Is Greenwald Possibly the Real Story, Not NSA, Snowden?

Glenn Greenwald is frustrated. But the reason he’s frustrated is because he didn’t do his alleged job in the first place.

See, he put out a story, including documents, alleging that the NSA was spying on us all. Within a day or so, Edward Snowden made himself the center of the story by admitting that he was the source of the documents. Of course, he also insinuated that he was a $200,000 per year analyst who knew exactly what the NSA’s capabilities are, when it turns out he was an IT guy who joined the NSA three months earlier with the express purpose of stealing documents. When someone is making claims about someone else, his story and his credibility do matter.

Of course, the credibility of the reporter matters, as well.

Over the weekend, Greenwald was on Twitter and apparently made a TV appearance or two, suddenly lamenting the fact that the US media seems more interested in Edward Snowden’s story than the NSA story. He also proceeded to effectively blackmail the government, insinuating that, if the government didn’t change its ways, Snowden had documents that could bring it to its knees. Great American, right?

That he is surprised by the attention to Snowden points to one problem; he’s out of touch. Why doesn’t he realize that the problem with the US news apparatus; everything’s about ratings, not information or accuracy.? It’s why some of us are breathlessly awaiting the arrival of Al Jazeera America; a national operation, like the BBC, that isn’t 100% infatuated with numbers and money. Finally a domestic news service that seeks to inform, without caring how many cars they sell. That such a thing surprises Greenwald is part of the problem.

But there’s another, more pressing, problem. There’s really no story here, no matter how much Greenwald tries to scare everyone. Take this column. In it, Greenwald tries to get us to focus on what matters – that the NSA wants to collect “all forms of human communication.” He then claims the NSA is out to create such a domestic database, and uses as proof a story in this morning’s Washington Post about the Director of the NSA, Keith Alexander, in which Alexander marvels at how well they were able to use data to track down bad guys in Iraq.

“At the time, more than 100 teams of US analysts were scouring Iraq for snippets of electronic data that might lead to the bomb-makers and their hidden factories. But the NSA director, Gen. Keith B. Alexander, wanted more than mere snippets. He wanted everything: Every Iraqi text message, phone call and e-mail that could be vacuumed up by the agency’s powerful computers.

“‘Rather than look for a single needle in the haystack, his approach was, ‘Let’s collect the whole haystack,’ said one former senior US intelligence official who tracked the plan’s implementation. ‘Collect it all, tag it, store it. . . . And whatever it is you want, you go searching for it. . . . .

“It also encapsulated Alexander’s controversial approach to safeguarding Americans from what he sees as a host of imminent threats, from terrorism to devastating cyberattacks.

“In his eight years at the helm of the country’s electronic surveillance agency, Alexander, 61, has quietly presided over a revolution in the government’s ability to scoop up information in the name of national security. And, as he did in Iraq, Alexander has pushed hard for everything he can get: tools, resources and the legal authority to collect and store vast quantities of raw information on American and foreign communications.”

Note that Greenwald added emphasis to certain phrases he wanted you to focus on, but didn’t note that he added the emphasis, which is a no-no when quoting anyone. The Post didn’t add the emphasis, Greenwald did.

Look at what Alexander actually said, though, including the parts Greenwald doesn’t want you to focus on. The NSA is collecting “raw information.” Raw information does not include content, but metadata. They’re collecting data regarding calls, not the calls themselves. Then, when they need to, they’re searching everything for what they want. While Greenwald wants you to imagine a scary scenario in which NSA analysts are listening to all of your phone calls, the very quote Greenwald uses to support his point actually undermines it. They’re only collecting raw data. Why is that a problem, when the laws in place absolutely forbid them from targeting anyone domestically? Shouldn’t we want them to have all of the information they need to find people who are intent on blowing up innocent people? A lot of telemarketers have computers that dial numbers at random, and used to collect phone books from every city in the county; how is that any different?

Again, what the NSA is doing is akin to what Google and Bing do. They actually crawl the Internet for every website on the planet, collect raw data from each one and store it on their servers. That’s how they make searches more accurate; they store as much of the source code as is practical from every single site on the Web, and every time you do a search, the check all of it. Your phone and your browser store all of your search and app data, so that when you ask it a question, it can provide you with a more relevant answer; I don’t see everyone tossing their smartphones and computers in the garbage over it.

One reason a lot of intelligent people take Greenwald’s “journalism” seriously is because of the dearth of facts contained within each of his columns. For example, in this column, he makes the following over-the-top statement:

Aside from how obviously menacing and even creepy it is to have a state collect all forms of human communication – to have the explicit policy that literally no electronic communication can ever be free of US collection and monitoring – there’s no legal authority for the NSA to do this. Therefore:

[E]ven his defenders say Alexander’s aggressiveness has sometimes taken him to the outer edge of his legal authority.”

“The outer edge of his legal authority”: that’s official-Washington-speak for “breaking the law“, at least when it comes to talking about powerful DC officials (in Washington, only the powerless are said to have broken the law, which is why so many media figures so freely call Edward Snowden a criminal for having told his fellow citizens about all this, but would never dare use the same language for James Clapper for having lied to Congress about all of this, which is a felony).

I’ve posted that as-is, including the links and the run-on sentence. (Glenn, punctuation is our friend.) Greenwald has this penchant for implying that statements he makes are “fact” and embedding links in some of the words, to “prove” his point. In this case, he claims there is “no legal authority” for the NSA to collect this information. The link embedded in “no legal authority” goes to an opinion column from the Wall Street Journal. After a one word break, there’s another link that leads to an article about the release of a FISC opinion showing that some of the NSA program overstepped its bounds. Of course, the decision came down in 2011. Not last week or last month, but 2011.

Among the documents Greenwald disclosed were FISA warrants, which the court had signed off on. Therefore, it would seem they did have the “legal authority.” One can argue that perhaps they shouldn’t have, but that’s not what Greenwald is saying. He’s asserting they did not have it.

I also want to talk about his statement about “The outer edge of his legal authority.” That does NOT mean “breaking the law,” as Greenwald should know, having been a lawyer for many years. As an attorney who was supposedly working on civil liberties cases, I guarantee Greenwald tested the legal limits many times for his clients. Does that mean he broke the law? Of course not. The court can always say no. Which it did, and Greenwald has provided you with the evidence, with all of those FISA-approved warrants. The fact that the FISA court has never turned down a request by the NSA would seem to indicate the NSA is not actually stretching their legal authority by much, if at all. Congress is briefed on PRISM regularly, and the courts also regularly reviewing it; hence the 2011 opinion that Greenwald so helpfully provided. Yes, folks; the reason that opinion was rendered is because there is oversight of the NSA these days. The FISC said some of an NSA program was unconstitutional back then, and told them to stop. Now, how could they know that if there was no oversight? Someone saw something, reported it, and the court ruled.

If Greenwald wants us to focus on the NSA, and PRISM, he’s going to have to come up with some actual facts that support his wild opinions. The NSA is as transparent as it can be these days, and still be effective. Since 2008, the law sets some very strict parameters for the NSA to follow. They can’t even know your name without a warrant, and they can’t target anyone on United States sovereign territory. There may be some illegal activity going on at the NSA – there is no way to preclude the possibility. But none of the documents Greenwald and Snowden have presented thus far indicates any illegal activity. If Greenwald wants everyone to concentrate on the documents, and not Snowden, he’s dreaming. First of all, Snowden is part of the story; the leaker and his credibility is always part of the story. But more than that, the documents don’t really tell much of a story.

There is more to this story, though, that is intriguing, and needs to be investigated.

See, Greenwald was contacted by Snowden before he started actually working for Booz Allen. Snowden doesn’t have much of an education, and he was largely an IT guy. I’m not saying IT guys are dumb, but they’re untrained. How did Snowden know which documents to pilfer? How did he know which documents fit his narrative, and which ones did not? If Greenwald has seen all of Snowden’s documents, did he have a hand in telling him which ones to disclose? In short, what was this “reporter’s” role in all of this? And given that Greenwald is also a trained lawyer, don’t ethical rules cover this sort of thing, at least a little?

Greenwald used to be a credible investigative blogger. These days, not so much. As Bob Woodward could probably tell him, one can’t live off his previous reputation forever.

About Milt Shook

A writer with more than 45 years in the political game (and let's face it, it is a game). I am a liberal because facts have a liberal bias, and I really like facts. If you like facts, you'll like this blog. If not, you'll have a hard time.

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