Glenn Greenwald leaned heavily on his overworked panic button yet again on Sunday during an appearance on This Week with George Stephanopoulos. In a rare spoiler, Greenwald revealed the subject of his next bombshell article for The Guardian before it goes live sometime in the coming days. I suppose he calculated that, technically, his next article, about another set of leaked documents from fugitive Edward Snowden, is based upon something Snowden said nearly two months ago.
Greenwald told Stephanopoulos that he plans to release information about the software programs used by NSA analysts to achieve what Snowden described in the following quote:
“I, sitting at my desk, certainly had the authorities to wiretap anyone, from you or your accountant, to a federal judge or even the President, if I had a personal e-mail.”
Subsequent to this quote’s appearance in Greenwald’s first video interview with Snowden in Hong Kong, many of us spent a considerable amount of time debating and discussing what exactly Snowden meant by it. Was this occurring as a matter of legally sanctioned policy? Or could low-level analysts like Snowden engage in this dubious behavior without permission or a court order? Was he literally wiretapping Americans in real time? What? Later, during an online Q&A with Snowden, a reader asked Snowden about the line, to which Snowden replied:
“US Persons do enjoy limited policy protections (and again, it’s important to understand that policy protection is no protection – policy is a one-way ratchet that only loosens) and one very weak technical protection – a near-the-front-end filter at our ingestion points.”
So not only is it a matter of policy that warrants are required for NSA analysts to wiretap Americans and foreigners living in America, but there’s actually a digital “filter” to prevent it. Nevertheless, he didn’t clarify whether he could wiretap in real time from his desk, with or without warrants, which is indicative of the routinely coy behavior that’s become synonymous with Snowden and Greenwald.
Speaking of Greenwald, let’s get back to his Stephanopoulos appearance. The Guardian writer said with his usual urgent tone that this software, which looks similar to “screens” used by “supermarket clerks,” allows analysts to read emails, listen to phone calls, read Google search terms and so forth:
“All they have to do is enter an e-mail address or an IP address, and it does two things, searches the database and lets them listen to the calls or read the e-mails of everything that the NSA has stored, or look at the browsing histories and Google search terms.”
Okay. So we’re supposed to be shocked by the idea that a spy agency employs analysts who can search and read signal intelligence (SIGINT) that was previously gathered? Crazy, I know. It stands to reason that if NSA gathers data, NSA analysts might actually look at that data. This is sort of like urgently revealing that FBI agents listen! to mobsters via wiretaps and wired informants. Yes, of course they listen!
It gets sillier. The following Greenwald statement could be referred to as an outrage sandwich: two outrageous claims surrounding a throw-away mention of delicious, meaty truth that mitigates the outrageousness of the two claims.
“It’s done with no need to go to court, no need to get approval. There are legal constraints for spying on Americans, you can’t target them without going to the FISA court. But it allows them to listen to whatever e-mails they want, telephone calls, browsing history, Microsoft Word documents.”
Put another way: No need for court oversight! (But there’s court oversight and warrants.) They can listen to whatever they want! In the midst of inciting outrage, these mitigating news blips manage to pop up in nearly every article. But the blips are considerably out-gunned by all of the bloated hyperbole preceding and following each one.
Whenever the government determines there’s probable cause for targeting American citizens or “U.S. persons” with surveillance, requests are submitted to the Foreign Intelligence Court (FISC or “FISA Court”) and warrants are issued. This is standard operating procedure as sanctioned by Congress. Warrants are likely the “policy protections” that Snowden hedged about in his online Q&A. But the hyperbole has led many Americans, and even members of Congress, to believe that NSA is eavesdropping on all of us without cause or judicial oversight.
In other words, what Snowden said in his Hong Kong video interview about his “authorities” to read the president’s email apparently had to do with his illegal, extrajudicial ability to do so. Snowden and others could evidently use this software (to be revealed this week) to hack into the president’s email, for example. Yet these analysts would be doing it outside the purview of American law since the president is an American citizen and targeting him for eavesdropping requires a warrant as well as this mysterious “technical protection” or “filter” (maybe Greenwald will tell us about the filter, but I’m not holding my breath). Likewise, NSA analysts must attain warrants and surmount the mystery filter in order to listen to your calls or to read your emails; not unlike various legal requirements that any law enforcement official must satisfy. It’s sad that we have to remind Greenwald’s disciples that from low-level deputies on up, the law requires similar orders in order to conduct a search, per the Fourth Amendment, and those orders can only be attained if there’s a suspicion that an American citizen might be breaking the law.
But you’ll never hear it described this way by Glenn Greenwald because it renders his bombshells impotent.
With another crafty display of agenda-spin, he explained to Stephanopoulos that there’s past evidence of NSA stepping beyond its mandate, citing two or three examples including a New York Times article from April 2009. In this case, NSA “exceeded legal limits,” according to the Wall Street Journal, and was caught by the Obama Justice Department which enacted new privacy safeguards. Greenwald conveniently and predictably never mentioned the part about the Justice Department because a central thread in Greenwald’s narrative is that the Obama administration is making things worse, not better.
In addition to suffering from a particularly tenacious case of Obama Derangement Syndrome, Greenwald still appears to be caught in the throes of an adrenaline rush that’s accompanied his acquisition of Snowden’s top secret documents — documents that he’s using as kindling for his anti-government agenda. Once again, he’s telling us things we already know generally: NSA analysts analyze SIGINT. Duh. Obviously. They use software to do it. Also duh. And they need a warrant for analyzing data gathered on Americans. Yes. We know.
The only way that mundane news about NSA software can achieve big headlines and big traffic is for it to be packaged in sensationalism and misleading claims delivered with frantic urgency and melodrama. That’s Greenwald’s con. If nothing else, he knows how the internet works and he routinely exploits the idea that most online and social media observers only read headlines and excerpts. From there, misinformation spreads virally and a tsunami of outrage sweeps over the internet. Again and again, with more to come this week.