When National Security Agency whistleblower provided his first set of documents to Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald a note accompanied the set and read, “I understand that I will be made to suffer for my actions.”
He insisted on not being in the media spotlight, according to a post including the interview where Snowden came forward to identify himself as the source behind stories on US secret surveillance. “I don’t want public attention because I don’t want the story to be about me. I want it to be about what the US government is doing.” He also wrote, “I will be satisfied if the federation of secret law, unequal pardon and irresistible executive powers that rule the world that I love are revealed even for an instant.”
United States government officials and those in the US media—in some instances in harmony with one another—have done exactly what Snowden predicted. They have engaged in a process of caricaturization and delegitimization that all whistleblowers experience.
CNN ran a segment Tuesday night during “The Situation Room” with Wolf Blitzer that consisted of one hundred percent speculation from “former spies” that the Russians were “trying to get their hands” on “intelligence” Snowden had and the “Chinese may have already had their turn.” They asked how the Russian might “try to extract the information they need.”
Former CIA operative Bob Baer asserted, “The Russians are aggressive and there’s no doubt in my mind they would not let this opportunity pass over.” A former KGB officer Oleg Kalugin, who “supervised a ring of notorious British Cold War operatives who spied for the Soviets, was asked by CNN’s Brian Todd, “How would they approach him? What would be their style? Would they flatter him?”
“Yes, they would probably say something nice about how nice that Americans understand the value of improving relations and better knowledge of each other,” Kalugin answered.
Brian Todd brought in Mark Stout, former US intelligence officer “who spent 13 years in the intelligence community analyzing Russia and Russian intelligence.” He’s also with the International Spy Museum.
TODD: …Mark, how long would it take them to download everything from his laptop?
MARK STOUT, FORMER CIA RUSSIA ANALYST: It’d just be a matter of minutes for them to be able to strip all the data off the hard drive of Snowden’s computer if they’re able to get to it. And that doesn’t actually require Snowden’s cooperation. Now, the files on that may be encrypted. But once they have copied that data, they can decrypt it at their leisure for however long it happens to take.
TODD (voice-over): Stout says Snowden may be able to tell the Russians whether the Americans have been able to penetrate Russian computer security systems, maybe with a secret back door or a Trojan horse.
This is yellow journalism. No proof or facts are presented to substantiate the idea that Snowden has actually had the security of the files he is traveling with compromised on his computer. There is no proof or facts presented that the Russians or Chinese have copies of his secrets. It is, instead, purely sensational and intended to captivate viewers by getting them interested in the idea that Snowden committed espionage.
Both former CIA analyst Philip Mudd and CNN national security correspondent Fran Townsend, who once worked in the administration of President George W. Bush, appeared on CNN to add more after the segment:
BLITZER: …Mr. Mudd, do you just assume that the Chinese, for example, have copied, have had access to everything on those laptops, those thumb drives that he had during his few days in Hong Kong?
PHILIP MUDD, SENIOR RESEARCH FELLOW, NEW AMERICA FOUNDATION: Absolutely. I don’t know how you assume anything else. Let’s reverse this. Let’s say I’m sitting in a staff meeting in the intelligence community in the United States and someone walks in and says, “Well, to be polite, we’re not going to mirror his hard drive.” And let’s say we had a Chinese intelligence officer. My answer would be, “Are you kidding me?”
The first thing you’re going to do, by default, is say, “I want to talk to the guy, and I’m simply going to download everything he’s got.” I think you’ve not only got to assume that, I believe it’s an almost factual statement.
BLITZER: Fran, do you agree?
FRAN TOWNSEND, NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Yes. Absolutely. I think it’s true both in China and in Russia. And by the way, he doesn’t have to cooperate. They can — they can do this without his even knowing it.
BLITZER: When you say that, because I’ve been told — I’ve been to China. I went to North Korea. And security experts said to me, “Don’t take your laptop. Don’t take — don’t take anything, because within a few minutes if the Chinese want it or if the North Koreans, even for that matter, want it, they can get it pretty quickly with or without your knowledge.”
Do you buy that, Fran?
TOWNSEND: Absolutely, Wolf. The only thing he might have done was to keep it on a thumb drive, which will make it a little bit more difficult for them to get access to it.
There are any number of articles that can be found online right now speculating about what Russia or China knows. There are no articles, as far as one can tell, that have been produced that consist of one hundred percent speculation about how Snowden’s files are safe and how he might have taken precaution to ensure that foreign governments would not be able to access the files if he lost control of them or was put in a situation where he had to give them up.
During the same news program on Tuesday, CNN’s Barbara Starr, a resident stenographer for the Pentagon, presented another segment that functioned much like the material on China and Russia getting access to files Snowden has but focused on how Snowden’s whistleblowing had aided terrorists who want to do harm to America.
“What if Edward Snowden, the self-confessed leaker and computer expert, has one last cyber trick up his sleeve? U.S. intelligence officials worry Snowden may have some type of cyber doomsday insurance, threatening to publicize an online link to all the classified material he took so that anyone could access it if he’s taken into custody?” Starr wondered.
Starr said, “The US assumption is that China has already read everything Snowden brought with him to Hong Kong, but still to be determined, the precise damage Snowden has done by revealing eavesdropping and surveillance programs and what additional classified information he could leak.”
Here’s how the rest of this piece of state-identified journalism played out:
GEN. RAYMOND ODIERNO, U.S. ARMY CHIEF OF STAFF: There’s always concern that when information like this is leaked, what’s the impact it has?
STARR: Intelligence officials are trying to figure out how many laptops Snowden traveled with and the size of the hard drives. That may help them calculate how much material he still has or whether he has handed it off to supporters.
A U.S. intelligence official tells CNN — quote — “We are seeing indications that several terrorist groups are in fact attempting to change their communications behaviors since news accounts of Snowden’s leaks.”
KERRY: It’s possible the United States will be attacked because terrorists may now know how to protect themselves.
STARR: But former Air Force intelligence officer Cedric Leighton says some of the so-called damage is the red face the U.S. has been left with.
COL. CEDRIC LEIGHTON (RET.), U.S. AIR FORCE: Looking at what he’s released so far, I would give it a 60 percent embarrassment ratio to a 40 percent security risk ratio.
STARR: Now, the reality is al Qaeda has used encrypted communications for years, some of their operatives even long ago giving up their cell phones. But now U.S. officials say other terrorist groups are reacting to these disclosures by Snowden and very quickly also changing their communications methods—Wolf
What is remarkable is how Odierno’s statement was taken out of context. Here he is what he said:
I can’t say whether I’ve seen any changes. Obviously, there’s always concern that when information like this is leaked, what’s the impact it has? What’s the impact it has on our operational forces deployed forward. What’s the impact it has on our ability to continue to conduct operations around the world, and I always worry about the protection of our forces who are in 150 countries around the world, so I’m very concerned about this leak. It’s not just about leaking information, from my viewpoint, it’s must bigger than that. It puts American soldiers at risk…actually soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines at risk — who are overseas, conducting operations. [emphasis added]
Including the words, “I can’t say whether I’ve seen any changes,” would create doubt around whether any changes have occurred. Since Odierno is in a high-ranking military position and would know, it could undermine the hype rife within the package that aired.
It would make what Odierno said similar to what former Pentagon spokesperson Geoff Morrell said when WikiLeaks published the Afghan War Logs, which Pfc. Bradley Manning has taken responsibility for disclosing:
We have yet to see any harm come to anyone in Afghanistan that we can directly tie to exposure in the WikiLeaks documents…There is in all likelihood a lag between exposure of these documents and jeopardy in the field.
The last statement is boilerplate. It is what military or intelligence officials will always say when leaks occur but that does not mean what they are suggesting is truth.
However, the idea that the terrorists have changed tactics because of Snowden’s disclosures was picked up by the Associated Press and republished by multiple news outlets.
Two U.S. intelligence officials say members of virtually every terrorist group, including core al-Qaida, are attempting to change how they communicate, based on what they are reading in the media, to hide from U.S. surveillance — the first time intelligence officials have described which groups are reacting to the leaks. The officials spoke anonymously because they were not authorized to speak about the intelligence matters publicly.
The officials wouldn’t go into details on how they know this, whether it’s terrorists switching email accounts or cellphone providers or adopting new encryption techniques, but a lawmaker briefed on the matter said al-Qaida’s Yemeni offshoot, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, has been among the first to alter how it reaches out to its operatives. [emphasis added]
In other words, officials, who would likely condemn the publishing of leaks on US secret surveillance programs leaked information on how the terrorists are changing tactics after leaks on US secret surveillance programs. They engaged in a journalistic transaction similar to Snowden going to The Guardian. In fact, how do we know that these unnamed officials are not possessing classified information and using the material in ways that could pose a risk to national security? If these are supposed to be “closely held,” how do we know they aren’t putting this country at risk by letting the terrorists know that America knows that they are adapting operations so they can better fight America?
Both Senator Ron Wyden and Senator Mark Udall have also directly disputed whether the surveillance programs revealed actually were critical to thwarting 50 terrorist plots, as NSA director Gen. Keith Alexander claimed. CNN and other outlets have spent little to no time focusing on how what Alexander said may be factually untrue (despite the fact that the word-parsing master recently softened the language used to describe the effect the programs had on thwarting terrorism).
All of which is to show how US media willfully publishes leaks that serves the national security agenda of the United States government but will rarely produce journalism that contains unsubstantiated statements from unnamed officials about how leaks have not caused any damage and are unlikely to cause damage.
That is because most national security journalists are engaged in access journalism, where they have to condemn leaks from whistleblowers that are in the public interest, so they can preserve access to sources in positions of government that will provide them leaks so they can have scoops on the day-to-day affairs of US national security. And to be someone who receives this information, one cannot regularly cover information that calls into question this agenda or the inherent operations of national security agencies.
As Greenwald said on “Anderson Cooper 360″ on June 12:
…Every single time the American government has things that they’ve done in secret, exposed or revealed, to the world and they’re embarrassed by it, the tactic that they use is to try and scare people into believing that they have to overlook what they have done.They have to trust American officials to exercise power in the dark, lest they be attacked. That their security and safety depend upon pacing this value in political officials. And I really think it’s the supreme obligation of every journalist and every citizen when they hear an American official say this story about us jeopardizes national security to demand specifics, to ask what exactly it is that has jeopardized national security because if you look at the stories that we reported we were very careful to never disclose anything that could even conceivably harm national security.
None of the stories ask what has specifically harmed national security. Since all that has been exposed, whether it be the secret surveillance programs or the hacking against China, is accepted as legal and acceptable by the three branches of government, the establishment media has collectively decided at this point to accept there is nothing in the material that merits closer examination. (This is despite the fact that the courts have made it impossible for Americans to challenge secret surveillance because one has to know they are being secretly spied upon to have standing to challenge that policies or programs are unlawful or unconstitutional.)
The result is a climate is created that is hospitable for the government to pursue Snowden as a spy. It shifts the focus away from the content of the leaks. It makes it difficult for public opinion to shift to supporting him as he seeks asylum in a country that will not subject him to harsh punishment for his whistleblowing. It allows for the spread of arguments prosecutors would likely push in a courtroom during Snowden’s trial.
It insulates all three branches of government from any groundswell from the bottom-up that might push for a dismantling of what NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake calls the “Leviathan surveillance state” and promote Snowden as an American of conscience.