Peter Maass's blog

February 20, 2017  |  permalink

Where To Find My Work

It’s probably obvious by now, because my last post was nearly three years ago, but these days I’m not really blogging on my site. My writing output is devoted pretty much to The Intercept, in addition to 140-character musings on Twitter (where I’m @maassp), and in the background I’m working on a new book. The “Articles” section of this site is updated with my latest stories from The Intercept, so I encourage visitors to head over there to see what I’ve been writing lately.

March 10, 2014  |  permalink

The NSA Has An Advice Columnist. Seriously.

Just a quick note to say that my latest article, about the National Security Agency’s advice columnist, has been published at The Intercept. Yes, the NSA has an advice columnist—she goes by the pen name “Zelda” and she answers all kinds of questions, from the mundane (officemates who talk too much or smell badly, or someone stealing sodas from a communal fridge) to the intriguing, such as, My boss is spying on me (which is kind of ironic at a spy agency). It’s an amusing story with a serious edge. Zelda’s column on the spying boss reads like an unintended allegory – or a cleverly masked one—in which the NSA’s advice columnist explores the ways in which pervasive surveillance can erode freedom of expression and social cohesion by making it difficult for people to have faith in the privacy of their communications.

February 06, 2014  |  permalink

My New Job at First Look

This is just a quick note to announce that I have joined First Look Media as a senior writer. I’m quite delighted and excited to be working with Glenn Greenwald, Jeremy Scahill, Laura Poitras and many others at First Look. For more, here’s the announcement.

August 19, 2013  |  permalink

Behind the Cover Story: How I Reported on Poitras, Greenwald and Snowden

The following is a question-and-answer interview published on the New York Times Magazine’s blog, “The 6th Floor.” Rachel Nolan conducted the interview.

RN: Everyone wants to talk to Snowden, and, failing that, everyone wants to talk to the two people talking to Snowden. How did you get Greenwald and Poitras to agree to the story?

PM: It goes back a number of years. Laura’s second film in a trilogy about American power, “The Oath,” had just come out. A friend of mine who is a documentary maker recommended it to me and my wife. I was familiar with Laura’s work but was amazed by the documentary. It was visually beautiful and imaginative while at the same time being information-dense and telling a good story. I knew that she was still being stopped at airports while working on a project about surveillance, so I got in touch. A year and a half ago we met several times for coffee or lunch, and I said, “You know, I’d like to do a story about you.” This was long before Snowden entered her life. She was a little bit reluctant, because any spotlight on her makes it more difficult for her to do her work. But she agreed. I got into another couple of stories first. Then the Snowden thing happened, and I sent her another e-mail asking if she’d be amenable to doing the profile now. Since she already knew me and my work, and probably also because I’d been interested in her before, she agreed to let me do the story.

RN: She and Greenwald weren’t worried about disclosing their location in Rio to you, or having you watch them work with secret files?

PM: It was understood that I wouldn’t write anything that would jeopardize their security. I also knew they wouldn’t show me their documents or tell me every detail about how they got them from Snowden or what they planned to do with them. Snowden has been charged with espionage. They could be still be charged with something. They don’t want to make public the types of information, beyond the documents themselves, that could be used to build a case against him or them. Basic things like where Glenn’s house is in Rio I don’t mention in the story, just in case. I think it’s safe to assume the U.S. government knows where Glenn lives, but other governments and private individuals probably don’t. And we did have some explicit conversations about what they preferred I not include.

RN: Did their need for secrecy hinder your reporting?

PM: When I first arrived on a Saturday morning, Laura had sent me an e-mail with the name of the hotel where she was meeting with Glenn and the other two Guardian reporters who were visiting to help with stories. I went straight there from the airport and watched the four of them working on stories and on computer-security issues. It was like an embed. I’ve done military embeds in Iraq. It was either explicitly stated in Iraq, or just really clear, that you didn’t write about operational matters — tactics, perimeter security, patrol plans — that could jeopardize the present or future security of the troops you were with. The military doesn’t show you everything, but it is there in the room, and they are not necessarily able or trying to hide everything. They depend somewhat on your discretion. Both were classified environments.

RN: Did you use encrypted messages in reporting this story?

PM: I exchanged both encrypted and nonencrypted messages with Poitras. If something was not supersensitive, we used normal e-mail. I thought about not bringing my smartphone to Rio, but then I ended up bringing it. When I was with Laura and Glenn, I for the most part left my smartphone in a secure place that was not on my person. If it was on me, it was usually off. I didn’t bring my own laptop to Rio. I brought a clean computer. I thought that maybe as I came back, someone might want to take a look at what was on my computer. Then when I returned to New York and Laura returned to Berlin, I had more questions for her. So there were two levels of security: We used an encrypted chat program and anonymizing software.

RN: Through an encrypted chat via Laura, you got a chance to ask Snowden some questions. What sense did you get of him?

PM: I didn’t know whether he would answer any of my questions, and neither did Laura. So I thought the best thing would be to keep them focused on the topic of my story. I didn’t learn more about him personally, but what was most interesting and what has gotten a lot of reaction was his surprise about the lack of encryption that journalists use and journalists’ lack of awareness of how their communications are so easy for organizations, including the N.S.A., to capture. He expressed his disappointment that in the beginning Glenn was not only not encryption savvy but wouldn’t take the steps to become encryption savvy until Laura went to him and said, “Hey, this is for real.” Snowden knew very well what the N.S.A. was capturing, so it was useful to hear directly from him that encryption is a crucial step.

August 13, 2013  |  permalink

The Snowden Interview

In the course of reporting my profile of Laura Poitras for The New York Times Magazine, I conducted an encrypted question-and-answer interview, for which Poitras served as intermediary, with Edward J.  Snowden. Below is a full transcript of that conversation.

Peter Maass: Why did you seek out Laura and Glenn, rather than journalists from major American news outlets (N.Y.T., W.P., W.S.J. etc.)? In particular, why Laura, a documentary filmmaker?
Edward Snowden: After 9/11, many of the most important news outlets in America abdicated their role as a check to power — the journalistic responsibility to challenge the excesses of government — for fear of being seen as unpatriotic and punished in the market during a period of heightened nationalism. From a business perspective, this was the obvious strategy, but what benefited the institutions ended up costing the public dearly. The major outlets are still only beginning to recover from this cold period.
Laura and Glenn are among the few who reported fearlessly on controversial topics throughout this period, even in the faceof withering personal criticism, and resulted in Laura specifically becoming targeted by the very programs involved in the recent disclosures. She had demonstrated the courage, personal experience and skill needed to handle what is probably the most dangerous assignment any journalist can be given — reporting on the secret misdeeds of the most powerful government in the world — making her an obvious choice.
P.M.: Was there a moment during your contact with Laura when you realized you could trust her? What was that moment, what caused it?
E.S.: We came to a point in the verification and vetting process where I discovered Laura was more suspicious of me than I was of her, and I’m famously paranoid. The combination of her experience and her exacting focus on detail and process gave her a natural talent for security, and that’s a refreshing trait to discover in someone who is likely to come under intense scrutiny in the future, as normally one would have to work very hard to get them to take the risks seriously.
With that putting me at ease, it became easier to open up without fearing the invested trust would be mishandled, and I think it’sthe only way she ever managed to get me on camera. I personally hate cameras and being recorded, but at some point in the working process, I realized I was unconsciously trusting her not to hang me even withmy naturally unconsidered remarks. She’s good.
P.M.: Were you surprised that Glenn did not respond to your requests and instructions for encrypted communication?
E.S.: Yes and no. I know journalists are busy and had assumed being taken seriously would be a challenge, especially given the paucity of detail I could initially offer. At the same time, this is 2013, and a journalist who regularly reported on the concentration and excess of state power. I was surprised to realize that there were people in news organizations who didn’t recognize any unencrypted message sent over the Internet is being delivered to every intelligence service in the world. In the wake of this year’s disclosures, it should be clear that unencrypted journalist-source communication is unforgivably reckless.
P.M.: When you first met Laura and Glenn in Hong Kong, what was your initial reaction? Were you surprised by anything in the way they worked and interacted with you?
E.S.: I think they were annoyed that I was younger than they expected, and I was annoyed they had arrived too early, which complicated the initial verification. As soon as we were behind close doors, however, I think everyone was reassured by the obsessive attention to precaution and bona fides. I was particularly impressed by Glenn’s ability to operate without sleep for days at a time.
P.M.: Laura started filming you from nearly the start. Were you surprised by that? Why or why not?
E.S.: Definitely surprised. As one might imagine, normally spies allergically avoid contact with reporters or media, so I was a virgin source — everything was a surprise. Had I intended to skulk away anonymously, I think it would have been far harder to work with Laura, but we all knew what was at stake. The weight of the situation actually made it easier to focus on what was in the public interest rather than our own. I think we all knew there was no going back once she turned that camera on, and the ultimate outcome would be decided by the world.

July 29, 2013  |  permalink

PGP Key for Peter Maass

June 18, 2013  |  permalink

On Leakers, Heroes and Traitors

Julian Assange, Bradley Manning and, now, Edward Snowden. Heroes or traitors? My latest story in The Nation argues that character questions of this sort serve as distractions from the most important thing—the content of the leaks. The legislators and journalists who focus on Snowden’s background (high school dropout? narcissistic millennial? pole-dancing girlfriend?) are either missing the point of the NSA’s surveillance operations or trying to make us miss it. Alex Gibney’s new documentary, We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, is a case in point. Although the film criticizes the Obama administration for excessive secrecy and its crackdown on leakers, a great amount of its fury is directed at the character flaws of Assange, who currently resides in a small room in the Ecuadorean embassy in London, where he is trying to avoid extradition to Sweden to answer sexual assault allegations. On five occasions the film mentions the condoms that Assange did or did not use when he had sex with two Swedish women; it mentions on just one occasion Eric Holder, the attorney general who oversees domestic surveillance and the prosecution of leakers. This is off-kilter. We have gotten neither the film nor the debate we need.

March 19, 2013  |  permalink

Invasion: Diaries and Memories of War in Iraq

The exhibit I have been working on, Invasion: Diaries and Memories of War in Iraq, opened last week at the Bronx Documentary Center in New York City. It features the remarkable war diaries of Marine Lt. Tim McLaughlin, excerpts of stories I wrote about the invasion, and photos by Gary Knight. In 2003 Gary and I followed Tim’s frontline battalion to Baghdad, where Tim’s American flag was placed on the statue of Saddam Hussein at Firdos Square.

Invasion is an unusual look at war and history from three perspectives—combatant, writer, photographer. It is our effort to describe what war looks like and feels like on the ground, rather than from a far-away anchor’s chair or politician’s desk. We’ve also created a video installation that features a loop of news footage from the invasion era—everything from Secretary of State Colin Powell’s speech to the United Nations, to the explosions of shock and awe in Baghdad and President Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” speech on an aircraft carrier. On the tenth anniversary of the invasion, we hope the exhibit focuses attention on the true cost of war.

The exhibit has been fortunate to attract some media attention. CBS News has aired a piece, the New Yorker wrote about it, as well as AFP, AP, and Public Radio International. The photos on this post are from the opening reception; for more photos, please visit the gallery’s Facebook page. The exhibit runs at the Bronx Documentary Center until April 19.

Update: The New York Times wrote about the exhibit too, calling it “a stinging rebuke of the news media’s early unquestioning coverage as well as a window into the nature of war.”

February 05, 2013  |  permalink

Invasion, the Kickstarter

Nearly ten years ago, I drove into Iraq in a rented SUV to cover the invasion. Three weeks later, I was in Baghdad, watching the toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square. In March, on the tenth anniversary of the invasion, an exhibit I am co-organizing will open at the Bronx Documentary Center in New York, featuring the vivid diaries of Tim McLaughlin, the Marine whose flag was draped on the statue. I am writing the text for the exhibit, which is called Invasion and will also feature the now-famous flag, as well as photographs by Gary Knight. We’ve just launched a Kickstarter fundraising campaign to support it. Please visit the Kickstarter page and, if you can, please donate to the cause, so that we can tell this incredible story on the occasion of this important anniversary. The Iraq war is on its way to being forgotten in America; this exhibit is intended to remind us what happened, what the aftermath consists of, and how we can learn from it all.

January 26, 2013  |  permalink


Here’s a screenshot of the opening frame of the fundraising video for the war diary exhibit I’m co-curating. Exhibit launches in mid-March, on the 10th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. More posts coming soon.

December 14, 2012  |  permalink

“Zero Dark Thirty” and the Shadow of Embedded Filmmaking

Much of the pre-release debate about “Zero Dark Thirty” has focused on whether it portrays torture as effective, in the sense of prying information out of al Qaeda suspects. Yes, the movie conveys that view, and I think it’s inaccurate. Many experts, including key senators who oversaw an extensive congressional investigation, have concluded that torture did not play a significant role in finding bin Laden, and that torture in general is a counter-productive way to get information from prisoners. But the heated debate on torture misses what’s far more important and troubling about a film that seems destined for blockbuster and Academy Award status. “Zero Dark Thirty” represents a new genre of embedded filmmaking that is the problematic offspring of the worrisome endeavor known as embedded journalism. My latest story, published by The Atlantic, asks whether we are getting the myth of history before getting the actual history. Click here or here for the story.

November 15, 2012  |  permalink

Was Petraeus Borked?

Will the scandal surrounding David Petraeus, General John Allen, Paula Broadwell, Jill Kelley, and a shirtless F.B.I. agent turn into the same sort of eureka moment on privacy that Congress experienced when Judge Robert Bork’s video rentals were revealed during a bruising battle over his Supreme Court nomination? My latest story, co-published by the New Yorker and ProPublica, explores the implications of the FBI’s investigation. Although the lustful portion of the Petraeus scandal is hardly disappearing—who else will be drawn into it, and when will we read the e-mails?—attention is turning toward the apparent ease with which the F.B.I. accessed the electronic communication of Petraeus, Broadwell, Kelley, and Allen. The exact circumstances of how the F.B.I. got its hands on all this material remains to be revealed—for instance, whether search warrants were obtained for everything—but the bottom line appears to be that the F.B.I. seriously harmed the careers of at least Petraeus and Broadwell without, as of yet, filing a criminal complaint against anybody. As the law professor and privacy expert James Grimmelmann tweeted the other day, “The scandal isn’t what’s illegal; the scandal is what’s legal (or what the FBI thinks is legal).” Click here, here or here to read the story.

July 15, 2012  |  permalink

Cellphone? How Quaint. It’s a Tracker.



The device in your purse or jeans that you think is a cellphone — guess again. It is a tracking device that happens to make calls. We can love or hate these devices — or love and hate them — but let’s start calling them what they are so we can fully understand what they do. Read my latest story about digital surveillance, co-authored with Megha Rajagopalan, in the New York Times and at ProPublica.

June 13, 2012  |  permalink

‘The Toppling’ Wins Mirror Award

Nice news—my New Yorker story about the toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad has won the John M. Higgins Award for Best In-Depth/Enterprise Reporting, given out as one of the Mirror Awards by the Newhouse School of Public Communication at Syracuse University. The Mirror Awards are for stories that look into the role of the media.

May 15, 2012  |  permalink

An Enduring Condition

My latest story, just published in the Nation, is an essay about Mary Dudziak’s new book, “War Time: An Idea, Its History, Its Consequences.” The essay notes that although war is waning in the classic configuration of brigades fighting an enemy on foreign shores, we are not rid of its specter, burdens, threats, costs and restrictions. What should we make of wartime that has the appearance of peacetime?

April 15, 2012  |  permalink

Guggenheim Fellowship

Thank you, Guggenheim Foundation!

January 04, 2012  |  permalink

Жестокий мир: Суровый закат нефтяной эры

Don’t worry, my website hasn’t been hacked. The headline for this post is the Russian title of Crude World. The Russian roughly translates as “Cruel World: The Severe Decline of the Oil Era,” which is a bit different from the original wording in English. If you’d like to purchase a copy, it’s published by United Press and goes for 396 rubles; click here for the link.

December 07, 2011  |  permalink

The Truth About Angelina Jolie and Me

Okay, the headline is a bit of an exaggeration, but not entirely. Angelina Jolie has just come out with a new movie about the Bosnian war that she wrote and directed, In the Land of Blood and Honey. She’s being sued by an obscure writer who accuses her of stealing the plot of his book about Bosnia. In an interview published yesterday by the Los Angeles Times, Jolie said she had never seen the aggrieved writer’s book and had relied on other books for inspiration, including (yes, yes) Love Thy Neighbor. I had no idea about this until a reporter for TMZ called today to ask whether I had any problems with Jolie’s use of my book. Of course I’m delighted. It gives me an excuse to post a picture of her on my otherwise non-glamorous blog.

September 15, 2011  |  permalink

What Happened at Macondo?

Remember the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico? Last year it captivated America’s attention as nearly five million barrels of oil gushed into the water, but once the runaway well was capped, the outrage faded away. As I write in a story in The New York Review of Books, drilling has resumed in the area, tourists are back on the beaches, and even Tony Hayward, forced to step down as BP’s CEO, is back in the action, running a multi-billion dollar investment fund. But a spate of reports and books provide a trove of data that reveals how the oil and gas industry remains as unaccountable as the too-big-to-fail banks that brought on the financial crisis of 2008. The BP disaster revealed the same problems—lax government regulation, corporate profits despite the risks, a fawning press—that characterized the financial meltdown. Big banks and big oil have more in common than their size.

September 09, 2011  |  permalink

Exxon’s Russian Roulette

How can you turn $3.2 billion into $500 billion in a day? That’s the question I ask in a post on the New York Review of Book’s blog. The answer, if you are Vladimir Putin, the prime minister of Russia, and Rex Tillerson, the chief executive of Exxon, is that you announce a deal that allows Exxon to explore for oil in Russia’s Arctic waters. According to Putin, who last week said, “It’s scary to utter such huge figures,” the deal could reach $500 billion. According to Exxon’s news release, all that’s been agreed so far is an investment of $3.2 billion. The only certainty is that the energy industry’s numbers game sometimes resembles the magical calculations the financial industry relied on before the 2008 crash. For more, click here.

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Crude World by Peter Maass Crude World by Peter Maass

A look at oil’s indelible impact on the countries that produce it and the people who possess it.

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Love Thy Neighbor by Peter Maass Love Thy Neighbor by Peter Maass

Dispatches from the war in Bosnia, published in 1996 by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.

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About Peter Maass

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