How Edward Snowden Turned Unwitting Journalists Into Activists

By helping him dribble out his NSA revelations, they are advancing his agenda in exactly the way he intended.

National Journal
Michael Hirsh
Jan. 3, 2014, 3:05 p.m.

No one has great­er re­spect for in­vest­ig­at­ive journ­al­ists than I do, and among that se­lect bunch Bar­ton Gell­man of The Wash­ing­ton Post has long been one of the very best: in­tel­li­gent, re­lent­less, scru­pu­lous, and al­ways eth­ic­al.

This is most def­in­itely not the Pentagon Pa­pers, when the Post and the New York Times ex­posed the truth about a war already gone by.
But the latest in­stall­ment from the “Snowden files” (as the Post’s sub­head put it Fri­day) made me won­der if what we’re ex­per­i­en­cing and read­ing right now is still journ­al­ism, in­vest­ig­at­ive or oth­er­wise, or wheth­er it is be­com­ing something very dif­fer­ent. I won­der if, after all the dis­clos­ures that have already touched off a ma­jor re­as­sess­ment of Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency sur­veil­lance by the U.S. gov­ern­ment, what we’re read­ing now is more like free ad­vert­ising for a cer­tain point of view — Ed­ward Snowden’s point of view, that is, as well as that of his com­rade-in-out­rage, Glenn Gre­en­wald.

Gre­en­wald is an in­tel­li­gent blog­ger and fierce ad­voc­ate of open­ness in gov­ern­ment; some would even call him an “ad­vocacy journ­al­ist,” though to my mind that is a con­tra­dic­tion in terms. What Gre­en­wald is def­in­itely not, by his own ad­mis­sion, is even-handed. Any­one who has fol­lowed his writ­ings, be­fore he be­came fam­ous for the Snowden files, knows that his point of view is sin­gu­lar and routinely black-and-white: any­thing that smacks of a high-tech se­cur­ity state, wheth­er sur­veil­lance or secret drone war­fare, is pretty much al­ways bad.

Gre­en­wald, moreover, has made the case that all journ­al­ists should be more like him, since “all journ­al­ism is a form of act­iv­ism,” as he wrote in this re­veal­ing ex­change with The New York Times‘ Bill Keller, and it’s ri­dicu­lous to pre­tend that any­thing like ob­jectiv­ity is pos­sible.

So we know where Snowden and Gre­en­wald are com­ing from, and it’s not hard to di­vine their strategy: dribble out, bit by bit, rev­el­a­tions about the NSA’s spy­ing pro­gram un­til the agency is ef­fect­ively neutered or even dis­mantled. Fri­day’s story in the Post, ex­pos­ing the agency’s ef­fort to build a “quantum com­puter” that could break vir­tu­ally every kind of en­cryp­tion, was just an­oth­er chapter in what we are told is vast volumes more to come from the Snowden files.

It seems clear by now, as even Pres­id­ent Obama ap­peared to con­cede at his year-end news con­fer­ence, that the NSA was over­reach­ing to some de­gree. And that it’s prob­ably wise to add new re­straints to its be­ha­vi­or, as even the in­tel­li­gence-friendly pres­id­en­tial pan­el con­cluded last month. But to listen to Snowden and Gre­en­wald, you’d think Big Broth­er was at our door­step, which is plainly not true. Among the pan­el’s con­clu­sions, in fact, is this line: “In our re­view, we have not un­covered any of­fi­cial ef­forts to sup­press dis­sent or any in­tent to in­trude in­to people’s private lives without leg­al jus­ti­fic­a­tion.”

So the ques­tion is, what pur­pose does this end­less and seem­ingly in­dis­crim­in­ate ex­pos­ure of Amer­ic­an na­tion­al-se­cur­ity secrets serve?

Nor has any journ­al­ist, in­clud­ing me, turned up such an in­stance. And on the oth­er side of the ledger, des­pite very jus­ti­fi­able doubts about the ef­fic­acy of the NSA’s bulk col­lec­tion of tele­phony metadata, and very reas­on­able con­cerns that more pro­tec­tions should be built in against the pos­sib­il­ity of a fu­ture J. Edgar Hoover — an ab­user of liberty and pri­vacy, in oth­er words — in­tel­li­gence ex­perts have said most of the agency’s key pro­grams, such as sur­veil­lance of emails abroad, have already proven crit­ic­al to na­tion­al se­cur­ity. As pan­el mem­ber Mi­chael Mo­rell, the former act­ing dir­ect­or of the CIA, told me last month, even the tele­phony pro­gram might have helped to avert 9/11. He also said he is in fa­vor of re­start­ing a pro­gram the NSA dis­con­tin­ued in 2011 that in­volved the col­lec­tion of “metadata” for In­ter­net com­mu­nic­a­tions. Both pro­grams to­geth­er, he ad­ded, have “the abil­ity to stop the next 9/11.”

So the ques­tion is, what pur­pose does this end­less and seem­ingly in­dis­crim­in­ate ex­pos­ure of Amer­ic­an na­tion­al-se­cur­ity secrets serve? This is most def­in­itely not the Pentagon Pa­pers, when the Post and the New York Times ex­posed the truth about a war already largely gone by. This is, if not quite a war, then at least a genu­ine present danger to Amer­ic­ans — a threat that is, ac­cord­ing to some of­fi­cials, only grow­ing more dan­ger­ous.

Fi­nally, is the au­gust Wash­ing­ton Post ef­fect­ively en­dors­ing Gre­en­wald’s view of journ­al­ism by be­com­ing part of his and Snowden’s dis­sem­in­a­tion ma­chine? Is this wise? Many of us be­lieve, con­tra Gre­en­wald, that without ob­jectiv­ity as a work­ing ideal, good journ­al­ism is lost forever. There is no longer any dir­ec­tion home to the truth. Shouldn’t we be tak­ing a stand? Already, be­cause of the rise of Gre­en­waldism and the blog­ger cul­ture that has in­vaded tra­di­tion­al journ­al­ism (at the Post, most egre­giously in the per­son of the ha­bitu­ally mis­in­form­at­ive Jen­nifer Ru­bin), junk sci­ence and bad in­form­a­tion rule in every de­bate in Wash­ing­ton from cli­mate change to stim­u­lus spend­ing.

Yes, Gre­en­wald is cor­rect to say that “ad­versari­al journ­al­ism” has had a very long his­tory, go­ing back to the pamph­let­eers of the Re­volu­tion like Tom Paine. But so did the prac­tice of slavery and the con­duct of war without the Geneva con­ven­tions. There is al­ways a place for ad­voc­ates and zealots — Amer­ica will al­ways wel­come its Tom Paines — but I think most of us would prefer to have them on the op-ed page. Most of us in the busi­ness con­sider the ef­fort at ob­jectiv­ity in journ­al­ism to be evid­ence of pro­gress.

What We're Following See More »
LEGACY PLAY
Sanders and Clinton Spar Over … President Obama
3 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

President Obama became a surprise topic of contention toward the end of the Democratic debate, as Hillary Clinton reminded viewers that Sanders had challenged the progressive bona fides of President Obama in 2011 and suggested that someone might challenge him from the left. “The kind of criticism that we’ve heard from Senator Sanders about our president I expect from Republicans, I do not expect from someone running for the Democratic nomination to succeed President Obama,” she said. “Madame Secretary, that is a low blow,” replied Sanders, before getting in another dig during his closing statement: “One of us ran against Barack Obama. I was not that candidate.”

THE 1%
Sanders’s Appeals to Minorities Still Filtered Through Wall Street Talk
5 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

It’s all about the 1% and Wall Street versus everyone else for Bernie Sanders—even when he’s talking about race relations. Like Hillary Clinton, he needs to appeal to African-American and Hispanic voters in coming states, but he insists on doing so through his lens of class warfare. When he got a question from the moderators about the plight of black America, he noted that during the great recession, African Americans “lost half their wealth,” and “instead of tax breaks for billionaires,” a Sanders presidency would deliver jobs for kids. On the very next question, he downplayed the role of race in inequality, saying, “It’s a racial issue, but it’s also a general economic issue.”

DIRECT APPEAL TO MINORITIES, WOMEN
Clinton Already Pivoting Her Messaging
5 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

It’s been said in just about every news story since New Hampshire: the primaries are headed to states where Hillary Clinton will do well among minority voters. Leaving nothing to chance, she underscored that point in her opening statement in the Milwaukee debate tonight, saying more needs to be done to help “African Americans who face discrimination in the job market” and immigrant families. She also made an explicit reference to “equal pay for women’s work.” Those boxes she’s checking are no coincidence: if she wins women, blacks and Hispanics, she wins the nomination.

THE QUESTION
How Many Jobs Would Be Lost Under Bernie Sanders’s Single-Payer System?
13 hours ago
THE ANSWER

More than 11 million, according to Manhattan Institute fellow Yevgeniy Feyman, writing in RealClearPolicy.

Source:
WEEKEND DATA DUMP
State to Release 550 More Clinton Emails on Saturday
13 hours ago
THE LATEST

Under pressure from a judge, the State Department will release about 550 of Hillary Clinton’s emails—“roughly 14 percent of the 3,700 remaining Clinton emails—on Saturday, in the middle of the Presidents Day holiday weekend.” All of the emails were supposed to have been released last month. Related: State subpoenaed the Clinton Foundation last year, which brings the total number of current Clinton investigations to four, says the Daily Caller.

Source:
×