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The Top 10 Most Inaccurate and Exaggerated NSA Stories (So Far)

As we enter the third month of The Story of the Summer, the Edward Snowden NSA saga, it's probably a good time recap some of the most ridiculous and inaccurate claims made by various reporters covering this beat.
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This is the actual scare-photo from The Atlantic Wire’s article about an NSA goon-squad targeting a reporter. That’s NOT the reporter's family or her house.

As we enter the third month of The Story of the Summer, the Edward Snowden NSA saga, I thought it might be a good time recap some of the most ridiculous and inaccurate claims made by various reporters covering this beat.

I hasten to note that I'm leaving out anything from Alex Jones or other well-known conspiracy theorists, though it appears as if there's a new litter of leftie conspiracy theorists emerging, some of whom will be mentioned below. I'm also not including self-debunked stories: for example, the posts that make outrageous claims as the lede or headline, then clarify (usually about the existence of court oversight and warrants) deep within the belly of the article itself. Furthermore, some of these items follow the 24-hour Rule: once a wild claim is made, it's often clarified within a day or so, but only after the misleading claim has circumnavigated the internet several times over. That's exactly what happened when it was reported that...


10) Legendary civil rights leader, Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), "praises" Snowden.

On Wednesday, The Guardian's Paul Lewis posted an article in which the reporter misrepresented what the congressman said when asked in an interview about the Booz Allen Hamilton leaker. Lewis appears to have merely speculated that Snowden himself believes he acted in good conscience and in the tradition of others who engaged in "civil disobedience." But then, in keeping with our 24-Hour Rule, the congressman released a statement on Thursday in which he emphatically denied The Guardian's framing: "I never praised Mr. Snowden or said his actions rise to those of Mohandas Gandhi or other civil rights leaders. In fact, The Guardian itself agreed to retract the word “praise” from its headline." As of this writing, the reporter has yet to post an update to include the congressman's statement.

9) NSA analysts enjoy "direct access" to "tap" tech giant servers.

Our first, but not our last Glenn Greenwald claim. It feels like a million years ago when Greenwald posted his now infamous article about NSA's PRISM database and how the agency somehow "taps" (Greenwald's word in his headline) into proprietary servers belonging to Google, Microsoft, Facebook and so forth. Like the Rep. Lewis story, this one also adhered to the 24-Hour Rule. Almost immediately, other reporters began to question how "direct access" was possible. It turns out, NSA could, in fact, directly access drop-box style secure FTP servers where the tech giants would post requested data. Additionally, Snowden himself said that there were "policy protections" against literal "direct access." Without "direct access," the story disintegrated into, 1) something that, for the most part, had been previously revealed anyway, and 2) a less intriguing story about an NSA database, which, by the way, was constantly misunderstood to be a "program."

8) The British GCHQ collects 21 petabytes of data every day from underwater fiber optic cables.

If you recall, this story began as a wild theory -- literally -- published on The Guardian, which subsequently morphed into reality as it jumped from publication to publication, including The Atlantic (no correction issued) and The Young Turks show on Current. This was a stupendously aggravating example of how shoddy reporting circulates through the tubes and is eventually repeated as fact.

7) President Obama is fighting a deliberate "war on whistleblowers."

This isn't necessarily specific to the NSA story, but it's absolutely one of Greenwald's preferred frames for whenever leakers or, in this case, Edward Snowden's name is brought up. It insinuates that the president and the Justice Department are viciously persecuting any and all whistleblowers, irrespective of circumstances. We're to infer that if you blow the whistle on the government, you're doomed. This is simply untrue. As Charlie Savage reported in the New York Times, the so-called "war" is simply a matter of happenstance: leftover prosecutions from the Bush years, greater ease of digitally tracking leaks and so on. On top of this inconvenient reality, the president not only signed an executive order to protect legitimate whistleblowers in the intelligence community who expose "waste, fraud or abuse" via proper channels, but he also signed the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act last year.

6) The U.S. sentences whistleblowers to be tossed in "a cage for decades" and "disappeared."

Greenwald said this on national broadcast television -- twice -- as a weak and false excuse for why perhaps Snowden fled the country to Hong Kong and Russia. The longest sentence handed down in this "war on whistleblowers" was 30 months, which is currently being served by John Kiriakou who blew the whistle on CIA torture, and who was prosecuted for outing the names of CIA officers. Elsewhere, yes, Bradley Manning could face up to 90 years in prison, but he hasn't been sentenced yet. Even if he received the maximum sentence, he would be the first and only leaker to be imprisoned "for decades."

5) Snowden might be assassinated by the U.S. government.

Credit for this outlandish conspiracy theory goes to three people: Greenwald, Ron Paul and Snowden himself who said during an online Q&A session: "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." He repeated this suspicion in a statement posted by Wikileaks. Greenwald, for his part, mentioned state-sanctioned assassination to La Nacion newspaper, while adding an additional twist: "the dead man switch." Greenwald said, "The U.S. government should be on its knees every day begging that nothing happen to Snowden, because if something does happen to him, all the information will be revealed and it could be its worst nightmare."

4) Reporter Michael Hastings was being wiretapped by NSA and was subsequently assassinated when the government hacked into his On-Star system and accelerated his car to 85 miles per hour, causing his fatal accident.

Yes, really.

3) NSA admits listening to U.S. phone calls without warrants.

That was the exact CNET headline. (I'm not sure how an agency can admit something, but I nitpick.) CNET chief political correspondent Declan McCullagh published a selectively edited exchange between Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) and then-FBI Director Robert Mueller, and extrapolated their confusing and brief conversation into evidence that NSA has been eavesdropping on American citizens without any court orders or oversight. As we observed with Rep. Lewis this week, Rep. Nadler issued a statement the following day denying CNET's story. 24 hours later, like clockwork, McCullagh changed the headline and issued an update.

2) The temporary embassy closings are a false flag to distract from NSA reporting.

Greenwald, Alex Jones and Glenn Beck (okay, so they they made the list anyway) each put forward their own versions of this one, but the most NSA-related example was Greenwald's who tweeted several blurbs about it, then came right out and detailed the conspiracy theory during an interview on Democracy Now!


1) An NSA goon-squad targeted a reporter who Google-searched "pressure cookers" and "backpacks."

Reporter Michele Catalano wrote that NSA tracked her Tsarnaev-ish internet searches and then dispatched "FBI" agents or members of the "joint terrorism task force" to her home where they questioned Catalano's husband for 45 minutes and performed a cursory search of the house. The internet went nuts on this one, with the story circulating to nearly every online blog and publication including, of course, Greenwald and his clones. A reporter for The Atlantic Wire speculated that NSA used its XKEYSCORE interface to track Catalano's search terms. Insanity all around. And then, in accordance with the 24-hour Rule, the truth came out. It turns out the goon squad was actually members of the Suffolk County Police Department who were acting on a tip from the husband's former boss who noticed the suspicious searches on a work computer.

I wish I could say this will be the last of it. It won't be. I also wish we could've had this debate about NSA surveillance without all of the garment rending, martyrdom and bad reporting. But here we are: one of the most disturbing episodes in the history of digital journalism.

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