What if Glenn Greenwald is wrong about a national security threat?
As has been pointed out elsewhere, The Guardian’s descriptions of David Miranda’s detention have varied considerably, from an initial statement he was denied access to a lawyer, to a second statement that he was offered one and declined, to a third statement that he had one for the last hour of his detention.
James Ball, who has worked on several of The Guardian’s NSA stories, has said he feels ‘there’s a wider significance to when some arguments devolve to the minutiae of exact words in articles’. That is always a danger, but in some cases the minutiae are important, and all journalists know the devil can often be in the detail.
In this case, we’re looking at one of the biggest leaks of intelligence material in recent history, emanating from thousands of documents taken by Edward Snowden from the NSA while working as a consultant for them. The Guardian and others are putting intelligence agencies under immense scrutiny, and are examining the minutiae of their exact words. That shouldn’t make them immune from scrutiny themselves. As a member of the reading public, I can’t judge Snowden’s documents as a whole, because most of them haven’t been published. Instead, The Guardian, The Washington Post and a few others have published parts of individual documents, and reported from others. So the context here is almost entirely framed by the reporting.
I wrote early on in this saga that I found there to be a lot of problems with the accuracy of some of the reporting, and that trend has continued. The Guardian’s first report into Miranda’s detention, regardless of the byline looks to have been written by his husband, Glenn Greenwald, as pointed out by Guy Walters. That line seems to have vanished now, but if Greenwald did write it, why was he not credited, and should he really have been writing the article about his husband’s detention, and reporting what would then be his own comments to himself, without being so? More importantly, the article made no mention of the fact that Miranda was carrying material for him, and initially omitted that The Guardian had paid for Miranda’s flight.
The flight was later added, and according to an interview with Greenwald in the New York Times (the reporting of which Greenwald has not disputed), Miranda was carrying documents on encrypted thumb drives between Laura Poitras in Berlin and Greenwald in Brazil, and that all the documents came ‘from the trove of materials provided to the two journalists by Mr. Snowden’. (Edit: Louise Mensch informs me that Greenwald did in fact dispute this report, and I see he did, although the New York Times has not corrected the story - also note Miranda stumbling over his answer here, also pointed to me by Louise Mensch, who discusses it on her site.)
In this piece under his own byline, Greenwald still omitted to mention this extremely salient fact. Instead, he wrote that:
‘It’s bad enough to prosecute and imprison sources. It’s worse still to imprison journalists who report the truth. But to start detaining the family members and loved ones of journalists is simply despotic. Even the Mafia had ethical rules against targeting the family members of people they felt threatened by. But the UK puppets and their owners in the US national security state obviously are unconstrained by even those minimal scruples.’
These aren’t minute discrepancies, in my view: there is a substantial difference between Miranda being detained because the authorities had reason to suspect that he was carrying classified intelligence material that might fall into the wrong hands and cause national security damage, and simply detaining him because he was Greenwald’s husband passing through Heathrow in order to intimidate and harass. The first must surely be a possibility.
In a much more nuanced editorial published today, The Guardian has also made several statements that I think raise further questions. In discussing the role of ‘responsible reporting’, the editorial says:
‘What role does a free press have in assisting and informing this debate? In late May, Mr Snowden gave this newspaper a volume of documents from his role as one of 850,000 intelligence employees cleared to read and analyse top-secret material. It is difficult to imagine any editor in the free world who would have destroyed this material unread, or handed it back, unanalysed, to the spy agencies or the government. The Guardian did what we hope any news organisation would do − patiently analysed and responsibly reported on some of the material we have read in order to inform the necessary public debate.’
Anyone should surely agree with this in principle, but is it in fact accurate? Simply saying one has reported responsibly does not make it so. According to this article, the British government issued a Defence Advisory Notice on June 7, asking the British media not to publish information about
‘specific covert operations, sources and methods of the security services, SIS and GCHQ, Defence Intelligence Units, Special Forces and those involved with them, the application of those methods, including the interception of communications and their targets; the same applies to those engaged on counter-terrorist operations’.
If this is true, it’s hard to see how The Guardian’s article just 10 days later, on GCHQ intercepting communications during the 2009 G20 summit, abided by this. The Guardian seems to believe that their article exposed wrongdoing because GCHQ was spying on allies – but this is not a responsible attitude if you examine it more closely. Firstly, the precise same techniques could also have been used on hostile powers or individuals, and publication has now revealed these techniques and may have given those people valuable information about what they have lost, who has betrayed them, and how the British security services work. Secondly, a chief target was Russia, who is an ally only in name: in reality, it remains a repressive regime and a very worthwhile target indeed.
It also doesn’t seem that David Miranda was simply carrying ‘journalistic material’ for articles or notes for articles by Poitras or The Guardian – the New York Times’ interview with Greenwald states that he was carrying Snowden documents, ie the raw material, ie classified intelligence. Greenwald has previously said that he had not yet been able to read all of Snowden’s documents, unsurprisingly as they apparently run into the thousands. The wording of The Guardian’s latest editorial suggests to me that this may still be the case. Snowden also retrieved the documents in a very short space of time (around three months, it seems), and has said that he has relied on the journalists he has chosen to work with to be careful ‘that the only things disclosed are what the public should know but that does not place any person in danger’.
Again, this is a responsible statement. But it suggests, as do several other statements he’s made, that he downloaded thousands of classified documents before he left for Hong Kong, and didn’t necessarily read all of them through and only take those documents he felt showed clear wrongdoing. If that’s the case, it might affect one’s view of whether he could still be called a whistle-blower. Even if it isn’t the case, his judgement on what is wrongdoing may of course differ from others’.
All of this means, surely, that David Miranda could have been carrying intelligence material that would not be published, and which either did not contain any ethical or legal wrongdoing or contained information that would endanger lives but that Greenwald and others, once it had been received, would read, filter and publish responsible excerpts as they saw fit. The British government also seems to have been aware of this possibility in advance, and were ready to detain him as soon as he arrived in the transit section of Heathrow. A hypothetical scenario: Chinese intelligence also knew Miranda was carrying these documents, and intended to hack into his electronic devices somewhere along his journey. Far-fetched? Perhaps. But surely possible, and surely there are several other possibilities. I find it hard to see why David Miranda travelling with highly classified material that might cause harm to British national security should not have been detained for questioning at all – even if it should not have been under restrictive legislation aimed at terrorists.
The Guardian editorial also says:
‘The state has a duty to protect free speech as well as security.’
Of course it does. Switch the terms around for a different emphasis on which is more overriding:
‘The state has a duty to protect security as well as free speech.’
It’s impossible to choose between them sometimes. But journalists also have a duty to consider both free speech and security. Just as it is possible for a DA Notice to be, as Glenn Greenwald seems to believe it always must be, an exercise in censorship and saving the security services from embarrassment, most would agree that it is also possible for one to be issued because there is a real danger to national security in publication, perhaps one that a newspaper may not have the full context to appreciate. A free press doesn’t, and never has meant that there are absolutely no restrictions whatsoever: it has long been accepted by sensible people that military maneouvres, revealing details of intelligence officers' identities, details that are presented in court, and other matters, are all - depending on the precise circumstances - the sort of thing that should be held back. If you really believe this is censorship, perhaps apply it to the recent past and consider whether the British media should have broadcast and published details of Allied military plans or intelligence breakthroughs. 'ENIGMA CODE BROKEN!' - The Express.
The DA Notice system (previously D Notice) has been in place in Britain for just over a century, but it seems to have been broken by The Guardian, and now The Independent, who have exposed the existence of a secret British operation in the Middle East without any substantiation at all that there is any wrongdoing involved. More troubling is Snowden and Greenwald’s reaction to this: Snowden has accused the British government of leaking this information to The Independent to discredit him and the journalists he has worked with:
‘It appears that the UK government is now seeking to create an appearance that the Guardian and Washington Post's disclosures are harmful, and they are doing so by intentionally leaking harmful information to The Independent and attributing it to others. The UK government should explain the reasoning behind this decision to disclose information that, were it released by a private citizen, they would argue is a criminal act.’
Note the slide between the first sentence and the second! In the first, it ‘appears’ they have done this: his opinion, his theory, with no substantiation for it at all. In the second sentence, he calls on the UK government to ‘explain the reasoning behind this decision’ – not to answer if they made the decision, but to explain why they did it. So he assumes as fact that they did, without any evidence for it. This is very troubling, because Snowden has made a lot of bold statements that are impossible to check without full access to his documents – as this is how he reasons here, one has to question if he has done so with previous statements.
Equally troubling is that Greenwald reported Snowden’s claims here totally unquestioningly. He didn’t call The Independent and ask for comment, or the British government. He didn’t ask Snowden for substantiation of his allegation. He didn’t pursue any other avenues, but took Snowden’s really rather out-there conspiracy as fact seemingly without any critical thought at all:
‘In other words: right as there is a major scandal over the UK's abusive and lawless exploitation of its Terrorism Act - with public opinion against the use of the Terrorism law to detain David Miranda - and right as the UK government is trying to tell a court that there are serious dangers to the public safety from these documents, there suddenly appears exactly the type of disclosure the UK government wants but that has never happened before. That is why Snowden is making clear: despite the Independent’s attempt to make it appears that it is so, he is not their source for that disclosure. Who, then, is?’
Greenwald then states his position on the future of his own reporting:
‘One other matter about the Independent article: it strongly suggests that there is some agreement in place to restrict the Guardian’s ongoing reporting about the NSA documents. Speaking for myself, let me make one thing clear: I’m not aware of, nor subject to, any agreement that imposes any limitations of any kind on the reporting that I am doing on these documents. I would never agree to any such limitations. As I’ve made repeatedly clear, bullying tactics of the kind we saw this week will not deter my reporting or the reporting of those I’m working with in any way. I’m working hard on numerous new and significant NSA stories and intend to publish them the moment they are ready.’
This is worrying - there should surely be a limitation of some kind he would accept. Does Greenwald have the expertise to always be able to gauge more than the government what may constitute a threat? He’s been reporting on security matters for a while - but Snowden still had to send him a Youtube video to explain how to encrypt his email. Another hypothesis: the government sends a DA Notice asking the press not to reveal details of a particular MI6 operation, saying that to do so would reveal current intelligence secrets, including the identities of British personnel, whose lives would be at serious risk. This is genuine. Greenwald looks at the document on the operation and decides he disagrees, and that the DA Notice is merely an intimidation tactic by the security services designed to censor his reporting and save themselves embarrassment. The Guardian disagrees, saying that they feel the authorities are likely right. Does Greenwald publish it elsewhere? I think it is a real possibility.
And I hope there are at least a few journalists at The Guardian who have considered that perhaps the stern men from the government who sat in their offices and told them about what Al Qaeda and Chinese intelligence operatives were capable of extracting from their material might not have been corrupt deceivers but telling the truth, and that their assessment of such matters may, at times, be more responsible than Edward Snowden or Glenn Greenwald’s.
Update 20.51, London time: James Ball has tweeted me to say that the G20 article was not written by Greenwald - I didn’t say it was - and that The Guardian ‘consulted’ with the British government before publishing the article, as DA Notices request, albeit they did not necessarily agree about it. This doesn’t change my main point, though: if Glenn Greenwald decided to publish material from Snowden’s documents outside the UK and/or outside the remit of The Guardian’s editorial judgement, would he also consult with the British ‘security state’ before doing so? It seems feasible to me that he would see this as a ‘limitation’ on his reporting, and decide not to. I also wonder if The Independent consulted the government in advance of their story - and if The Observer did the same when it placed Wayne Madsen on their front page. Journalists can misjudge, and can also make mistakes. Even The Observer. Even The Independent. Even The Guardian. Even - amazing to say - Glenn Greenwald.