A Response to Cenk Uygur on Greenwald, Snowden and the NSA

Last week, Cenk Uygur posted a segment of his show, The Young Turks, in which he picked apart one of my recent articles about the Snowden NSA situation and I really can't help but to respond to what Cenk and his partners said because I feel like my views were grossly misrepresented. I've been on Cenk's show many times and it would've been great to defend myself in person, but this will have to suffice.
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Last week, Cenk Uygur posted a segment of his show, The Young Turks, in which he picked apart one of my recent articles about the Snowden NSA situation and I really can't help but to respond to what Cenk and his partners said because I feel like my views were grossly misrepresented. I've been on Cenk's show many times and it would've been great to defend myself in person, but this will have to suffice.

As a rule, I don't use this space for responding to criticisms of things I've written, but I'm going to make an exception today. Last week, Cenk Uygur posted a segment of his show, The Young Turks, in which he picked apart one of my recent articles about the Snowden NSA situation and I really can't help but to respond to what Cenk and his partners said because I feel like my views were grossly misrepresented.

I've been on Cenk's show many times and it would've been great to defend myself in person, but this will have to suffice.

First, here's the video. (Don't worry if you can't watch the video from work. I'll provide summaries of Cenk's gripes below.)

Before I dive in, I'd like to reciprocate Cenk's kind words. I, too, like Cenk and think he's a smart guy -- not to mention a compelling broadcaster. I'm grateful for his support and virtual-friendship over the years. So needless to say this won't be a personal attack against Cenk. However, I intend to be as frank and vocal in defense of what I wrote as Cenk was in criticizing it.

Okay, here we go.

1) Right off the bat, co-host John Iadarola said that I characterized the "direct access" bombshell as "yawn worthy." I think Politifact would generously categorize that criticism as "half true."

The primary angle of the column, which Cenk, John and Wes Clark Jr. discussed, was an encapsulation of some of the then-recent criticism of Greenwald's reporting, specifically his use of the phrase "direct access." And, in the process of detailing other writers who were beginning to question Greenwald's story, I wrote that Mark Jaquith of WordPress "observed that the 'direct access' line is 'the difference between a bombshell and a yawn of a story.'" And then I repeated the "yawn worthy" quote later in the piece. So I never actually wrote "yawn worthy" in my own words. That said, I think the initial PRISM story is less alarming if you strip out the notion that the NSA could indiscriminately access tech giant servers at will. But yes, the story is compelling and dramatic, however as some of the claims droop under scrutiny the revelations about domestic surveillance aren't as outrage-worthy as was originally thought. The G20 and China stories are much more compelling in my view from the angle that Snowden isn't restricting his attacks to internal civil liberties concerns and, instead, is indiscriminately and irresponsibly releasing secrets about other intelligence activities as well.

2) Next, Cenk jumped in with the predictable line that anyone, in this case me, who questions Greenwald's story is automatically vowing fealty to the president. The Obamabot Fallacy. Cenk said, "There isn't anything Obama does that they wouldn't jump to the immediate and enormous and 110 percent defense of. I literally can't remember a time."

There are more than enough examples of my disagreements with the president but I refuse to be lured into the trap of presenting scalps to chiefs Uygur and Greenwald.

Cenk really didn't need to go into his "substantive" complaints that followed after dismissing me as an unthinking, hive-minded Obamabot. He preemptively dismissed and discredited everything I had to say (paraphrased by Cenk himself) by leaping to the broad conclusion that no matter what the president has done, I've unequivocally supported it. It's untrue, of course, but that doesn't matter to his audience who will dismiss everything that follows -- observing my points through a distorted lens.

The Obamabot Fallacy is used as a convenient and cozy shelter against cold, uncomfortable facts, not unlike the way conservatives dismiss facts they don't like with the "liberal bias" fallacy. Don't like the reality of evolution science? Liberal bias! Don't like hearing that Greenwald got a fact wrong? An Obamabot wrote it therefore it must be invalid! Even though I took great care to provide respectable third party citations with links, the body of what I wrote must have been torn from White House talking points and therefore is suspicious because I'm clearly in the tank. So it gets written off. It's all so familiar.

3) Cenk returned to the "yawn worthy" point and mocked the idea that some of Greenwald's reporting had already been made public.

Okay, but that's true. There's a lengthy timeline of earlier stories about the NSA's surveillance operations. FISA itself dates back to the 1970s. We knew about phone data collected by the NSA at least since 2006. We've been aware of Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act, which spawned PRISM, since 2008 when, by the way, then-Senator Obama voted for it. All the way back in 2009, the Obama Justice Department discovered cases in which the NSA "exceeded legal limits" with its data intercepts and corrected the problem. Authors ranging from James Bamford to Kurt Eichenwald have exhaustively detailed what the NSA is up to. And yet way too many people are behaving as if this is brand new "bomshell" information. Generally speaking, it's really not.

4) Cenk appeared to suggest that I accused Snowden of being a "traitor," "treasonous" and "unpatriotic."

I've never once written anything of the sort. Not in that article or anywhere else. This is similar to the Obamabot Fallacy. The assumption is that because I'm highly critical of Greenwald's reporting, it automatically means I've accused Snowden of being a traitor. Not true. Do I think Snowden is irresponsible and increasingly difficult to take seriously? Oh yes. And do I think he broke several very serious laws? Absolutely. (Snowden once said, "We're a nation of laws, not men.") But I challenge Cenk or anyone else to find a single quote in which I categorize him as any of those things.

5) Cenk said that I nitpicked one little thing about Greenwald's initial article, "direct access," as "the only thing that matters" and therefore, I don't know, I was being unfair?

Well, see, "direct access" wasn't a minor detail. It was the central item in Greenwald's subhead and lede, making it the tentpole of Greenwald's article. If the headline and lede of any news story turn out to be inaccurate, it decapitates the rest of it. I certainly didn't tunnel to a deeper layer of the story and use a minor glitch to discredit the reporting -- I rightfully examined the banner claim in the article contained within the lede.

6) Next, he jumped onto the details of the "direct access" reporting and repeated something Greenwald wrote days later: that he reported "direct access" because the PRISM slide said "direct access."

It's a weasely excuse. Let's say a guy knocks on my door and hands me a document that says Aliens Have Direct Access To Our Brains. And let's say I decide to write that up as a hard news story. Sure the document says it, but what is it? If I decided to use this line as my lede, I'd try to discover what "direct access" actually means. Do they cut into my head while I sleep and use their smooshy alien fingers to play around with my brain? Is it a laser from space? Are they telepathic? How does this work? I'd want this information to be either a large part of my reporting, or at least a sidebar. That is unless I didn't want people to know how.

I'll assume Greenwald didn't deliberately withhold information to drive his agenda, so why, then, didn't he just go to his IT expert source and ask him the question, "Say, Ed, what does 'direct access' mean? After all, it's going to be my lede. Oh, and give it to me in layman's terms so people will understand." Well no, that apparently didn't happen, even after it was later revealed by numerous sources to be secure FTP servers commonly used all over the internet to conveniently transfer files. Greenwald stood by the literal definition of "direct access" and actually criticized the "drop box" explanation as a "theory" and that it "makes no sense." Furthemore, his headline was "NSA Prism program taps in to user data of Apple, Google and others," which clear stated that the NSA was tapping into user data on the tech giants' servers. At best, this is bad reporting. At worst, this is an example of a stubborn reporter clinging to misleading information.

Incidentally, I only suggested Greenwald check with his source -- not "twelve different tech experts" as Cenk said. However, if Greenwald had published the specifics of "direct access," it would've allowed independent experts an opportunity to vet his claims. This never happened and it's fair to ask why, since it precipitated a universe of garment-rending.

7) Cenk continued on this topic by explaining that the drop boxes contain "the exact same information" as what's held within the tech giants' proprietary internal servers. His conclusion is that I was playing "a semantic trick."

Nope. Not only was I simply describing the reality of what "direct access" actually meant, contra-Greenwald, but Cenk's "exact same information" explanation is incorrect. The data that gets transferred to the drop boxes and accessed by the NSA isn't a mirror of all of the other servers. That's absurd. The data in the various drop boxes is limited to specific files that the NSA has requested -- with a warrant -- and which the tech giants legally vet and subsequently post.

At this point, Cenk turned to Wes Clark Jr. who confirmed that the NSA is "getting everything" from the tech giants' servers. He also mentioned that cellphones, even when they're turned off, can be used as a listening device. I have no idea whether this is true, but is Clark saying the government actually does this, or is he just throwing that in randomly? It really feels like a large chunk of the left is careening into Alex Jones territory here. They haven't arrived yet, but they're only a few big steps away from chemtrails.

8) I think Cenk said that I wrote about how we should "trust the government" and that the government won't "lie to you."

What? Either he was talking about someone else or he was grossly misrepresenting my position. By the way, I also haven't climbed aboard the "NSA kept us safe" line of reasoning either. As anyone who reads my posts, or has read book knows, I've been highly skeptical of the over-hyping of the terrorist threat.

There have been other reporters who have attained comprehensive details about how the NSA collects data and assembles intelligence based upon it. Obviously, most liberals are getting their news about this story from Greenwald, but some key details either don't match up with earlier reports, and the reporting has left out crucial information. I want to know why.

Is Greenwald's hard news reporting actually tainted by cleverly conflating his facts with his agenda? And in the process of discovering why the reporting is so awkward and incomplete, we can learn much about the degree to which we should be outraged by these leaks. In other words, if there are unreported details that soften the more outrageous claims, we should know those details so we can make fully informed deductions about what's occurring.

Additionally, I'm attempting to get to the bottom of why Snowden's mission has extended beyond exposing NSA's data collection operations into other areas that seriously compromise America's diplomatic posture and ultimately empower nations like China, whose civil liberties record is light years more egregious than ours.

To repeat something I wrote last week: I thought progressives were residents of the reality based community. I thought we looked at cold, hard empirical evidence and made policy judgments accordingly. I don't see that happening here. I see rampant groupthink and grade-school bullying. I see myopic, kneejerk conclusions drawn about critics without even reading the material at issue. Naturally this concerns me. The question I have for anyone skeptical of my motives, including Cenk, why aren't you concerned?

Bob Cesca is the managing editor for The Daily Banter, the editor of BobCesca.com, the host of the Bubble Genius Bob & Chez Show podcast and a Huffington Post contributor.