The Nation’s Rick Perlstein is a piece of shit acting in the worst possible faith in this piece, “Greenwald’s Epic Botch“, but he also has a point that Glenn Greenwald hasn’t properly addressed.
Piggybacking on concerns a few tech bloggers raised, Perlstein claims that Greenwald and his colleague Ewan MacAskill have jumped to potentially unwarranted conclusions about the nature of the PRISM program. If you trace the lineage of Perlstein’s article to its source material, you find his concerns raised in a much better piece by WordPress developer Mark Jaquith.
Jaquith claims, correctly, that Greenwald’s and MacAskill’s article on PRISM strongly suggests that most of the largest internet companies, including Google, Facebook and Yahoo, have provided the NSA with direct access to user data unimpeded by even a pretense of judicial oversight. Jaquith cites this from the Guardian article:
When the [FISA Amendments Act] was first enacted, defenders of the statute argued that a significant check on abuse would be the NSA’s inability to obtain electronic communications without the consent of the telecom and internet companies that control the data. But the Prism program renders that consent unnecessary, as it allows the agency to directly and unilaterally seize the communications off the companies’ servers.
Jaquith poses this quote against a recent New York Times account which says:
…instead of adding a back door to their servers, the companies were essentially asked to erect a locked mailbox and give the government the key, people briefed on the negotiations said. Facebook, for instance, built such a system for requesting and sharing the information, they said.
The data shared in these ways, the people said, is shared after company lawyers have reviewed the FISA request according to company practice. It is not sent automatically or in bulk, and the government does not have full access to company servers. Instead, they said, it is a more secure and efficient way to hand over the data.
According to Jaquith, the language in the NSA slides Greenwall and MacAskill quote does not definitively corroborate or contradict either account.
This slide claims “collection directly from the servers” of service providers. But it isn’t clear at all that “the servers” means the company’s central servers and not a digital clean room set up specifically to hold data on warrant targets. Greenwald seems oblivious to this possibility
For Jaquith, the difference is between a ‘bombshell’ and a ‘yawn’ and I suppose it is if by ‘yawn’ he means something we already fundamentally know. But it’s not something we should be indifferent to, considering the FISA court approves almost every request the NSA makes and that providers tend toward compliance. Nevertheless the difference matters, if only in the extreme efficiency with which an unfettered system can build a dossier for any internet user on earth.
Karl Fogel, a fellow of the New America Foundation, which receives millions in Google and Microsoft lucre, repackaged Jaquith’s post with more snarky certainty, and, in the process, ludicrously remakes as an ‘epic botch’ the mere possibility that Greenwald misinterpreted the slide. It’s on Fogel’s post that Perlstein largely bases his own, comically deferring to Fogel as uniquely possessing crucial expertise.
Greenwald’s response to Perlstein’s piece summarizes as ‘We never said what you’re saying we said but we would have been perfectly within our rights to say it anyway.’
If all the tech companies are doing under PRISM is providing what they’ve always provided to the NSA, but simply doing it by a different technological means, then why would a new program be necessary at all? How can NSA officials claim that a program that does nothing more than change the means for how this data is delivered is vital in stopping terrorist threats? Why does the NSA document hail the program as one that enables new forms of collection? Why would it be “top secret” if all this was were just some new way of transmitting court-ordered data? How is PRISM any different in any meaningful way from how the relationship between the companies and the NSA has always functioned?
This all sounds good, but it’s all speculative and doesn’t really resolve the doubts the naysayers are stirring up. Certainly the slides could be touting greater efficiency in getting compliance on judicially approved data requests. This efficiency, in turn, could bolster claims about improved responsiveness to terrorist threats. As for the Top Secret classification, Greenwald has previously beat the drum that, increasingly, the default mode for government agencies is secrecy, a tendency that must be particularly pronounced in the NSA.
I think Greenwald’s interpretation of the slides is credible, especially after perusing this interesting comment thread where some of Fogel’s readers take their host intelligently to task. But too little information is known right now for anyone to be certain, and it is no more satisfying or substantive for Greenwald to complain of partisanship when fielding objections, than it is for Snowden’s detractors to belittle his leaks with charges of narcissism and treason. Greenwald’s half-baked defense of his own conclusions seems particularly bothersome considering Snowden surely could have filled in some of the gaps, perhaps along with some part of the 36 slides that, by Greenwald’s own account, reveal technical methods and which he and The Guardian have decided, without explanation, are for their eyes only.
Greenwald insists that his main point is that whatever arrangements the NSA and these corporations have made, they have made in secret. That’s true, but we already knew that, and that’s a problem that won’t change soon. The point of whistleblowing is to tell us things we don’t know.
Considered alongside the toxic Snowden vs. Manning narrative that The Guardian needlessly injected into the discussion, this second, probably avoidable controversy suggests that some people might not be getting the sleep the important work for which Snowden has chosen them requires. Let’s hope that problem is soon resolved.
I really honestly don’t like citing Glenn Greenwald for foolishness and I really don’t like being on the Rick Perlstein side of anything. But he continues to shoot blanks at the issues discussed in this post.
The article he’s linking to here cites the Guardian on the question of direct access. In other words, Greenwald is invoking the authority of another journalist who in turn invokes Greenwald’s authority.
Then there’s this:
Now Glenn is invoking his own authority again, along with that of Gellman and all the other super smart, super diligent people he works for and with. In other words, he’s citing a poll result. I think it’s interesting he mentions ‘the source’ since, disappointingly, he and MacAskill did not quote Snowden at all in their PRISM piece. I’ve almost no doubt that these fine people are making more educated guesses than the rest of us, since they’ve seen all 41 slides and at least some of them have spoken to Snowden; but they haven’t imparted, even in broad strokes, what they know that the rest of us don’t.
Considering WaPo’s own PRISM news summary does not credit its own reporting or The Guardian’s with authority on the issue of direct access, I am at pains to see why anyone else should.
Greenwald just can’t seem to comprehend that people may be raising these questions in good faith or that, even if they aren’t, the doubts raised still have to be addressed with journalism. I honestly want him to prove his case. He just hasn’t yet.