Governments worldwide buried in the Snowden avalanche

November 7, 2013

If the U.S. and British governments could stop the press from publishing stories based on the National Security Agency files leaked by Edward Snowden in June, they probably would have acted by now. Oh, the Guardian was coerced by the British government into destroying the hard drives in London containing the leaked files, and London police used terrorism law to detain the partner of Glenn Greenwald — one of the journalists to whom Snowden leaked — at Heathrow Airport and confiscated computer media believed to contain leaked files.

But these measures were largely for show. As Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger had earlier reminded officials, other publications and individuals possess copies of the files, and “doomsday” copies exist that will be released “if anything happens at all to Edward Snowden,” said Greenwald in June. Greenwald wasn’t so much blackmailing the U.S. and British governments as promising retaliation, Capone-style, should harm come to his source.

Meanwhile, hardly a week has expired since June without the publication of a new Snowden revelation somewhere in the world, as this Wikipedia page illustrates. Last week, the Washington Post reported how the NSA pinches data from Yahoo and Google’s worldwide data centers. On Sunday, the New York Times published a laundry list of NSA operations, demonstrating the agency’s pervasiveness. “The N.S.A. seems to be listening everywhere in the world, gathering every stray electron that might add, however minutely, to the United States government’s knowledge of the world,” wrote reporter Scott Shane.

From the sidelines, the U.S. and British governments appear to be helpless, pitiful giants, to steal a phrase from Richard Nixon, when it comes to the NSA disclosures. Traditionally, the U.S. government has been more or less successful in getting the press to delay — or at least reduce the octane — of their most explosive national security stories, as these Shorenstein Center papers by Jack Nelson (pdf) and Allan Siegal (pdf) attest. Failing to daunt or cajole the press, the government can try other behavior-mod strategies. It can deter future leakers by aggressively prosecuting current leakers, as the Obama administration has done. It can intimidate reporters who refuse to surrender their confidential sources in criminal proceedings with threats of contempt and jail time, an outcome New York Times reporter James Risen seems resigned to. (Gabriel Schoenfeld, author of Necessary Secrets, made the case for why Risen deserves jail in 2010 in the Daily Beast.)

Those techniques won’t work against the reporters writing about the Snowden leaks: Snowden outed himself as the source of the NSA files — essentially confessing to the espionage charge against him — so prosecutors can’t retaliate against Greenwald, the Washington Post‘s Barton Gellman, or filmmaker Laura Poitras, early recipients of the Snowden leaks, by using the courts to expose their sources.

What else can the Anglo-American spymasters do? Thanks to the high bar the Supreme Court set for prior restraint in the Pentagon Papers case, the U.S. government would have to make an incredible case to the court to prevent the Post, the Times, and other American news organizations from continuing to mine the Snowden files — said to exceed 50,000 documents — for stories. And even if they could block American media from publishing, the stories will run in Brazil, where Greenwald is based, or in Germany, home to Poitras, or wherever Snowden’s doomsday device detonates.

Alternately, prosecutors could invoke Section 798 of the Espionage Act of 1917, which criminalizes the disclosure of “communications intelligence of the United State or any foreign government,” against all the reporters and editors and copy editors who have squired the Snowden files into print. As Schoenfeld wrote in his book, “this statute is completely unambiguous,” and could have been used against the New York Times in 2005 when it published a previous series on the NSA. But as I argued back in 2006 in Slate, Section 798 is untested against works of journalism and in a showdown between it and the First Amendment, it’s hard to imagine Section 798 winning. Also, it’s hard to imagine that President Barack Obama wishes to perfume his legacy with such a crackdown against a gang that buys its ink and pixels by the container ship.

The Snowden genie-out-of-the-bottle has so depressed American intelligence that Bobby R. Inman, who ran the NSA from 1977 to 1981, recently advised his old agency comrades to fold. Release to the press “everything you think Snowden has,” he said, because “bad news doesn’t get better with age. The sooner they get it out and put it behind them, the faster they can begin to rebuild.”

It’s hard to imagine the national security establishment capitulating that easily, but it holds some appeal compared to taking a weekly beating in the press. For now, at least until the United States gets hit again, the press corps has pinned the U.S. government in a stalemate.


Veteran spook Paul Pillar preaches anything but surrender. Send your subpoenas to and hire my Twitter feed to serve yours. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns.

PHOTO: Various types of directional antennas are pictured on the roof of a skyscraper in Berlin, November 5, 2013. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch


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I kind of enjoy the weekly new stories with which to beat the NSA over the head. They deserve it. These paranoid dillusional fear mongering greed types claim to be protecters of our freedoms while simultaneously they work to destroy them. It’s similar to the insanity of the Mullahs of the middle east, in that they believe in love and peace as God intended, and they will kill you if you don’t agree. Thus the NSA needs to spy on us to protect our freedoms, it makes perfect sense if your a brainwashed follower like most people and so it should work pretty well in general. They’ll simply be a few crazies, as there always is, trying to stir up trouble where there is none (as all who accept the path found in their teachings know).

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

brotherkenny4, sorry, but the “crazy’ mullahs have alot more intelligence and rationality then our stupid politicians here do.

And for your information, we are the only country that is able to spy on such a mass scale. Im suprised that none of the ‘freedom loving’ groups like human rights watch and other NGO’s that critisize human right records have nothing to say about this!!!!!

Posted by KyleDexter | Report as abusive

> other publications and individuals possess copies of
> the files
And the most important fact about those individuals who posses copies? They are not congressional members or the president or the NSA management, all of whom have voted to uphold unconstitutional or lied about unconstitutional activity. Today is a sad cold day in hell when our forefathers died to support the current abortion calling itself a US government.

Posted by UScitizentoo | Report as abusive

Whether or not Snowden’s leaks are a grave threat to national security has yet to be determined and I doubt the American people will ever know the truth of that. What Snowden’s leaks have shown is the grave threat to our civil liberties by the government-military-industrial-digital complex. The corporate press in the U.S. is failing miserably as the watchdogs on government and has yet to address this issue except to dance across the top of it. Corporate America’s leverage on our government is enormous and Snowden’s leaks can easily lead to the exposure of just how enmeshed they are in it, to what extent they have hijacked our government and to exposing the huge profits they have gained in the tightening of their political control. We have already seen the corporate prostitutes in Congress take the side of the National Security Agency rather than taking steps to prevent the destruction of our civil liberties. This story is a lot bigger than just national security and it has not yet been told and may never be.

Posted by Des3Maisons | Report as abusive

Sorry folks, Snowden is a traitor plain and simple. Put down NSA/CIA excessive intrusions, perhaps. We forget all the lives they have saved by spying, ie: Times Sq. We already know that big$ runs our country, old news.
In Washington’s day, Snowden would be HUNG! Benedict Arnold got asylum in England, Snowdwn in Russia.
Muslim terroism is flourishing worldwide, we need the NSA. Shut them down and 9/11, Boston, Atocha Stan & London/Underground will be daily occurrances. Would you like to live in Iraq?

Posted by Doc62 | Report as abusive

@Doc62 sounds like he would fit right into Soviet or Nazi societies. No thanks, I’ll take individual freedom, preserved by more traditional national defense strategies. If the methods we use to “preserve our freedom” violate that freedom fundamentally, significantly, and perhaps permanently, then let’s just call a spade a spade and say the anti-freedom enemies win and individual freedom is no longer possible in our “modern” world? No thanks.

Posted by sarkozyrocks | Report as abusive

“If the U.S. and British governments could stop the press from publishing stories based on the National Security Agency files leaked by Edward Snowden in June, they probably would have acted by now.” – they tried, but… that’s why, I guess, Obama cancelled his meeting with Putin. Putin will milk Snowden as long as he can, which is no surprise, given Putin’s resume.

What amazes me though is why the U.S. and British governments haven’t been doing any counter-propaganda efforts by exposing a few prominent cases of the human rights abuses in Russia and China WITHOUT ANY OVERSIGHT and a few cases when Russia and China spied on foreigners (anyone doubts that?).

As the saying goes… everything’s in comparison.

Posted by UauS | Report as abusive

The problem is not the information disclosed… It’s the manipulation of that information by the media, into something that it’s not… and the ignorance and paranoia of the general public, to twist it into something far worse than it actually is.

The majority of the people in the public that keep calling Snowden a hero, and saying things like… “They’re abusing our liberties”… have no clue what is actually transpiring on a technical level. Their understanding goes as far as seeing a headline like… “Massive US Spying Program”… and that’s all they need to see. In their minds, they picture some person sitting there with headphones on, monitoring everything they say in their phone calls, and reading everything they type in an email. Which is not happening.

What the NSA and other similar organizations are most guilty of, is woefully underestimating the selfishness, naivete and stupidity, of the average citizen. This is the ‘me’ generation. There is no ‘us’… There is no ‘we’. We now live in a country where people simply care about themselves. That’s it. There is no patriotism or team thinking. If it doesn’t benefit them individually, then they are against it. Unless it’s a check coming to their mail box, then it’s a waste of money. In essence… Most people are too dumb to understand what NSA really does, and too uniformed to understand what other countries are doing in comparison… Therefore, they’re against it. If they can’t understand something, then it must be bad.

Posted by dd606 | Report as abusive

Releasing the material is not enough, they have to also fix the problems.

Posted by zbrowne | Report as abusive