The story of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden has dominated the mainstream news for the last seven months. During that time, questions about Snowden and his disclosures have framed the national discussion about domestic surveillance. Those disclosures have not resulted in any changes to U.S. domestic surveillance practices to date. Instead, the U.S. Justice Department has re-certified the programs in question as Americans discuss media talking points like—Is Snowden a traitor or a hero? A growing number of people are looking behind that media-generated framework, however, and are beginning to wonder if the right questions are even being asked.
What we know about Edward Snowden is that he was a Special Forces recruit in the U.S. Army, an NSA employee, an NSA contractor for at least two different companies, and a CIA employee under cover. All of this occurred in a span of only a few years and he was able to command six-figure salaries despite having no education beyond a high school equivalency certification. Of the many positions he held in a period of approximately six years, the most long-lived appears to have been his work with the CIA where this 20-something spy was, in his own words, a “senior advisor.”
When asked about his background and motivations, Snowden said, “I’m just another guy.” He went on to say that his leaking of NSA secrets was what we needed to know, implying that it was all we needed to know, about NSA spying. “This is the truth… This is what’s happening,” he said. Oddly enough, Snowden was strongly against whistle blowing just a few years ago, writing that leakers “should be shot” before becoming one himself.
The remainder of the story has been presented in articles like those by The New York Times, which paint Snowden in an increasingly favorable light. The Times, which was called a mouthpiece for the Obama Administration by Glenn Greenwald, the reporter chosen by Snowden to reveal his story, has come out calling for clemency for Snowden.
However, the questions about the evolving Snowden story have grown rapidly and continue to present challenges to citizens who are alert to the prevalence of corporate media propaganda. How many stolen documents are there and who has access to them? Why have only a tiny fraction of the documents been released seven months after they were first disclosed by Snowden? Why has Glenn Greenwald made a deal with the owner of Paypal Corporation—the company whose former executives now produce the technologies used for domestic spying?
Emotions and Responses
The biggest hurdle to understanding the Snowden story has been the emotional reaction to asking questions about it. Those who have dared to question the story have been met with ridicule and misplaced condemnation.
Author Naomi Wolf made some straightforward observations about Snowden’s slick introduction in comparison to other whistleblower stories. Her questions elicited derision from pundits, some even suggesting that if Wolf didn’t buy into Snowden then she must be an NSA operative.
Whistleblower Sibel Edmonds’ questions were met with ad hominem attacks from Greenwald. Writing that Edmonds was “too stupid and/or crazy to know,“ Greenwald summarily excused the founder of the National Security Whistleblowers Coalition from further dialogue on the issue.
My recent article resulted in mild hysteria from a few who believe that no aspect of the Snowden story should ever be questioned, regardless of how that story evolves in the mainstream media. One such reaction resulted in a hit piece based on the false premise that I was calling Snowden a liar. The author called for a public apology until he realized that it was his own error that required an apology (cue crickets).
Thankfully, Greenwald has offered a few answers at his blog. Unfortunately, the emotional nature of those responses raises more questions. What’s more, the growing rancor and distrust regarding this story is resulting in citizens losing sight of the actual NSA crimes being committed and our decreasing ability to stop or prosecute them.
Greenwald’s answers appeared at his blog in two installments, one in December and another in January. In those posts he goes on at length about the fact that reporters work for money. Although Edmonds has made the point that whistleblowing should not be a profit-making venture for anyone, in general no one denies that reporters work for money. And if Greenwald gets fabulously rich from all of it, that doesn’t bother me. What bothers me is that he still hasn’t answered some of the more important questions. For example, has he made any kind of deal with government or corporate representatives with regard to this story or the release of material from Snowden? What are Greenwald’s views on the coincidence that his financier Pierre Omidyar’s former Paypal colleagues are strong supporters of NSA spying and are the people developing the technologies for that spying?
Another unanswered question is a simple one. How many documents are there? Estimates have ranged from thousands to nearly two million. Only Greenwald and Laura Poitras have the entire cache, according to Greenwald. But portions of the stolen documents have been distributed to many mainstream news organizations and “tens of thousands of these documents are in the possession of The New York Times, The Guardian, ProPublica, and The Washington Post.” A subset of more than 50,000 of them, focused specifically on the GCHQ (the British version of the NSA), were shared by The Guardian with The Times and ProPublica. Therefore we’re talking about a very large, but still very uncertain, number of documents. Since Greenwald has reported that Snowden “read and very carefully processed every document that he gave us,” curious citizens might wonder how that was possible.
That being said, Greenwald has offered answers to a few of the questions and we can discuss them.
Why are the documents being released so slowly? Greenwald provided the following answers in his blog posts.
- Releasing the documents all at once would “violently breach … our agreement with our source.”
- “Large media institutions, even the ones with the best journalistic intentions, have all sorts of constraints – financial, legal, cultural – that produce fear and timidity, and that has sometimes slowed down or diluted our ability to publish the way we wanted to.”
- There exist “very real legal risks for everyone involved in this process, beginning with Snowden, who already faces 30 years in prison and is currently protected only by 9 more months of temporary asylum in Russia. Everyone involved in the publication of these materials has already undertaken substantial legal risk.”
- “These documents are complex. Sometimes they take a good deal of reporting to fill in some of the gaps.”
- The documents might contain the names of people who are surfing for pornography or are suspected of being terrorists, or they might contain “raw chats” or other specific internet activity, and these things might threaten the reputations or lives of those people. The documents might also help teach (less ethical?) states how to spy on their own citizens.
The first of these answers is the strongest. The public does not have access to the agreement and the implication is that future whistleblowers might be dissuaded from coming forward if they thought that they could not trust the people to whom they reveal information.
The second answer points more to the problem than the answer. Large media institutions are often vehicles for propaganda (remember the aluminum tubes) and that is why these kinds of questions arise in the first place.
The third answer is understandable but weak. Nobody should expect whistleblowing to be safe.
The last two answers are not believable considering what we know about answers Greenwald has given to other questions, and the distribution of the documents. For example, Greenwald knows enough about all the documents that he can definitely say that Paypal and its past and present executives are not implicated. And someone knew enough about the documents that they could be distributed to different major media corporations, presumably without carelessness, so these documents are not total unknowns. Can Greenwald tell us how the documents were categorized or sorted before distribution to the media outlets and how that was done to avoid the risks he emphasizes on his blog now?
Ultimately, the answer to why the documents have not been released boils down to that it is part of the agreement with Edward Snowden. Will Greenwald release his agreement with Snowden to verify that? Does the agreement apply to all the media outlets to which documents have been distributed? Who decided that these establishment mouthpiece media outlets were suddenly so honorable and would not report the information haphazardly or for the benefit of the powers that control them?
Greenwald’s December response indicated that he felt the questions about why the documents were not being released right away were good questions. He wrote, “I respect that critique” and even stated that he would ask the same questions. As an attorney, Greenwald might have wondered if withholding documents about ongoing crimes is a crime in itself.
Now, however, Greenwald labels those who question why the documents are being held back as “conspiracy theorists.” In Greenwald’s response, he rants about “people who cook up conspiracy theories” and how “deranged those theories are.” These comments reflect the position of Greenwald’s new media partner Jeremy Scahill with regard to questions about the official account for the 9/11 attacks. Scahill has publicly said that he believes questions about 9/11 are “insulting to the people who died on 9/11.” Scahill claims to be educated on such questions but apparently still doesn’t know that it was the 9/11 victims’ families who initiated such questioning and who continue to lead the search for answers.
The irony is that Greenwald was, just prior to becoming the voice of our New York Times-supported whistleblower hero, a major conspiracy theorist with regard to terrorism. In fact, Greenwald has espoused some of the most interesting conspiracy theories regarding U.S. government involvement in the manufacture of false terrorism.
In a series of articles at Salon, Greenwald went into great detail on the FBI’s ongoing efforts to manufacture terrorism. In one case, he wrote that the FBI “created a plot [and] it then persuaded/manipulated/entrapped [a hapless loner] to join, essentially turning him into a Terrorist; and then patted itself on the back once it arrested him for having thwarted a ‘Terrorist plot’ which, from start to finish, was entirely the FBI’s own concoction.”
If that’s not a conspiracy theory, I don’t know what is.
Greenwald went on to write that, “Time and again, the FBI concocts a Terrorist attack, infiltrates Muslim communities in order to find recruits, persuades them to perpetrate the attack, supplies them with the money, weapons and know-how they need to carry it out—only to heroically jump in at the last moment, arrest the would-be perpetrators whom the FBI converted, and save a grateful nation from the plot manufactured by the FBI.”
According to Greenwald this vast FBI plot is intended “to justify this Endless War on civil liberties (and Terror).” At the time, in 2010 and 2011, Greenwald was astounded by the lack of skepticism about the completely uncritical reporting on terrorist stories that were used to justify the War on Terror. Today he is astounded by the growing skepticism about the completely uncritical reporting on the Snowden story. Apparently the difference, and his newfound reliance on the Conspiracy Theorists™ slur, has to do with him being a central character in this story.
Overall, the government’s handling of questions about domestic surveillance has been very similar to its handling of questions about 9/11. It’s all about The Terrorists and things that would never be allowed in other circumstances, like lying to Congress and withholding documents, are perfectly OK. The Anglo-American establishment media control the flow of information and questions are not allowed. Those daring to question are met with ridicule. Heroes and demons are offered up to focus the story on personalities instead of facts. What’s different here?