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.

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