If the first article on Glenn Greenwald’s “The Intercept” page at the “First Look” website is any indication, very little actual journalism is actually planned for the enterprise. The article contains a lot of speculation, a couple of anonymous sources, and a whole lot of information we already know.
The article, ominously entitled “The NSA’s Secret Role in the U.S. Assassination Program,” was written by Jeremy Scahill and Greenwald. It is obviously designed to appeal to a specific audience who already buy their shtick, which isn’t exactly a promising sign for a journalistic enterprise. What makes Al Jazeera America so good isn’t that it can write great headlines that appeal to a certain strain of “progressive,” it’s whether or not those of us who read the article learn anything new from it. And frankly, if you think the NSA’s role in catching terrorists is actually secret, well,
The article runs into journalistic trouble immediately. You can tell that this is a group of people who do all of their research on the Internet, and don’t really care to reach out to gather facts in any meaningful way. They’re trying to create sensational claims, not news. Look at how the article starts:
The National Security Agency is using complex analysis of electronic surveillance, rather than human intelligence, as the primary method to locate targets for lethal drone strikes – an unreliable tactic that results in the deaths of innocent or unidentified people. (emphasis added)
Honestly, when I read this, my first reaction was, “so?” I highlighted the words “rather than,” because of the strength of the accusation, and the complete lack of support for the statement anywhere else in the article. There is nothing in the article that supports the contention that the US government either fails to gather human intelligence or discards it in favor of electronic surveillance. It’s not even supported by their anonymous source, “a former drone operator for the military’s Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) who also worked with the NSA.” What he did was to confirm that “the agency often identifies targets based on controversial metadata analysis and cell-phone tracking technologies.” My reaction to that was a big “no kidding.” That metadata is used to help identify bad guys isn’t exactly a big secret.
I’m not an NSA analyst, but I have considerable experience locating people who don’t want to be found, and the above seems like common sense. The human intelligence gets you to the general location of the target. But if you don’t know where the target is currently, you use the electronic information, mainly the GPS, to drill down further. Metadata is rarely that specific, especially in the regions of Pakistan and Yemen where we’re using drones. Also, I’m not sure what Scahill and Greenwald mean by “unreliable.” Even by the most pessimistic estimates, more than 90% of those who have been killed by drone strikes were targeted. The ratio of targeted militants to civilians is roughly 9-to-1. I’d urge Greenwald to consider that ratio for a typical military invasion, especially the “Shock and Awe” fiasco that he supported when Bush conceived it.
In short, Scahill and Greenwald opened their first “journalistic” attempt by invoking drones and NSA surveillance to get their core audience excited, but presented zero new information. Articles chock full of this type of information have been around for years. And their anonymous source essentially shows that the Pentagon is actually quite rational in their use of the information the NSA is gathering. What do Scahill and Greenwald expect? That they’ll get some human intelligence and not verify it with electronic data? And if the Pentagon spend a few days verifying it, why would they not update it and make sure the target hasn’t gotten up off the couch and gone to get a bite to eat?
They attempt to invoke Snowden documents as supportive of their assumptions, which is absurd, since the one thing missing from nearly all of the Snowden NSA documents is context. He gives us an example:
In one tactic, the NSA “geolocates” the SIM card or handset of a suspected terrorist’s mobile phone, enabling the CIA and U.S. military to conduct night raids and drone strikes to kill or capture the individual in possession of the device.
The former JSOC drone operator is adamant that the technology has been responsible for taking out terrorists and networks of people facilitating improvised explosive device attacks against U.S. forces in Afghanistan. But he also states that innocent people have “absolutely” been killed as a result of the NSA’s increasing reliance on the surveillance tactic.
This must be the Scahill effect, because this is the first time I can remember that Greenwald’s name has appeared on an article claiming a US agency did something right. No one has ever suggested that no civilians have been killed by drones, so I’m not sure what the above proves, exactly, except that these two are not interested in providing new information, but would rather rehash old information. They also put “facts” into the story that add little or no value to the story. For example, their little story about the SIM cards is cute, but it’s hard to see a point.
Some top Taliban leaders, knowing of the NSA’s targeting method, have purposely and randomly distributed SIM cards among their units in order to elude their trackers. “They would do things like go to meetings, take all their SIM cards out, put them in a bag, mix them up, and everybody gets a different SIM card when they leave,” the former drone operator says. “That’s how they confuse us.”
Really? It doesn’t say they’re exchanging them with civilians, which is unlikely, since we can be pretty sure they wouldn’t want others to have the information on the SIM card. If 16 terrorists all switch SIM cards regularly, how does that constitute a huge problem? Like I said, they’re not going to hand SIM cards to innocent civilians so they can die, because they would be afraid that someone might hands the phone and the SIM card to a covert agent, even by accident. They might pass them amongst themselves, but that’s all. Of course, since the phone is a communications tool, and constantly switching SIM cards would make it difficult to know who they were talking to, even that’s a little far-fetched.
By the way, assuming the above scenario was correct, it would mean Greenwald and Snowden actually did get innocent people killed with their disclosures, so perhaps he might not want to share that one, anyway.
There are a number of cute turns of phrase in this article, my favorite being “death by unreliable metadata,” which is pretty much impossible. The concept is so ridiculous that it calls into question the reliability of the anonymous source Greenwald and Scahill use. It is not possible to pinpoint someone’s identity via metadata, precisely because it is “unreliable,” and it’s only marginally better for determining location.
It’s disturbing that Scahill and Greenwald seem to have retained their “opinion as journalism” tendencies in this new venture. For example, a second source they cram into this piece actually contradicts the anonymous source in a number of ways, even though they start out claiming he supports the first source.
The JSOC operator’s account is supported by another insider who was directly involved in the drone program. Brandon Bryant spent six years as a “stick monkey” – a drone sensor operator who controls the “eyes” of the U.S. military’s unmanned aerial vehicles. By the time he left the Air Force in 2011, Bryant’s squadron, which included a small crew of veteran drone operators, had been credited with killing 1,626 “enemies” in action.
Bryant says he has come forward because he is tormented by the loss of civilian life he believes that he and his squadron may have caused. Today he is committed to informing the public about lethal flaws in the U.S. drone program.
Bryant describes the program as highly compartmentalized: Drone operators taking shots at targets on the ground have little idea where the intelligence is coming from.
“I don’t know who we worked with,” Bryant says. “We were never privy to that sort of information. If the NSA did work with us, like, I have no clue.”
Not only does Bryant NOT support the anonymous source; he says he CAN’T support the anonymous source. He says, point blank, that he has no idea where the intelligence he assumes was used came from, or how it was gathered. How can he inform us, dear readers, in how the NSA is using certain types of intelligence over others, when he is essentially just following orders? The answer is, he can’t. He’s obviously placed into the article to help them avoid criticism for using only a single anonymous source. (And yes, Glenn, that is just my opinion; just like everything in this article is yours and Jeremy’s opinion.)
There are also signs that Greenwald’s new “journalistic venture” will be approached in much the same way as his others, which means that he’ll continue to attempt to stretch the definition of “journalism” to include a lot more than just the facts. For example, he and Scahill cited a Washington Post article and then complained because the writer expressed insufficient “skepticism.” It was a hard news story. No hard news story should ever express “skepticism.” That’s for the op-ed or analysis pages, or the readers themselves to supply. This kind of thing demonstrates what I have been saying about Greenwald all along; he’s not a journalist. He’s not interested in any facts that don’t match his preconceptions.
Consider this a warning shot regarding Greenwald’s “new” venture. The approach this article takes is that it presumes the only type of intelligence that can possibly be reliable is human intelligence, and that all other types are somehow inadequate for locating terrorists. Only Scahill and Greenwald don’t support this premise. They say things, but they offer no support. Some guy says JSOC is relying too heavily on electronic surveillance, and the writers claim it’s the NSA’s fault, but offer nothing that shows that, except to refer back to a couple of context-free Snowden docs. Only one problem; the NSA doesn’t administer the drone program. They provide information; they have no say in how the information is used.
Look, I get it. There are problems with the drone program. But there is value in going after terrorists, and I’m tired of the government using our troops whenever they feel like it. As of now, there are three choices in taking out terrorists. We can ignore them, which will result in massive civilian casualties. These people don’t go We can send in troops to get them, which will result in troop and civilian casualties. Or we can go after them with drones, which so far seem to be mostly taking out targets, with some civilian and no troop casualties. Those are our choices at this point. Someday, we’ll be able to equip drones with stun capabilities, and the ability to scoop up the bad guys and transport them to court for trial. But we’re not that advanced yet.
Drones are a serious issue that needs to be discussed. We need serious rules in place regarding the use of armed drones before a less responsible president is in office and truly abuses the system. But we can’t have this serious discussion as long as crap like this article constitute “journalism.”
And one last thing. You know how some of us always say Greenwald can’t finish an article without a gratuitous dig at Obama (which is also not journalistic, Glenn)? Read the ending.