Greenwald was unaware of the identity of the person offering the leaks and was unsure whether they were genuine. He took no action. In March in New York, he received a call from Poitras, who convinced him he needed to take this more seriously.
Greenwald and Snowden set up a secure communications system and the first of the documents arrived, dealing with the NSA’s secret PRISM program, which recruits the major Internet companies to help with surveillance.
Greenwald flew to New York to talk to Guardian editors on May 31, and the next day he and Poitras flew to Hong Kong. (I met the two for the first time in the New York office, accompanied them to Hong Kong, and joined them in interviewing Snowden over the best part of a week and writing articles based on the leaked documents and the interviews.)
Neither Greenwald nor Poitras knew what Snowden looked like.
“He had some elaborate scheme to meet,” Greenwald said.
Snowden had told him to go to a specific location on the third floor of the hotel and to ask loudly for directions to a restaurant. Greenwald assumed Snowden was lurking in the background, listening in.
They went to a room — which, Greenwald recalled, contained a large stuffed alligator — where Snowden made himself known to the pair.
Snowden had told Greenwald, the Guardian journalist said, that: “I would know it was him because he would be carrying a Rubik’s cube.”
Greenwald and Poitras were shocked the first time they saw the 29-year-old.
“I had expected a 60-year-old, grizzled veteran — someone in the higher echelons of the intelligence service,” Greenwald said. “I thought: ‘This is going to be a wasted trip.’”
After an hour of listening to Snowden, though, Greenwald changed his mind.
“I completely believed him,” he said.
The interviews were conducted in Snowden’s room, which overlooked Kowloon Park. Snowden and the journalists, complete with camera equipment, crammed into the tiny space.
He had been there for weeks, having meals sent up to his room. He did not have much with him: some clothes, a book, two laptops, that Rubik’s cube. He was becoming worried about the costs and especially the chance that his credit cards would be blocked.
Even though he was well versed in surveillance techniques, he would have been quite easy to find, having signed in under his own name and using his own credit cards.
The interviews, combined with the leaked documents, provided the Guardian with four scoops in quick succession, from the court order showing that the US government had forced the telecom giant Verizon to hand over the telephone records of millions of US citizens to the previously undisclosed PRISM program, which revealed that big Internet companies had been co-opted into helping with government surveillance.
The PRISM story was also published independently by the Washington Post after Poitras, a freelance journalist, approached the investigative reporter Barton Gellman with the story and Gellman took it to the paper. However, once on the ground, working in Hong Kong, she began working with the Guardian team.