Luke Harding Interview: Snowden, Putin and Radioactive Assassins

Photo: Benjamin A. Ward

By Nikita Artamonov, Y13

Luke Harding is a correspondent for the Guardian, who has been posted to Delhi, Berlin and Moscow. He was expelled from Russia in 2011 after provoking the government with his (highly) critical reporting. Harding wrote about this experience in his book, Mafia State. He was one of the Guardian journalists who spent several days ploughing through the masses of WikiLeaks materials just released by Julian Assange, on the basis of which he wrote a book – ‘’WikiLeaks’’. Intrigued again by the theme of freedom of information, he wrote “The Snowden Files” after whistleblower Edward Snowden’s dramatic escape from the USA to Moscow. Oliver Stone’s new film “Snowden”, is largely based on Harding’s work. Harding is promoting his most recent book, which focuses on Litvinenko, an ex Russian spy who was poisoned with radioactive polonium in a London hotel in 2006.

In early September, Luke was invited to promote his books at the Morges book festival, “Le Livre Sur Les Quais”, where I sat down with him for an interview.

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Sitting down to talk to Luke Harding.

Firstly, what do you think about Snowden? Is he a hero or a villain?

Well, for me, Snowden is a hero, but I think public opinion divides sharply depending on who you ask and what country you are in. Until four, five years ago, when Snowden came along, we didn’t know the full extent of spying by the Americans and their British friends. Now we know that that they do this on an enormous scale. They hoover up your emails, your text messages, your web searches, they can bug your iPhone, and even turn on the camera on your laptop by remote and see what you are doing in your bedroom. These are unprecedented powers of surveillance, and I think, and Snowden thought, that these kinds of powers should only be used with democratic consent. He was the guy who ripped away the curtain and revealed the nature of these things. I think he’s a hero, but he is also a hero who has paid a pretty big price for what he has done.

Have you actually met Snowden?

I wrote the book with my colleague, Ewen MacAskill, who has met Snowden in Moscow [he visited the school two years ago]. I couldn’t meet him directly as I was kicked out of Russia. I was one of a team of journalists who looked at all the tens of thousands of documents that Snowden had revealed. We went through them in London, interpreted them, and published a whole series of stories on them.

[It is] mass surveillance of everybody, whether you are a teenager in Geneva, a granny in Norway or a militant in Pakistan. It is indiscriminate.

What is important and interesting for you about freedom of information?

Well, it’s a great story; there he was, a junior systems analyst, working for the NSA, with phenomenal computer skills, based in Hawaii. He was unhappy about what he saw, skipped off to Hong Kong with a hard disk full of top secret information, and all these journalists came to meet him. It’s an extraordinary story. In terms of freedom of information, it’s quite interesting, because Snowden was careful about what he did. He didn’t want to destroy legitimate American intelligence operations. He thought there was a role for spying, but, he felt that spying should be against bad guys: Al Qaida, Russian or Chinese leadership, rather than what it has become, which is mass surveillance of everybody, whether you are a teenager in Geneva, a granny in Norway or a militant in Pakistan. It is indiscriminate. So, he is for freedom of information, but within limits.

Oliver Stone’s film “Snowden” is coming out very soon, which is largely based on your book “The Snowden Files”. Tell me about the film.

This is the second of my books turned into a Hollywood movie – the first was WikiLeaks, which was about Julian Assange, a mercurial Australian. The film was called “The Fifth Estate” starring Benedict Cumberbatch. It got 3/5 stars and was not a huge commercial success, though I thought it was quite a good film. This one comes out on 16 September in US. It is a great movie – a political thriller, pretty close to the story of my book, in fact, the opening scene of the film is the opening scene of my book. Three journalists meet Snowden in Hong Kong for the first time and realise that he is real, not a fake or an imposter. In the end, you kind of end up cheering for Snowden. The other extraordinary thing about it is that I wrote a lot of my journalist colleagues from the Guardian into my book, who were then played by Hollywood actors, who didn’t always flatter them. It’s a real moment of cognitive disconnect when you see people you know rendered by Hollywood actors!

“Russia is a wonderful, diverse, and multidimensional country of 142 million. It’s not just one rather short guy from the KGB…”

You were a Guardian correspondent in Russia for a few years until you were kicked out. You are a specialist on Russia. What do you think we should make of Russia today? Should we try to bring it closer or should we fear it and contain it?

Well… I loved my time in Russia, I was there with my family and we were very happy there. I think we have to be clear what we are talking about. It’s very important we make a distinction between Russia and Vladimir Putin. The Kremlin considers any antagonism towards Putin as an attack on Russia. Russia is a wonderful, diverse, and multidimensional country of 142 million. It’s not just one rather short guy from the KGB and his friends who have taken power in Russia, and, in my view, run the state, essentially for their own quasi-criminal purposes. So there is the Russia of 142 million people with a beautiful history and traditions, and amazing and talented people, and there’s the KGB clique in power, who are doing two things: pursuing a public project with noisy, ultranationalist and expansionist goals and causing trouble, a bit like a teenager. Then there’s a private project, in my view, for these guys at the very top, who are some of the richest people on the planet, and this project is to steal money. To steal money, to hide money offshore and to stop other people from taking their money. Most of their mental energy goes into this theft. That’s why I called my book about Russia, “Mafia State”, because essentially, that’s what it is. The state and all its bodies, the FSB and organised crime are meshed to become a single entity. Treating Russia as a state like Switzerland is a categorical error.

Your newest book, called “A Very Expensive Poison”, is about the murder of Alexander Litvinenko. Is it still a mystery or is it possible to determine who killed him?

Well, after ten years investigating this story, and a long public enquiry, we know most of the answers surrounding this extraordinary story. Just to recap, Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned with radioactive polonium in November 2006 and died horribly three weeks later. This is not a substance you can buy from a chemist shop. It’s manufactured in a nuclear reactor, it is highly toxic, and it’s one of the most lethal substances on earth. He actually, we discovered, drank less than a grain of sand’s worth of polonium, which killed him. The Russian government refused to extradite the two guys who did it, one of whom, Andrei Lugovoi, is now an MP. We have had this on-off diplomatic battle between London and Moscow. What we finally got, last year, was the result of an enquiry into the evidence. Over the years, a lot of “enemies” of Vladimir Putin have met mysterious deaths, and there’s never been much of a reckoning. What makes this case special, is that Litvinenko was killed in London. There was a dispassionate investigation by Scotland Yard, by the British police and forensic scientists, and what they came up with was extraordinary. They found the radioactive trail of the killers in London, they found out that the killers had tried twice before to kill Litvinenko, before they finally succeeded, putting the poison in his teacup.

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Alexander Litvinenko a few days before his death. Photograph: Natasja Weitsz/Getty Images

In January this year, we got a stunning finding, by the judge, that Vladimir Putin personally, had probably approved the assassination. What can we say about Putin? The fact that he is a murderer, “probably”, is not just something that nasty journalists like me say, it’s now a legal fact. This is the leader of a major G-20 country, who basically, has people he personally dislikes, murdered. That is quite a stunning conclusion. I’ve done lots of stories as a journalist over 25 years, I’ve covered murder trials as a junior reporter, but this is one of the most astonishing stories of the 21st century, not least because the two killers were a pair of idiots, who didn’t manage to get their man initially. After they failed, they poured the polonium down the washbasin of their hotel and then they went into London to try and have a fun time, they tried to pick up women, they went to an erotic nightclub, they smoked shisha pipes in the Trocadero… The whole thing is beyond any novel.

This is one of the most astonishing stories of the 21st century, not least because the two killers were a pair of idiots.

Finally, you have chosen journalism as a profession. Would you recommend it to young people today?

It depends on what you want to do. If you want to get rich, or even enjoy a relatively affluent lifestyle, then no. Newspapers and news organisations are struggling all over the world. The economic model is bust. No one really buys a newspaper any more, they do it online. Facebook is hoovering up all the money from news content leaving us almost with nothing. Having said that, as a career, it is more fun than anything else I’ve ever come across because, first of all, you don’t have to wear a suit, secondly, you write for a living, thirdly, every day you’re doing different stuff, as the world changes. You can do really interesting stories. Generally, journalists are kind of clever and interesting, but without the stuffiness of an ambassador or a diplomat. It’s a tremendously fun and varied career, but it’s an uncertain career, and if you want to make money, go somewhere else!