Striking conversation with NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden at America’s SXSW overnight.
We can and must resist unwarranted government and corporate snooping:
Edward Snowden, a hero not a traitor, has provided the world with an invaluable insight into the scope of NSA spying. Surveillance is rampant and literally everything is being scooped up. Resistance is both vital and timely.
No investment seems too great if it adds to the agency’s global phone book. After mounting a major eavesdropping effort focused on a climate change conference in Bali in 2007, agency analysts stationed in Australia’s outback were especially thrilled by one catch: the cellphone number of Bali’s police chief.
“Our mission,” says the agency’s current five-year plan, which has not been officially scheduled for declassification until 2032, “is to answer questions about threatening activities that others mean to keep hidden.”
The aspirations are grandiose: to “utterly master” foreign intelligence carried on communications networks. The language is corporate: “Our business processes need to promote data-driven decision-making.” But the tone is also strikingly moralistic for a government bureaucracy. Perhaps to counter any notion that eavesdropping is a shady enterprise, signals intelligence, or Sigint, the term of art for electronic intercepts, is presented as the noblest of callings.
“Sigint professionals must hold the moral high ground, even as terrorists or dictators seek to exploit our freedoms,” the plan declares. “Some of our adversaries will say or do anything to advance their cause; we will not.”
The N.S.A. documents taken by Mr. Snowden and shared with The Times, numbering in the thousands and mostly dating from 2007 to 2012, are part of a collection of about 50,000 items that focus mainly on its British counterpart, Government Communications Headquarters or G.C.H.Q.
While far from comprehensive, the documents give a sense of the agency’s reach and abilities, from the Navy ships snapping up radio transmissions as they cruise off the coast of China, to the satellite dishes at Fort Meade in Maryland ingesting worldwide banking transactions, to the rooftops of 80 American embassies and consulates around the world from which the agency’s Special Collection Service aims its antennas.
The agency and its many defenders among senior government officials who have relied on its top secret reports say it is crucial to American security and status in the world, pointing to terrorist plots disrupted, nuclear proliferation tracked and diplomats kept informed.
But the documents released by Mr. Snowden sometimes also seem to underscore the limits of what even the most intensive intelligence collection can achieve by itself. Blanket N.S.A. eavesdropping in Afghanistan, described in the documents as covering government offices and the hide-outs of second-tier Taliban militants alike, has failed to produce a clear victory against a low-tech enemy. The agency kept track as Syria amassed its arsenal of chemical weapons — but that knowledge did nothing to prevent the gruesome slaughter outside Damascus in August.
The documents are skewed toward celebration of the agency’s self-described successes, as underlings brag in PowerPoints to their bosses about their triumphs and the managers lay out grand plans. But they do not entirely omit the agency’s flubs and foibles: flood tides of intelligence gathered at huge cost that goes unexamined; intercepts that cannot be read for lack of language skills; and computers that — even at the N.S.A. — go haywire in all the usual ways.
That creates intense pressure not to miss anything. When that is combined with an ample budget and near-invisibility to the public, the result is aggressive surveillance of the kind that has sometimes gotten the agency in trouble with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, a United States federal court that polices its programs for breaches of Americans’ privacy.
In the funding boom that followed the Sept. 11 attacks, the agency expanded and decentralized far beyond its Fort Meade headquarters in Maryland, building or expanding major facilities in Georgia, Texas, Colorado, Hawaii, Alaska, Washington State and Utah. Its officers also operate out of major overseas stations in England, Australia, South Korea and Japan, at overseas military bases, and from locked rooms housing the Special Collection Service inside American missions abroad.
The agency, using a combination of jawboning, stealth and legal force, has turned the nation’s Internet and telecommunications companies into collection partners, installing filters in their facilities, serving them with court orders, building back doors into their software and acquiring keys to break their encryption.
But even that vast American-run web is only part of the story. For decades, the N.S.A. has shared eavesdropping duties with the rest of the so-called Five Eyes, the Sigint agencies of Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. More limited cooperation occurs with many more countries, including formal arrangements called Nine Eyes and 14 Eyes and Nacsi, an alliance of the agencies of 26 NATO countries.
The extent of Sigint sharing can be surprising: “N.S.A. may pursue a relationship with Vietnam,” one 2009 G.C.H.Q. document reported. But a recent G.C.H.Q. training document suggests that not everything is shared, even between the United States and Britain. “Economic well-being reporting,” it says, referring to intelligence gathered to aid the British economy, “cannot be shared with any foreign partner.”
As at the school lunch table, decisions on who gets left out can cause hurt feelings: “Germans were a little grumpy at not being invited to join the 9-Eyes group,” one 2009 document remarks. And in a delicate spy-versus-spy dance, sharing takes place even with governments that are themselves important N.S.A. targets, notably Israel.
The documents describe collaboration with the Israel Sigint National Unit, which gets raw N.S.A. eavesdropping material and provides it in return, but they also mention the agency’s tracking of “high priority Israeli military targets,” including drone aircraft and the Black Sparrow missile system.
The alliances, and the need for stealth, can get complicated. At one highly valued overseas listening post, the very presence of American N.S.A. personnel violates a treaty agreed to by the agency’s foreign host. Even though much of the eavesdropping is run remotely from N.S.A.’s base at Fort Gordon, Ga., Americans who visit the site must pose as contractors, carry fake business cards and are warned: “Don’t dress as typical Americans.”
“Know your cover legend,” a PowerPoint security briefing admonishes the N.S.A. staff members headed to the overseas station, directing them to “sanitize personal effects,” send no postcards home and buy no identifiably local souvenirs. (“An option might be jewelry. Most jewelry does not have any markings” showing its place of origin.)
Here’s my weekly Guardian column published today:
What if China was beating the US at its own super-power game in the Pacific and we didn’t even notice?
While Washington distracts itself with shutdown shenanigans and failed attempts to control the situation in the Middle East, president Obama’s “pivot to Asia” looks increasingly shaky. Beijing is quietly filling the gap, signing multi-billion dollar trade deals with Indonesia and calling for a regional infrastructure bank.
Meanwhile in recent years, New Zealand has been feeling some of the US’s attention, and conservative prime minister John Key is more than happy to shift his country’s traditional skepticism towards Washington into a much friendlier embrace. Canberra is watching approvingly. It’s almost impossible to recall a critical comment by leaders of either country towards global US surveillance. We are like obedient school children, scared that the bully won’t like us if we dare push back and argue harder for our own national interests.
The Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA), warmly backed by Australian prime minister Tony Abbott and New Zealand, is just the latest example of US client states allowing US multinationals far too much influence in their markets in a futile attempt to challenge ever-increasing Chinese business ties in Asia. German-born, New Zealand resident and internet entrepreneur Kim Dotcom tweeted this week:
This erosion of sovereignty goes to the heart with what’s wrong with today’s secretive and unaccountable arrangements between nations desperate to remain under the US’s security blanket, and New Zealand provides an intriguing case-study in how not to behave, including using US spy services to monitor the phone calls of Kiwi journalist Jon Stephenson and his colleagues while reporting the war in Afghanistan.
There’s no indication that Australia isn’t following exactly the same path, with new evidence that Australia knew about the US spying network Prism long before it was made public. We still don’t know the exact extent of intelligence sharing between Australia and the US, except it’s very close and guaranteed to continue. Frustratingly, the “Five Eyes” relationship between English-speaking democracies has only been seriously discussed publicly in the last years by Greens senator Scott Ludlam.
New Zealand is a close Australian neighbour, but news from there rarely enters our media. This is a shame because we can learn a lot from the scandal surrounding the illegal monitoring of Dotcom and the public outcry which followed, something missing in Australia after countless post-Snowden stories detailing corporate and government spying on all citizens.
Dotcom is the founder of Megaupload (today called Mega), a file sharing website that incurred the wrath of US authorities. Washington wanted to punish him but Dotcom obtained New Zealand residency in late 2010, bringing a close US ally into the mix. Intelligence matters usually remain top-secret, leading New Zealand journalist Nicky Hager tells me, but this case was different, blowing open the illegal spying on Dotcom. His lawyers scrutinised all the police warrants after the FBI-requested raid on his house. The government communications security bureau (GCSB) has always claimed it never monitored New Zealand citizens; Dotcom soon discovered this was false. Public outrage followed, and an investigation revealed many other cases of GCSB over-reach since 2003. Prime minister Key responded by simply changing legislation to allow spying on residents.
Hager explained to me what his investigations uncovered:
“With Dotcom, GCSB helped the police by monitoring Dotcom’s e-mail. What this largely or entirely meant in practice was that the GCSB sent a request through to the NSA to do the monitoring for them and received the results back. This means that the NSA used either wide internet surveillance (essentially “Echelon for the Internet”) or else requests to the internet companies (Gmail etc) directly, ie the Prism type operations. It’s not clear which it was.”
The Key government now wants to increase its monitoring capabilities even more, and New Zealanders are showing concern.
“I spoke at a public meeting in Auckland’s town hall before the GCSB bill was passed. It was the biggest political meeting I can remember attending, with three levels of the large town hall completely full, and hundreds of people turned away. It’s been a big thing here, becoming one of those issues that is a lightning rod for general unhappiness with the government.”
New Zealand journalist Martyn Bradbury has also been a vocal critic of the Dotcom case. He’s pushing for a New Zealand digital bill of rights and tells me that “the case against Dotcom is more about the US stamping their supremacy onto the Pacific by expressing US jurisdiction extends not just into New Zealand domestically, but also into cyberspace itself.”
I talked to one of Dotcom’s lawyers, Ira P Rothken, who went further:
“The US government’s attack against Megaupload bears all the hallmarks of a political prosecution in favour of Hollywood copyright extremists. The US used its influence with New Zealand to unleash a military style raid on Dotcom’s family, to spy on him, and to remove his data from New Zealand without authorisation – all of which has been found to be illegal. Megaupload and Kim Dotcom are today’s targets, but the US crosshairs can just as easily be trained on anybody globally who dares challenge or inconvenience a special interest that holds sway in Washington, and the US – with its notoriously insatiable appetite for demonstrating political and global power – seems all too willing to cooperate.”
This brings us back to China and the US’s attempts to convince its Pacific friends to fear a belligerent and spying Beijing. The irony isn’t lost on the informed who realise Washington’s global spying network is far more pernicious and widespread than anything the Obama administration and corporate media tell us is coming from the Chinese.
Neither China nor the US are benign in the spying stakes. Both are guilty of aggressively pursuing their interests without informing their citizens of their rights and actions. Australia and New Zealand are weak players in an increasingly hostile battle between two super-powers, and many other nations in our region are being seduced by the soft power of Beijing (including Papua New Guinea, partly due to its vast resource wealth).
A lack of transparency abounds. What is desperately needed is an adversarial press determined to demand answers about Australia’s intelligence relationship with the US – and whether all citizens should now presume they’re being monitored on a daily basis.
Jimmy Fallon & Justin Timberlake show you what a Twitter conversation sounds like in real life.
Last night at the Sydney Opera House I witnessed a truly unique event. 1.5 hour discussion with Wikileaks’ Julian Assange, The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald, indy reporter and key documenter of the Chelsea Manning trial Alexa O’Brien (with whom I did an event tonight on Manning and dissent), Manning lawyer David Coombs, academic Robert Manne and moderator Crikey’s Bernard Keane.
They discussed mass surveillance, Edward Snowden and why dissent is so vital in an age of ever-growing government and corporate intrusion:
A key theme of my book The Blogging Revolution is China’s extensive web censorship regime.
Fast forward to 2013 and this story, via Reuters, offers unique details about the pathological desire to exercise control over citizens:
In a modern office building on the outskirts of the Chinese city of Tianjin, rows of censors stare at computer screens. Their mission: delete any post on Sina Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, deemed offensive or politically unacceptable.
But the people behind the censorship of China’s most popular microblogging site are not ageing Communist Party apparatchiks. Instead, they are new college graduates. Ambivalent about deleting posts, they grumble loudly about the workload and pay.
Managing the Internet is a major challenge for China. The ruling Communist Party sees censorship as key to maintaining its grip on power – indeed, new measures unveiled on Monday threaten jail time for spreading rumours online.
At the same time, China wants to give people a way to blow off steam when other forms of political protest are restricted.
Reuters interviewed four former censors at Sina Weibo, who all quit at various times this year. All declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the work they once did. Current censors declined to speak to Reuters.
“People are often torn when they start, but later they go numb and just do the job,” said one former censor, who left because he felt the career prospects were poor. “One thing I can tell you is that we are worked very hard and paid very little.”
Sina Corp, one of China’s biggest Internet firms, runs the microblogging site, which has 500 million registered users. It also employs the censors.
The company did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
“STRESSFUL, DEAD-END JOB”
Reuters got a glimpse of the Sina Weibo censorship office in Tianjin, half an hour from Beijing by high-speed train, one recent weekend morning.
A dozen employees, all men, could be seen through locked glass doors from a publicly accessible corridor, sitting in cramped cubicles separated by yellow dividers, staring at large monitors.
They more closely resembled Little Brothers than the Orwellian image of an omniscient and fearsome Big Brother.
“Our job prevents Weibo from being shut down and that gives people a big platform to speak from. It’s not an ideally free one, but it still lets people vent,” said a second former censor.
The former censors said the office was staffed 24 hours a day by about 150 male college graduates in total. They said women shunned the work because of the night shifts and constant exposure to offensive material.
The Sina Weibo censors are a small part of the tens of thousands of censors employed in China to control content in traditional media and on the Internet.
Most Sina Weibo censors are in their 20s and earn about 3,000 yuan ($490) a month, the former censors said, roughly the same as jobs posted in Tianjin for carpenters or staff in real estate firms. Many took the job after graduating from local universities.
“People leave because it’s a stressful dead-end job for most of us,” said a third former censor.
Sina’s computer system scans each microblog before they are published. Only a fraction are marked as sensitive and need to be read by a censor, who will decide whether to spare or delete it. Over an average 24-hour period, censors process about 3 million posts.
A small number of posts with so-called “must kill” words such as references to the banned spiritual group Falun Gong are first blocked and then manually deleted. Censors also have to update lists of sensitive words with new references and creative expressions bloggers use to evade scrutiny.
For most posts deemed sensitive, censors often use a subtle tactic in which a published comment remains visible to its author but is blocked for others, leaving the blogger unaware his post has effectively been taken down, the former censors said. Censors can also punish users by temporarily blocking their ability to make comments or shutting their accounts in extreme cases.
“We saw a fairly sophisticated system, where human power is amplified by computer automation, that is capable of removing sensitive posts within minutes,” said Jedidiah Crandall of the University of New Mexico, part of a team which did recent research on the speed of Weibo censorship.
The vital whistle-blowing of Edward Snowden continues to bear fruit. We have a right in a democratic society to know that our privacy is violated on a daily basis. And what we can do to protect ourselves.
The Guardian (by Glenn Greenwald, James Ball and Julia Borger):
US and British intelligence agencies have successfully cracked much of the online encryption relied upon by hundreds of millions of people to protect the privacy of their personal data, online transactions and emails, according to top-secret documents revealed by former contractor Edward Snowden.
The files show that the National Security Agency and its UK counterpart GCHQ have broadly compromised the guarantees thatinternet companies have given consumers to reassure them that their communications, online banking and medical records would be indecipherable to criminals or governments.
The agencies, the documents reveal, have adopted a battery of methods in their systematic and ongoing assault on what they see as one of the biggest threats to their ability to access huge swathes of internet traffic – “the use of ubiquitous encryption across the internet”.
Those methods include covert measures to ensure NSA control over setting of international encryption standards, the use of supercomputers to break encryption with “brute force”, and – the most closely guarded secret of all – collaboration with technology companies and internet service providers themselves.
Through these covert partnerships, the agencies have inserted secret vulnerabilities – known as backdoors or trapdoors – into commercial encryption software.
The files, from both the NSA and GCHQ, were obtained by the Guardian, and the details are being published today in partnership with the New York Times and ProPublica. They reveal:
• A 10-year NSA program against encryption technologies made a breakthrough in 2010 which made “vast amounts” of data collected through internet cable taps newly “exploitable”.
• The NSA spends $250m a year on a program which, among other goals, works with technology companies to “covertly influence” their product designs.
• The secrecy of their capabilities against encryption is closely guarded, with analysts warned: “Do not ask about or speculate on sources or methods.”
• The NSA describes strong decryption programs as the “price of admission for the US to maintain unrestricted access to and use of cyberspace”.
• A GCHQ team has been working to develop ways into encrypted traffic on the “big four” service providers, named as Hotmail, Google, Yahoo and Facebook.
Pro Publica (by Jeff Larson, Scott Shane and Nicole Perlroth):
The National Security Agency is winning its long-running secret war on encryption, using supercomputers, technical trickery, court orders and behind-the-scenes persuasion to undermine the major tools protecting the privacy of everyday communications in the Internet age, according to newly disclosed documents.
The agency has circumvented or cracked much of the encryption, or digital scrambling, that guards global commerce and banking systems, protects sensitive data like trade secrets and medical records, and automatically secures the e-mails, Web searches, Internet chats and phone calls of Americans and others around the world, the documents show.
Many users assume — or have been assured by Internet companies — that their data is safe from prying eyes, including those of the government, and the N.S.A. wants to keep it that way. The agency treats its recent successes in deciphering protected information as among its most closely guarded secrets, restricted to those cleared for a highly classified program code-named Bullrun, according to the documents, provided by Edward J. Snowden, the former N.S.A. contractor.
Beginning in 2000, as encryption tools were gradually blanketing the Web, the N.S.A. invested billions of dollars in a clandestine campaign to preserve its ability to eavesdrop. Having lost a public battle in the 1990s to insert its own “back door” in all encryption, it set out to accomplish the same goal by stealth.
The agency, according to the documents and interviews with industry officials, deployed custom-built, superfast computers to break codes, and began collaborating with technology companies in the United States and abroad to build entry points into their products. The documents do not identify which companies have participated.
The N.S.A. hacked into target computers to snare messages before they were encrypted. And the agency used its influence as the world’s most experienced code maker to covertly introduce weaknesses into the encryption standards followed by hardware and software developers around the world.
“For the past decade, N.S.A. has led an aggressive, multipronged effort to break widely used Internet encryption technologies,” said a 2010 memo describing a briefing about N.S.A. accomplishments for employees of its British counterpart, Government Communications Headquarters, or GCHQ. “Cryptanalytic capabilities are now coming online. Vast amounts of encrypted Internet data which have up till now been discarded are now exploitable.”
When the British analysts, who often work side by side with N.S.A. officers, were first told about the program, another memo said, “those not already briefed were gobsmacked!”
An intelligence budget document makes clear that the effort is still going strong. “We are investing in groundbreaking cryptanalytic capabilities to defeat adversarial cryptography and exploit Internet traffic,” the director of national intelligence, James R. Clapper Jr., wrote in his budget request for the current year.
My following article appears in today’s Guardian:
Revelations of British government intrusion of legitimate media reporting of American-led, global surveillance is a call to arms for journalists everywhere.
Australian attorney general Mark Dreyfus recently claimed that Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden weren’t whistle-blowers because they were “politically motivated”, and neither man exposed government wrong-doing (in fact, both did in major ways). The highest lawyer in the country fundamentally misunderstands the vital, democratic necessity of whistle-blowing as a safety valve against state violence, corruption and dishonesty.
Dreyfus should remember that the most comprehensive global study ever conducted into public attitudes towards whistleblowing, Melbourne University’s Suelette Dreyfus was a key researcher on the World Online Whistleblowing Survey, which found 81% of Australians believed such individuals should be backed.
If any western state claiming to be a democracy wants to destroy hard drives containing sensitive information, there’s only one response: resistance. Glenn Greenwald is right when he told CNN this week that “journalism is not a crime and it’s not terrorism”. The fact that such obvious statements need to be made in this climate shows how dangerous the attempts to criminalise legitimate investigations have become in the post 9/11 world.
In the spirit of telling governments and authorities that the public won’t tolerate illegal intrusion and intimidation against its own citizens, the following list is a far from comprehensive collection of information and documents the public has the right and need to know. Whistle-blowers and gadflys should feel unburdened and find the best way to get this information out (yes, I can receive snail mail to avoid all electronic communication).
- A decade after Australian forces were sent to Iraq to join the US overthrow of Saddam Hussein, there’s still no inquiry into the decision-making process leading to that decision (though the Iraq War Inquiry Group has been calling for one). It’s essential that documents are released related to the motivation and timing of the decision, whether legal advice found the decision legal, the exact role of private contractors working for Australians in the conflict zone and whether public statements by then prime minister John Howard and foreign minister Alexander Downer matched private knowledge and assessments.
- Trade agreements negotiated with other nations must be made public long before they’re passed, usually with bipartisanship, by a government of the day. Far too often, including in the trade deal between Australia and America, secrecy is used to obfuscate clauses that disadvantage citizens, not least over sovereignty and excessive use of foreign law enforcement actions in our territory. We need to see documents that detail these negotiations and what benefits Australian officials were willing to forgo for political expediency.
- What’s the legal basis for the use of American assets on Australian territory, such as Pine Gap, in Washington’s drone war? What, if any, intelligence was gathered on Australian soil in the “war on terror” that caused the death of civilians in officially declared or undeclared battle zones? What is the legal basis for maintaining a key US intelligence asset without proper and regular parliamentary scrutiny? Recent revelations in New Zealand that US intelligence may be supporting its intelligence services should ring alarm bells in Australia, as our subservience to Washington’s needs are equally transparent.
- What legal advice did former prime minister Julia Gillard rely on when she claimed Julian Assange was behaving “illegally” when his organisation Wikileaks released documents in 2010? When Australian foreign minister Bob Carr said in June this year that his government was washing his hands of Assange because his case “doesn’t affect Australian interests”, we deserve to see the legal advice that supports this absurd suggestion. The fact that Australian officials attended the trial of Bradley Manning proved the spuriousness of Carr’s comments.
- Australia and America signed in 2008 a “statement of principles on geospatial intelligence co-operation”. The program is GEOINT, a high-level intelligence sharing program from spy satellites. President Barack Obama has accelerated America’s drone war since 2008, killing countless civilians in Yemen, Pakistan and beyond, and Australians have the right to see the legal basis for any information given by Canberra to attacks that kill or maim non-combatants. Does this legal advice, if it even exists, show that Australian officials could be held accountable for misuse of American intelligence in its “war on terror”?
- Australia provides more than half a billion dollars of aid annually to Papua New Guinea. How much financial assistance is AusAid providing to Australian consultants to assist the government of Bougainville (and its corporate backers) in drafting mining legislation to allow the return of mining giant Rio Tinto more than two decades after the multinational was kicked out of the province? Billions of dollars are up for grabs in the project.
- Australia’s ascension to the UN Security Council in 2012 was surrounded by allegations of bribing African nations for the honour. What diplomatic promises were made by Australian officials to secure these votes and what internal discussions by Australia were undertaken to assess the benefits or disadvantages of the two-year position? Furthermore, what pressure did Israel, during its unsuccessful bid to convince Australia to reject Palestinian statehood at the UN in 2012, place on the Gillard government and what did Gillard herself promise to the Israelis after failing to secure support of her cabinet during the discussions over the issue?
- Just two months before East Timor became independent in March 2002, Australia unilaterally withdrew from the maritime boundary jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice and the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea. The Timor Sea Justice Campaign claimed that Australia was stealing billions of dollars in oil and gas revenue from its poorest neighbour. Documents that reveal the Australian government’s decisions would be insightful. Equally important are the exact reasons for the Howard government’s intervention in 1999 (not as noble as claimed) and successive Australian governments, from Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser in the 1970s onwards, ignoring Indonesian genocide against the Timorese (all ably documented in a recent book by Clinton Fernandes).
Governments routinely over-classify information and beyond the reach of the public – the US now classifies literally trillions of pages of text annually – so it’s our duty to uncover what the state and business want to keep secret. Embarrassing power is our job. Let’s make authorities sweat by releasing an avalanche of riches.
An insightful feature in the New York Times magazine by Peter Maass on the role played by film-maker Laura Poitras and journalist Glenn Greenwald when discovering Edward Snowden and reporting his invaluable NSA revelations:
Poitras and Greenwald are an especially dramatic example of what outsider reporting looks like in 2013. They do not work in a newsroom, and they personally want to be in control of what gets published and when. When The Guardian didn’t move as quickly as they wanted with the first article on Verizon, Greenwald discussed taking it elsewhere, sending an encrypted draft to a colleague at another publication. He also considered creating a Web site on which they would publish everything, which he planned to call NSADisclosures. In the end, The Guardian moved ahead with their articles. But Poitras and Greenwald have created their own publishing network as well, placing articles with other outlets in Germany and Brazil and planning more for the future. They have not shared the full set of documents with anyone.
“We are in partnership with news organizations, but we feel our primary responsibility is to the risk the source took and to the public interest of the information he has provided,” Poitras said. “Further down on the list would be any particular news organization.”
Unlike many reporters at major news outlets, they do not attempt to maintain a facade of political indifference. Greenwald has been outspoken for years; on Twitter, he recently replied to one critic by writing: “You are a complete idiot. You know that, right?” His left political views, combined with his cutting style, have made him unloved among many in the political establishment. His work with Poitras has been castigated as advocacy that harms national security. “I read intelligence carefully,” said Senator Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, shortly after the first Snowden articles appeared. “I know that people are trying to get us. . . . This is the reason the F.B.I. now has 10,000 people doing intelligence on counterterrorism. . . . It’s to ferret this out before it happens. It’s called protecting America.”
Poitras, while not nearly as confrontational as Greenwald, disagrees with the suggestion that their work amounts to advocacy by partisan reporters. “Yes, I have opinions,” she told me. “Do I think the surveillance state is out of control? Yes, I do. This is scary, and people should be scared. A shadow and secret government has grown and grown, all in the name of national security and without the oversight or national debate that one would think a democracy would have. It’s not advocacy. We have documents that substantiate it.”
Poitras possesses a new skill set that is particularly vital — and far from the journalistic norm — in an era of pervasive government spying: she knows, as well as any computer-security expert, how to protect against surveillance. As Snowden mentioned, “In the wake of this year’s disclosure, it should be clear that unencrypted journalist-source communication is unforgivably reckless.” A new generation of sources, like Snowden or Pfc. Bradley Manning, has access to not just a few secrets but thousands of them, because of their ability to scrape classified networks. They do not necessarily live in and operate through the established Washington networks — Snowden was in Hawaii, and Manning sent hundreds of thousands of documents to WikiLeaks from a base in Iraq. And they share their secrets not with the largest media outlets or reporters but with the ones who share their political outlook and have the know-how to receive the leaks undetected.
In our encrypted chat, Snowden explained why he went to Poitras with his secrets: “Laura and Glenn are among the few who reported fearlessly on controversial topics throughout this period, even in the face of withering personal criticism, [which] resulted in Laura specifically becoming targeted by the very programs involved in the recent disclosures. She had demonstrated the courage, personal experience and skill needed to handle what is probably the most dangerous assignment any journalist can be given — reporting on the secret misdeeds of the most powerful government in the world — making her an obvious choice.”
Here’s the interview, conducted via encryption, between Maass and Snowden.
The role of an accountable press has never been more important. The role of Wikileaks, whistle-blowers, Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden should inspire us all and bring a realisation that transparency in a democracy requires brave souls.
In exchanges with Washington Post reporter Barton Gellman prior to his name becoming public, Edward Snowden said something that got overlooked.
“Whistleblowers before him, he said, had been destroyed by the experience. Snowden wanted “to embolden others to step forward,” he wrote, by showing that “they can win.””
It’s not enough to defy the government and reveal what it wants to keep secret. When you go up against the most powerful and secretive forces on the planet, you have to try to win. It sounded kooky at first, or completely outrageous, but after President Obama’s August 9th press conference it was difficult to deny that Snowden had won— not a complete but still a significant victory.
Congress had woken up to its oversight responsibilities and was finally debating the limits of the surveillance state. Lawmakers in both parties were advertising their doubts. Other parliaments around the world were asking questions they had not asked before. The President had been forced to respond with an announcement of some (tepid) reforms and a press conference intended to restore public confidence after the Snowden effect flipped the polls around. (Link.) When Obama tried to argue that he had been ahead of the game on transparency and the protection of whistleblowers and would have wound up in the same place without Snowden’s actions, it was hard to imagine anyone in the know buying it. As The Economist said:
Mr Obama laments that the debate over these issues did not follow “an orderly and lawful process”, but the administration often blocked such a course. For nearly five years it appeared comfortable with the secret judicial system that catered to executive demands. It prized the power to spy on Americans, and kept information from Congress. Mr Snowden exposed all of this. His actions may not have been orderly or lawful, but they were crucial to producing the reforms announced by Mr Obama.
On Meet the Press they also talked about the sale of the Washington Post to Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos. But they did not try to connect the two stories, even though one of the living connections — Barton Gellman, who writes for the Post and was contacted by Snowden — was on the program.
“…Bart Gellman, the kind of work you do requires not only sources deep inside the intelligence community, but editors and owners who are willing to defy the government and publish over its strongest objections. If you had been able to talk to Jeff Bezos before he bought the Washington Post, what would you have told him to expect about this part of the job– publishing the secrets his reporters dig up?”
David Gregory didn’t ask Gellman that, but he could have. For one of the biggest unknowns in the story of Bezos taking over the Post has nothing to do with adapting to the internet or finding a new business model for newspapers. It’s whether Bezos has the inner strength to go up against the most powerful and secretive forces on the planet. When his free press moment comes — and it will come — will Jeff Bezos answer the bell?