Opinion

Jack Shafer

The (misguided) passion of Glenn Greenwald

Jack Shafer
May 14, 2014 22:30 UTC

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It’s not that journalists have thin skins — it’s that they have no skins.

This adage gets trotted out once a month or more in better newsrooms to provide context for the overreaction of a reporter or editor who has found himself on the receiving end of criticism for something they’ve published. This week, some journalists who have been critical of Glenn Greenwald are seeking skin grafts for their skin grafts after reading his denunciation of them in the final chapter of his new book about the Snowden files, No Place to Hide.

I would ordinarily write something like — “Greenwald settles scores with the New York Daily News, David Gregory of NBC News, Alan Dershowitz, CNN, Reuters reporters, the Washington Post‘s Walter Pincus, Leslie Kaufman, Andrew Ross Sorkin, Jill Abramson, and Michael Schmidt of the New York Times, and others in the press corps for criticizing him, Edward Snowden, and Julian Assange” — except Greenwald isn’t a score-settler. Once you earn a place in his scope, there you will stay, even after he runs out of ammunition.

Which would be never. Whether the venue be the Web, TV, or Twitter, Greenwald is the sort of fighter who goes on punching after the bell has rung, after the last round has been fought, and continues once the ring has been packed up. If split open by a speeding Mack truck and left bleeding at the side of the Interstate, Greenwald would still be observed shouting at passing traffic, “Ya didn’t hurt me! Come back and get what you deserve, you diesel pig!”

I could be mistaken, but I must be one of the few journalists writing in the vicinity of Greenwald’s interests who have never tasted the orange of his flame, an oversight I hope to correct with this column. It’s gotta be my turn for abuse, if only because in No Place to Hide he quotes favorably from something praiseful I wrote about him for Reuters last summer.

State Secrets in the Snowden Era

Jack Shafer
May 6, 2014 15:52 UTC
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This piece originally appeared in the March/April issue of Foreign Affairs, and is reprinted with permission.

The U.S. government commands few capabilities more potent than its power to declare information secret. Even when the judiciary and Congress exercise their checks-and-balances powers over the executive branch, the American secrecy machine still finds a way to shunt aside substantive discussions about a host of programs and policies.

With little or no public input, the U.S. government has kidnapped suspected terrorists, established secret prisons, performed “enhanced” interrogations, tortured prisoners, and carried out targeted killings. After the former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden pilfered hundreds of thousands of documents from the NSA’s computers and released them to journalists last summer, the public learned of additional and potentially dodgy secret government programs: warrantless wiretaps, the weakening of public encryption software, the collection and warehousing of metadata from phones and e-mail accounts, and the interception of raw Internet communications.

The Times advances the NSA’s amnesty-for-Snowden trial balloon

Jack Shafer
Jan 2, 2014 23:32 UTC

Of course the New York Times editorial page wants clemency or, at the very least, a generous plea bargain for National Security Agency contractor turned super-leaker Edward Snowden! The news pages of the New York Times have directly benefited from top-secret leaks from Snowden to break stories since last August, when the paper acquired a cache of his NSA material from the Guardian. (The Guardian published its own “pardon for Snowden” editorial today.) In urging leniency for Snowden, the Times editorial page is urging leniency for a specific news-pages source, which the editorial doesn’t directly state. If that doesn’t define enlightened self-interest, nothing does.

The Times editorial page operates independently from the Times news operation, so I’m not suggesting that Executive Editor Jill Abramson instructed Editorial Page Editor Andrew Rosenthal what to write. But on this score, she probably didn’t even have to stifle the urge. For the last decade, the news side has been breaking stories about warrantless surveillance by the NSA, a secret bank-data surveillance program, and, via WikiLeaks, the war logs from Iraq and Afghanistan and the U.S. diplomatic cables. The editorial page has lectured the government on its overreach and incompetence in the security realm. Abramson and Rosenthal, who report to the same publisher, obviously harmonize on this score. Even if they didn’t, it’s unlikely in the extreme that a Times editorial would ever call for a Times news-side source to be seated in a Judas Cradle as punishment for leaking to the press.

Did I say unlikely in the extreme? Allow me to reverse my course. Not every editorial page is buckled to its news pages. Take the Washington Post for example.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1998 lesson on the price of secrets

Jack Shafer
Dec 27, 2013 15:22 UTC

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2013 issue of the Columbia Journalism Review and is reprinted with permission.

The ease with which the United States government creates new state secrets masks the ultimate cost of the secret’s production. Once minted, a secret must be guarded lest a spy sneak in and pluck it from the bunch — or a Chelsea Manning, an Edward Snowden, or a lesser leaker with a security clearance release it into the wild. Vaults must be built, moats dug, and guards hired, trained, and paid. Add to that the cost of routine audits, to make sure nobody has picked the locks, and the expense of the annual security clearances for the spooks, bureaucrats, and IT specialists who make, sort, use, and maintain the secrets. At last count, nearly five million people in the U.S. were cleared to access Confidential, Secret, or Top Secret information, a number that includes both government employees (like Manning) and contractors (like Snowden).

Official secrets have been reproducing faster than a basket of mongooses thanks to the miracle of “derivative classification,” and this rapid propagation has compounded the maintenance costs. Whenever information stamped as classified is folded into a new document — either verbatim or in paraphrased form — that new derivative document is born classified. Derivative classification — and the fact that nobody ever got fired for overusing the classified stamp — means that 92.1 million “classification decisions” were made in FY 2011, according to a government report, a 20 percent increase over FY 2010. Once created, your typical secret is a stubborn thing. The secret-makers’ reluctance to declassify their trove is legendary: In 1997, 204 million pages were declassified, but since 9/11 only an average of 33.5 million pages have been declassified annually.

The information singularity is coming!

Jack Shafer
Dec 19, 2013 22:36 UTC

“Data! Data! Data!” Sherlock Holmes cried impatiently. “I can’t make bricks without clay.”

The sleuth’s insatiable hunger for petabytes of data presaged that of the National Security Agency’s by a little less than seven decades. Like the NSA, Holmes took a pointillistic view of the truth. Find as many facts as possible, he held, view them from as many angles as possible, turn them inside out or set them aside until you collect more facts, and then, like pouring iron into a mold, cast your most durable image of reality. “It’s an old maxim of mine that once you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth,” as Holmes stated in Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet.”

The age of Snowden has made well-known NSA’s demanding data desires. So, too, have we gotten a glimpse of how the agency’s information foundry works, that place where mathematicians massage the metadata of phone records and Web traffic with powerful relational database software to strip away the impossible in pursuit of the “truth.” Whether you believe the collection and analysis of your personal data is trivial or intolerable, the age of Snowden has alerted us all to the coming of the information singularity, where near perfect portraits and detailed biographies of us all can be assembled if enough computer power is thrown at a big enough data set.

Plotting the Snowden plea bargain

Jack Shafer
Dec 16, 2013 21:32 UTC

CBS News gave the National Security Agency an early Christmas present on Sunday—a segment on “60 Minutes.” The title of the segment, “NSA Speaks Out on Snowden, Spying,” telegraphed the network’s generosity. After taking beatings in the press and in Congress, NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander reached out to “invite” (which is how CBS News put it) the program to receive the NSA’s version of the Snowden affair. “What they got was a chance to make their case,” said correspondent John Miller.

The segment contained the usual NSA evasions and elisions (see the blog work of Jesselyn Radack for examples), so besides the novelty of network cameras recording images inside the puzzle palace, the only non-trivial moments of the broadcast came when Rick Ledgett, head of the NSA task force in charge of Snowden damage assessment, gave a positive response to Miller’s question of what he thought of the idea of acceding to Edward Snowden’s request for amnesty.

“What would your thought on making a deal be?” asked Miller. Ledgett responded:

Governments worldwide buried in the Snowden avalanche

Jack Shafer
Nov 7, 2013 15:41 UTC

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.

The NSA never takes “no” for an answer

Jack Shafer
Sep 6, 2013 21:47 UTC

At several recent junctures, the U.S. government has publicly sought to expand its power and control over the electronic privacy of its citizens. At each point, the government was roundly foiled by the public and the majority of the political class, which rebuked it. But that has evidently never stopped the government from imposing its will surreptitiously. As the reporting of the New York TimesProPublica, and the Guardian about the National Security Agency’s programs exposed by Edward Snowden showed once again yesterday, when the government really wants something, it can be temporarily denied but rarely foiled.

In the early 1990s, computer scientist and activist Phil Zimmerman created an encryption program called Pretty Good Privacy, or PGP for short, to block the government and other snoopers from reading the emails and files of users. To retard PGP, the government targeted Zimmerman with a criminal investigation for “munitions export without licenses” after the program appeared overseas, explaining that the program’s encryption exceeded what U.S. export regulations allowed.

Zimmerman and his allies eventually won the PGP showdown, as did privacy advocates in the mid-1990s, defeating the government’s proposal for the “Clipper chip,” which would allow easy surveillance of telephone and computer systems, and again after 9/11, when Congress cut funding for the Defense Department office in charge of the Total Information Awareness (TIA) program, a massive surveillance database containing oceans of vital information about everybody in the United States.

From Tom Paine to Glenn Greenwald, we need partisan journalism

Jack Shafer
Jul 16, 2013 22:33 UTC

I would sooner engage you in a week-long debate over which taxonomical subdivision the duck-billed platypus belongs to than spend a moment arguing whether Glenn Greenwald is a journalist or not, or whether an activist can be a journalist, or whether a journalist can be an activist, or how suspicious we should be of partisans in the newsroom.

It’s not that those arguments aren’t worthy of time — just not mine. I’d rather judge a work of journalism directly than run the author’s mental drippings through a gas chromatograph to detect whether his molecules hang left or right or cling to the center. In other words, I care less about where a journalist is coming from than to where his journalism takes me.

Greenwald’s collaborations with source Edward Snowden, which resulted in Page One scoops in the Guardian about the National Security Agency, caused such a rip in the time-space-journalism continuum that the question soon went from whether Greenwald’s lefty style of journalism could be trusted to whether he belonged in a jail cell. Last month, New York Times business journalist Andrew Ross Sorkin called for the arrest of Greenwald (he later apologized) and Meet the Press host David Gregory asked with a straight face if he shouldn’t “be charged with a crime.” NBC’s Chuck Todd and the Washington Post‘s Walter Pincus and Paul Farhi also asked if Greenwald hadn’t shape-shifted himself to some non-journalistic precinct with his work.

How to leak and not get caught

Jack Shafer
Jul 9, 2013 23:11 UTC

If U.S. prosecutors ever get their hands on Edward Snowden, they’ll play such a tympanic symphony on his skull he’ll wish his hands never touched a computer keyboard. Should U.S. prosecutors fail, U.S. diplomats will squeeze — as they did in Hong Kong — until he squirts from his hiding place and scurries away in search of a new sanctuary. But even if he finds asylum in a friendly nation, his reservation will last only as long as a sympathetic regime is calling the shots. Whether he ends up in Venezuela or some other country that enjoys needling the United States, he’ll forever be one election or one coup away from extradition.

Even then, he won’t be completely safe.

“Always check six, as we said when I used to be a flyer in the Air Force,” said NSA whistle-blower Thomas Drake recently. “Always make sure you know what’s behind you.”

Solitary whistle-blowers like Snowden, Drake and Daniel Ellsberg draw targets on their backs with their disclosures of official secrets, either by leaving a trail from the heist scene, being the most logical suspect, or because they admit their deed. Escaping prison time, such whistle-blowers have learned, depends on the luck of prosecutorial overreach (Drake) or self-destruction by the state, which derailed the prosecution of Pentagon Papers liberator Ellsberg.

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