Though one could write a book about the Snowden meta-narrative, pretty sure the anarchists carrying water for a microfinance billionaire right now are the last Snowden Effect I care to contemplate. A lot of people, perhaps most, will be glad to hear that I can’t look at this Leak Keeper shit anymore. I’m walking away from this car wreck.
I was going to write up a really exhaustive summary of why I have been at odds with this whole spectacle from the beginning. But most of what I would say can be gleaned from everything I’ve posted already, a really critical reading of this remarkably shitty article about surveillance of Muslim radicals, and a glance at Greenwald’s Twitter timeline, where, along with the usual scolding of those who do not find attendance to the leaks as personally rewarding as he does, he’s equating “You’re hoarding leaks to make deals” with “You got paid” to evade criticism of his reckless and vulgar monetizing. Glad to see that Mark Ames has taken this up two months after I first did, even if he might be pilfering me without credit.
If I were going to do a post-mortem, it would be an elaboration on this: only 550 heavily redacted pages have been made available to the public from a trove exceeding 50,000 documents; most of us still have no clue about the scale of the surveillance problem or what we can do about it; resistance is confined mostly to professional civil liberties advocates; there is little indication that anything will change soon if ever; there seems to have been little disruption to overall system functioning though certainly some people in the NSA are nervous; everyone has had a lengthy lesson in proper, system-friendly, whistleblowing; the more avid followers of this story and its meta-narrative seem dumber and weirder than they were before; and the Leak Keepers are richer and more influential.
These outcomes are not surprising considering that right from the start, the Snowden Affair repudiated defiance as much as it embodied it, with a whistleblower who exaggerates his own state-friendly meticulousness while repeatedly denouncing a mischaracterized Chelsea Manning; and a select group of journalists who capitulate entirely before state authority, pitching their tales of state crimes in anticipation of state remedies, while routinely seeking the counsel of state officials on what to publish.
Boss Leak Keeper Greenwald — for all his limelighted chestbeating — far exceeds his colleagues in his deference to power, by reiterating Snowden’s Manning/dumping slurs in particularly emphatic terms; touting the virtues of responsible, elite-tempered whistleblowing; ardently defending withheld documents, redactions and consultation with state officials; celebrating endorsements from the likes of Dianne Feinstein, Richard Cohen and James Clapper; and punching hard to his left (‘chicken pseudo-radicals’ ) when someone can’t discern the lines between the touted savvy, subservience and personal enrichment. This defiance/compliance alchemy has its corollary in the reading public, for whom outrage morphs into bored resignation under the slow drip of increasingly unsurprising, problem-minimizing news stories and their meager allotment of redacted, state-reviewed documents.
Of course, this kind of obedient, reformist handwringing is nothing new, but rarely has it been so widely and convincingly characterized as heroic, disruptive journalism, a difference owing as much to media’s performed renewal via Greenwald’s clownish self-mythologizing as it does to the state’s sabre rattling. We’re now in phase two of the spectacle, with the topic of mass surveillance now entirely subordinate to embattled journalism and its impending rescue by self-enriching heroes. Greenwald and several associates have auctioned themselves off to corporate power, and publicly debase themselves on its behalf, while instructing us that this is disruptive too.
I don’t care to rehash anything beyond that. Instead, I’ll simply move on and attempt to predict where things will be a year from now:
1. We will all still be under surveillance and we still won’t quite comprehend to what extent. Indeed, the system of surveillance and discipline will likely be stronger, along with protections against more leaking. There will still be official debate, public handwringing and maybe even some policy changes, mostly directed at the NSA, to the exclusion of most of the 15 other agencies in the Intelligence Community, private sector involvement, and surveillance by states and municipalities.
2. In light of increasing Fourth Amendment concerns among elites, the Intelligence Community will continue to dedicate more resources to open source intelligence gathering and analysis as a successor to more superficially intrusive programs. The civil liberties establishment will mostly ignore this.
3. The PRISM partners will continue to reduce the appearance of complicity via product enhancements that afford limited privacy protection to their customers. Specialty products and services affording greater protection will be increasingly popular for people of means. Other tech companies, such as Palantir and Lexis Nexis, will continue to service unaltered demand by the private sector, the national security apparatus, states and municipalities for data mining and analysis.
4. Militant dissidents, Muslims, African Americans and other people of low status will, as ever, be surveilled and disciplined by more overt and violent means than intrusions on internet and phone privacy, in addition to intrusions on internet and phone privacy. The local surveillance and subjugation of low status individuals will continue to be regarded as a largely separate matter from the NSA surveillance problem and attended to far less by journalists and policy makers.
5. Ignorant, infantilized Manichaeans with no coherent politics or analysis beyond muddled liberalism in various costumes will continue to dominate what passes for a left in the American middle class, fetishizing information, resistance theatre and celebrity saviors/martyrs, in lieu of any influence or control over the people who actually run things. The possibility that this sector will ever contribute meaningfully to positive change will continue to diminish as it loses any memory of, or interest in, analysis, tactics or enduring outcomes.
6. Having packaged the leaks in a tale of resurgent journalism and his own heroism, while painstakingly restricting their impact to limits set by elites, Glenn Greenwald will be a vastly richer, more influential arbiter of dissidence. He will continue to write without posing any serious challenge to the system that created a global surveillance apparatus. By way of his quarter billion dollar news venture, he will lead the mainstream appropriation of superficially harder lefts. As ever, he will be fractionally more critical of power than the vast majority of his colleagues at the same level and will therefore be lavished with praise, as his utility as a template of permissible dissent increases. The publication of his book will likely have confirmed that, yes, he delayed interesting and important disclosures for commercial reasons. He will travel between the US and Brazil without government interference.
7. Snowden will be living in a more pleasant country than Russia.
8. I will have quit with the internecine conflict. I will be fighting the government with parody accounts, Twitter blowjobs for left celebrities, and yapping about shit I haven’t read. We will #Win!!!
Sing us out, Babs.
P.S. I have no regrets about any of these posts; I am pleased with them. When I reread the post that kicked off the Twitter storm, I am struck by how subsequent events, beginning with Greenwald’s overwrought, evasive reaction, completely vindicated everything I’d written. I am particularly proud of defending Manning from his and Snowden’s self-serving smears right at the start, which was the trigger for watching them more critically.
I am on very easy terms with the divisions these posts created between myself and people who seemingly share so few of my basic principles, and who regard any examination of The Snowden Spectacle at odds with their Marvel Comics worldview as conspiracist, vainly purist, a pretext for working off a grudge, or government-sponsored. As with Greenwald’s top-down, power-appeasing custodianship of the leaks, I see nothing recognizably ‘left’ or anti-authoritarian in people who use any unethical means available to shield a rich, white, male authority figure from scrutiny or criticism. The bizarre beatdown fever these posts inspired confirmed what I’d suspected all along, that many of the post-Obama, Occupy-scented radicals are just ignorant, disaffected liberals — to the extent that their politics have any coherence at all — and under the incitement of one more savior charlatan, they’re doing what liberals reflexively do, energetically policing the boundaries of dissent and marching everyone down the familiar culs de sac.
As predictable as this routine is, I was not prepared for how stupid and infantile most of these people are, nor how caught up they’d get in Greenwald’s cheesy theatrics and the vicarious enjoyment of his rising fortune, which for today’s cube farm radical are apparently a much bigger draw than the vanishingly small promise of reform. If the goal was to overwhelm me with contempt, for both them and for mutual friends who overlooked their grotesque, mobbed-up, self-superior stupidity, well then, mission accomplished. But in the end, I found it liberating. To the extent that I was ever even aware of these people, I had written most of them off long before I fell out with their hero. As to the the rest, there isn’t a bridge I burned over this that I wouldn’t burn sooner given a second chance, starting with the vampiric Greenwald, who never heard a shot across the bow he couldn’t answer with a cannon, at least if it came from his left.
It’s revealing that despite all the hostility these posts aroused, so few people challenged them on their merits, but instead took Dad’s lead, resorting to mischaracterizations and smears when not disputing my right to have any opinion at all. Though a shocking number seem to think they are arguing when they do this, and deftly too, it’s certainly not the way to make me reconsider anything. I guess the point is to scare others out of saying I got anything right, or to make them skip reading me altogether, which are some really charming objectives for anti-authoritarians and transparency advocates. I would have appreciated more opportunities to test these ideas against serious objections, and still would. For people who differ, and know what an argument is, I’m always happy to discuss, preferably here.
UPDATE 2 (link to this update)
Greenwald has replied to Mark Ames at length on the accusation that he has basically sold the leaks to Omidyar. He has finessed his reply since the fateful day when I raised the issue of hoarding leaks and personal gain, but it’s pretty much the same old stuff. Well over half of it is fallacious, so naturally Greenwald’s acolytes are laying on the praise. They love his non-responsive smackdowns.
Greenwald’s schtick in these situations, which invariably reduces to “I’m faultless and you’re an idiot/operative/hack/hypocrite for daring to suggest otherwise” is literally sickening to me at this point, especially considering the extent to which he is presumed to be elevating our debate. Since my claims and Ames’ claims are different — Ames is somewhat caught up in The Scary Libertarian — I’m only going to deal with the points Greenwald makes that intersect with stuff I’ve said on this blog. I also want to stress that Greenwald’s leak hoarding/monetizing is only one of many objections I have to his custodianship of the leaks.
Below I have paraphrased things he says in his reply that pertain to things I have said. If you don’t trust my paraphrasing, feel free to wade through Greenwald’s customarily dull prolixity and boilerplate invective yourself. My replies are in line:
1. Greenwald/Poitras can’t distribute leaks to other journalists because then they become sources which puts them in jeopardy of losing the legal fortifications they enjoy as journalists.
As I said when he said this on my blog two months ago, that sounds fine, but it doesn’t square with the sharing of leaks with The New York Times and ProPublica. Why is handing off all the GCHQ docs to the New York Times different from handing off all the docs pertaining to Spain to El Pais? Why was sharing documents with other writers at The Guardian with whom he did not share a by-line ok? If he would just address this, I might be forced to concede on this point. He has been asked this question repeatedly here and on Twitter and, as far as I know, has never really answered it.
2. Bob Woodward got rich on state secrets to which he had exclusive access.
With his newfound nostalgia for the traditions of old media, Greenwald ignores how things have changed since most of the people he names made their bones, both technically — it’s of course easier to distribute documents now — and socially. In the wake of Cablegate, an ardent defense of journalists making large sums on whistleblowers in exile or jail seems increasingly parasitic, as do the ringing endorsements Greenwald’s appeal to tradition is finding among other journalists. Insisting that privileged white guys explain why they haven’t distributed state secrets that, by rights, belong to everyone they affect, should be the norm, not the exception, especially if someone has just dropped them in their lap.
Even factoring in new norms, it’s hard to make comparisons, since each case of national secret disclosing is different. It any event, we’re talking about Greenwald and potential hoarding of Snowden’s leaks matters because:
a) his leaks pertain to secrets that, prior to the overwhelmingly normalizing, even soporific effect of Greenwald’s drip drip drippery, felt really urgent, like news that should be spread far and wide as soon as possible, not least because there are actual steps people can take against the NSA’s intrusions
b) the Snowden trove is really big. We know that it exceeds 50,000 documents. That’s a lot of documents for a small number of journalists to go through and write about. So far, the public has seen just ~550 heavily redacted pages since June. Do I really have to keep pointing out why this is a problem?
There is also the matter of what whistleblowing should do. With his starry-eyed Constitutionalist reformism — which inexplicably makes him the patron saint of every political tendency except neocon and obot — Greenwald thinks it’s all about this wonderful debate we’re having, y’know, the one that put DNI Clapper on a review committee. But whistleblowing can also be used to disrupt system functioning. There is no question that wider, faster distribution of the documents around the world would greatly aggravate the NSA’s problems, with the added feature of informing a larger number of people in a shorter amount of time. Greenwald’s overwhelming focus on U. S. public policy certainly makes it easier for him to establish the credibility he needs to work his way to the top of the food chain — and, lo, he’s practically there — but it’s not obvious what it’s doing for anyone else. (I examine the different objectives of whistleblowing in this reply to Greenwald’s broken record on dumping)
I get that the more disruption someone causes to the state, the higher the risk. Which is why my larger point has always been that small cabals of ambitious, risk-averse journalists are not the people to whom leaks should be entrusted. I know Greenwald and his devoted morons insist that every little critique is provoked in some way by his awe-inspiring virtue. Others however, should consider that, by implication, my posts are an inquiry into what works and what doesn’t, and into how the system absorbs and neutralizes a threat and even turns it to its own advantage. The system seems to be managing this whistleblowing event pretty well. Greenwald’s hyperventilating about his risks and his courage would be a whole lot easier to swallow were he not constantly insisting that the way he and his colleagues go about things is the best way in all respects, even though so far the most conspicuous ‘positive’ outcome of their methods has been Greenwald’s vast personal enrichment.
3. It’s stupid to say we have a monopoly on the documents because blah, blah, blah….
He starts by saying that every news outfit with an exclusive has a monopoly and it gets steadily worse from there. I’m not going to bother with this nonsense. It’s demeaning.
It is simply a fact that after you account for all the documents that Poitras/Greenwald have in common with other Leak Keepers, there is no question they have a cache of documents that no one else has. That’s a monopoly. Even putting aside that these documents have indisputable monetary value as information that only Greenwald/Poitras can leverage toward deals, possession of all the documents has conferred additional prestige, influence and, by extension, marketability on Greenwald that he would have struggled harder for had Snowden favored someone else with the same gift, or had Greenwald/Poitras shared the wealth. This difference is probably also why no one wonders aloud why by Greenwald’s account he lives a life of danger –in virtual exile!– while Alan Rusbridger travels uneventfully between New York and London, and DC-based Barton Gellman publishes roughly identical stories without incident.
As to Omidyar, the extent to which these documents are effectively his is unknowable, as is the extent to which the Greenwald/Poitras monopoly on these documents made them attractive to Omidyar as business partners. Certainly, the immutable virtue that Greenwald insists immunizes him completely from the ‘cognitive capture‘ to which every successful journalist is vulnerable, is at odds with the lies he has been telling on Omidyar’s behalf with respect to the PayPal Wikileaks blockade and the stonewalling he does on questions about Omidyar’s business practices. Considering Omidyar’s ties to the corporate sector most deeply implicated in the surveillance apparatus, and considering that he pledged 250 million before even knowing exactly what he’s building, misgivings and doubts are very far from ‘stupid’, no matter whose they are, and it’s really disgusting and also suspect to insist so adamantly otherwise.
4. I am not a profiteer because Laura Poitras and I have thus far lived lives of anti-surveillance virtue; it’s anti-intellectual to see books and movies based on exclusive information as potential moneymakers; Noam Chomsky writes books; Pando has Silicon Valley backing too; investigative journalism is expensive so, of course, I welcome the opportunity to partner with a billionaire to promote my message of freedom.
Y’know, increasingly, the worst thing for me about Greenwald is that, for rhetorical purposes, he plays dumb and this stupidity tends to be contagious. Stuff like this is not worth arguing with. Greenwald, Poitras and Scahill had the means, certainly, to get their own venture off the ground, without hopping into bed with a billionaire as sole investor, and they were working to do just that when he contacted them. They elected not to and now Greenwald and all his fans are carrying water for the liberating virtues of toxic inequality and its unaccountability. This would be bad enough even if we weren’t supposed to accept on faith that personal enrichment had nothing to do with it.
UPDATE 3 (link to this update)
How many sharks can Greenwald jump? In his tireless and increasingly successful quest to turn lefts into the half-liberal/half-reactionary dipshit he is, Greenwald now refutes left media criticism basics. Forget your Chomsky, kids. Media ownership means nothing if you have perfect people doing the journalism. As ever, if you think the people doing the journalism aren’t perfect, well then, the problem is you:
We keep returning to this theme of corruption as a staffing problem. But it was not ever thus. Here’s Glenn just a couple years ago, interviewing Chris Hayes:
In the book, Hayes described how American elite culture is so insulated that it “produce[s] cognitive capture,” meaning that even those who enter it with hostility to its orthodoxies end up shaped by — succumbing to — its warped belief system and corrupt practices. Given that Hayes pronounces this “cognitive capture” to be “an inevitable outcome of sustained immersion” in that world, I asked him what steps he is personally taking to inoculate himself against being infected now that he’s a highly rewarded TV personality and employee of one of the world’s largest media corporations.
What a difference a billionaire makes. Kinda settles the question, doesn’t it? I mean, if it hadn’t been settled already.