It seems that every time Edward Snowden emerges from hiding and communicates something through either Glenn Greenwald or other reporters from The Guardian, he loses credibility. It’s not the fault of a government agitprop smear campaign or those of us who are critical of the shoddy reporting that’s botched this story from the beginning. It’s really just Snowden’s own words that tend to flummox his cause. And, frankly, I have no blessed idea if there’s even a Cause any more.
First, over the weekend, Snowden dumped a new packet of documents into the world via The Guardian. This time around, he revealed that the U.K. version of the NSA, the GCHQ, and with the help of the NSA itself, spied on various leaders at the G20 summit, with a particular focus on Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.
And this leak is in service of… what exactly? American civil liberties and the Fouth Amendment? Not at all.
Clearly, as John Aravosis wrote in AmericaBlog, this appears to be more about Snowden’s “animus” than anything else.
(Aravosis also wrote: “Famed NSA leaker Edward Snowden almost had me convinced of his sincerity. Until today, when he released damaging information about US spying on Russia’s former president, and offered up no explanation for how such revelations jibe with his earlier claims to be fighting for the American people. You don’t go and help the Russians if your goal is fighting for the American people, unless you have a darn good reason, and Snowden has so far given none for today’s new leaks.”)
In an online Q&A hosted by Greenwald, Snowden justified this egregious leak by saying that we’re not at war with any of the G20 nations so there’s no reason why we’d want to spy on them. In other words, spying is only permissible in wartime, he said. But we’re absolutely at war against the Taliban and al-Qaida, so does Snowden believe we can continue to spy on those players? If so, isn’t that what the NSA is primarily doing? More unanswered questions.
Furthermore, is Snowden so naive as to believe that allies don’t monitor each other, especially when it comes to “frenemies” like Russia? That’s insane. If the U.S. ceased any sort of espionage in this area, we’d likely be the only nation that wasn’t gathering intelligence on the activities of other nations, friend or foe. If Snowden was concerned about being portrayed as idealistic and immature, he surely didn’t help himself with his irresponsible leak or his explanation for it.
But then, within the Q&A he further discredited himself and Greenwald in a number of areas. And by “discredited” I mean completely and totally embarrassed himself and his chief advocate. Flop-sweat embarrassment.
Where do I begin?
1) Snowden admitted that “direct access” to tech giant servers isn’t NSA policy. But analysts, like Snowden, have the capabilities to do it.
Q: Define in as much detail as you can what “direct access” means.
SNOWDEN: More detail on how direct NSA’s accesses are is coming, but in general, the reality is this: if an NSA, FBI, CIA, DIA, etc analyst has access to query raw SIGINT databases, they can enter and get results for anything they want. Phone number, email, user id, cell phone handset id (IMEI), and so on – it’s all the same. The restrictions against this are policy based, not technically based, and can change at any time.
So there isn’t any NSA policy, whether from an administrator, lawyer or the Obama Justice Department, that authorizes direct access. At all. “The restrictions against this are policy based, not technically based.” In other words, Snowden had the IT hacker know-how to do it. Not the permission or the mandate.
SNOWDEN: Additionally, audits are cursory, incomplete, and easily fooled by fake justifications. For at least GCHQ, the number of audited queries is only 5% of those performed.
This raises a huge question: did Snowden ever directly access a server just because he could and, therefore, violated both NSA policy and, arguably, a stack of other laws? And, subsequently, did Snowden cover his tracks by fooling the NSA audits and safeguards? It’s been my personal experience that hackers will often exploit weaknesses and hack into systems because they believe they’re performing a public service by informing the victim of the hack that their security measures ought to be strengthened. Did Snowden do this?
So many questions — questions that should’ve been answered by the, you know, primary reporter who’s covering this story (Greenwald).
2) Snowden admitted that it’s not really a matter of policy for NSA analysts to listen to calls or read emails without a warrant. He was asked about his video interview remark that he could wiretap anyone, including the president. His response:
SNOWDEN: US Persons do enjoy limited policy protections (and again, it’s important to understand that policy protection is no protection – policy is a one-way ratchet that only loosens) and one very weak technical protection – a near-the-front-end filter at our ingestion points. The filter is constantly out of date, is set at what is euphemistically referred to as the “widest allowable aperture,” and can be stripped out at any time.
His argument appears to be that even though there are protections, those protections could be removed at some point. So is his argument against the analysts hacking into the tech giants’ servers or that we should prevent the policy from being removed? How so? With another policy? Odd.
But even if I’m totally misinterpreting what Snowden said in either scenario, direct access or warrantless wiretaps, he continues to withhold technical evidence of his claims — both of which are easily the centerpieces of the story. Hands down, “direct access” and listening to calls without warrants are the two most contentious areas of debate, carrying with them a long roster of follow-up questions. These are areas that deserved independent technical vetting and detailed reporting from the start. So why haven’t Greenwald and Snowden cut this one off at the pass by releasing the evidence and explicitly describing the process in detail? At this point, Snowden’s story is growing weaker by the day, so hard evidence would not only answer these questions but vindicate his credibility.
3) Snowden echoed Ron Paul’s crackpot remark that the intelligence community or the Obama administration might assassinate him with a drone. He was asked, “How many sets of the documents you disclosed did you make, and how many different people have them? If anything happens to you, do they still exist?” His response:
SNOWDEN: All I can say right now is the US Government is not going to be able to cover this up by jailing or murdering me. Truth is coming, and it cannot be stopped.
Okay, look, even if he seriously believes the government might murder him, you don’t say this in public — ever — because people like me and Charlie Pierce will think you’ve utterly lost your shpadoinkle.
Pierce’s reaction was priceless: “Just shut up. Now. Every time you say stuff like this, you make it easier to marginalize you as a messenger, and you cost yourself allies in the general cause for which you have risked so much. Answer no more questions from Mr. Greenwald or anyone else. Huddle with your legal advisers. (Actually, this is very good advice.) The United States government is not interested in murdering you. If you have proof to the contrary, please provide it, and all answers containing the names “al-Alwaki” or “Rand Paul” will be immediately disallowed by our judges.”
Perhaps there’s some larger canvass here that we’re not seeing yet, but why would Snowden move from his initial story to the unrelated-to-civil-liberties G20 story when and if he has hard evidence for significantly more damning operations: 1) the NSA breaking into servers belonging to the tech giants, and 2) the government targeting him for assassination? Show us, Snowden. The onus is on him to prove it, and it’s on Greenwald to fill in all of these gaping holes in his reporting.
4) On a less consequential note, but which also speaks to Snowden’s veracity, he was asked about the discrepancy between his salary as reported by Booz Allen and his salary as reported by The Guardian.
SNOWDEN: I was debriefed by Glenn and his peers over a number of days, and not all of those conversations were recorded. The statement I made about earnings was that $200,000 was my “career high” salary. I had to take pay cuts in the course of pursuing specific work. Booz was not the most I’ve been paid.
Wait, Greenwald didn’t record all of his interviews? No wonder there the reporting is sloppy. And perhaps that explains why Greenwald reported this:
He has had “a very comfortable life” that included a salary of roughly $200,000, a girlfriend with whom he shared a home in Hawaii, a stable career, and a family he loves.
Did he have another job in Hawaii prior to Booz Allen that paid him $200,000 annually? I thought his previous job was with Dell in Maryland? Accurate, detailed reporting would resolve this, but we don’t have it.
5) Why is Snowden doing this? His answer is yanked directly from every insufferable gripe you’ve ever read about the Obama administration:
SNOWDEN: Obama’s campaign promises and election gave me faith that he would lead us toward fixing the problems he outlined in his quest for votes. Many Americans felt similarly. Unfortunately, shortly after assuming power, he closed the door on investigating systemic violations of law, deepened and expanded several abusive programs, and refused to spend the political capital to end the kind of human rights violations like we see in Guantanamo, where men still sit without charge.
Snowden must’ve entirely missed Greenwald’s extensive and typically incendiary posts in the Summer of 2008 when then-Senator Barack Obama voted for the FISA Amendments bill — the very legislation that gave us Section 702 and PRISM in the first place. This was months before the election,
but Snowden ostensibly voted for the Obama ticket anyway. [CORRECTION: Snowden reportedly voted for a third party candidate in 2008, which makes his effusive disappointment with Obama even more puzzling.] He must’ve also missed all of the congressional votes to block the closure of the prison at Guantanamo.
Clearly Greenwald thinks exposing Snowden’s unscripted comments to the public will augment his source’s credibility, rather than simply providing evidence for Snowden’s previous claims. But it’s not working. Suspicions about Snowden as a paranoid conspiracy theorist and Ron-Paul-meets-Alex-Jones disciple aren’t being assuaged by Snowden’s own words, or by Greenwald’s murky coverage. Surely this is unintentional, but it won’t surprise me if more and more people begin to ask what they’re hiding beneath the obfuscation and growing weirdness.
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.