Did The Independent Just Spin A Slide The Guardian Already Published?

So was the UK government really ‘leaking documents about itself’ as Glenn Greenwald alleges, when The Independent published an ‘exclusive‘ about the ‘UK’s secret Mid-East internet surveillance base’?

A reader of my last post, Nell, commented:

The information in the story that came from Snowden-released files is from a slide already published by the Guardian. On reading the Independent story for the first time I had the impression they’d acquired docs themselves, but it’s clear on close reading that they don’t make that claim.

Nell didn’t have a link to the slide, so I went poking around. I think the one below, which accompanied the Guardian’s story on X-Keyscore,  is the one Nell means. Those red dots are all data gathering sites and yeah, there’s one in the Middle East, more than one even:


The Guardian article focused more on capabilities than data-gathering locations, so this reading of the slides from Venture Beat, published around the time of the Guardian article, is helpful:

…the system used 150 sites all over the world in countries such as Egypt, Australia, India, Pakistan, Russia, and France to collect e-mail addresses, phone numbers, web chat logs, and sites visited, among other things. Even in 2008, the system had the capability to show intelligence analysts “all the encrypted word documents from Iran,” for instance, or all users of PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) in that country.

Put this together with previous disclosures about data mining from fibre optic cables and ask yourself if The Independent disclosed anything new when it reported this:

Britain runs a secret internet-monitoring station in the Middle East to intercept and process vast quantities of emails, telephone calls and web traffic on behalf of Western intelligence agencies, The Independent has learnt.

The station is able to tap into and extract data from the underwater fibre-optic cables passing through the region.

The information is then processed for intelligence and passed to GCHQ in Cheltenham and shared with the National Security Agency (NSA) in the United States.

Unless I’m misreading, the only thing that seems potentially new here is the extent of GCHQ involvement. However, that the GCHQ is the UK eye in the NSA’s Five Eyes partnership (which also includes Canada, New Zealand and Australia) is well-known. In a Sydney Morning Herald article on X-Keyscore, Snowden singled out GCHQ for its uniquely intrusive Tempora program:

Tempora is the first ‘I save everything’ approach (‘full take’) in the intelligence world. It sucks in all data, no matter what it is, and which rights are violated by it.

The Independent article also offered more specifics than may have been disclosed elsewhere about where information about GCHQ’s place in the program resides:

Information about the project was contained in 50,000 GCHQ documents that Mr Snowden downloaded during 2012. Many of them came from an internal Wikipedia-style information site called GC-Wiki.

When considered alongside the cherry-picking of one listening post out of 15o, this is perhaps the most tantalizing nugget in relation to the article’s provenance.  It’s also the only thing lending any credence at all to The Guardian’s hyperventilating about it, which seems oddly oblivious to how much of the Independent’s ‘exclusive’  the Guardian had already told. If the UK government wants to discredit Greenwald and Snowden, repackaging their own disclosures seems an odd way of going about it.


Fuck The Guardian: Long Live the Independent?

Fuck The Guardian: Part 2

Fuck The Guardian: Part 1

Homework for Fuck The Guardian:  The Impact of Chelsea Manning

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24 Responses to Did The Independent Just Spin A Slide The Guardian Already Published?

  1. Thomas Lord says:

    This helps to highlight that a premise of the “leak monopoly” is that the Guardian et al. have the technical expertise to evaluate what they are looking at well enough to decide what to public and what initial interpretation to give it. Their reaction to the Independent article suggests otherwise.

    • Tarzie says:

      Yeah, but the weird thing is, it was Snowden that started in with the repudiation and the accusations and he definitely knows better. Between incompetence, sketchiness and subservience to the government, this is becoming a bit of a mess.

      • Thomas Lord says:

        That’s an interesting point. I continue to believe that, because of his status in Russia, every statement by Snowden must be treated as if given under duress. (“Duress” here would include not only being “forced to say” something, but also, “being sloppy and making mistakes because of too much worrying about the constraints he feels”.)

      • Tarzie says:

        Yeah, or complete faith in Greenwald to write his statements for him without review.

      • Tarzie says:

        This whole thing is sketchy, because, really, the most explosive thing in that Indy story was that the Guardian squashed a story on the government’s request. Greenwald personally disavowed, but the paper didn’t.

  2. thedoctorisindahaus says:

    That map is going to be discussed more than it has been. It has to be. First thing I thought was where exactly are the dots, why are there so few and what are the ones that ring Antarctica? Since there are no official cables to Antarctica, can we assume they are satellites and radio relays? Are they accurately numbered or is it just a flourish decoration symbolizing, in general, Antarctica is owned. And why so many?

    And if Embassies are regularly used, according to the latest, shouldn’t there be a dot everywhere? I hardly thing the red one in China is one of total access with Chinese cooperation. That would be the story, though. China and US cooperate to spy on their citizens–uh threats to their citizens. Could be a satellite, though, in unfriendly territory.

    That GC-wiki is revealed as a source also suggests that NSA may be lying about their audit trail ignorance for Snowden’s activities. That GCHQ has good auditing or is lying (nobody has stated what Snowden’s access to gchq was in any capacity, just that he ‘knows’). May lend credence to GG/S claim that gcqh is leaking about itself or the papers leaked to the Independent.

    Or, more plausibly, that GC-wiki is just another open secret (like xkeyscore) at this point, with millions of intel contractors cleared to know about it or interact with it.
    I would be not a bit surprised that GC-wiki is something like an intel education service that anybody right down to very low clearance contractors, can access as a reference while laying wire, shipping envelopes, making calls.

    More proof that this is just an imperial decree, forbidding discussion by the proles while an entire class holds the info. Like China and political censorship. Not secrets just thoughtcrimes.

    Which further makes GG/S claim of not risking security by revealing methods, utter spin in the great debate. If I wanted to prevent the leaks from seeming legitimate, I’d be playing up the super security and auditing to the media, not admiting LOVEINT. NSA could have denied loveint, instead they confirmed it.

  3. Pingback: Fuck The Guardian, Long Live the Independent? | The Rancid Honeytrap

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  6. thedoctorisindahaus says:

    Going to have to pick one. Else I’ll just be saying less. Can’t cut down volume and keep clarity all while keeping content.

  7. Anon says:

    In general I’m very sympathetic to the way that Greenwald has gone about reporting and acting in this matter. I think he’s handled it extremely well and had a huge and significant impact. I don’t believe that a document dump would have been a better way to operate here (though I’m not highly confident of my assessment). Nonetheless, you raise a number of excellent points about the highly stilted way the information has come out, and this has forced me to reexamine my assumptions and flesh out just why I’m supportive of the drip-drip-drip Greenwald/Snowden/Gellman model instead of the Cryptome dump it all piece.

    First of all, it’s not a “monopoly”. At worst, it’s a duopoly of Bart Gellman and Glenn Greenwald and co. It’s also not clear that the Guardian is as significant a player as Glenn Greenwald, so while one can complain about the Guardian, they may not be that important. This is a minor point, however, it’s undoubtably true that Snowden restricted who had access to his document stash. That more significant point is that Snowden’s document stash does not give Greenwald/Gellman (which I will confusingly refer to as GG) a monopoly, it gives them a competitive advantage. Lots of outlets have furthered the reporting done by GG, with other sourcing, or simply by reading the documents and drawing other inferences from. The story about LOVEINT, for example, wasn’t broken by either Greenwald or Gellman, but by a combination of the Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg. They broke it by relying on the documents released by GG as well as traditional reporting. Marcy Wheeler has been guiding a lot of the contextual understanding of what’s going on by simply reading what’s out there and pointing out inconsistencies and parsing lawsuits and timelines. Groups like EPIC are doing important work with FOIA and lawsuits, and this is having impacts in terms of getting meaningful documents. Then there are all the declassified documents coming out as a result of the pressure by the Snowden leaks, which are available to anyone who wants to download and read them. This stuff is hard to understand, and there is plenty of reporting to do even without access to the Snowden stash.

    Second of all, there is important meta-information being created as a result of the drip drip drip approach. How the Intelligence Community (IC) officials respond has been as important in terms of understanding what the IC is doing as the documents are. The fact that IC leaders have been caught lying, repeatedly, is important information in and of itself. What you’ll notice about how they lie is important. They are caught doing something they shouldn’t, and then they justify it with another lie (we’re not collecting info on Americans becomes it’s just metadata becomes it’s not intentional becomes it’s intentional but there’s no abuse becomes there’s not much abuse, and so forth). They lie and release documents to contain the story, and then they find they can’t contain it. This could only happen with the drip drip drip approach, since one of the ways that the GG have been reporting is by releasing documents that contradict what IC leaders say. Had the documents all been dumped at once, the IC would know what is out there and would be able to effectively lie at the right level to contain the story.

    Third of all, the tactical merits of this approach have borne real fruit. Public opinion shifted. There was the Amash vote, which made it clear to the IC that there will be reforms. The President now has a commission, which isn’t serious but which is a concession on his part that stuff has to change. Tech companies are squealing as they are exposed. The FISA court judges are embarrassed. Sensenbrenner is making noises about serious Patriot Act reform in 2015 when it has to be reauthorized. The courts are being clogged with lawsuits by public interest groups like EPIC, the ACLU, and the EFF. Elites from both parties and in the press are call for reform, which makes it slightly harder for them to walk away from that call later. Morale at the NSA is low, and they are probably not doing as much spying right now as they figure out what the new contraints are (not legal but unwritten ones). Now, this might have all happened if the dump all docs approach were taken. But the drip drip drip approach has gotten all this done.

    So that’s why I’m sympathetic to the GG approach. It has produced a widespread debate, and in all likelihood significant policy changes. A lot more documents are likely to come, and not just from the Snowden stash.

    That said, the risks of any approach are massive. In the 1970s, the Church and Pike Commissions presented a serious challenge to the IC, a challenge the IC successfully met. Gerald Ford, who had help from the FBI his whole career, used the death of CIA Agent Robert Welch, which he blamed on disclosures by the the investigative press, to blunt attempts at reform. At the time, Normal Mailer was helping to publish a magazine called COUNTERSPY which outed CIA agents around the world. Carl Bernstein was reporting on CIA payoffs to journalists. Daniel Schorr was aggressively reporting as well. Ford and the CIA basically accused Congress and the press of killing American spies; the backlash worked, and after a few years, the IC got back to its regularly scheduled programming of black bag jobs, illegal surveillance, and Iran-Contra’ing. The key to stuffing the genie back in the bottle was Kissinger sweet-talking the DC press. The WaPost, the NYT, and all sorts of good liberals started whining about how Rep. Pike (not Frank Church, who was not as courageous) was engaged in neo-McCarthyism because he wanted one of the State Department’s middle managers to testify. Kissinger blocked it and got his press buddies to destroy Pike’s reputation. This PR campaign persuaded Congress, just a few years later Congress treated all the J. Edgar Hoover stuff like it was a complete aberration. Then America elected Reagan, who had been an FBI informant for decades.

    History doesn’t repeat, and circumstances are different today. Still, public opinion does matter, and I suspect that a blind document dump would allow the IC to create another such backlash fairly easily. They may be able to do it regardless, even with the drip drip drip approach.

    Ultimately, we are in the middle stages of this story. The initial stage was actually the Church Commission era, when the IC was exposed as the dark underbelly of the Cold War. And the public and Congress basically said, well, I don’t love that stuff, but it’s necessary, so just make it less tacky. Today, we’re seeing round two, and terrorists are just a lot less menacing than the Soviet Union, so the IC is having a tough time justifying their massive dragnet. But it’s a multi-billion dollar apparatus, it’s patient, it’s supported by Silicon Valley and Wall Street, it has the support of many high level political leaders, and it’s extraordinarily powerful. And they’ve already built a pretty powerful totalitarian architecture, aided by a nearly irresistible commercial impulse to count and track everything. The odds they will be fully blocked, at this point, are low. But GG has offered hope that there is enough disgust in what they are doing, and fear of big brother, that maybe the IC isn’t as invulnerable as they seemed.

    So anyway, that’s how I think about this. You’re not wrong to question the approach being taken right now, it would be insane and arrogant to presume that GG are absolutely 100% correct and awesome in monopolizing the Snowden stash. I just don’t know. But it’s worked so far in terms of producing a lot of avenues for more action, and that’s something to acknowledge.

    • Tarzie says:

      This is easily the most thought-provoking and intelligent rebuttal to my concerns so far. Going to post again tomorrow or the next day, and will take all your excellent remarks into account rather than replying to them here.

      • Anon says:

        Aww… blushing…

      • Anon says:

        To clarify a bit on the “meta-information” point, beyond obvious and routine lies to Congress and the public by IF officials, I would include Jeff Toobin’s behavior, Josh Foust’s (mostly) undisclosed ties to defense contractors, Kim Dotcom’s method of prosecution, stories on Booz Allen, the highlighting of the shutdown of Lavabit, and the forced downing of the Bolivian President’s jet as more info that has been created by the drip drip drip approach. In other words, the reactions are actually new information. Lots of people are seeing, not just the documents, but a whole set of behavior characteristic of an out-of-control privatized spying state.

    • Daniel says:

      This is an excellent comment that I find helpfully informative, so I hope this doesn’t come off as too combative. But there are some things I want to push back on as I’m adamantly in favor of something more akin to a document dump. Though I’m receptive to a case for staggered publishing grouped by category, I still believe it should be in a much smaller window than we’ve seen thus far. My ultimate perspective is that best reporting leads with primary documents followed by clarification, analysis, and opinion. Because no one calling for a document dump is saying they want this in lieu of de-jargoning for the layman. I have no idea where this dichotomy came from. If anything, a document dump would open the flood gates of access to people who could frankly do a much better job of explain than The Guardian has done thus far. And let’s be clear, the main, if not only reason, The Guardian isn’t doing this is in their interest of exclusivity, readership, and angling for their Pulitzer. If you find this approach beneficial for other reasons, fair enough, but I’m tired of pretending their motives aren’t transparently the motives of any major publisher with a bombshell of story.

      Ironically, I think your point about someone like Marcy Wheeler makes this case as well as I ever could. Because whatever I think of her politics, she is uniquely excellent at the type of exhaustive cross checking you describe. Just think of what she could do with the same access Greenwald et al have! Manning’s lawyer, David Coombs, relayed her belief in crowdsourcing the war machine to Alexa O’Brien:


      My jaw dropped reading that thing, it’s so brilliant and elegant and bold and sure as shit worth a shot. And it can only happen with a document dump.

      I have real trouble with this case for meta-narrative you make. If that’s really what we’re after, why not hoard all the documents, fire off secretly informed accusations, watch the Intellegence Community spin their wheels, and then respond with “Oh looky what I have here…” They don’t do that because that’s not the function of journalism – holding back out on informing the public out of some PR chess match with “the enemy” – and I doubt even Greenwald or his editors at the Guardian would want to claim credit for that strategy. Politicians and law officials lie, it’s a fairly central responsibility of their professions and they’ve demonstrably done this even with contradictory evidence already out there. Call me trusting in my government, but I’m confident they’ll continue to be a duplicitous sack of shit.

      As you hint at yourself, for all the shifts in public opinion, it’s overly presumptive to credit it to “drip drip” reporting. The big thing I want to get out of Tarzie’s wonderful series is people drawing better causalities and isolating variables in our contrasting Manning/Wikileaks document dump (which of course wasn’t originally) and the Snowden/Greenwald/Guardian drip drip. It’s easy to look and say, “Hey, poll numbers show a real impact on public opinion.” But if I were to be as speculative as you are in crediting “drip drip,” I’d look to the fact that Americans are inclined to give more of a shit about their privacy than bombing brown people a few thousand miles away. I have little reason to think they wouldn’t be similarly outraged if the story broke with a massive document dump. You’d probably get a few more assholes at Slate or something wagging a finger of “responsible leaking” at Snowden, but it’s not like we’ve had a shortage of those in spite of his prudence.

      Similarly, I’ve gotten responses (not from you, to be fair) that Snowden is still able to breath fresh air and my push for a document dump is asking him to spend 35 years in a cage, which of course I would never do. He took elaborate precautions Chelsea Manning unfortunately didn’t have the chance to. And Snowden is still facing an aggressive prosecution that grounded a fucking sitting president’s plane to get their hands on him. His “responsible” leaking hasn’t exactly brought out the lenient side in the U.S. government.

      All that said, I do genuinely appreciate the history lesson of which I was completely ignorant. Sorry for the wordy reply, but you gave me a feast for thought. And I understand it’s not a zero sum thing with respect to Greenwald’s job. For all my grievances, I like having him as the most ubiquitous face on this thing. I couldn’t ask for a better advocate, I’m only asking for many, many more reporters. All of them, actually.

    • Wow, this is really excellent! It raises a number of significant points which I will follow up for my own blog. Thanks!

  8. Jeff W says:

    You say:

    Second, I appreciate Snowden’s whistleblowing and courage and all, but that in no way obliges me to see his view on whistleblower ethics and strategy as in any way authoritative, even in the unlikely event that Greenwald and the Guardian are conveying them in any way but self-servingly.

    Yes, as the whistleblower, Snowden has a lot of leverage to place conditions on his media partners, but that doesn’t give his conditions theoretical weight with respect to media elites monopolizing information that rightfully belongs to the public.

    Monopolies on information are objectionable on principle and also tactically problematic. Any monopoly that media elites want to hold on critical information should be warranted by some greater good. I don’t see that greater good in the case of the Guardian.

    My take:
    Monopolies on information are objectionable on principle and also tactically problematic.

    No one has to give Snowden’s conditions theoretical weight or find his views authoritative.

    Snowden, as the one who is taking the risk, gets to set whatever reasonable conditions he wants to to achieve whatever purposes (“affecting public opinion,” according to Glenn) he wants.

    (These conditions have, arguably per Anon above, achieved that purpose that Snowden wanted but that just goes to the reasonableness of his conditions, not to whether he can set them or not.)

    How is it supposed to work otherwise? Snowden wants to leak information to Greenwald and set the terms—either to minimize risk to himself (e.g., the risk that he will be seen as indiscriminately dumping the information) or to optimize his purpose or both—but he can’t because monopolies on information are objectionable? He won’t leak the information then or he’s far less likely to.

    You or I can think we know better—and maybe we do—but Snowden gets to make the call, even if the information rightfully belongs to the public, because if he or people in his position don’t, it’s less likely that any of us will know about any of this information.

    • Tarzie says:

      No one ever said Snowden doesn’t get to make the call, but Greenwald keeps invoking the authority Snowden derives from the leverage of holding the leaks, as if this confers some kind of theoretical authority on whether hoarding the leaks — while Snowden and Greenwald write a book or w/e — is A GOOD IDEA. Greenwald, in his insistently fallacious way, invokes this authority in place of making a theoretical argument for it. In other words, he is evading questions about his custodianship with appeals to emotion and false authority. This is a no no.

      See there’s two different things. Snowden’s leverage and Snowden’s wisdom. One doesn’t make for the other as a person of average intelligence looking objectively can quickly determine. You seem to get this, so I can’t imagine what point you are trying to make here.

      Snowden can do what he likes, but if I think it tactically sucks and is wrong on principle I am perfectly at liberty to say it is, especially since when this discussion started I had no idea what Snowden’s views definitely were. I am also among those people who thinks talking about strategy, tactics and principles is a good idea even if you can’t necessarily affect them in the case under discussion. Since the Guardian’s conduct — unlike Snowden’s ownership of the leaks — could be subject to pressure and modification, discussions of this kind could actually have other benefits besides educational. I was heartened to learn today that Greenwald’s bosses are holding an online chat tomorrow. Clearly they’re feeling some pressure to account for themselves, probably because people like me are making noise, while people like you concoct all manner of half-baked reasons why we shouldn’t.

      That Snowden has leverage is not in dispute. So arguing that point is a waste of your time and mine. Do something else.

      • Anon says:

        “I am also among those people who thinks talking about strategy, tactics and principles is a good idea even if you can’t necessarily affect them in the case under discussion. Since the Guardian’s conduct — unlike Snowden’s ownership of the leaks — could be subject to pressure and modification, discussions of this kind could actually have other benefits besides educational.”

        This is true.

      • axenicely says:

        “Snowden can do what he likes … That Snowden has leverage is not in dispute.”

        You seem to be under the impression that Snowden is still being consulted on what documents to disclose, and has veto power over such decisions. I don’t think this is true. My understanding is that when Snowden transfered the cache to Greenwald and Poitras (the only two who have the full cache, btw), he also gave them full discretion on how to do the reporting. I’m not going to dig for citations, but that’s what I think is the case.

        If that’s true, then “Snowden’s wisdom” is irrelevant at this point, because it was exercised before the deal was struck with GG & Poitras. And now Greenwald has no honorable choice but to observe the terms of the deal. Your argument – dump over drip – is interesting and valuable, but it can’t be applied to the case at hand.

        On another note, as you undoubtedly know, AP reported that the NSA is having difficulty determining what documents Snowden possesses. If they don’t know, then GCHQ doesn’t. And if NSA & GCHQ don’t know, your theory (“spinning a slide…”) explains how the Independent could state that its information came from Snowden’s docs. (Regardless of how it holds up, imo, this is a fine piece of work.)

      • axenicely says:

        Barton Gellman: “Snowden gave no instructions & has no role in story choices. He asked that select for news & avoid damage.”

        Same is true for Greenwald.

  9. Pingback: My questions for the Guardian editors, @arusbridger and @janinegibson | The Rancid Honeytrap

  10. MickStep says:

    Looking at that map it pretty much confirms that Jeddah is the location of the British internet spying operation.

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