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12 Observations About Greenwald's New Website, 'The Intercept'

The site posted its first two articles based on the National Security Agency (NSA), one of which we covered yesterday, and, as promised, here are some impressions of not only the site in general but the first post by Greenwald and Scahill.

(UPDATED below)

Glenn Greenwald's new website, The Intercept, launched early Monday. In case you're just joining us, the site is part of Pierre Omidyar's First Look Media, a $250 million investment into the world of software development and digital journalism. The Intercept is the first "magazine" to launch and is run by editors Greenwald, Jeremy Scahill and Laura Poitras.

The site posted its first two articles based on the National Security Agency (NSA), one of which we covered yesterday, and, as promised, here are some impressions of not only the site in general but also the first post by Greenwald and Scahill.

1) Corporate trackers. As predicted, each page of The Intercept contains two analytics trackers from alleged PRISM collaborator Google and another called Mixpanel. Among other things, according to Ghostery, the Google bug alone collects your browser information, your demographic data, what hardware and software you use, your IP address, your search history, "location based data" and, weirdly, your phone number. Google doesn't disclose who it shares your information with or how long it retains it. It's unlikely The Intercept would want all of this information, but the fact that Google has it should be a little bit alarming to anyone concerned about privacy rights. It's also curious how a site dedicated to outing alleged violations of privacy would employ such an invasive tracking tool -- even though the site discloses it on their Privacy Policy page.

2) DDoS attack or normal traffic? About midday, the site suffered from a 503 error, which generally happens when there's too much traffic hitting it. Greenwald attributed the outage to exactly that, traffic, but wouldn't it be ironic if it was actually a distributed denial of service attack, also known as a DDoS attack, which involves hackers crippling a site with a glut of automated hits, considering how last week Greenwald conflated hacking with protected political speech?

3) Credit where credit is due.The Intercept team was wise enough to hire a technical editor with a background in "operational security, source protection, privacy, and cryptography." Micah Lee is a former staffer with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and he'll certainly have his hands full, especially since Greenwald once admitted that before meeting Snowden he was "technically (sic) illiterate," and yet he's been authoring article after article about top secret operations that are all about technology.

4) Where are the documents? Greenwald and Scahill posted a massive 4,000 word article that cites a variety of documents, but the "Documents" vertical is empty. The article reveals small snippets, but fails to post the documents in full with appropriate redactions.

Let's talk about the first big Greenwald post. The article, titled "The NSA’s Secret Role in the U.S. Assassination Program," details how NSA helps to track terrorist targets for unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) strikes -- also known as drone strikes. Yes, drones and NSA -- a serious outrage cocktail. The article quotes from documents as well as two former drone operators, one anonymously, one by name.

5) Old news. Barton Gellman published an article about this back in October; Dana Priest in July and Stuart Fox back in 2011, pre-Snowden.

6) Death by metadata. "Death by metadata" is sure to become a meme. From the article:

What’s more, [the drone operator source] adds, the NSA often locates drone targets by analyzing the activity of a SIM card, rather than the actual content of the calls. Based on his experience, he has come to believe that the drone program amounts to little more than death by unreliable metadata.

"Death by metadata" is misleading since it's ultimately cellphone geolocation tracking that shows the location of a potential target. The article later states:

Relying on this method, says the former JSOC drone operator, means that the “wrong people” could be killed due to metadata errors, particularly in Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia.

But the Snowden document clip embedded in the post clearly references "geolocation algorithms" -- not metadata.

Blogger Ryan Goodman observed: "But, for now, this seems more like a failed media hook than a matter of substance." Media hooks. These articles are all about media hooks.

7) Dana Priest wasn't skeptical enough? Greenwald and Scahill referenced an article by The Washington Post's Dana Priest about the post-9/11 growth of NSA and accused her of not being skeptical enough about NSA's claims. The article:

But the Post article included virtually no skepticism about the NSA’s claims, and no discussion at all about how the unreliability of the agency’s targeting methods results in the killing of innocents.

It's really not her job to express skepticism in a hard news article. Her job is to report the news -- just the facts. It's also interesting to read Greenwald giving journalism advice to one of the nation's premiere national security reporters and a two-time Pulitzer winner when he only wrote his first hard news article in June.

8) Where's the HUMINT? The article suggests that human intelligence, or HUMINT, observed by operatives on the ground, would be more reliable than geolocation tracking. But how would this ameliorate the problem of collateral damage -- unintended civilian casualties in drone strikes?

The article doesn't really say. But it seems to suggest, however, that HUMINT is used in addition to metadata, SIM cards and geolocation tracking, collectively known as signals intelligence (SIGINT).

The problem is that both of those sources often involve NSA-supplied data, rather than human intelligence (HUMINT).

Often or always? There's an important difference. If it's often, then we can only infer that HUMINT is sometimes used, and that would render the article's lede to be inaccurate: "The National Security Agency is using complex analysis of electronic surveillance, rather than human intelligence..."

9) Tipping off the targets. The article:

One problem, he explains, is that targets are increasingly aware of the NSA’s reliance on geolocating, and have moved to thwart the tactic.

And this article confirms that it's working! So carry on, targets.

10) Pilots are pilots. The article makes only one mention of targeted strikes carried out by methods other than drones, but what's abundantly clear is that drones aren't just mindless airborne robots. They're piloted by, among others, two of the sources in the article. The only difference between piloted aircraft and drones is that if a drone is shot down, the pilots aren't harmed. This has both positive and negative consequences (negative insofar as it makes war less risky in terms of American military casualties), but it's fascinating how much lopsided attention is placed on drones, probably because they sound scary and are therefore easier to demagogue.

11) An actual document might've come in handy. Greenwald & Scahill's documentation only shows "U.S. military" assistance in killing terrorist Anwar al-Awlaki -- not NSA. The article:

Another top-secret NSA document confirms that the agency “played a key supporting role” in the drone strike in September 2011 that killed U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, as well as another American, Samir Khan.

NSA is a branch of the Department of Defense, but the document doesn't specify the agency by name -- at least the document snippet published in the article doesn't.


12) Thanks, Obama. This was shoehorned into the end of the article:

Obama once reportedly told his aides that it “turns out I’m really good at killing people.” The president added, “Didn’t know that was gonna be a strong suit of mine.”

Because if you're writing a mercilessly long, 4,000 word article, why not?

There are many problems with the drone program and, admittedly, this article highlights an issue with accuracy -- an issue we already knew about (see also countless articles about collateral damage and al-Awlaki's son). And since we already knew, how is explicitly spilling the beans about how targets are tracked in the public interest?

Again, there's a debate to be had about the future of the drone program and its efficacy in the war on terrorism. But this article, as well as the articles that both preceded and which will surely follow it only serve to misinform and sidetrack the debate.

UPDATE: Some tech observations from Intoxination in the comments:

I did some tech digging through the site yesterday. They were given $50 million to get things started in December. Well that didn't go towards tech. They are using a rather vanilla Wordpress with a custom theme (hell I would have done that for $1 million and I hate themeing!)

More interesting is their hosting. Looks like they are self hosting through a Level3 rack in San Jose. What makes that interesting is that Level 3 was accused of giving backdoor access to Yahoo and Google through their backbone lines, by Snowden! Also I find it interesting that someone who is so worried about the overreach of the "big, bad US government" would opt to place the infrastructure of their livelihood in the US.