There seems to be growing or steady discontent with the way a select group of committed and professional journalists have handled the National Security Agency documents from former NSA contractor and whistleblower Edward Snowden. Whether the discontent is motivated by genuine concern about whether the files are having the impact they should or by an ideological opposition to the process in which the material is being published, that is hard to tell when engaging with some who are bothered.
Journalist Glenn Greenwald thoroughly addressed critics who have accused him of “privatizing” classified information by launching a new media project that will be funded by eBay founder and billionaire, Pierre Omidyar. He also methodically explored the different approaches he could take to reporting on the files from Snowden to show critics that he and others have carefully thought out what to do with the files.
I will simply try to accentuate some of the key points already made; particularly, let’s consider the percentage of files that have been published so far.
Greenwald and journalist Laura Poitras have a full set of NSA files. The Guardian apparently has, according to editor-in-chief, Alan Rusbridger, 58,000 files. The New York Times and ProPublica have files, though it is unclear what files in their possession remain to be covered. And journalist Barton Gellman of the Washington Post was personally sent files by Snowden.
Rusbridger told a British parliamentary committee, the Home Affairs Committee, yesterday that only 1% of the files had been published. “I would not expect us to be publishing a huge amount more,” he added.
The statement rekindled frustration among those who have accused some of these organizations of “monopolizing” the information and not sharing contents in an open source manner to generate what they believe would be better results.
First—and perhaps most importantly, Snowden wants the files to keep trickling out in the manner in which they are being made public. Greenwald wrote:
…[H]e came to journalists he personally selected, and asked that we only publish with media organizations. He also asked that we very carefully vet the material he gave us and only publish that which would be recognized as in the public interest but not anything which could be said to endanger the lives of innocent people. His primary concern has always been that the focus be on the substance of what the NSA is doing, and knew that mass, indiscriminate publication would drown meaningful discussions with accusations of how we recklessly helped The Terrorists™, the Chinese, and every other World Villain…
Second, if the quantity of documents had anything to do with getting citizens riled up and interested, the Afghan War Logs and Iraq War Logs released by WikiLeaks would have done far better. The impact of those documents in the world paled in comparison to the release of US State Embassy cables as part of Cablegate.
Rather than post all of the tens of thousands of files online and face accusations that the material was not properly vetted, WikiLeaks chose to slowly publish the 250,000-plus cables and partner with media organizations around the world. Only 1-2% had been published to the WikiLeaks website by January 21, 2011, nearly two months after the release began. (The cables continued to come out at this pace until an act by Daniel Domscheit-Berg involving a password spurred WikiLeaks to suddenly publish the 100,000-plus remaining cables in August 2011.)
Media coverage of the cables and WikiLeaks remained fairly steady into January right up until the “Arab Spring,” when cables from Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and other Middle Eastern or North African countries played a role in inspiring citizens of those countries to take action.
Presuming that Greenwald and Poitras have hundreds of thousands of files (more than what The Guardian has), the focus should not be on quantity but rather the impact these stories have had in sustaining a critical debate on the US surveillance state.
Maybe less than 1% have been published, but that less than 1% has had an incredible effect in the world.
Over the course of six months, global citizens have learned the NSA: collects the phone records of all consumers, has a PRISM program that gives the agency direct access to Internet companies to collect users’ data, has a “Boundless Informant” program capable of tracking global surveillance data and collecting billions of pieces of intelligence on US citizens, US and UK spied on world leaders at the 2009 G20 Summit and bugged the South African ministry, how the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court allows US persons’ data to be used without a warrant, the NSA and GCHQ are tapping into fiber optic cables of Internet companies to intercept traffic, harvests users’ metadata, how the NSA collected US email records in bulk under Obama for two years, US bugs EU and UN embassies, spies on communications of millions of Germans, French, and Brazilians.
Also revealed: the NSA listened to Latin American calls, German security services sought to relax privacy laws to increase intelligence sharing, a program called XKeyScore with 500 servers around the world that can collect “nearly everything a user does” on the Internet, how much funding the NSA gives to GCHQ, US spying is a critical part of diplomacy, the “black budget” for the US’s 16 intelligence agencies, which had never been made public, the NSA pays telecommunications companies for access, the NSA spied on the Al Jazeera Media Network, NSA spied on the communications of the presidents of Brazil and Mexico, NSA spied on Google and Brazil oil company, Petrobras, the NSA has worked to undermine encryption, the NSA shares data with Israel, the NSA spied on Indian diplomats and leaders, the NSA gathers metadata to map Americans’ social connections, the NSA has attacked Tor, the NSA collects online contact lists, the NSA tapped Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cellphone, the NSA spied on Italian citizens, companies and officials, the US has spies in 80 embassies throughout the world, the data centers of Google and Yahoo have been targeted by the NSA and the NSA has targeted radical Muslims’ porn-viewing to discredit them.
The above does not include the material the US intelligence community has been forced to declassify in the aftermath because of lawsuits filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and Electronic Frontier Foundation. Secret surveillance court opinions, though heavily censored in portions, have been released to the public for the first time because of the steady escalation of pressure that has occurred.
The pace of the release has also created space for the Justice Department to succumb to pressure from lawyers to disclose evidence of warrantless surveillance to defendants if that evidence is being used against them. There have been numerous pieces of legislation introduced by US senators and representatives as well, making it likely that some sort of reform will pass (although, if Senator Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Mike Rogers have their way the powers exposed by Snowden will be expanded and further codified into law).
A slow pace indicates the journalists behind stories on the NSA files understand the news cycle. Particularly in America, a document dump will never work. Unless a set of documents consisting of hundreds of thousands of files reveal sex scandals, a rampant drug or prostitution ring or something that sensational, there is no way coverage will be sustained for a long enough period so that citizens can fully understand their content.
What is much better is to isolate sets of documents and piece together story after story after story that can continue to be published on a week to week basis. Not only does it ensure the US media will at least highlight each story but it also virtually guarantees the US intelligence community, White House and the NSA’s biggest defenders in Congress will remain on edge as they wonder what will come next.
It is not like Greenwald or Poitras will not ensure that all the stories that can be written from the files are written and published eventually. They are dedicated to challenging massive unchecked surveillance, even if it means countries will target their freedom—like their travel.
Slowly, each and every day, the stories have not only exposed the NSA but also exposed the true nature of power. They have exposed which journalists will fawn and grovel at the feet of national security officials to maintain their access and which will actually champion real investigative journalism. They have exposed how the three branches of government have utterly failed and been complicit in the formation of a massive surveillance state directed at all citizens around the world.
The unraveling of a system of apathy, complicity, deception, indifference, impunity and secrecy, which fuels illegal and/or unconstitutional activities, has opened up a global conversation on the right to privacy citizens should enjoy and what must be done to constrain the power the United States and others in the “Five Eyes” club have amassed. And, as these journalists continue to publish their stories, that system will keep on unraveling because there is nothing those in power can do.
Like Snowden said, “The truth is coming and it cannot be stopped.”