Is this the future of investigative reporting? How far would a US government (or London?) go to stop information they believed was sensitive?
On Saturday night, Michael Grunwald, aTime correspondent, deleted a tweet that he said was “dumb”; a spokesperson for the magazine noted in an e-mailed statement that it had been on Grunwald’s “personal twitter account” and “is in no way representative of Time’s views,” and called it “offensive”: “he regrets having tweeted it.” Those responses are apt. This is what Grunwald said:
“I can’t wait to write a defense of the drone strike that takes out Julian Assange.”
People say reckless things on Twitter, as Grunwald’s defenders pointed out and as some of his more extreme critics, who posted that they couldn’t wait to write a similar defense regarding the drone strike that hit him and other gruesome things, demonstrated. If dumbness were the only issue we’d be done. But this one deserves being talked about a bit more, less because Grunwald still seems a bit oblivious as to what was wrong with what he said (though there’s that) than because it encapsulated something hazardous about the current moment, for journalists, for anyone who cares about civil liberties, and for the political culture more generally. And there’s the issue of the lack of civility on Twitter—but we already knew that one.
Still, let’s start with the tweets. Many people read it as a call to kill Assange, a founder of WIkiLeaks; that isn’t quite right, but “can’t wait to write a defense” implies a certain eager anticipation. And “takes out” is one of those terms—like “ice,” which Grunwald used, with regard to Anwar al-Awlaki, in a post he cited Saturday to explain his position as a “statist”—that makes its user feel blunt while serving as a distancing euphemism. (The Timespokesperson said that he wouldn’t be saying anything more on this for now.) Killing is killing; and this isn’t just Grunwald’s problem. The language reflects one of the problems with drone strikes—they seem like the clap of a hand, tough and sharp, but they are so much uglier and more complicated than that.
It was troubling, too, to read Grunwald’s tweet on a day when journalists were being threatened, detained, and set upon in Cairo, accused of being terrorist sympathizers or spies, underminers of public safety, for reporting on the violence of the government’s assault on the Muslim Brotherhood. Would words like those have appeared in Grunwald’s defense of a drone strike? This is a dangerous time for journalists; Time itself sends people places where missile strikes and bombs are not just rhetorical ammunition.
Journalists are in legal danger, too. The Obama Administration has, in its practices, embraced the position that the leaking of classified information to reporters is a problem properly addressed with the Espionage Act. Bradley Manning was convicted under it even though the government failed on a charge of aiding the enemy. Edward Snowden, the N.S.A. leaker, has been charged with two violations of the Espionage Act, for starters. Snowden’s leaks made a crucial discussion about the N.S.A.’s overreach possible. President Obama said in a press conference last week that he didn’t consider him a “patriot”; others have openly called him a traitor. And the Administration has come close to calling reporters who work with leakers members of spy rings.
Peter Maass, in a profile of Laura Poitras, a documentary filmmaker to whom Snowden turned with his files, describes how she was stopped and harassed at border crossings for years before even meeting him, perhaps because of filming she did in Iraq—but who knows why. [Update: David Miranda, a Brazilian citizen, was detained for nine hours Sunday while transiting Heathrow under a section of the U.K.’s Terrorism Act, apparently because he is the partner of Glenn Greenwald, who also worked with Snowden, and had just visited Poitras; British authorities questioned him about the N.S.A. leaks, according to theGuardian.]
The other part of the equation is our drone regimen and the legal rationales the Obama Administration has constructed for targeted killings—including the killings of Americans. Ina post a few months ago, I asked whether an Administration white paper explaining why it thought it could extra-judicially kill Americans abroad—ones whom it had decided were a threat and involved with Al Qaeda or “associated forces”—could be used to justify, say, a drone strike against a journalist who was about to reveal classified information. Despite the Administration’s denial that this is its intention, it appears that it could; it is too easy to imagine a future President pointing to the language of the white paper as a precedent. And that is for Americans: foreigners have less protection.