Snowden’s No Hero, Greenwald’s No Journalist

I have been writing and rewriting an article about Edward Snowden for several days, in part because the story just keeps changing daily. As more details emerge, the story could very well change again and again and again. This is one reason Snowden is not a hero, and why Glenn Greenwald is not a journalist. Facts don’t change, and journalism is about facts.

There are so many reasons Edward Snowden is not a hero. Let’s start with the fact that heroes don’t flee. People with principles don’t flee. Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela spent time incarcerated for standing up for the values they claimed believe in. Today’s so-called “heroes,” like Snowden and Julian Assange, seek asylum from justice. That’s not heroism.

Heroes also don’t lie. His first statements seemed to imply he was an analyst who was fed up with “spying” on people, when in fact, he was basically an IT guy, who saw a lot of top secret documents, but was not in on the meetings that would have put the documents into their proper context, and he probably knew none of the people who were actually analyzing the data.

He’s also not a “hero” because of what he revealed, which was nothing, really. The NSA is data mining metadata from phone calls, without even knowing who owns each number. And they are doing so with oversight from Congress. What else do we need? We can’t possibly demand to know every detail of the program, because if we know them, then the bad guys know them, too.

I know some folks believe this fantasy wherein NSA agents were saving all of our phone calls for later playback, but that should set off a rational person’s BS detector. Americans place more than 4 BILLION cell phone calls every day. The total number of calls made per day is probably somewhere in the neighborhood of 5-6 billion. And let’s face it; the vast majority of those are not only innocuous, but boring. The logistics of recording and cataloging every single phone call for even 3-4 days would be staggering and pointless. Logistically speaking, it doesn’t pass a smell test; where would they keep the 2 TRILLION phone calls recorded in a year, let alone the 20 trillion made over ten years? Just as importantly, who’s going to analyze these calls in order to identify information to arrest you for, anyway? Might it be possible that the phone companies themselves are saving the calls? Not likely. I was working on a case a while back, in which we were trying to obtain just metadata for specific calls that we needed for a civil case, and they informed us via affidavit, that they kept it for three days. It’s highly unlikely that they keep phone calls.

There is no whistleblowing happening here. It’s actually a breach of national security. The government’s job is not just to protect what we perceive to be our property rights; they are also charged with protecting our physical safety, as well. And they do this by looking for bad guys. Through intelligence, they find out details about potential terrorists, like the phone numbers they use. Then they scan through the database to find out what phone numbers they called. But they don’t know who owns these numbers until they get another warrant for that information. Nothing they are doing is illegal, and everything has been subject to oversight all along. So, by definition, there is no whistleblowing going on here. Only disclosure of secure documents that could put some people in danger.

Snowden is neither hero nor traitor. He broke the law, and he violated the ethical standards he himself agreed to when he took the job. A real whistleblower would be protected by the law, and a real hero wouldn’t have run from his principles.

Now, about Greenwald…

There’s a reason I purposely state that I am not a journalist. I try to use journalistic standards, which means I don’t say something because I think I know it, but because I think I can prove it. There’s a reason I chose the name for this blog. But I don’t have the resources or the time to report a true news story properly. Having access to Google and LexisNexis gives me access to work that other journalists have done; it does not give me access to the context surrounding an actual news story that makes that story true. Context is essential. Looking at a document tells you little to nothing. You need to know why the document was created, whether or not it was actually used for something, who’s providing the document, and the motives of everyone involved, including those of the document’s creator, as well as those of the person supplying the document.

A true investigative journalist, upon obtaining the documents that Snowden gave Greenwald, should have seen the beginning of the story, not the story itself. The fact that so many news organizations are treating these documents as if they are themselves a story points to the single biggest problem that makes the current state of journalism completely useless to this democracy.

A lot of questions surround these documents. For example, what are they? It’s impossible to know what a document is or what it means without knowing the circumstances surrounding it. For example, a White House “memo” without a signature could have been written by anyone, including the person who leaked it. A PowerPoint presentation may have been part of NSA agents’ training, or it might have been rejected altogether as inappropriate. Obviously, knowing who the leaker is, and ascertaining motivation, is a important part of the story.

I alluded to a story above, in which a writer – Greenwald, of course – breathlessly told us that the federal government had the ability to record every phone call made in the United States. How did he come to that conclusion? Because a “former FBI counterterrorism agent” said so on CNN. Here’s Greenwald’s story.

A real journalist would have looked into this Tim Clemente guy. I mean, as a “counterterrorism agent,” how does he know the US government has this capability? I know a lot of FBI agents, and I don’t know one with a clearance level to ascertain that such a thing was possible. Given what they have to, in order to get a wiretap order, it seems highly unlikely. And a cursory look into Clemente’s background reveals that he retired from the FBI a few months after 9/11, when phone technology was nowhere near as advanced as it is now, and he never had a particularly high security clearance. Shouldn’t that be part of the story, too? If we’re supposed to make up our own minds about the veracity of the story, shouldn’t we know details like this?

Whether someone says something, or someone feeds you documents, you have the beginnings of a story, not the story itself. I am not a journalist, and I admit it, because I don’t have the resources or the time to do a proper investigation. Good journalists have dozens of stories in their notebooks and computers on any given day, which may or may not ever become stories, because they’re looking for proof. Good journalism isn’t about assumptions, it’s about proof.

Greenwald is not a journalist. He has access to those resources journalists need, and refuses to use them. He’s an opinion columnist, nothing more. He has no interest in facts; he’s only interested in corroboration for his preconceived notions. He is far too willing to blur the line between opinion and fact, as he has done in this case. As you’ll recall, I wrote about this in my previous post, when I pointed out that he actually linked to a Tweet from an ACLU lawyer as proof of something. That’s not proof of anything, except what that person believes. .

Yes, that’s just my opinion. But at least I admit it.


Snowden’s No Hero, Greenwald’s No Journalist — 9 Comments

  1. Pingback: Tuesday Reads: Dreaming A Life; Obama and Putin; NSA and Snowden | Sky Dancing

  2. Great column. I’ve been annoyed at all the credibility automatically granted to the always truth-challenged, hyperbolic Greenwald. This Snowden sounds as if he deliberately obtained the job just for the purpose of access to documents he could take in his quest to be a privacy rights hero. More like zero to me. The minute he opened his mouth to the Chinese news should have been when most Americans on all sides of the issue should have taken down that “hero” sign some of them plastered onto him.

  3. I’m amazed how you take for granted that Google is constantly indexing all publicly available digital content and handling a search request in a fraction of a second, or how YouTube served 4 B videos a day in 2012, not to mention how Amazon’s cloud service is exploding every year… but the idea for a single entity to track mere telephone calls and e-mails still sounds too far fetched to you.

    You might not have Edward’s expertise, but you can still apply some common sense to figure out it’s technically possible and the operational costs would be shadowed by the value of the data managed.

    He came out and proved our worst fears: that someone is already running such an operation for years.

    • He didn’t prove anything we didn’t already know. In fact, Bush ran the same program without oversight, and now it’s being run with oversight, which is what we demanded when Bush was president.

      The program does NOT include any personal info, it is being conducted under a FISA warrant, with congressional oversight. The ONLY problem I see with this has to do with the use of contractors. Otherwise, there is no problem.

  4. Thank you for this blog post! I have been telling folks this guy is no more a hero than any other person who betrays the very same policies he was hired to uphold. He cherry-picked documents, which most likely means he took a lot of data out of context, provided them to people who have a biased agenda, then hid as if he had done something wrong (Duh – he did!). He has no analyst experience, and probably could not explain the importance of the documents he revealed. In addition, he did not reveal anything the rest of us did not already know.

    Hero? H-E-double hockey stick no! But an opportunist coward? Most definitely!