Journalist Glenn Greenwald came to town last weekend to promote his best selling book based on events surrounding former systems administrator Edward Snowden’s decision to go public with documents concerning intelligence programs run by the National Security Agency. It was a most unusual evening: part lecture, part political rally and part celebrity appearance.
Seven hundred people paid money to attend a book tour event in a theater in this day and age. His publisher set up a table in the lobby and sold hundreds of copies of “No Place to Hide.” After Glenn Greenwald’s one hour presentation about one third of the audience waited patiently in line for an autograph. San Diego was day four of this six-city excursion around the country.
He’s a man on a mission and he’s trying to make a difference. Greenwald and other journalists have peeled back the curtain on some of the government’s deepest secrets, working with a variety of news outlets with well-established records of journalistic integrity, reporting on the activities of National Security Agency and their cohorts in the United Kingdom, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
The Snowden documents establish the fact that there are no bounds when it comes to what data gets vacuumed up by NSA. There are documents clearly stating the goal is to collect it all:
- collection of 20 billion communications events (email, phone calls, text messages, social media postings, etc.) daily, and
- storing something on the order of 20 trillion transactions between U.S. citizens interacting with other U.S. citizens.
It’s also clear that the intelligence gathered gets used for purposes way beyond the justifications used by the government. Data gets used and abused for political purposes. The war on drugs is a much bigger target than terrorism (are we winning yet?). Classified information makes its way to the corporate boardroom and the country sheriff, purposely repackaged in manner designed to thwart legal safeguards.
The Message vs the Messenger
The conversation at the North Park theater on Saturday night wasn’t primarily about the content of the documents so much as it was about the implications of their public release. Greenwald’s message was about rebutting the media spin on this monumental story.
The vilification of Edward Snowden started from the moment his name became public. At first he was portrayed as a troubled, narcissistic, egotistic low-level technician in the news media, with the same phrases used over and over again. They’re called “talking points” in the PR business. Are we to believe that the entire chattering class on Sunday talk shows and op-ed pages devined this pseudo-psychological profile spontaneously?
When Snowden’s Hong Kong location was revealed he was denounced as a Chinese spy. The New York Times quoted two anonymous experts who “believed” he was cooperating with the Chinese government.
The diplomatic pressure brought to bear on the authorities to hand him over supposedly had nothing to do with his decision to leave: supposedly he moved on after the communists had drained his four laptops of all documents. Greenwald’s book reveals the data was kept on encrypted thumb drives.
Snowden lived for five weeks in the Moscow airport after the U.S. government revoked his passport. Bolivian President Evo Morales’ plane was forced to land in Austria and searched, based on false rumors circulating that the former NSA contractor was aboard the aircraft.
Then the media’s chattering class began bleating the supposition that Snowden was really a Russian spy. The Ruskies, too, had drained his four laptops of useful information. Some of these folks even went so far as to speculate that this was a joint Chinese-Russian operation.
Prior to his experience with this story Greenwald told the audience he’d always assumed the echo-chamber nature of Washington punditry was a by-product of the herd mentality in journalism. Now, he says, he knows better.
As the run-up to the Iraq war proved, there are no consequences for just making shit up if the speaker can wrap it in an American flag.
Lost in all this hubub was the fact that the “troubled narcissist” refused to play the media’s game. For the first year after leaving his position, Snowden refused all requests for interviews. He wanted the story to be about what was being revealed in these documents, not whether he’d been a good enough student in community college.
The Criminalization of Journalism
Glenn Greenwald the journalist was the next logical topic (or target, depending on how you look at it) as this story developed.
Despite numerous awards for his journalism–which appeared in top tier publications worldwide– and two best selling books, Greenwald was characterized by officials and their attendant shoeshine boys as a merely a “blogger,” as if that term was some sort of pejorative. His willingness to question authority and his lack of tolerance of fools and their errands was portrayed as a liability.
Then came the calls for prosecution. Having denigrated Greenwald’s status below that of the Washington “norm” for reporters, where leaks are okay if they serve the government’s’ purposes, it became okay to contemplate criminalizing his work.
New York Republican Peter King was first out of the box, claiming Greenwald was threatening to disclose the names of CIA agents and assets around the world. He wanted the reporter arrested not for what he’d already written, but for what he might reveal.
From the fringes of rightwing loony-ville (King would surely qualify as Mayor), the meme of reporter-as-indictable-co-conspirator spread. First it was the usual former Bush administration officials, then the doyens of op-ed discourse picked up on the topic of prosecution. The spread of this concept bodes poorly for the future of dissent in this society.
In my opinion the primary reason Greenwald hasn’t been prosecuted is the difficulty in separating his actions from those of the other reporters who have disclosed government secrets. Meet The Press host David Gregory went to far as to reveal classified information in an attempt to discredit the author during a Sunday morning appearance.
Payback’s a Bitch
Part of the hostility towards Greenwald was payback. Part of it was jealousy. But mostly it was about the sad state of journalism these days.
“The iconic reporter of the past was the definitive outsider. Many who entered the profession were inclined to opposed rather than serve power, not just by ideology but be personality and disposition. Choosing a career in journalism virtually insured outsider status: reporters made little money, had little institutional prestige and were typically obscure.
That has now changed. With the acquisition of media companies by the world’s largest corporations, most media starts are highly paid employees of conglomerates, no different than other such employees. Instead of selling banking services or financial instruments, they peddle media products to the public on behalf of that corporation. Their career path is determined by the same metrics that amount to success in such an environment: the extent to which they please their corporate bosses and advance the company’s interests.
Those who thrive within the structure of large corporations tend to be adept at pleasing rather than subverting institutional power. It follows that those who succeed in corporate journalism are suited to accommodate power. They identify with institutional authority and are skilled at serving, not combating it.”
He was preaching to the choir here. Even on the local level, the accommodation of authority dominates the craft. The revolving door between reporters and corporate flacks–driven by economic pressures, to be sure–assures that those who would defy conventional wisdom are motivated to take the safest path possible.
It’s Personal for Me
The story told by Glenn Greenwald hit home with me on a level much more personal than my critical eye towards practitioners of journalism.
I’m (part of) the reason there are actual laws on the books that could be the basis for prosecuting journalists. Back in the heydey of the last era of revelations about our government’s spying apparatus (the 1970’s) I worked with a group of former spooks as editor of a quarterly magazine called CounterSpy.
We were in the business of revealing government secrets. More than that, we were attempting to explain what the real rationales were for much of the activities of the intelligence community. We knew that the real goal of collection should be analysis and dissemination.
Backed by author Norman Mailer and sporting a who’s who of experts as an advisory board, CounterSpy was the darling of the Washington media world for a few months back in 1974.
And then we flew too close to the sun. The magazine started publishing the names of CIA station personnel around the world. We began working closely with a renegade ex-CIA agent named Philip Agee, a man who, like Snowden, was somebody the government desperately wanted to silence.
In August, 1975 CounterSpy named Richard Welch as station chief in Peru as part of an issue focusing on covert operations in Latin America. Unbeknownst to us, he’d already been transferred to Athens, Greece. When he was assassinated by a local terrorist group in December, it didn’t take but a few hours for an unnamed intelligence official began calling various sympathetic reporters pointing the finger at CounterSpy.
I’ll never forgot appearing on the CBS Evening News a few days after Christmas, trying to answer questions about “when did I stop beating my wife.”
He arrived in Athens, Greece, in July 1975, at a time when Greece had just come out a tumultuous period of military dictatorship. Welch stayed in the house occupied by several of his predecessors as chief of the CIA station. The night of 23 December 1975, five men in a stolen Simca followed him home as he returned from a Christmas party. While two men covered his wife and driver, a third shot him dead with a .45 Colt M1911 pistol at close range. Welch’s name and address had been published in the Athens News and Eleftherotypia in November 1975. However, a communiqué sent by 17N to French newspaper Libération in March 1976 demonstrated that the group had been watching Welch’s movements since the summer of 1975. He had previously been revealed as a CIA agent in an East German book and a magazine called CounterSpy….
Welch was the first CIA officer to be murdered in a terrorist attack. By Presidential Order of U.S. President Gerald Ford, Welch was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. His death helped turn the political tide back in favor of the CIA after the damning revelations by the Church Committee earlier in 1975.
Welch’s murder contributed to passage of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982, making it illegal to reveal the name of an agent who has a covert relationship with an American intelligence organization.
CounterSpy’s arrogance–we believed that outing spooks was an effective countermeasure to the many bad things we were exposing– cleared the way for the intelligence community to resume business as usual.
The Ultimate Test
Glenn Greenwald characterizes Edward Snowden as an individual who stood up for what he believed.
They believe, as I do, that the current manifestation of the military/industrial/intelligence complex is at cross purposes to the ideals this country was founded on.
Whether or not that decision to challenge authority makes the world a better place has yet to be decided. The government has yet to actually prove his disclosures have damaged our sacred “national security,” but you can bet your bottom dollar they’re working on it.
What his critics are now demanding is for Edward Snowden to return to the U.S. and “stand up like a man.”
I think Snowden realizes that’s not a viable option. When it comes to questions of national security history proves that all the protections that are supposed to be built into our system are null and void.
He’d be kept in solitary confinement, likely for the rest of his life. Any attempt at mounting a defense based on the morality of his reasoning would be disallowed. His legal defense team would be denied access to the classified reports of his crimes. It’s likely (this has already happened in other cases) that the documents already in the public would be excluded from the courtroom based on the fact they are still classified.
I know there are plenty of people out there who are comfortable with the idea that a fair trial wouldn’t be possible. And that, my friends, is exactly the problem.
Greenwald said that Snowden’s greatest fear wasn’t capture. It’s that “people will see these documents and shrug. The only thing I’m worried about is that I’ll do all this to my life for nothing.”
Pay attention, please.
This special edition of the Starting Line was written in advance because I have jury duty today. See you tomorrow. I hope.
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