It’s now been more than a week since Glenn Greenwald reported that the National Security Agency attained “direct access” to servers owned by the various tech giants, Google, Facebook, Apple and so forth. And it’s been almost a week since other sites, now including Mother Jones, The Nation and Andrew Sullivan’s The Dish, began to notice significant issues with his reporting about PRISM.
I should underscore once again how consequential the “direct access” line happens to be. The implication of “direct access” is clearly that, unbeknownst to the public, the NSA and, apparently, low level IT subcontractors, enjoyed back door access to proprietary server data, horked it at will and, according to Greenwald, did so potentially without a warrant. Rick Perlstein, in a post for The Nation, quoted Mark Jaquith of WordPress who observed that the “direct access” line is “the difference between a bombshell and a yawn of a story.” (I’m sure Perlstein and Jaquith have been inundated with “Obamabot apologist!” accusations for daring to aim an incredulous post in Greenwald’s direction.)
On his Wednesday podcast, Sam Seder said in support of Greenwald and Snowden, “That guy [Snowden] revealed all of this to us.” But in terms of new news, the “direct access” description is arguably the only aspect of the PRISM item, other than the PRISM PowerPoint and the story of a guy named Edward Snowden who leaked it, that was unknown prior to last week’s reporting. And it’s not holding water under scrutiny. Furthermore, we’ve been aware of the NSA’s eavesdropping efforts, including email, for many years now. In fact, the Obama administration, only three months into its first term weeded out several instances of unwarranted NSA eavesdropping. Kurt Eichenwald covered the NSA’s counter-terrorism efforts in his bestselling book, 500 Days. But this was somehow flushed down the memory hole in lieu of hyperbole and kneejerk mass hysteria over Greenwald and others shouting “fire!” (or “Worse than Bush!”) in a virtual crowded theater.
Indeed, Greenwald continues to shout “fire!” in the face of mounting concern (see my previousposts) over the veracity of his central scoop. Perlstein also quoted open-source expert Ken Fogel who referred to the use of “direct access” as an “epic botch.” Mother Jones‘ Kevin Drum wrote yesterday, “…the ‘direct access’ claim puzzled me from the start. Even with my modest technical background, I understood immediately that it didn’t make sense.” Wednesday night on Chris Hayes’ MSNBC show, Greenwald weaseled around the questions, saying essentially the same thing he’s said all week: that he summarized the line from the PRISM PowerPoint slide and therefore he’s didn’t botch the story.
Our story was the following: we have documents, a document, from the NSA that very clearly claims that they are collecting directly from the servers of these internet giants. That’s the exact language that this document used. We went to those internet companies before publishing and asked them, and they denied it, and we put into the story very prominently that they denied it. Our story is that there is a discrepancy between the relationship that these, that the private sector and the government has, in terms of what the NSA claims and what the technology companies claim.
Tenacious, to put it mildly. To suggest that the problem is merely that the tech giants contradicted the PRISM slide represents a stubborn refusal to acknowledge the volumes of contravening information that’s been released, including from his own publication. No, Greenwald couldn’t possibly have gotten it wrong, it must be that someone else is lying about it — and who are you going to trust? Greenwald or a big bad tech company? It’s a clever dance around the growing reality that “direct access” to servers was actually about secure FTP access, a process that’s commonplace on the internet and doesn’t allow full and direct access to anything other than files posted for download.
Fogel wrote, “It looks like Greenwald and company simply misunderstood an NSA slide because they don’t have the technical background to know that ‘servers’ is a generic word and doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing as ‘the main servers on which a company’s customer-facing services run.’” I mean, Greenwald’s source is an IT expert who could’ve educated him on this mammoth chunk of the story. Why didn’t that happen, if only to add meat to Greenwald’s lede? Drum hypothesized that if could be that Snowden doesn’t know as much about it as he claims.
But the he-said-she-said explanation doesn’t matter as much as the fact that Greenwald is sticking with “direct access” and its bombshell implications, exactly as reported more than a week ago, without clarification or acknowledgment of any new information.
What else have we learned that’s making this appear to be more “yawn” worthy?
Not only is Greenwald’s credibility on this story falling apart, but strange discrepancies with Snowden’s story continue to pop up. Not only that, but he’s made an egregiously irresponsible mistake. More on that presently.
First, the LA Times learned yesterday that Snowden’s claim that he absconded off with four Booz Allen laptops containing the documents appears to be untrue. In fact, Snowden reportedly transported the documents on a USB thumb drive. Unless the investigators mentioned in the LA Times article are trying to spread misinformation about Snowden, this brings up yet another bizarre gap in Snowden’s story as well as The Guardian‘s reporting of it. It’s not unlike the $78,000 salary discrepancy between what Snowden said he was earning and what Booz Allen said it was paying him.
Drum wrote, “I want to know how far I can trust Edward Snowden.” Me, too. And I’m willing to concede that these weird gaps in his story might be trivial, but just because a random guy says he knows top secret awful things doesn’t make him instantly trustworthy. However, on top of the potential trivialities, there are his wild remarks about having the power to wiretap the president and access any CIA station in the world. Unless you’re inescapably trapped within an epistemic bubble, such statements ought to raise a heaping pile of red flags irrespective of your penchant for skepticism.
And then Snowden did something that might actually be worse than lying about wiretapping the president, etc.
He handed over documents about American cyber warfare against China — to China. Specifically, Snowden gave the documents to a Hong Kong publication. Perhaps he was emboldened by all of the attention, hero worship and deification he received here. Who knows. Whatever drove him to do it, it was phenomenally irresponsible on a couple of fronts. Not only could he have exacerbated an already dubious international relationship, considering how there appears to be an escalating hacking war between the United States and China, but he also managed to turn numerous Americans against him — Americans who believe he crossed the line from whistleblower to traitor.
But this cuts more deeply than any healthy skepticism some of us might possess. Greenwald’s stubbornness and Snowden’s foolishness are actually self-destructive to what they’re attempting to achieve. As I’ve written from day one, credibility will make or break not only this story, but anyone who chooses to blindly latch their own credibility to it. If Greenwald was truly interested in the endurance of this story, he would’ve stowed his ego and done whatever was necessary to preserve its integrity as well as his own reputation; because as long as “direct access” continues to disintegrate, so goes the believability of everything else he’s reported. Instead, the widening holes in this story could indicate Peak Greenwald.
UPDATE: Reuters is reporting that Snowden may have lied about his education in order to be hired by the CIA, etc.
According to the sources, Snowden told employers he took computer classes at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, earned a certificate from the University of Maryland’s campus in Tokyo, and expected in 2013 to earn a master’s degree in computer security from the University of Liverpool in England.
A Johns Hopkins spokeswoman said she could not find a record of Snowden’s attendance but he may have taken correspondence courses for which records are not kept. A Maryland official confirmed Snowden attended at least one summer class. A Liverpool spokeswoman said Snowden registered for an online master’s degree in computer security in 2011, but did not complete it.