I have a number of problems with the whole Edward Snowden/NSA non-story, as I’ve written before, but the biggest one has to be the complete lack of context contained in any of the stories. Essentially, Glenn Greenwald (and a few other reporters who think they have to help because the public is convinced there’s a story here – how depressing is that?), present a document or series of documents under the umbrella of a narrative that Glenn Greenwald himself has cooked up.
The first thing you should understand when you read a Greenwald piece using Snowden documents is that Greenwald is a lawyer, and he’s never worked for the government in any capacity, let alone an intelligence agency. The near-complete lack of expert support for his contentions should trouble you. Asking him to explain to us what a purloined NSA document means is like asking me to explain how to overhaul your car’s engine. For me to tell you anything beyond where the oil and battery go is me speaking from my anus.
This is where real journalism comes in, and why calling Glenn Greenwald a journalist is such a stretch. Since last June, when the story first broke, I have felt like the guy calling the emperor naked. But really, without context we have a bunch of meaningless documents. Until we know more about how an NSA (or his latest target, British intelligence agency GCHQ) document was used, and where is came from, how can we possibly know what the content means? That a document that comes from someone’s recycle bin creates a different context and a reduced significance than if the same document was the center of a surveillance initiative and/or was adopted by agency leadership. Quite frankly, many Snowden documents are obviously marketing documents for systems that someone wants to develop or sell to the NSA. What we don’t know is whether or not the NSA actually purchased the systems and are using them. As a “journalist,” Greenwald’s job is to discover the actual context of these documents, so that he can tell us what they really mean when it comes to surveillance. It’s not “journalism” to throw documents out there and have a non-expert tell us what they mean. That’s roughly what Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck do on their radio shows, and I’m pretty sure everyone would agree, they’re not journalists, they’re blowhards. And a blowhard doesn’t cease being a blowhard just because he says something you agree with.
Not only do these documents lack context, but they contain little to no revelations of any kind. For example, take Greenwald’s latest tome, which he’s ominously entitled, “How Covert Agents Infiltrate the Internet to Manipulate, Deceive and Destroy Reputations.” The title seems more at home in a supermarket tabloid. Given that the Internet is a giant public space, the word “infiltrate” seems pointless. That’s like claiming you’re “infiltrating” the Interstate when you drive on it. And I hate to break it to poor Glenn, but everyone who posts anywhere is likely to be confronted by people who wish to “Manipulate, Deceive and Destroy Reputations.” They’re called “trolls.” I’ve never heard them called “covert agents” before.
This article is chock full of documents from the “Snowden archive.” Most are PowerPoint slides designed for presentations, but again, we don’t know if they were ever used. The slides purport to train GCHQ agents as to how to ruin “target’s” reputation online, but Greenwald fails to define “target” in context There is a distinct difference between GCHQ going after a suspected terrorist and just pranking people at random, isn’t there? If GCHQ is trying to undermine an al Qaeda front group, what’s the point for a “journalist” to imply that the agency may be cyberbullying teenage girls,? Yet, “journalist” Greenwald doesn’t even see fit to actually make some calls and get an explanation of the term “target.” As it applies to the NSA, “target” is easy, because it’s explicitly defined by statute. But what does the term mean with regard to GCHQ? Why is he not picking up a phone and getting clarification? His new venture got a $250 million investment, so long distance charges shouldn’t be the problem.
Basically, his explanations of what each document means are not statements of expert knowledge, but rather, a restatement of words that are in each document. And one of the documents contains a misspelling that is so obvious that it’s most likely a draft, which brings into question its usefulness.
Read this document carefully, and note what it says. Then read this paragraph carefully, because there will be a quiz:
No matter your views on Anonymous, “hacktivists” or garden-variety criminals, it is not difficult to see how dangerous it is to have secret government agencies being able to target any individuals they want – who have never been charged with, let alone convicted of, any crimes – with these sorts of online, deception-based tactics of reputation destruction and disruption. There is a strong argument to make, as Jay Leiderman demonstrated in the Guardian in the context of the Paypal 14 hacktivist persecution, that the “denial of service” tactics used by hacktivists result in (at most) trivial damage (far less than the cyber-warfare tactics favored by the US and UK) and are far more akin to the type of political protest protected by the First Amendment.
The first, most obvious question should be, why does he place “hacktivists” in quotes? The slide says “hacktivism,” which is distinct from “hacktivists.” Targeting illegal activity is far different than targeting people. Of course, if GCHQ is targeting people who are engaged in illegal activity, where is the problem? If “secret government agencies” are targeting the general public without probable cause or a warrant, that’s a problem. If they are targeting crime (which is what this title page actually suggests), what’s the problem? Isn’t that what they’re supposed to do?
I also find myself amused by the use of bold in the above passage because, as a trained lawyer who passed the bar, Greenwald knows that’s deceptive. He has to. I mean, if law enforcement has to wait until someone is charged with or convicted of a crime before they even investigate, then let the crime wave begin. Even the Constitution allows for investigations of people based upon probable cause. Law enforcement is allowed to investigate innocent people, with a warrant or an order. His use of the term “persecution” in describing how PayPal refuses to support accounts that, in turn, support hacktivism is unfortunate. Such a thing is not persecution, it’s a method of prevention. If it was possible to stop payments to a contract killer, would doing so be considered “persecution,” or just common sense?
His claim that “hacktivism” results in “trivial damage” is absurd. At least one recent study places the cost of hacktivism and cybercrime worldwide at $3 trillion by 2020. That’s hardly trivial, and comes at a cost of millions of jobs and a lot of businesses, as well. I know it’s trendy to bash banks, but whose money does he imagine is inside those banks? I know it’s trendy to bash large companies, but who’s employed by those large companies?
Also, the documents used in this article come from GCHQ, which is British intelligence. That makes the mention of the First Amendment irrelevant, since it doesn’t apply. People in the UK do have freedom of speech and press, but it’s a bit different.
Most of the rest of this silly article consists of images of more Snowden documents, with each image accompanied by either a simplistic explanation or no explanation at all. When he gets to the end, he tries to pretend he’s attempting to be a journalist. Check this out:
We submitted numerous questions to GCHQ, including: (1) Does GCHQ in fact engage in “false flag operations” where material is posted to the Internet and falsely attributed to someone else?; (2) Does GCHQ engage in efforts to influence or manipulate political discourse online?; and (3) Does GCHQ’s mandate include targeting common criminals (such as boiler room operators), or only foreign threats?
Show of hands. How do you think GCHQ, a British intelligence agency, responded to questions like these from an expatriate American living in Brazil, who has been openly hostile to the agency ever since he sent his partner through Heathrow Airport carrying secret documents? How many of you would expect to call the CIA switchboard and get an honest answer to such questions? Does Greenwald have any concept of what “intelligence” means?
But how is this “journalism,” anyway? Journalism is a lot more than simply asking questions through official channels and then whining when they don’t give you exactly what you want. It’s not the government’s job to give reporters answers to every question, it’s the reporter’s job to find the answers. Some stories take months or years to develop, for this very reason.
Frankly, the last few paragraphs of the piece demonstrate a cluelessness that is absolutely breathtaking, especially from someone who is supposedly the next big thing in journalism.
As usual, they ignored those questions and opted instead to send their vague and nonresponsive boilerplate: “It is a longstanding policy that we do not comment on intelligence matters. Furthermore, all of GCHQ’s work is carried out in accordance with a strict legal and policy framework which ensures that our activities are authorised, necessary and proportionate, and that there is rigorous oversight, including from the Secretary of State, the Interception and Intelligence Services Commissioners and the Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee. All our operational processes rigorously support this position.”
This surprised him? Does he understand why they can’t discuss what they do? It’s because the bad guys could potentially get hold of the information and use it to do harm to people other than Greenwald. See, if you want to catch bad people doing bad things, you have to surprise them. If they know how you’re looking for them, it’s not likely to be much of a surprise, and it helps them adjust to avoid law enforcement. It would probably surprise Greenwald to know that police are legally allowed to lie to suspects, too, to get them to admit something. Not everyone can be honest about everything and be effective in their jobs.
The cluelessness goes to the very end:
These agencies’ refusal to “comment on intelligence matters” – meaning: talk at all about anything and everything they do – is precisely why whistleblowing is so urgent, the journalism that supports it so clearly in the public interest, and the increasingly unhinged attacks by these agencies so easy to understand. Claims that government agencies are infiltrating online communities and engaging in “false flag operations” to discredit targets are often dismissed as conspiracy theories, but these documents leave no doubt they are doing precisely that.
Whatever else is true, no government should be able to engage in these tactics: what justification is there for having government agencies target people – who have been charged with no crime – for reputation-destruction, infiltrate online political communities, and develop techniques for manipulating online discourse? But to allow those actions with no public knowledge or accountability is particularly unjustifiable.
Where to start? I suppose Greenwald thinks Scooter Libby’s (and Dick Cheney’s) outing of Valerie Plame Wilson was completely justified. I can’t speak for GCHQ, but I know for a fact that the NSA is accountable. They have to clear everything with the FISC (FISA court) and the have to report to Congress on a regular basis. They are also legally forbidden from targeting anyone within the United States. I’m pretty sure there are agencies and committees that oversee GCHQ in Britain, as well. But to expect public accountability from an intelligence agency makes absolutely no sense. Not only would such a thing destroy the efficacy of intelligence operations, it would get people killed. The people who supply us with intelligence put their lives on the line to do so. We should be thanking them, not putting them in danger because of a misplaced sense of “rights.”
Getting online and engaging bad people is a great way to find out what they’re up to. We know this, because there are numerous groups of good people who spend a lot of time trying to trap pedophiles and child pornography enthusiasts by pretending to be young girls and boys and getting them to show themselves. Are law enforcement now supposed to be hamstrung by a process Greenwald apparently suggests, in which everything law enforcement at any level does is “publicly accountable”?
Greenwald has to understand, the Internet is public. It’’s not a private club, or someone’s home. If there is evidence that intelligence agencies are actually getting onto people’s personal devices, then present it. But I haven’t seen that. What I’ve seen is a bunch of out-of-context documents and implications that spy agencies have the ability to do certain things if they really wanted to. That’s not a revelation worthy of journalism. The fact is, all seven billion people on the planet could kill someone else, if they really wanted to. That’s not news. And let’s be blunt; with a friend and resource like Snowden in his pocket, there are lots of bad things Greenwald could do, if he wanted to. Doesn’t that make him as evil as his caricatures of the NSA and GCHQ?
If Greenwald wants us to take him seriously as a journalist, he might try some actual journalism.