I'm going to put it all out there and let the chips fall where they may: I'm increasingly convinced that Glenn Greenwald's reporting on the NSA story is tainted by his well-known agenda, leading him to make broad claims for the purposes of inciting outrage. Yes, this is only a theory. But there continues to be a growing number of questions key to the NSA surveillance story that remain unanswered by Greenwald.
Greenwald has flat out refused to offer any sort of revisions or clarifications on his reporting, even though many of the questions have come from other publications and other NSA sources. And that strongly indicates to me that he's sticking with his reporting and refuses to shed any more light -- transparency, if you will -- onto some of the rough edges that continue to be uncovered by various other outlets, including CNET, TechCrunch, TPM, The New York Times, ZDNet, the Los Angeles Times and so forth.
Why are these clarifications so important? Greenwald's reporting is being presented as hard news, not in the format of his usual journo-activist Glennzilla screeds. There ought to be a very clear wall of distinction between these two areas, and those distinctions ought to be made clear to readers. Fox News Channel, for example, has notoriously blurred that line, even filling its newscasts with agenda-driven stories that sound like hard news, with the accompanying "fair and balanced" slogan, but that are in reality carefully selected based on how they'll play to the decidedly unbalanced conservative Fox News viewership.
Likewise, Greenwald may have been deliberately vague in some areas and deliberately misleading in other areas as a means of feeding his agenda, which includes but isn't exclusive to upending the left-right paradigm, safeguarding civil liberties and his stated goal of generating public debate about domestic surveillance and the reach of our national security apparatus. And if he's exaggerating aspects of this story to suit his agenda, he ought to come clean about it. At this point, some of the information that we've learned and which he hasn't clarified is collectively pushing some skeptics to draw that conclusion, including me.
In order to demonstrate the story's veracity, there are nagging questions that ought to be answered.
1. Why hasn't Greenwald clarified his "direct access to servers" language from last week's PRISM report?
Multiple other news outlets have provided information debunking the notion that the NSA had unfettered back door access to servers belonging to the various tech giants named in the PRISM slides. The New York Times described a process whereby the various tech companies, after receiving a FISA court approved request from the NSA and vetting it through their legal departments, gather the information and post it in a virtual "mailbox" for the NSA to retrieve: "It is not sent automatically or in bulk, and the government does not have full access to company servers. Instead, they said, it is a more secure and efficient way to hand over the data."
You know what this is? It sounds like an FTP server to me, not unlike Dropbox. This is how many of us transfer digital files that are too large for email. The NSA apparently doesn't enjoy a free pass to directly grab up server data at will -- instead, it merely downloads it from an FTP server (or similar) after it's been placed there by the tech company that set it up for them. Again, this undercuts one of the most outrage-inducing aspects of Greenwald's story, not to mention the initial Washington Post reporting as well. The NSA doesn't have "direct access" to anything other than an innocuous file transfer "mailbox." But "direct access" sounds sexier and therefore feeds the outrage agenda.
2. Why hasn't Greenwald posted more technical details?
This is perhaps one of the most frequently discussed head-scratchers circulating around these stories. Greenwald has been communicating with an ostensibly tech savvy source who could easily summarize some of the above details about mailboxes and data transfers. Maybe not all of the incomprehensible computer jargon, but at least an overview of the IT side of the process. It seems to me that a story this dependent upon complex technology would include a sidebar with more specifics about the operation's functionality, enabling IT experts to vet Snowden's claims, further legitimizing his role and status. Technical vetting might also answer other questions: Could Snowden wiretap anyone including the president? Could Snowden really access any CIA station (only slightly less far-fetched-sounding than saying he's bionic, too)? This disclosure of key technical specifications never happened. In fact, Greenwald hasn't said whether Snowden's information was subjected to any technical vetting at all, independent or otherwise.
Additionally, Snowden chose to speak with two separate news outlets. So why didn't he also contact one of the many tech news sites like BoingBoing, Slashdot or Wired? Why did he choose someone, Greenwald, who's admitted to being an IT neophyte? If a whistleblower from Big Pharma came to me with information about a drug that was chemically castrating people, I would take the whistleblower's information to an expert for at least cursory technical vetting to make sure the source wasn't a crank. Journalism 101. But it didn't happen here. Why?
3. Why did Greenwald exaggerate the scope of his Verizon story?
Yesterday on Twitter, Greenwald wrote that nobody thought the USA PATRIOT Act enabled "bulk collection of all Americans' records." Another Twitter user replied, "You mean "some of" not "all". Unless you have something else to share?" Greenwald's response? "The program we exposed is the collection of all American's phone records." Unless I missed a revelation in Greenwald's reporting, and I don't think I have, this is an untrue statement. The program he described last week, prior to his PRISM reporting, had to do with the NSA's collection of Verizon phone records for a span of three months. Unless "all Americans" take Verizon as their phone provivder, Greenwald was wrong. But this is how his agenda seeps into his reporting. It begins with Verizon customers then morphs into everyone, and outrage ensues with hyperbole growing rapidly into groupthink reality. Yes, other reports indicate that the NSA likely collected mobile data from other carriers, but again, this is hardly indicates "all Americans."
Were any of Snowden's documents absconded from his pre-Booz Allen jobs? Since he contacted Laura Poitras and Greenwald before beginning employment at Booz Allen in Hawaii, did he enter his job at Booz Allen with the goal of acquiring the PRISM documents (and apparently others), and was Greenwald aware that he was entering the job with that intention? Did he earn $122,000, as stated by Booz Allen, or $200,000 as he told Greenwald?
What level of government secrecy is permissible? Where should the government draw the line for permissible counter-terrorism efforts? Is Greenwald at all concerned that the leaking of this information will lead to less systemic transparency, not more? Does the NSA have access to information that reveals more personal details than are contained within a tax return, as Kurt Eichenwald noted in Vanity Fair? How the hell did a low level IT guy with only a GED have access to a world of top secret information and national security operations, and, if he truly did have access and didn't somehow hack into information he wasn't otherwise permitted to access, doesn't this reveal another huge problem with the integrity of private personal data -- that it's in the hands of random low level workers employed at corporate subcontracting outfits?
I've tried to ask Greenwald similar questions via social media, but he's blocked me on Twitter. Strange for someone whose goal is to have a public debate about all this.
As Chez Pazienza so brilliantly wrote on Monday, "Being a good journalist is a little like being a scientist: You should constantly be testing your theory and findings for signs of confirmation bias or an agenda that’s getting the better of your commitment to the truth." In the absence of this kind of professional integrity -- integrity, by the way, which led the Washington Post to revise its initial story -- the only conclusion to draw here is that Greenwald doesn't want anyone to see the agenda behind the curtain. In that regard, he's no better than Fox News Channel, passing off cleverly hand-picked stories and coded words ("some are saying," "homicide bombers," etc) as hard news. Consequently, he's drawing other activists and voices on the left into a story that's full of potential traps. If Snowden turns out to be a hacker nihilist who's feeding Greenwald bad information, or if Greenwald's reporting continues to be strewn with holes, it could seriously damage not only the effort to roll back post-9/11 overreach and opacity, but also the broader liberal movement -- not to mention the credibility of future whistleblowers/leakers. You deserve to know whether your outrage is founded upon the full knowledge of the facts or if it's been deliberately manipulated by Greenwald's personal whimsy and cleverness.
To repeat: I'm interested in ending the war on terrorism and all of the awfulness that's accompanied it. But I'm not interested in a counterproductive slash-and-burn approach, and I'm not interested in trading credibility for the advancement of an agenda. So I'm trying to get to the bottom of some of these rather shaky gaps in the story. And you know what? If it turns out the NSA is really collecting the phone records of "all Americans," while accessing proprietary servers and gathering data at will, and doing it with the help of low level IT analysts who can wiretap the president, then I'll absolutely retract my skepticism.
UPDATE:A new article posted at the Guardian by Charles Arthur and Dominic Rushe walked back the "direct access" claim made in Greenwald's original article and confirmed the FTP/Dropbox theory.
The Guardian understands that the NSA approached those companies and asked them to enable a “dropbox” system whereby legally requested data could be copied from their own server out to an NSA-owned system. That has allowed the companies to deny that there is “direct or indirect” NSA access, to deny that there is a “back door” to their systems, and that they only comply with “legal” requests - while not explaining the scope of that access.
Anyone who uses an FTP server knows that this is a far cry from "direct access" to the entire contents of a server. But now, to paraphrase a popular quotation, the hyperbolic misleading interpretation used by Greenwald has been around the world a few times now that the reality of the technology finally got its pants on. The question remains, however, whether Greenwald was deliberately vague, or whether he didn't bother to attain more clarification on this point from his IT expert source.