guardian, The Washington Post, Der Spiegel, and The New York Times. Snowden’s collaboration with filmmaker Laura Poitras and journalist Glenn Greenwald has been well-documented.

But last week saw the revelation of a new, as-yet untold chapter in the saga: Writing in Harper’s, journalists Dale Maharidge and Jessica Bruder describe their role in the leaks. It’s a gripping story, involving cell phones stashed in refrigerators, a box of sensitive material buried under an outhouse and then perched in a tree, and a tribute to the analog beauty of the US Postal Service.

Maharidge and Bruder recently spoke with CJR about their secret role in the Snowden leak, the value of security, and their goals in publishing the piece. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

 

Part of what makes this story so gripping is the seemingly amateur nature of your counter-surveillance tactics. You make up code names for everything and, at one point, bury the Snowden material in “a fifty-five-gallon barrel of old shit.” What were you thinking during the process? 

Maharidge: During the process it was le Carré meets The Three Stooges. It was very analog because I wasn’t doing anything encrypted. I was very foolish at that point in my career, so Laura and I came up with all of this code language to use on the phone. Jess became the “first sink.” The NSA was the “co-op board.” Anybody who’s lived in New York City knows co-op boards are notoriously crazy to deal with. If either of us wrote “the co-op board is angry” it meant bad shit. It meant the NSA or CIA is on to us and Holy shit. We better deal. We never had to use that code, thank goodness.

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How have you changed your security practices as a result of this experience?

Bruder: I use Signal, even for communications that don’t need to be secure. I have the camera on my laptop covered up with a bit of gaffers tape. We showed the folks at Harper’s ProtonMail and actually got them to transmit drafts of the story back and forth via PGP. A lot of these technologies have become more integrated in my ordinary life. Part of that is because I needed security in this particular situation. Also, the more I’ve learned about the issue, the more I’ve wanted to become part of the community around security because the more people who do this sort of thing, the more we normalize it, the harder it is for us all to be spied on.

If a police department or the NSA wanted to surreptitiously watch people via laptop cameras and it was normalized for people to cover their cameras, that tool would not be in their arsenal anymore. I don’t think somebody’s watching me through my laptop, but I want to be part of the community of people covering their laptop cameras, if that makes any sense.

 

One of the themes throughout the story is the paranoia you felt not knowing whether the government was on to you. Jess, you went so far as to cover a picnic table on the roof of your building because it was made out of NYPD sawhorses. How else did that paranoia manifest?

Maharidge: Laura [Poitras], in her diary, had a passage from George Orwell about how [paranoia] affects your health and your nervous system. It manifests itself in very funny ways, so there’s a physical reaction. It was this timeless period of incredible stress.

I liken it to when my mother was dying, the last weeks, where time didn’t exist. It was a single unit, and everything was kind of foggy. Anybody who has lost a loved one can appreciate that. But take that feeling and insert paranoia. When I got home there was a murderer on the loose, and there were 200 police officers roaming the woods where I live on the California coast. There was a helicopter overhead one day—were they looking for the murderer or watching me?

May 2013 was very intense. I condensed that in the story, but like most of life, when we write a story we encapsulate something in a few paragraphs. You can’t keep writing about it, but I can’t overstate living through it, the PTSD that I had from it. There were several moments doing the story where Jess and I had some heart-to-heart discussions about how it was affecting us, and the paranoia came back. I don’t know what Jeff Sessions or Trump are going to do with this knowledge. Two lawyers have told us that the odds are slim, but they’re vindictive people.

Bruder: The phrase “the narcissism of paranoia” was something I was joking with Dale about because I basically told him, when this story comes out, if nothing happens I’ll write an essay called The Narcissism of Paranoia. One of the creepy things about that is that there are so many people I know who aren’t engaged with privacy and anti-surveillance measures because the attitude is This isn’t relevant to me. Nobody’s watching me. In my mind, the narcissism of paranoia can be a destructive force in that way because it kind of pushes back against the idea that we’re a community here. That’s become something of a touchstone for us as we do what we can to be sane and secure but also go on to live our lives. But yeah, I did cover the picnic table again.

 

In the story, one of the moments that stands out is when the realization hits that Snowden, Poitras, and Greenwald have all left the country, and you’re the only ones left.

Bruder: It was very weird and very isolating. You have to go on and keep living your life, but by the same token you’re worried about all the things you’re not doing. I think my biggest anxiety at the time was Am I anxious enough? You don’t know how deep the rabbit hole goes; you just know that you’re in it. What’s sane, what’s paranoid—only history bears that out. Things that looked paranoid might have been sane if things had worked out in different ways. The knowing, in the moment, that you don’t know the full picture and what’s going to happen—that lack of control is what’s scary. It’s why we do small things we can control to make ourselves feel better, realizing that most things are not within our scope.

 

What’s sane, what’s paranoid—only history bears that out.”

 

Neither of you hesitated when you were asked to get involved in this work. In the piece, Dale, you write that you told Laura, “This is what we do. It’s why we’re journalists.” What did you mean by that?

Bruder: The only thing Dale told me was that it was for the cause of investigative journalism. For me, that was enough. Even though the media is really fragmented these days, and there is fierce competition between news outlets, I do think that on a deeper level there is a sense of solidarity, and it’s important to maintain it. If I needed something sent to somebody, I’m sure I could find people to help me, too. It’s important that we’re part of a community and that we keep that going.

Maharidge: Journalism is not something that I do; it’s something that I am. It’s part of me; it’s not a job.

Bruder: It’s an approach to the world. It’s not just a profession.

Maharidge: It’s a mindset. So, from the get-go, when Laura said there’s a person that wants to send something, I went into secure mode. It was interesting how much I did right without knowing it. She made me “paranoid” by making me put my phone in the fridge every time I went to her place. I never did that before. So when things got hotter, Jess and I were putting our phones in the fridge. Even before that, when this mysterious person wanted to send us something, I went to Jess and said “Don’t talk about it on the phone. Call it elk antlers.” (A favorite toy of Jess’s dog, Max). I had the presence of mind to go into the proper journalism mode. It was part of my life; it wasn’t something I had to think about.

Bruder: And even though Dale sounded crazy to me, out of respect for the great world of stuff I did not know, you put your phone in the fridge. It sounded crazy, but what do I know?

 

Part of telling your role in this tale is to humanize a major international surveillance story. Why did you feel it needed that human touch?

Bruder: So many people think of surveillance and the state and cryptography, and they see these giant unknowable octopi and things that are just not relevant to them in their ordinary lives. I’m hoping that by humanizing the backstory here, we can show people that it is relevant and it’s something we can all play a part in. You don’t need to be some super-sophisticated hacker to care and to make a difference.

 

You don’t need to be some super-sophisticated hacker to care and to make a difference.”

 

Maharidge: As Jess wrote, it’s not the realm of cyber ninjas. With video, everyone’s a journalist now. Anybody with an iPhone that’s near police arresting someone instantly becomes a journalist as soon as they pull out their phone. I just saw another video of police kicking a guy on the ground. It was terrible. But if the police had seen the person recording, they may have gone over and taken the phone. They don’t have a right to, but if they did, suddenly that evidence is gone.

 

You write in the piece that, “These are critical issues, relevant to everyone.” Was part of your goal to evangelize for better security practices?

 Bruder: Yeah, the more people who understand and integrate these tools into their ordinary life and how they communicate, the better it is for the entire community. It’s something I’ve been encouraging a lot of people who would otherwise think it was narcissistic or weird to do, just to be a part of creating a bigger haystack for the needles. [These practices are] a given to me now, and [they’re] something I learned and thought about a lot throughout this whole process.

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Pete Vernon is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.