This is the first chapter of News of Devils, a long essay on how the media have covered the Edward Snowden revelations. It is available to buy as a paperback (US edition here, UK edition here) and an ebook (US edition here, UK edition here).
The military theorist Carl von Clausewitz famously wrote of the ‘fog of war’, whereby events in a conflict pile on one another until it becomes impossible to understand what’s happening.
The same could be said of the fog of news, or the fog of outrage. Headlines blare out telling us of shocking events or revealing previously unknown information. In the ensuing hubbub, parts of the story are sensationalised, embellished and misunderstood, and inaccuracies multiply and spread. It’s usually only in the aftermath of such events that the true facts, and the bigger picture, can be found. Sometimes that’s too late, as the initial distortions might have become too embedded in the public consciousness to be shifted, or have had other consequences.
Since June 2013, a fog of outrage has swirled around the world of intelligence thanks to the actions of Edward Snowden and the journalists to whom he gave many thousands of classified documents he took from the National Security Agency. The main thrust of the disclosures isn’t new: it’s that in the last couple of decades, and particularly since September 11 2001, the NSA and its allies have stepped up their surveillance capabilities to an extent that oversteps the line of invading civil liberties. This is familiar from the ECHELON scandal, revealed in 1988 largely via reporting by investigative journalist Duncan Campbell, and from the 2005 story, broken by the New York Times, that the Bush administration ordered warrantless wiretapping.[i]
The gist of the revelations has also long been a familiar element in popular culture. In 1999, filmgoers watched the Hollywood thriller Enemy of the State, in which Will Smith plays a lawyer unwittingly targeted by the NSA, his every movement and communication tracked by satellites. In the Bourne films starring Matt Damon as an American operative on the run, the CIA is able to track characters’ moves via telephone records and surveillance cameras in other countries. The TV series Person of Interest, which began in 2011, involves a computer genius who in the wake of 9/11 creates a near-omniscient surveillance system for the US government, before deciding to try to put it to good use.
All of these are entertainment rather than fact, of course – although one of the advisors on Enemy of the State was a former NSA technician[ii] – but along with journalistic investigations and whistleblowers have added to the public’s conception – and fears – of how intelligence agencies, particularly American intelligence agencies, operate.
Edward Snowden has had such an impact because he wasn’t simply saying that there was surveillance overreach, as whistleblowers had done before him and as spy films have long suggested, but provided evidence for it in the form of documents. Unfortunately, they weren’t the only documents he took.
Both Snowden and the journalists who have reported on his cache of material have talked about the disclosures sparking a debate about privacy, surveillance and constitutional rights. They have done. The leaks have unquestionably highlighted a lack of oversight regarding several aspects of US (and British) intelligence activity, and many would agree that some form of reset is needed to avoid intrusions into everyone’s privacy.
The disclosures have been a public relations disaster for the intelligence community – it’s surely no coincidence that since the stories began the directors of the NSA, MI6 and GCHQ have all been replaced – but their response has been overwhelmingly inept, and has included wild accusations, abuse and threats directed at Snowden and the journalists. The NSA has singularly failed to persuade the public of its case.
As I write this, the ‘USA Freedom Act’, a bill designed to curb the NSA’s surveillance activities, has been blocked by the US Senate. If passed, it would have ended the NSA’s open-ended bulk collection of metadata. Privacy advocates had hailed it as a significant step towards surveillance reform, albeit a compromised one.[iii] Michael Hayden, a former director of the NSA, had argued that it would make it even harder for the agency to follow up suspect communications than in simple criminal investigations, and that it would benefit groups such as Islamic State.[iv]
For now, Hayden’s side of the argument has won the day. The bill might still pass in an amended form, and if not some other legislation to curb the NSA will probably emerge. But it will be some time before we know if any measures that are introduced have been constructive, cosmetic or counter-productive.
The Snowden story has been the biggest spy case of this century and perhaps of the last, too, but with the focus on the privacy debate there’s been far less analysis of how the journalists Snowden entrusted with the material have handled the task he assigned them. I think the fog has now cleared enough for this to be worth taking a closer look at. The terms of the debate Snowden has opened up have almost entirely been set by the reporting on this. Without access to the documents or the full context for precisely who created them, in what circumstances, for what audience and with what purpose, it’s impossible to weigh the significance ourselves. Our only context as members of the public is the parts of documents journalists have selected to publish, and their explanations for what they mean in accompanying articles. So to judge the material’s significance, we have to consider the reporting. Has it been credible? Has it been responsible? Has it been honest?
I think too much of it has been none of those things. There has been some excellent reporting, but there has also been a catalogue of exaggerated claims, distortions, errors that have gone uncorrected and unacknowledged, security breaches and stories that have completely misunderstood the NSA’s remit and the complexities of how intelligence is gathered and how hostile forces work. I think with much of the reporting little or no distinction has been made between revealing wrongdoing by the NSA and revealing valid espionage activities and methodologies directed at legitimate targets.
Journalists are often reluctant to criticise other journalists. Sometimes this is out of a sense of comradely loyalty, sometimes due to an unwillingness to burn bridges in case paths cross again. It can also be difficult to persuade editors that stories about the media interest readers. But journalists can – and I believe should – criticise other journalists when they think they’ve gone seriously amiss in their work. In this particular case, there’s an added impetus, as the stakes are extremely high.
So this short book isn’t about Edward Snowden’s private life, or his decision to flee to Moscow, or whether he’s a hero or a traitor. Neither is it about the private lives of the journalists who have reported on the material. It’s about the reporting itself.
If that subject isn’t sensational enough for you, please read another book. This one is about sensationalism, and what sadly now seems to be viewed as an old-fashioned journalistic principle: the public interest.
A good test of a journalist is how they react to criticism, and how they deal with errors. Everyone makes mistakes, but how one responds to them being pointed out is often more important. Do you refuse to admit the error, or ignore it, or question the motives of whoever pointed it out, or find ways to claim it wasn’t an error after all in a succession of long-winded ‘updates’? Or do you consider such criticisms carefully, and if wrong swallow your pride and correct the record clearly for your readers?
The journalists Snowden entrusted with his material have all been the subject of criticism, some of it unwarranted, some of it personally abusive, some of it constructive. It can be hard to distinguish between them if you’re on the receiving end of it. Nobody likes having their work criticised, of course, but it’s vital to listen to it because otherwise you might find yourself in an echo chamber. Considering criticism is key in an ongoing story such as this, because it is far too easy to become hunkered down and as a result remain blind to problems in one’s approach.
In researching this book, I’ve watched many lectures, interviews and panel discussions featuring the journalists and others involved in the story. All of them are highly intelligent, gifted individuals. But there is also a complacency and unshakeable conviction with many of them. There is a worrying lack of doubt. If doubts are mentioned, they are firmly in the past tense and have been resolved. ‘Oh, yes, we discussed that. We agonized about that.’ But there is no sign of anxiety at possibly having made a wrong decision, or acknowledgement that it’s possible it might have happened and what that would mean. This might be because to do so would cause problems – if a journalist shared a moment of doubt that they might have inadvertently endangered national security, it would be handing ammunition to critics of Snowden and the media at large, and the project might not recover the public’s goodwill.
In 2011, The Guardian’s science correspondent Ben Goldacre said:
‘Ideas in science and medicine improve because they’re criticized. That’s not a sort-of side issue: that’s the core of how ideas progress. If you go to any academic conference, you’ll see scientists being absolutely vicious with each other about their ideas, and that’s because it’s really important that our ideas improve, because in science and medicine you can do great harm even when you think you’re doing good...’[v]
The same applies, or should, to journalism. Note that Goldacre said scientists were vicious about each other’s ideas. The journalists Snowden gave access to these documents haven’t spent 18 months combing through them looking for evidence of good practice by the NSA – because that isn’t a story. A journalist’s role is to speak truth to power and uncover wrongdoing, so it’s no surprise that the reporting has barely mentioned anything the NSA have done right. Similarly, while some of the reporting was well executed and fully justified, my focus here is also wrongdoing. I’m being rather brutal in my condemnation of the ways in which this story has been reported, but I’m criticising the reporting, not the people. In the same way scientists peer review and criticise problems in methodologies, I’m pointing out problems I see with their methodologies and working. I’m not attacking these journalists personally.
This might seem obvious, but part of the reason the reporting hasn’t been criticised more is, I suspect, because of the nature of the debate, which has become very confrontational and often personally abusive, from all sides.
But criticism doesn’t need to be a vicious personal attack. Journalists have put the NSA, GCHQ and other intelligence agencies under the microscope, but they shouldn’t be immune from substantive scrutiny themselves. It’s the job of journalists to speak truth to power, but that can also include holding other journalists to account. The reporters Snowden entrusted with these documents wielded and still wield enormous power, and there is a potential to do great harm even when they think they are doing good. With a lot of reporting, journalistic errors tend to have relatively minor consequences: a restaurant fails to receive a few bookings because a phone number is misprinted, or a celebrity is irritated that their age is stated incorrectly (or perhaps correctly).
But with this story, the stakes could scarcely be higher. A Der Spiegel article from July 2013 noted that the magazine had withheld some details from the documents because they ‘could endanger the lives of NSA workers’.[vi] The same month, Glenn Greenwald, one of the journalists at the heart of the reporting and in many ways its most prominent voice, claimed that Snowden had sufficient information to ‘cause more damage to the US government alone in a minute than anyone else has had in the history of the United States’[vii] and that this included ‘basically the instruction manual for how the NSA is built’[viii]:
‘In order to take documents that proved that what he was saying was true he had to take ones that included very sensitive, detailed blueprints of how the NSA does what they do, and so he’s in possession of literally thousands of documents that contain very specific blueprints that would allow somebody who read them to know exactly how the NSA does what it does, which would in turn allow them either to evade that surveillance or to replicate it.’[ix]
He added that the American government should be praying every day that nothing happen to Snowden, because several people around the world had been given access to the full trove of his documents, which would be released in its entirety if he were to be harmed, and that this would represent the United States’ ‘worst nightmare’.[x]
We don’t know who has had access to the full trove, or how strong their security measures are. The reporting has slowed down but this remains an extraordinarily sensitive situation, akin to a mine that might go off at any moment. Thousands of documents are currently in the hands of journalists, and the box can’t simply be closed. Over time, many of the secrets in the documents are likely to lose their ability to compromise national security, but not all of them will.
The worst-case scenario would be the one Greenwald raised: a full release of all the documents, WikiLeaks-style, with no redactions made to protect national security. That hasn’t happened yet, but it still could. The circle of journalists with access to this material has widened in the last year and a half, as Greenwald pointed out in a recent tweet:
‘Your periodic reminder: there are at least 5 media outlets w/huge parts of the Snowden archive (NYT, WPost, Guardian, ProPublica, Intercept)’[xi]
We don’t know the number of people within those organisations who have had or still have access to the documents, and there are other gaps in the story. The New York Times has revealed that in June 2013 when The Guardian didn’t move as quickly as Greenwald and Laura Poitras wanted with the first story based on the documents,
‘…Greenwald discussed taking it elsewhere, sending an encrypted draft to a colleague at another publication. He also considered creating a Web site on which they would publish everything, which he planned to call NSADisclosures. In the end, The Guardian moved ahead with their articles. But Poitras and Greenwald have created their own publishing network as well, placing articles with other outlets in Germany and Brazil and planning more for the future. They have not shared the full set of documents with anyone.’[xii]
Human nature being what it is, relationships and agreements between journalists with access to the documents could change, and indeed already have – in October 2013, Greenwald left The Guardian and helped found the online publication The Intercept with Poitras (conceptually akin to the mooted NSADisclosures), and took Snowden documents with him.
The journalists involved would no doubt argue that reasons of source protection and personal security demand it, but there’s an irony in there being so many calls for greater transparency from the NSA in the media when it remains a secret which journalists have had access to these documents. Greenwald named five organisations, but didn’t mention Der Spiegel: perhaps it received fewer documents than the others, but it has published several stories drawing on them, most with Laura Poitras listed as a co-author. It also seems from articles in The Independent and The Register that Duncan Campbell has some of the documents from the cache, although it’s unclear how he got them and Snowden has denied providing him with them. It would be unsurprising if encryption specialist Jacob Appelbaum, who has collaborated closely with Laura Poitras and accepted the Whistleblower Prize on behalf of Snowden in 2013, had also had access to some of the documents.
These journalists don’t all share the same concept of what constitutes wrongdoing by the NSA, and what deserves to be revealed in the public interest. Barton Gellman of the Washington Post, for instance, has been notably more cautious than some of the other journalists. It may be that Duncan Campbell published material exposing British intelligence operations in The Register because larger publications didn’t feel it was warranted. Appelbaum now appears to have his own source inside the NSA feeding him documents, and is notably less stringent about what he regards as being in the public interest than most of the others.
It might be – let’s hope – that the mine never explodes, but it might also be that in a month, or a year, or five years, parts or even all of Snowden’s cache will leak into the public domain and cause catastrophic damage. To be anxious about that possibility doesn’t nullify the importance of the wrongdoing exposed by some of the reporting. A lot of people seem to have approached the Snowden disclosures in a binary way: you’re either for or against them, as though they were all necessarily of the same nature. But with such a long-running story – there have been 290 primary reports from the documents so far – more nuanced positions are possible and, I think, appropriate. One can, after all, do a useful and noble thing on Monday and do a reckless and damaging thing on Tuesday, especially if the latter is inadvertent.
It is also the case that just because the worst possible damage hasn’t yet been done, that doesn’t mean that a lot of serious damage hasn’t already been. The Snowden leaks may be simultaneously the most significant exposure of illegitimate activities by Western intelligence agencies in recent history and the most significant exposure of legitimate ones. At least one espionage expert has referred to the disclosures so far as representing ‘the West’s greatest intelligence disaster’.[xiii] Some feel that’s hyperbole and claim there is no proof of it, but intelligence agencies will likely have had to presume the worst in many cases: if there has been a chance of an operation being compromised, it would have been closed down if possible rather than risk exposure.
Edward Snowden and several of the journalists involved have repeatedly dismissed NSA officials’ claims that the leaks have harmed US national security on the grounds that there is no proof of it. The NSA are in a bind there, of course. To reveal the specifics of how some bad actors have used the leaks to their advantage would run the risk of revealing this to other bad actors who haven’t yet taken advantage of the same information.
It may be that no serious damage has been caused, but there are several reasons why accepting the journalists’ word on this as proof is also unwise. One is they have made some basic mistakes: a review by Associated Press in February 2014 found that six NSA employees had been accidentally named in the reporting due to redaction errors.[xiv] Another is the way several of them approached the story. Responsible journalists would view the documents Snowden gave them as a trove of information that needs to be read very carefully because it could contain evidence that one of the United States’ intelligence agencies has overreached its remit and committed some wrongdoings that need to be exposed. But some of the reporters have, from the outset, instead approached the cache of documents as though it necessarily contains multiple examples of serious wrongdoing, and seem in some cases to have approached this story with the view that the NSA is an almost entirely and unequivocally malign organization.
There’s also the danger of accepting a premise of false balance. For instance, if it were the case that journalists reporting this story have judged the public interest correctly 80 percent of the time, one might say they’d done their job well. But it’s not as simple as percentages. A single article might, as a whole, reveal serious wrongdoing in the public interest, but also reveal a name or a plan or an activity that could also be extremely useful to enemies of the United States and/or its allies.
Glenn Greenwald has made some encouraging comments about his approach to this, such as this remark in an interview with The Daily Beast
‘“I do not want to help other states get better at surveillance,” Greenwald said. He added, “We won’t publish things that might ruin ongoing operations from the U.S. government that very few people would object to the United States doing.”’[xv]
He has reiterated this, and all the others involved have said they’ve taken national security concerns into due consideration. But stating this and doing it aren’t the same. This has been an unprecedented disclosure of secrets – many thousands of documents – and with each story the potential for damage is renewed.
With nearly 300 stories published over a period of 18 months, the idea that legitimate secrets haven’t been exposed in a perfect run of decisions would be remarkable. If you feel that the journalists in question cannot possibly have misjudged any of these stories, that’s a lot of faith in these individuals, and as I think I show in the coming pages the pattern of their work doesn’t warrant such faith. You might well still disagree with me by the time you finish this short book, but if you’ve been following the Snowden saga I hope you’ll find it an interesting look at the story from another angle. And with the fog of outrage over surveillance overreach largely lifted, you might be surprised at what remains in plain sight.
[v] Goldacre interviewed in the documentary ‘See You In Court’, BBC One, May 3 2011.
[viii] http://bigstory.ap.org/article/greenwald-snowden-docs-contain-nsa-blueprint An accompanying video can be seen at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FoxP70oojfY (‘Greenwald: Snowden Has NSA Blueprint’)
[xiii] Edward Lucas – his ebook on the saga, The Snowden Operation, is subtitled ‘Inside the West's Greatest Intelligence Disaster’.