- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 8, 2015

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - Glenn Greenwald argued at the University of Utah on Tuesday that when a national surveillance agency’s motto is “collect it all,” a country is closer to tyranny than freedom.

The university invited the lawyer-turned-journalist, known for his work on an award-winning series in British newspaper The Guardian that detailed global surveillance programs, to speak during a week devoted to exploring surveillance by the U.S. government.

Greenwald was one of a handful of reporters to sift through thousands of classified documents leaked by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.

Students, professors, alumni and even a blogger from Idaho packed the school’s Dumke Auditorium on Tuesday to hear Greenwald discuss his meetings with Snowden and the process of sifting through stacks of technical government documents to determine which should be made public.

Then, to a supportive audience, he outlined his concerns with the NSA surveillance programs he helped expose.

The Internet, he said, is “the place where you explore the world and make friends and maintain human connections and experiment with your identify and the way which you essentially understand the world.”

“And so to stand by and watch that instrument, that human innovation, the Internet, be turned into the most extreme and comprehensive form of human surveillance has been something really menacing in the eyes of lots of Americans.”

He described the chilling effect of seeing the phrase “collect it all” scattered throughout NSA documents describing programs allowing the agency to monitor the phone and Internet activity of citizens. That kind of intense surveillance, he said, quashes dissent and creativity.

He also argued that a government that knows more about its citizens than the citizens know about the government is closer to tyranny than freedom.

His speech comes just before a congressional vote to extend the Patriot Act, the legislation that authorized these programs and which expires on June 1.

To describe the scale at which the NSA records citizen communication, he referenced the agency’s $1.7 billion facility near Bluffdale, about 40 miles south of Salt Lake City.

In an age when massive amounts of information can be stored on a thumb drive, the NSA had to build this large facility because it was running out of physical storage space, said Greenwald.

Compounding the problem of surveillance and data collection, he said, is the government’s tendency to keep such programs secret.

“Secrecy is almost a religion in Washington,” he told reporters before his speech.

Greenwald said he was troubled by the number of routine, even “boring” documents that were labeled as classified, secret or top secret, making it a crime to read them.

“That should be a massive scandal in and of itself,” he said.

Even many high-ranking elected officials are kept in the dark, he said.

Greenwald said several members of Congress from both parties, including some who sat on commissions charged with overseeing the NSA, told him they were learning about these surveillance programs for the first time by reading his articles.

Such secrecy turns voting into a “hollow ritual,” he argued, because the public doesn’t know about some of the government’s most significant operations - and neither do many of the officials they elect.

“What you actually have is a government inside a government,” said Greenwald.

Greenwald’s visit fell just two days after an HBO comedy show featured an interview of Snowden.

Before his speech, the journalist said that he’d prefer people take surveillance and government secrecy seriously. But he called comedian John Oliver’s interview of Snowden on “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” a net gain because it reached an audience that might not be drawn to traditional reporting on the issue.

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