It keeps happening. Last Thursday, Glenn Greenwald published another bombshell article in The Guardian based on one of Ed Snowden's leaked documents. The article details how Microsoft has provided user data for NSA's PRISM surveillance database. Then, before the ink was dry on the article, Greenwald issued Snowden's ridiculous threat against the U.S. government, thus obliterating any debate about the Microsoft documents and skewing the debate back to Greenwald and Snowden. And all the while, Greenwald continued to hectoranyone who dared to write about the duo's antics in lieu of writing about the new documents.
Okay, fine. Let's talk about the new documents.
Like most of The Guardian's previous NSA articles, the reporting is full of clever omissions intended to lead readers to believe something that's not backed up by the article itself. Take the lede for example:
Microsoft has collaborated closely with US intelligence services to allow users' communications to be intercepted, including helping the National Security Agency to circumvent the company's own encryption, according to top-secret documents obtained by the Guardian.
Once again, we're being duping into believing that Microsoft is handing over all user communications, including content, without any warrants or oversight. Readers have to descend 13 paragraphs into the article to discover this line: "Targeting US citizens does require an individual warrant..." Worse, readers have to dig to paragraph 32 before the we see the word "metadata." Not unlike the classic use of search warrants against suspected criminals, or, say, FBI eavesdropping on suspected organized crime syndicates, data belonging to people who are suspected of wrongdoing is very likely what's being collected here. But ssshhh! Greenwald wants you to think they're spying on you personally.
On Tuesday, Microsoft issued a statement that included the following remarks:
-If a government wants customer data – including for national security purposes – it needs to follow applicable legal process, meaning it must serve us with a court order for content or subpoena for account information.
-We only respond to requests for specific accounts and identifiers. There is no blanket or indiscriminate access to Microsoft’s customer data. [...]
-All of these requests are explicitly reviewed by Microsoft’s compliance team, who ensure the request are valid, reject those that are not, and make sure we only provide the data specified in the order.
The article resurrected the "direct access" claim and referred to PRISM as "the top-secret Prism program." We've since learned that there is no "direct access" to tech giant servers, even though Greenwald continues to cling to the idea suggesting that the drop box explanation "makes no sense." Here's Microsoft on the "direct access" claim from its Tuesday statement:
We do not provide any government with direct access to emails or instant messages. Full stop. [...] When we receive such a demand, we review it and, if obligated to we comply. We do not provide any government with the technical capability to access user content directly or by itself. Instead, governments must continue to rely on legal process to seek from us specified information about identified accounts.
The article also revealed that NSA can "intercept web chats" without saying anything about what kind of warrants, individual or otherwise, are issued or who's participating in the "intercepted" web chats. Are they between two Americans? Two foreign targets? Who? Are they actually "intercepted" or handed over by Microsoft?
Then there's this line: "One document boasts that Prism monitoring of Skype video production has roughly tripled since a new capability was added on 14 July 2012." The phrase "PRISM monitoring of Skype video" contains no context or explanation. Again, they want us to believe this is happening to everyone who uses Skype. They don't say whether individual warrants are issued or who specifically is being monitored.
I should clarify here that Greenwald isn't the only reporter on the byline. He shares credit with not one, not two, but four other reporters: Ewen MacAskill, Laura Poitras, Spencer Ackerman and Dominic Rushe. So to be fair, all five reporters are collectively guilty of presenting yet another piece of shoddy, agenda journalism that, while presented as hard news, barely stands up to scrutiny.
All five authors are complicit in this murky, leading article, which is made even more opaque by the fact that they ballyhooed "top secret documents" and "files provided by Edward Snowden [that] illustrate the scale of co-operation," yet decided not to post any of these monumentally important documents. The article described the documents as "NSA newsletters" that were issued by the Special Source Operations (SSO) division. Snowden once called SSO the "crown jewel" of NSA, which makes a visual taste of the newsletters even more tantalizing.
Instead, the Greenwald Five quoted just nine brief sentences from the newsletters (or documents or files or whatever), while simply paraphrasing everything else.
The day after the article was posted, Greenwald wrote on Twitter: "The doc is one long entry/bulletin system - we quote all the parts relevant to the story." Also, "About primary docs: 'document' for the Microsoft story is an [internet], ongoing NSA bulletin over 3 years - we quoted all relevant parts." So is it one long newsletter or many documents as in "top secret documents" plural? Who the hell knows. Because he's refused to tell us. Again, naggingly weird, coy and distracting.
The internet is uniquely suited for providing screen grabs of important passages captured from the documents, or a PDF of the entire series of newsletters. Being able to actually read the documents would've provided context and first-hand documentary evidence. But Greenwald et al chose not to let us see the evidence itself. Why?
Glenn Greenwald recently said, "I approach my journalism as a litigator. People say things, you assume they are lying, and dig for documents to prove it." This one statement sums up his style quite well. He writes like he's preparing a legal case, which, for many readers seems to resonate, while for others it's often a forced-march to wrestle through his seemingly bottomless prose.
Most of Greenwald's writing is opinion journalism and not an objective hard news. So he's absolutely entitled to take whatever approach he chooses to engage in his mission to persuade his jury -- in this case his loyal readers. The editorial standards for subjective, polemical opinion articles are vastly different from straight reporting. Now he's serving in the latter capacity where, for the first time, he's had to pursue a source, ask questions, examine documentary evidence and compile it all into objective news copy -- the who, what, when, where, why, how complete with a lede and an inverted pyramid flow.
His articles fail to hold up to objective, textbook hard news standards. And this with four other reporters helping him. The result? Articles with scare-headlines and deceptive, incomplete claims guiding readers away from the truth instead of closer to it.
(Hat-tip to JM Ashby.)