The Guardian and The Washington Post have published a few of the top secret slides about the NSA’s PRISM program that Edward Snowden handed to them, but we don’t have any real sense of their context from their reports. Both newspapers have said that they won’t publish all of the slides in the PRISM presentation for national security considerations, with The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald saying that Snowden ‘spent months meticulously studying every document' and ‘had read over every single one and used his expertise to make judgments about what he thought should be public.’ Greenwald reiterated this in an interview with Democracy Now, saying Snowden

‘had access to enormous sums of top-secret documents that would be incredibly harmful. He went through and turned over only a small portion of those documents to us, all of which he read very carefully. And I know that not only because he told me that, but also because the way we got the documents was in extremely detailed folders all divided by content, that you could have only organized them had you carefully read them. And when he gave them to us, he said, "Look, I’m not a journalist. I’m not a high-level government official. I am not saying that everything I gave you should be published. I don’t want it all to be published. I want you, as journalists, to go through it and decide what is in the public interest and what will not cause a lot of harm." He invited — in fact, urged — us to exercise exactly the kind of journalistic judgment that we have exercised. And so, had it been his intention to harm the United States, he could have just uploaded all these documents to the Internet or found the most damaging ones and caused them to be published. He did the opposite.’

This contradicts the account given by the Post, who claim that Snowden requested that they publish all of the PRISM slides:

‘Snowden asked for a guarantee that The Washington Post would publish — within 72 hours — the full text of a PowerPoint presentation describing PRISM, a top-secret surveillance program that gathered intelligence from Microsoft, Facebook, Google and other Silicon Valley giants.’

The fact that neither newspaper has published the full text of the presentation for national security reasons suggests that Snowden's expertise and judgment about what should be made public may not be as considered as Greenwald has implied.

Without access to all the slides, and other context for who created them, for what purpose, what the precise audience for them was, and so on, it’s impossible to weigh them ourselves. So we have to trust that the Guardian and Washington Post journalists have checked all of this out, and interpreted them in a fair way for us. Both are famous newspapers and one of the journalists, Barton Gellman, is a Pulitzer Prize-winner, but there are nevertheless reasons to be sceptical in both cases. Apart from the above contradiction, the Post’s article breaking the story described their source as ‘a career intelligence officer’. That now looks like a very odd, sensationalized claim, designed to hype up how important he was. Because Snowden has now stepped forward as that source, and he is nothing of the sort. He’s just 29 years old, and his intelligence career started at some point between 2003 and 2007, after he had worked as a security guard at an NSA facility. Neither was he an intelligence officer, but by his own account a subcontracted computer systems administrator. Greenwald was also surprised on first meeting him how young he was, and has said he was a ‘relatively low level’ consultant for the NSA.

This raises two questions. Firstly, as the Post mischaracterized their source in this way, can we be confident they have interpreted the slides and other aspects of the story accurately, or have they souped up elsewhere, too? There’s evidence to suggest the latter in the way they quietly edited the story after publication to dial back some of the claims.

The Guardian has also backpedalled on its first PRISM story, in a way that alters the significance of the story massively: the difference between ‘directly and unilaterally seize the communications off the companies’ servers’ and ‘asked them to enable a “dropbox” system whereby legally requested data could be copied from their own server out to an NSA-owned system’ is the difference between a scoop that rocks the world and something entirely unsurprising.

The other question is back to context: did this relatively low-level computer systems subcontractor fully understand the context and implications of the slides? Some of Snowden’s statements and actions suggest he has a very naïve view of espionage, such as his handing documents to The South China Morning Post showing that the US have conducted cyber-espionage, or hacking, against China, or The Guardian report of his misgiving about a CIA operation in Geneva that, on the face of it, seems to be business as usual for any spy agency. Some of his arguments sounds perilously close to ‘the US is bad because our spy agencies spy on people’.

There’s also his very odd response to Greenwald’s question about why people should care about surveillance:

‘Because even if you're not doing anything wrong you're being watched and recorded. And the storage capability of these systems increases every year consistently by orders of magnitude to where it's getting to the point where you don't have to have done anything wrong. You simply have to eventually fall under suspicion from somebody even by a wrong call. And then they can use this system to go back in time and scrutinize every decision you've ever made, every friend you've ever discussed something with. And attack you on that basis to sort to derive suspicion from an innocent life and paint anyone in the context of a wrongdoer.’

Note that he wasn’t saying that it is at that point now, but that it’s getting to it. It’s a prediction, and one that really sounds like it’s out of a dystopian sci-fi thriller. But is this imagined nightmare scenario of Snowden’s based on broad knowledge of what the NSA is doing? It would be if he were the advertised career intelligence officer. But he’s not: he’s a 29-year-old libertarian computer systems technician, and if he found the PRISM document at Booz Allen Hamilton, he had been there less than three months.

Snowden’s vision of a future in which intelligence agencies will obtain warrants to listen to your phone calls and read your emails having mistakenly presumed you have done something wrong, and then misuse that data to paint you as guilty, reveals that a warrant is in fact needed, which seems to contradicts The Guardian's interpretation of PRISM:

‘The Prism program allows the NSA, the world’s largest surveillance organisation, to obtain targeted communications without having to request them from the service providers and without having to obtain individual court orders...’

The way Snowden answers this question suggests instead that all American citizens are being 'watched and recorded', but one would need to 'fall under suspicion' for the authorities to ‘use this system to go back in time and scrutinize every decision you've ever made’.

This closely echoes a claim that was made recently by a former FBI officer, Tim Clemente, in two interviews on CNN, which Glenn Greenwald wrote about last month in an article headlined ‘Are all telephone calls recorded and accessible to the US government?’.

This article is strikingly stark in its tone, with Greenwald stating that if Clemente’s remarks are true, they ‘define what a ubiquitous, limitless Surveillance State is’. He concluded the article by saying:

‘Mass surveillance is the hallmark of a tyrannical political culture. But whatever one's views on that, the more that is known about what the US government and its surveillance agencies are doing, the better. This admission by this former FBI agent on CNN gives a very good sense for just how limitless these activities are.’

Greenwald also stated that Clemente’s remarks fitted in with previous reports:

‘That every single telephone call is recorded and stored would also explain this extraordinary revelation by the Washington Post in 2010:

“Every day, collection systems at the National Security Agency intercept and store 1.7 billion e-mails, phone calls and other types of communications.”’

This is staggeringly unprofessional cherry-picking of the article in question, which in full context makes it clear how useless that ability alone is, and how it is used:

‘But improvements have been overtaken by volume at the ODNI [Office of the Director of National Intelligence], as the increased flow of intelligence data overwhelms the system's ability to analyze and use it. Every day, collection systems at the National Security Agency intercept and store 1.7 billion e-mails, phone calls and other types of communications. The NSA sorts a fraction of those into 70 separate databases. The same problem bedevils every other intelligence agency, none of which have enough analysts and translators for all this work.

The practical effect of this unwieldiness is visible, on a much smaller scale, in the office of Michael Leiter, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center. Leiter spends much of his day flipping among four computer monitors lined up on his desk. Six hard drives sit at his feet. The data flow is enormous, with dozens of databases feeding separate computer networks that cannot interact with one another.

There is a long explanation for why these databases are still not connected, and it amounts to this: It's too hard, and some agency heads don't really want to give up the systems they have. But there's some progress: "All my e-mail on one computer now," Leiter says. "That's a big deal."’

Greenwald’s interpretation of the portion of the article he quotes is very wide of the mark indeed.

So, I think, is his belief that Tim Clemente’s remarks on CNN give ‘a very good sense for just how limitless these activities are’. I called Clemente last night, and asked him about his comments, and Greenwald’s interpretation of them. He told me Greenwald had misunderstood: he hadn’t been claiming that the US government records all phone calls, but that phone companies do. They don’t listen to them, though, and they wipe them clean after some time, as they take up so much memory. In response to the FBI publicizing that Tsarnaev’s wife had called him after they had released a photograph of him as a suspect in the Boston bombing, Clemente was pointing out – while being careful not to give away state secrets – that this meant they had access to her phone company’s metadata. The fact she had made such a call could allow the FBI to obtain a warrant on suspicion of her involvement in the attack, and once they obtained that they would then be able to listen to recordings of calls from her phone.

None of this is anywhere in Greenwald’s piece – and it could have been, had he called Clemente, whose number I found on his consultancy website.

Some will feel that even if phone companies do record all calls in the way Clemente outlined that also violates the Fourth Amendment, but perhaps another way of looking at that idea is ‘If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?’: if your phone company records every call you make, but never listens to any of them and wipes them periodically, has your privacy been invaded? The government would need to have reasonable suspicion of your being involved with a crime to obtain a warrant to listen to those calls, as in the Tsarnaev case. This chimes with Snowden’s comment – he was saying that hypothetically, in future you could fall under suspicion for the wrong reasons and be framed. Anything’s possible, of course, but is it likely? Is he speaking from a deep knowledge of the policies, or his own political views having stumbled on this document? We don’t know. Our conduit is the journalists reporting it, and we’re relying on them to provide the context. Usually this would involve doing primary research and interviewing others. But it doesn’t seem that Glenn Greenwald did that with Tim Clemente’s claim before presenting it in a highly sensational manner.

Greenwald’s article on Clemente was picked up by many other media outlets, including the Daily Mail, Huffington Post, Daily Kos and dozens of others – try a Google search for the phrase "all digital communications in the past".

We also don’t know if Greenwald probed Snowden on these issues, or how critically and deeply he did. The Guardian has changed the claim about ‘direct access’, but Greenwald insists that this was never their claim:

‘Our story was written differently than the way the Post wrote theirs, which is why they’ve had to walk back theirs. Our story was the following: we have documents, a document, from the NSA that very clearly claims that they are collecting directly from the servers of these internet giants. That’s the exact language that this document used. We went to those internet companies before publishing and asked them, and they denied it, and we put into the story very prominently that they denied it. Our story is that there is a discrepancy between the relationship that these, that the private sector and the government has, in terms of what the NSA claims and what the technology companies claim.’

He has reiterated this angle in an article today, saying that:

‘we did not claim that the NSA document alleging direct collection from the servers was true; we reported - accurately - that the NSA document claims that the program allows direct collection from the companies' servers. Before publishing, we went to the internet companies named in the documents and asked about these claims. When they denied it, we purposely presented the story as one of a major discrepancy between what the NSA document claims and what the internet companies claim, as the headline itself makes indisputably clear.’

He seems to have confused the terms headline and standfirst here, as the headline did nothing of the kind. The headline was ‘NSA Prism program taps in to user data of Apple, Google and others’, which presents the claim in the document as true. The standfirst did report the denials from those companies, and the word ‘claim’ was peppered throughout the article, especially in the first few paragraphs. But at several points the article also unequivocally treated the document’s claims as fact:

‘Companies are legally obliged to comply with requests for users' communications under US law, but the Prism program allows the intelligence services direct access to the companies' servers...’

‘But the Prism program... allows the agency to directly and unilaterally seize the communications off the companies’ servers.’

‘The Prism program allows the NSA, the world’s largest surveillance organisation, to obtain targeted communications without having to request them from the service providers and without having to obtain individual court orders...’

‘With this program, the NSA is able to reach directly into the servers of the participating companies and obtain both stored communications as well as perform real-time collection on targeted users...’

In his interview with Edward Snowden, Greenwald also abandoned any pretence that the story was one of ‘a major discrepancy between what the NSA document claims and what the internet companies claim’. He didn’t raise the denials by the companies at any point, and referred to the document’s ‘claims’ throughout as ‘disclosures’ – a phrase suggesting they are fact, not claims.

So both newspapers have reported both the content of the slides, and Ed Snowden’s views, in a way that doesn’t inspire confidence about their accuracy, research or ability to gauge context.