As a prelude to reopening discussion on my problem with the Leak Keepers, here’s a little light entertainment in the form of Shit I Have Recently Learned Presumably Intelligent People Believe:
1. The engine of all change with respect to a huge, unaccountable, global surveillance apparatus is a ‘debate’ aiming at changes in ‘policy.’
2. Despite the global in ‘global mass surveillance’ the engine of The Debate is the U.S. news cycle.
3. One wrong move with respect to The News Cycle and it’s goodbye Debate! Goodbye change!
4. Glenn Greenwald possesses a near God-like understanding of The News Cycle and thereby keeps himself and The Debate crucially injected therein.
5. Greenwald’s mastery of The News Cycle owes to the patented Drip Drip method of painfully slow leaking, which keeps the story hot and the NSA in complete agony.
6. Glenn Greenwald’s virtues, particularly his mastery of The News Cycle by way of the patented Drip Drip method, are so rare and important it justifies his and The Guardian’s near monopoly on NSA leaks, no matter what he or his shady, subservient editors say or do; no matter how much their reformist politics, narrow interests, ambitions and convenience dictate tactics, priorities and timing; nor how objectionable a monopoly on state secrets affecting billions of people is on principle.
There really is quite a lot wrong with this picture. Right off the top, I don’t share the popular view that everything we want from whistleblowing is subordinate to the news-driven debate. But let’s put that on hold for the moment, for the sake of showing that even if one accepts the primacy of The Debate and The News Cycle, most of the arguments for leak hoarding have the unmistakable scent of bullshit to them.
Let’s first off dispense with the idiotic idea that this alleged water torture of the NSA has any method to it. For one thing, these stories take a long time to produce. Before they see daylight, the very small number of journalists working on them have to read a large number of documents, many of which are hard to aggregate and understand without technical assistance. For a glimpse of how difficult and time-consuming this is, see this interview with staff from ProPublica about the two months they spent working on the recent piece about encryption.
Once written, the stories certainly go through multiple reviews by layers of editors and risk-averse lawyers. At some point in the process, The Leak Keepers must carefully select the NSA documents that will be published alongside the stories, mindful of potential ‘threats to national security’ — you know, that thing that no one but the NSA gives a shit about — and redacting accordingly. Finally, The Leak Keepers must consult with the NSA and the White House, not simply for comment, but for any concerns they may have about national security.
There is also the matter of money and prestige, which clearly no one wants to talk about, since ambition gets in the way of the warm fuzzy feelings corporate-mediated David and Goliath spectacles are supposed to produce. But certainly whatever slows disclosure down also keeps the information commercially valuable longer, so The Leak Keepers must at the very least occasionally feel glad that this publishing ‘method’, that we’re to understand so deftly plays both the news cycle and the last nerves of the NSA, also greatly limits the competition for exclusives, Pulitzers, book/movie deals, contracts for stories with other news outlets and advertising revenue.
I know, cynical me. But does anyone else wonder if their interests and Greenwald’s always coincide when they read stuff like this –
Greenwald’s publisher, Metropolitan Books, announced early Thursday that [his] as-yet-untitled book will [contain] …”new revelations exposing the extraordinary cooperation of private industry”
and consider how the ‘cooperation of private industry’ — which, to me, is easily as critical as anything else — is always strikingly vague in Greenwald’s Guardian stories, like the PRISM stories, for instance? Will Greenwald’s book answer the question of direct access definitively? If so, why the wait? Will we see any of the many slides he and his colleagues, in their infinite wisdom, withheld? Well we won’t know until next year, when Greenwald’s book drops. Of course, we’ll also never know what agreements he’s made with his publisher about withholding disclosures to keep the those ‘new revelations’ new, because, y’know, transparency is for other people.
In any event, between commercial interests and the plain old difficulty of writing this shit up, clearly THERE IS NO FUCKING DRIP DRIP METHOD, and it’s cringe-makingly foolish for the savvy knowing knowers on the outside, and outright dishonest for the book deal makers on the inside, to insist that there is. So stop it, already.
Still, one may ask, even if the slow drip isn’t intentional, is it nonetheless possible that the claims made for it are true? Here’s what Greenwald said in comments here on this blog a few weeks back –
1. A mass dump gives the NSA an opportunity to ‘demonize and distract attention away from [the leaks'] substance.’
2. (Quoting verbatim) ‘A staggered release prevents the NSA and its defenders from knowing what is coming, so [that] things that are untrue that you can then prove are untrue, and it also prevents them from developing effective neutralizing strategies.
Here’s what Greenwald said around the time Snowden was having asylum problems:
“Snowden has enough information to cause harm to the U.S. government in a single minute than any other person has ever had,” …
“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.”
So which Greenwald should we believe? Perhaps the NSA can break the tie by way of this from Barton Gellman’s prolix ‘Mass surveillance is Really Fucking Expensive!‘ WaPo ‘exclusive':
The [NSA and other intelligence agencies] had budgeted for a major counterintelligence initiative in fiscal 2012, but most of those resources were diverted to an all-hands emergency response to successive floods of classified data released by the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks.
Obviously, Greenwald and the NSA are in agreement — at least some of the time — that a less meticulously managed gush of secrets is really not something the NSA relishes, which is what any reasonably intelligent person would guess if left unmolested by ambitious opinion leaders and their sycophants.
So let’s be realistic, then, about the game being played here.
It’s rather naive, and maybe even grandiose for people on the left to think that on the rare occasions when their concerns land on successive front pages of The New York Times and on CNN, this is due to the supernatural savvy of a Greenwald, rather than that people in high places are very ok with certain information getting out and certain debates taking place. To quote myself on the ‘miracle’ of Chris Hayes:
…there are no miracles on cable news networks co-owned by defense contractors and cable monopolists; there aren’t even happy accidents…
That statement has become less controversial over time as Hayes proves himself a more shamelessly servile tool than even I’d originally claimed. So it’s vexing that people who rightly reject the preposterous idea that an ‘unabashed man of the left’ has talked his way into corporate media don’t wonder at all why Greenwald is suddenly all over television strangling Jeffrey Toobin and David Gregory with their own assholes. Greenwald himself is ‘genuinely amazed that it’s gone as well as it has’ as is Snowden and all their colleagues.
Hey, maybe we’re having this debate because people in high places want us to!
I certainly don’t believe the conspiracy theory that Snowden is a CIA warrior in a turf dispute with the NSA, but its conception of competing crime syndicates is truer in broad strokes than the left wing vision of power as one undifferentiated mass of united malice. People who use ‘NSA’ and ‘the government’ and ‘the oligarchs’ interchangeably and within that framework see Snowden and Greenwald as gatecrashers are seriously missing the point. Along with rival agencies and corporate elites who covet a bigger share of post 9/11 loot and power, there are certainly those who realize how the NSA’s virtually unlimited snooping capabilities give the agency and its friends a tremendous amount of deal-breaking leverage. Surely the destruction of General Petraeus based on the FBI’s snooping in his girlfriend’s emails made a few elite hairs stand on end. Where elites are concerned, totalitarianism, like law, is for other people. A failure to come to grips with this is a failure to comprehend the scope of the NSA threat.
From this perspective, then, comparisons of Snowden to Manning, who is the mostly unnamed subject of Greenwald’s broken record about dumping, are both unfair and irrelevant. Manning was blowing the whistle on American foreign policy, which weighs much more lightly on American imaginations, particularly elite imaginations, than the prospect of NSA analysts jerking off to their pics, stalking them online, stealing their business secrets, blackmailing them or sending them to jail forever over a hyperlink.
It was almost certainly the story Manning wanted to tell that made her non-newsworthy except as a bad example, not the way she attempted to tell it, and no amount of Greenwaldian media savvy could have made her something else. Therefore, depending on how invested certain elites are in constraining the NSA, it’s unlikely that Snowden or Greenwald could do anything that would kill any discussion important people want to have, though Greenwald/Snowden could certainly do something that would reduce their stature in it.
For the moment, Greenwald is the perfect point man for a neatly circumscribed debate in which elite interests and public interests coincide, with his wide-eyed faith in reform through government policy; his zeal, from day one, to helpfully delineate between good whistleblowing (Snowden) and bad (Manning); his uncritical genuflections to the idea of ‘national security'; his willingness to redact and withhold; his anodyne preoccupation with ‘privacy’ to the exclusion of malfeasance; the relatively high credibility he has with harder lefts and libertarians, now rubbing off on, and immunizing, the clowns at the Guardian; and last, but certainly not least, for the determination with which he and his cultish fans smack down critics calling for more leaks, more technical information, less redacting, less subservience and greater accountability. In short, Greenwald has proven a surprisingly capable gatekeeper, whether he sees himself as such or not.
Given that the leaks are now out there, can the NSA and its proxies be anything but sincerely grateful that the kind of resistance developing right now in Brazil and Germany isn’t exploding all over the world for no reason but that Greenwald and his colleague Laura Poitras live and work in Brazil and Germany and aren’t sharing the leaks with journalists elsewhere ? Can they be anything but glad that Greenwald, when confronted by security experts begging for more technical information — because they want to fight the NSA with software rather than debate it on the evening news — lectures them on how that’s really not a priority, that is, when he’s not doling out shit like this?
I’m certainly sympathetic that there are all kinds of things weighing on Greenwald, Poitras, Snowden and their colleagues, not least fear of more government reprisal. But I don’t think this explains everything they’re doing given the extent to which they stonewall and contradict themselves. Considering that this whole thing is at least in part about transparency, and that Greenwald is one of transparency’s most vocal advocates, the extent to which we’re all left guessing about what they’re up to, and made to feel like shitty little ingrates if we do anything but applaud, is really not good.
When I took this all up after Alan Rusbridger ‘s weird, meandering, and long-overdue blog post about harassment by Cameron’s goons, I posited a dump of the leaks on Cryptome as a possible alternative. In retrospect, I think that was a mistake if only because it plays too easily into a false dichotomy that Greenwald invokes every time he or his colleagues are criticized.
So I am going to concede that for reasons of Snowden’s safety among other things, we’re stuck with a paternalistic system we have, but I am not going to concede that its current form is the only shape it can take. I feel that people should continue to put pressure on Greenwald and co to do things differently, and when they refuse, to press them on why.
To put this on more concrete footing, I am offering the following questions.
1. Considering what’s happening in Brazil and Germany right now, is there a sound strategic reason why Greenwald and Poitras have tasked themselves with writing the stories for non-UK/US markets, rather than distributing leaks to partners in other countries for more efficient propagation? I understand that Greenwald is now branching out into India and Poitras is also working in another country. That’s great, but considering that by Greenwald/Poitras’s own account, the NSA has 150 listening posts around the world, a drip drip strategy seems particularly ill-advised and, at first glance at least, unethical.
2. When choosing partners in the US, why did the Guardian choose the New York Times, with its abysmal record on Wikileaks and on truth-telling generally? If, for some reason, Snowden wants to keep this under the auspices of establishment journalism, could he be encouraged to open it up to less dubious institutions, like say, McClatchey? Are there any plans to seek out additional partners?
3. Considering that a lot of people in the security field are starting to resent the withholding of technical information that would assist them in building tools to circumvent the NSA, are there any plans to distribute the leaks to engineers so that technical measures for resisting the NSA can be improved and so that more specialized stories are available to technicians?
4. To what extent, if any, are commercial considerations affecting the timing and placement of the leaks? What financial dealings, if any, have potential to cause conflicts of interest?
Having asked these questions, I fully expect to be frothed on and trolled by Greenwald’s revoltingly dimwitted fans and various people who are clearly way more invested in the David and Goliath spectacle than in genuinely confronting the problem of establishment-managed dissent. For the last few posts, I engaged with them. This time I won’t. I also won’t entertain more bullshit from Greenwald or his clownish editors, nor should you.
UPDATE 2 (link to this update)
A newly discovered Twitter thread featuring car-wrecklicious extremes of Glennbotic weirdness suggests ‘Drip Drip’ has additional benefits. Intrepid reader, contemplate some of Glenn’s most avid and repulsive sycophants flirtatiously eroticizing his ‘drips’, and remind yourself that what those drips contain are disclosures of mass surveillance. In other words, contemplate the likening of Glenn’s promise of state oppression details to sexual teasing, and the likening of receiving those details to sexual satisfaction. Yes, I know, it’s only a joke — an embarrassingly witless and unedifying one — but I also think it’s revealing. The Glennbots are all kinds of disturbing, not least because it never seems the promise of reform is the main attraction. A snippet follows, but read the whole thing for the full cringe-making effect.
This piece just got a mention in D.J. Pangburn’s Vice interview with Sci-Fi Author Norman Spinrad. (Hi Vice readers!!!) Since Vice has one of those horrible comment sections restricted to Facebook users I was unable to reply to the post directly, so I will do so here:
As the blogger who criticized Greenwald’s methods, I appreciate the mention, but not the mischaracterization of my post. I did not criticize Greenwald’s ‘god like awareness’. That phrase was used to characterize his adherents’ tendency to imbue him with special qualities to justify his top-down, elitist approach to whistleblowing. And if you read the piece all the way to the end, you’ll see that I did not advocate ‘putting it all out there.’ I advocated more rapid distribution of the leaks to other journalists and technicians.
I do very much appreciate that between you and Spinrad, though, you completely typify everything I was ridiculing at the top of my post. I am also glad that, like me, Spinrad recognizes Greenwald’s vigilance with respect to national security interests. His credibility-enhancing ‘Manning is nuts’ is the icing on the cake. Thanks!!!