Glenn Greenwald’s “grand finale fireworks display” finally appeared online early Wednesday and, indeed, there were fireworks but not the “spectacular multicolored hues” he predicted. The fireworks instead came in the form of a bombshell that exploded in a mushroom cloud of shoddy reporting and the usual hyperbolic, misleading accusations that have been the centerpiece of his brand of journalism for more than a year.
Reporting for The Intercept, Greenwald and co-author Murtaza Hussain published an article titled, “Meet the Muslim-American Leaders the FBI and NSA Have Been Spying On,” based on top secret National Security Agency (NSA) documents leaked by Edward Snowden. The documents in this case appear to show that between 2002 and 2008 the FBI and NSA collected the email communications of five Americans, four of whom self-identify as Muslim:
• Faisal Gill, a longtime Republican Party operative and one-time candidate for public office who held a top-secret security clearance and served in the Department of Homeland Security under President George W. Bush;
• Asim Ghafoor, a prominent attorney who has represented clients in terrorism-related cases;
• Hooshang Amirahmadi, an Iranian-American professor of international relations at Rutgers University;
• Agha Saeed, a former political science professor at California State University who champions Muslim civil liberties and Palestinian rights;
• Nihad Awad, the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the largest Muslim civil rights organization in the country.
The article claims, and Greenwald subsequently reinforced on cable news yesterday, that the above Americans are model citizens and, according to him, have no ties to terrorism, therefore they couldn’t possibly be connected with malfeasance of any kind, especially Islamic jihad. And because there doesn’t appear to be an obvious reason for monitoring their communications, Greenwald contends that the surveillance is both unjustified and unconstitutional.
That’s Greenwald’s case. But as with many of his previous NSA articles, Greenwald’s case is horrendously weak.
Before we get into specifics, it’s important to recap the role of a journalist, especially one who’s dealing with highly sensitive, highly complicated national security matters. A journalist’s primary task is to investigate a story then to precisely explain the who, what, when, where, why and how of the story. Just the facts. Every time one of those questions goes missing, the story disintegrates a little more.
To merely report that five Americans out of 315,000,000 were monitored by the FBI or CIA might smell like news, but it’s hardly a bombshell, chiefly because the reporters failed to explain the answer to “why?” And if Greenwald and Hussain had evidence of the why, and it showed foul play on behalf of the FBI or NSA, then it’s news, and the outrage may commence. But if five Americans are pulled over by traffic cops multiple times between 2002 and 2008, it could indicate racial profiling, or it could indicate speeding or drunk driving or running red lights or whatever. The reporters job is to fill in that blank or else his story is incomplete, and a responsible editor might ask the reporter to hold the article until the “why?” puzzle piece materializes.
Put another way: imagine if Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein had reported that several American men were arrested at the Watergate hotel, and… nothing else. No “why.” Why were they arrested? What are the charges? What were they doing? Better yet, imagine if Fox News Channel reported this story without any additional evidence.
Greenwald’s response to the lack of “why?” is always: I don’t know but allow me to speculate. By the way, in the article, Greenwald employed the excuse “the government won’t tell us because it’s secretive,” which is almost as weak as leaving it out. If Greenwald was able to get this far, and the cache of Snowden documents is as vast and damning as he suggests, perhaps he should’ve taken more time to dig around and find out before publishing a one-dimensional story. (We’ll come back to this.)
Let’s go ahead and jump into this disaster.
1) The headline is false.
It didn’t take Greenwald very long to brazenly mislead his readers. The headline states that the FBI and NSA “have been spying on” five Americans. But if you manage to plow through the 8,600 word article (which a very, very small percentage of online readers actually do), you’ll discover zero evidence that the spying is ongoing. The phrase “have been spying on” is written in the present perfect continuous tense, meaning that it began at some point in the past and is still happening now. The same goes for the giant graphic above the headline which reads, “UNDER SURVEILLANCE” — present tense as in now — just below photos of each man.
However, the surveillance, or “collection” dates in the document stop at May, 2008.
Additionally, collection activities against two of the five men are very clearly marked as “terminated” back in 2008. In other words, according to these documents, the FBI apparently stopped collecting the emails of Faisal Gill and Nihad Awad in May and February of 2008, respectively. The other three collection statuses are marked as “sustained,” but we simply don’t know when or if the collection activities were terminated. It could’ve been July, 2008, it could be never. Greenwald doesn’t show any evidence of this. Therefore it would be inaccurate to suggest that the “spying” has continued through present day.
2) FISA warrants.
Prior to the passage of the FISA Amendments Act of 2008, the Bush administration had been illegally circumventing the FISA Court and the warrant process in order to conduct surveillance on U.S. Persons. So while it’s possible that the emails of one or more of the five targets were collected without a warrant, the very fact that their names appeared on a spreadsheet called a “FISA recap” indicates that there were, indeed, FISA Court-approved warrants.
As we’ve noted, three of the five targets continued to be monitored beyond the Spring of 2008, and if the collection activity against them continued beyond the July 9, 2008 passage of the FISA Amendments Act (six years ago today), specifically Section 702, then NSA would’ve been mandated by law to present a report showing probable cause against these targets to the FISA Court, which would then determine whether continued surveillance was permissible.
Simply put: there appear to have been warrants in the first place (it’s a “FISA recap” document), but if there was any warrantless spying, the FISA Amendments Act would’ve ended the warrantless spying six years years ago.
But again, this is a massive hole in Greenwald’s story. We don’t know for sure if there were warrants or not. In order for the surveillance of these five Americans to have been illegal and unconstitutional, evidence needs to have been presented by Greenwald showing the absence of a warrant. He didn’t bother to do it. The only evidence of a lack of warrants was presented in the article like so:
Last week, anonymous officials told another news outlet that the government did not have a FISA warrant against at least one of the individuals named here during the timeframe covered by the spreadsheet.
An anonymous source said something to a competitor of The Intercept. There’s a reliable source.
As anyone who’s familiar with law enforcement or, hell, police procedural TV shows will tell you: investigators attain warrants from judges and, if they can show that a suspect might be up to something, they’re granted a warrant to conduct surveillance and/or searches on that person — yes, even Americans. (Until the past year, this seemed to have been a generally-known, generally-accepted practice. But along came Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald, and it’s suddenly outrageous to conduct warrant-approved surveillance on Americans suspected of criminal activity.)
3) Why did the FBI spy on these men?
Greenwald doesn’t have any information as to why these five targets were monitored by the FBI. Check out this jaw-dropping paragraph from the article:
Given that the government’s justifications for subjecting Gill and the other U.S. citizens to surveillance remain classified, it is impossible to know why their emails were monitored, or the extent of the surveillance. It is also unclear under what legal authority it was conducted, whether the men were formally targeted under FISA warrants, and what, if anything, authorities found that permitted them to continue spying on the men for prolonged periods of time. But the five individuals share one thing in common: Like many if not most of the people listed in the NSA spreadsheet, they are of Muslim heritage.
So much for context. So much for “why?” We only have five Americans whose email communications were monitored by law enforcement… for some unknown reason. Greenwald asked the Justice Department why these men were being surveilled and, duh, they wouldn’t tell him. Of course. And so, that’s it? He didn’t seek out additional sources? He didn’t dig through other Snowden documents to find other references to these men? Clearly, he didn’t do the work necessary to fill in this blank.
Greenwald only knows that the five targets seem like decent guys and, according to the guys, they’re not connected to any terrorist activity. Sorry, but “Scout’s Honor!” isn’t exculpatory. In lieu of a proper explanation, Greenwald speculated that they were targeted strictly because they’re of Muslim heritage.
4) Outrage is in the gaps.
You might be familiar with the creationist trope: “God is in the gaps.” Some creationists insist that whatever science can’t fully explain must, therefore, be the work of God.
When it comes to Greenwald’s reporting, outrage is in the gaps. In this story for example, Greenwald was incapable of taking the time to investigate why exactly these five Americans were subjected to surveillance. But that might not be a bad thing for him because it allows him and his followers to fill in the blanks with their own biases and agenda, which fuels outrage, retweets and clicks. This stuff takes place in secret, so it must be evil. They don’t know if there were warrants in this case, so it must be illegal and unconstitutional. They don’t know why the surveillance took place, and since the men are all of Muslim heritage, it must be racist.
The racism charge, while potentially true, isn’t supported by any evidence. Except one thing, and it might not even be an actual thing.
5) “Mohammed Raghead.”
The only connection to racism Greenwald was able to dig up was a single line from a so-called FISA “training document” from 2005. In the “Identity” line, an obvious idiot typed in the name “Mohammed Raghead.”
It goes without saying that whoever’s responsible should’ve been fired, not just for the obvious racial insensitivity, but for embarrassing the government. However, this document is completely unrelated to the surveillance activities conducted on the five subjects of the article. Additionally, it’s unclear who exactly was responsible for the document. The New York Times‘ Charlie Savage questioned Greenwald on Twitter about this, wondering if it was a trainee or a trainer. Unclear. But, again, here we are on Twitter asking for clarifications that should’ve been covered in the article.
6) Myths busted.
It was astonishing to read this article only to find several buried lines that appeared to entirely destroy one of the most persistent myths orbiting the Greenwald subculture.
MYTH: FISA is a rubber stamp court that approves everything.
GREENWALD: “According to [top FBI lawyer Marion “Spike” Bowman], whose office handled all requests for domestic FISA surveillance throughout the intelligence community, requests for warrants involve multiple stages of approval. Starting at an FBI field office, a request moves up through FBI supervisory agents at headquarters and attorneys at the bureau’s National Security Branch, then on to the Justice Department’s Office of Intelligence—with the various gatekeepers frequently rejecting applications or sending them back for further review. It is only once all the hurdles have been cleared, Bowman says, that the Justice Department prepares a formal application “package” for a judge with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.”
GREENWALD: “Law enforcement officials familiar with the FISA process told The Intercept that the FISC’s high approval rate is the result of a thorough vetting process that weeds out weak applications before they reach the court. The system, they added, seeks to balance what they consider to be the essential role of surveillance in protecting national security with the civil liberties of potential targets.”
This can’t be emphasized enough: while there could always be nefarious deeds and bad actors working inside the intelligence community, in the absence of evidence there is only speculation, and speculation isn’t news. This article uses 9,000 words to tell us that the email correspondence of five seemingly decent Americans was being collected by the government between 2002 and 2008 (the headline says it continues today). We literally know nothing else about this case. The full story wasn’t presented, as usual. In the past it’s been PowerPoint slides without context or the accompanying vocal narration. This time it’s five names and no evidence whatsoever of profiling, illegal targeting or unconstitutional, warrantless government spying.
The incomplete nature of these NSA articles has been quite convenient for Greenwald and his publications, because it allows him to cleverly spackel over the holes with his own agenda-driven, adversarial, born-of-the-blogosphere assumptions about the U.S. government. Combine this with an internet-driven short-attention-span audience and it’s a perfect storm for outrage. Today’s news was no exception, and indeed it was a textbook example of it.
Oh, and by the way, it turns out this isn’t Greenwald’s finale after all.
Dear Media: No, this story is not the "finale". There are many other stories that will be reported – here & elsewhere – from the archive.
— Glenn Greenwald (@ggreenwald) July 9, 2014