I have a blog post swimming around in my head, the working title of which is Leak Keeper Theory and Practice As Told to Twitter and Reddit, in which I compile all the rationales put forward for monopolies on state secrets. The never-ending case for the happy, coincidental intersection of individual self-interest and surveillance state reform is a constant source of edutainment that I am very keen to share with others.
Still, it has come to my attention that many people have really short attention spans for anything that’s not in 140 character chunks and not from a beloved media celebrity, so some things are best done in installments if they are done at all. With that in mind, I am going to put the full undertaking aside and examine here only one plank in Leak Keeper Theory, that is the Boss Leak Keeper’s broken record on ‘dumping’ which he played at longer length this week during a Reddit Ask Me Anything (That’s In My Interest).
Here, from the Cryptome site, is something to set the mood:
[At present rates, it will take] 26 Years to Release Snowden Docs by The Guardian
Now before we examine Leak Keeper Theory, let’s revisit how this dumping vs. The Meticulous Vetting of State Secrets by The Guardian thing first got injected into the discussion. It happened here, when the Guardian introduced Snowden to its readers:
…[Snowden] admires both [Pentagon Papers whistleblower, Daniel] Ellsberg and Manning, but argues that there is one important distinction between himself and the army private.
‘I carefully evaluated every single document I disclosed to ensure that each was legitimately in the public interest… There are all sorts of documents that would have made a big impact that I didn’t turn over, because harming people isn’t my goal. Transparency is.’
When you examine this, you can’t assume that Snowden’s quote is a deliberate repudiation of Manning, since she is only mentioned in the preceding paragraph. Therefore, you can’t, with complete certainty, credit Snowden with the implicit distortion of what Manning actually did, nor the smeary insinuation that Manning set out to harm people. But you can certainly blame Guardian writers Greenwald, Ewen MacAskill and Laura Poitras for all of that, because they inarguably framed the quote explicitly as a repudiation. Not content to leave it there, Greenwald evokes this distortion each time he plays the broken record on dumping, either to prove what a responsible whistleblowing team he, Snowden and Laura Poitras are or to justify the agonizingly slow release of not really amazing information over which he holds a monopoly.
Let’s put aside that Greenwald and Co did this only six days after Manning’s trial had commenced, and instead consider that Snowden’s quote is almost certainly bullshit on its face. Snowden’s trove consists of, at minimum, 15-20,000 documents. That’s quite a lot of documents for one person to ‘carefully evaluate’, and I strongly doubt that that’s what he did. That’s beside the point, though, since it’s certainly clear from The Guardian’s meticulous vetting — which omits more story-related NSA/GCHQ documents than it publishes, and which Greenwald claims Snowden fully endorses — that no, not all the documents are ready for public disclosure after all.
What people don’t seem to realize is that Wikileaks didn’t dump Cablegate. They vetted, redacted and also provided US officials with opportunities to review. Cablegate wasn’t dumped until a Guardian writer disclosed a password. So what Snowden gave Greenwald is a trove that, from the standpoint of ‘responsible’ leaking, differs meaningfully from Manning’s only in its higher security classification with a vetting process that differs from Wikileaks’ Cablegate distribution only in how few documents it releases and how parsimoniously it shares with other journalists. This Twitter exchange concisely describes how Greenwald uses ‘dumping’ in the context of Snowden:
Unfortunately a lot of people have taken Greenwald’s bait and continue to argue for dumping, which would be fine, I suppose, if it weren’t also helping Greenwald to shut down a more wide-ranging and interesting discussion of possible alternatives and compromises. In future, I would prefer that discussions of this kind be recast as less about particular methods, than about differing whistleblowing objectives that guide the choice of methods, mindful that there is a world of possibilities between a strategy that at current rates will reveal all the Snowden docs in 26 years and one that would make them available to every internet user on earth in a day.
All the actual and hypothetical disclosure methods seem to follow (ostensibly) from one or all of the following objectives:
1. Informing US citizens for the sake of a ‘debate’ to influence policy
2. Informing citizens in other countries for the sake of influencing their policies with respect to the US
3. Creating tools and strategies for circumventing the NSA
4. Making it difficult for the NSA to operate effectively via successive, unmanageable global scandals
5. Letting the world know what the NSA is doing as a good in its own right
I think most people taking an interest in the Snowden leaks favor a strategy that serves more than one and possibly all of these ends to varying degrees. Therefore the continuing, largely uncritical enthusiasm for a strategy that, by the Leak Keepers own account, overwhelmingly aims for number 1 and not even effectively, aims for number 2 with even less effectiveness and dispenses with items 3-5 almost completely remains an enduring mystery, though I think it has something to do with a crippling effect Greenwald’s iron grip on the narrative is having on people’s imaginations and their willingness to think out loud.
In the interest of encouraging Glenn and others to quit having this argument on such narrow terms, mostly with phantom transparency radicals they conjure in their heads, I am going to take each of his anti-dumping planks in turn, agreeing where I think he is correct and arguing where I think he is wrong. I am doing this not because I want the balance to come out in favor of dumping but because, one, Greenwald uses his leverage to frame all talk of methods this way and two, as an example of extreme transparency, anything that is useful about a full, unredacted release, is likely applicable to some extent to any method that is more open, aggressive and democratic than what the Guardian is now using. I also want to move the discussion to points in between while showing how relentlessly Greenwald dumbs down the conversation to avoid that.
Greenwald’s Reddit remarks in italics. My non-italicized replies in-line.
1) It’s irresponsible to dump documents without first understanding them and the consequences of publication.
This is purely speculative, somewhat at odds with how widely distributed top secret documents are within the huge security apparatus, and shows Glenn once again attesting by implication to the unique intelligence and good sense he and his colleagues bring to understanding the Snowden documents. Nonetheless, since almost no one is proposing this at this point, and I don’t wish to answer speculation with more speculation, I’ll concede.
2) It’s 100% contrary to the agreement we made with our source [Edward Snowden] when he came to us and talked about how he wanted us to report on them (if he wanted them all dumped, he wouldn’t have needed us: he could have done it himself).
I agree that it’s good for journalists to keep their agreements with sources. The Snowden quote with which Greenwald and his colleagues disparaged Manning just as she went to trial certainly suggests Greenwald is not lying about Snowden’s general intentions. The inference he wants us to make about Snowden having chosen journalists to act as intermediaries also seems reasonable.
However, during the brief, shining moment when it seemed Snowden would not restrict his leaking to American and UK news providers, he did at least advocate a more aggressive strategy toward foreign news distribution than Greenwald’s and Laura Poitras’ current strategy of slowly co-authoring stories for other markets rather than sharing documents with journalists outright. In an interview with The South China Morning Post, Snowden said:
If I have time to go through this information, I would like to make it available to journalists in each country to make their own assessment, independent of my bias, as to whether or not the knowledge of US network operations against their people should be published.
This comment seems strikingly at odds with both Greenwald’s method for distributing the leaks to foreign countries, and also Greenwald’s paternalistic insistence that responsibility for risk assessment belongs to the US/UK team of knowing knowers. Greenwald claimed that if he and Poitras share documents with other journalists they increase their legal risk by becoming sources, but has yet to explain how sharing files with, say, The Times of India or El Pais, differs from the relationships the Guardian has struck with The New York Times and Pro Publica.
3) It would be impossible for the public to process a huge, indiscriminate dump, and media outlets would not care enough to read through them and report them because they’d have no vested interest in doing so (that’s what WikiLeaks learned long ago, which is why they began partnering with media outlets on an exclusive basis for its releases).
Even though, as I keep insisting, few people are advocating dumping of this kind anymore, I am going to take this on because it readily adapts to arguing against any strategy that aims for wider propagation and because it is annoyingly stupid in direct proportion to how much Greenwald and his fans keep insisting on it.
I am going to start with Greenwald’s point about media outlets and vested interest, because if you dispense with that, you needn’t counter the other nonsense about confused, inattentive rubes yearning for, but not finding, a sufficiently motivated Greenwald to guide them through the morass of unfiltered information.
I’m, first off, overjoyed that Greenwald is conceding that ‘vested interest’ plays a role in what he’s doing, since my suggestion of same a while back sent him into truly bizarre spasms of frothing and fallacy, as if, I dunno, I’d caught him at something. Yes, naturally, journalists who don’t expect some reward from a story are unlikely to do anything much with it. But you can’t assume that journalists would find no reward in navigating and interpreting the Snowden documents, any more than you can assume that journalists are finding no rewards now in feeding off the scraps the Leak Keepers are tossing from their book-and-movie-deal laden table. I mean, let’s look at what Greenwald is essentially saying: that journalists don’t journal until they have a lucrative monopoly on every aspect of a story. This is just silly.
Furthermore, in the highly unlikely event that commercial journalists did fail to immediately recognize the potential reward in being the first to make sense of, say, the PRISM slide deck, various nonprofit organizations such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the ACLU, and ProPublica (and their equivalents in other countries) certainly would and that, in turn, would induce journalists to dig deeper on the explosive revelations these organizations disclosed, just as journalists do now each time the Guardian publishes a Snowden story.
As to the idea that multiple teams working on multiple NSA stories would soon overwhelm the public: I have elsewhere shown that the difficulty of producing these stories places limits on how quickly they can be produced. To that I would add that the high level of technical expertise some of them require limits the pool of available journalists even more. So while I won’t concede that a less monopolistic environment would lead to no stories, I also won’t concede that a less monopolistic environment would lead to too many stories, assuming there even is such a thing. I will, however, observe out loud that those two claims are mutually exclusive.
As to the lessons of Wikileaks: it is impossible to draw lessons about attention spans, news cycles, influencing debates etc from an organization that was the object of every imaginable kind of attack from a government and US media establishment that hated it on general principle, that was undermined by its biggest news partners, and whose big whistleblowing event was the first of its kind, explicitly anti-imperialist and, unlike the Snowden Leaks, enjoyed no support from the likes of Mark Zuckerberg and rich guys on the Upper East Side.
4) The debate that we should be having would get overwhelmed by accusations that we were being irresponsible and helping the Terrorists; in other words, it would be strategically dumb to do.
Greenwald’s supreme confidence in his assessment of what ‘we’ should be doing and in his mastery of strategy never ceases to amuse, especially when you consider how indignant he gets when you call him paternalistic. This confidence leads him to recite pure speculation as fact and to call things dumb as if doing so is incisive. People are already calling Greenwald a traitor and a terrorist enabler now, while oligarchs on the Upper East Side applaud Snowden’s name. So I can’t imagine who, exactly, these people are that can shut down ‘The Debate We Should Be Having’ who aren’t already attempting that now, entirely without success.
5) There are already lots of risks for people reporting on these documents; there would be seriously heightened risks for anyone involved if they were just indiscriminately dumped
Since the leaker has been driven into exile in Russia, its hard to imagine how a less meticulous distribution method would have made his situation worse, especially considering the zeal with which the Obama administration is attempting to discourage whistleblowing. Furthermore it seems that distributing leaks also distributes risk and mitigates it for single individuals in the process. David Miranda was likely a target for the GCHQ because, by virtue of the rare power Greenwald exerts over leaking and the narrative, intimidating his spouse promised a large repression bang for the buck. It also had the useful side effect of making Greenwald’s and The Guardian’s bland, subservient mediation of the leaks look more disruptive than it is. That Greenwald bemoans his ‘virtual exile’ in Brazil while WaPo’s Barton Gellman, with a great deal less chestbeating and drama, publishes stories almost identical to the Guardian’s and gives no indication of being in any danger at all is one of the few enduringly amusing things about this whole spectacle. Greenwald keeps insisting that distributing the leaks to other news organizations around the world increases risk, but has not persuasively shown how.
Somehow I’d missed that the New York Times share of Snowden documents is ‘more than 50,000.’ Which means that Greenwald’s much smaller estimate provided to the Brazilian senate (among others) and which I’d used for this post was incorrect and probably a lie. So there are some lessons to extract from this:
1. Cryptome’s 26-year estimate should be more than doubled.
2. All that shit Snowden said about meticulously choosing documents when the Guardian introduced him to the world as the un-Manning now goes from probably a lie to definitely a lie — since Snowden couldn’t have possibly reviewed a trove this big — which makes the comparisons to Manning particularly gratuitous and slimy. Think about this: Greenwald and co fabricated a story about Snowden’s careful selection of documents solely for the sake of making an unflattering comparison to Manning. Why on earth would they do this, just as she was going to trial?
3. The Guardian monopoly on these documents is even more unconscionable. They are concealing government secrets in the guise of disclosing them. We will not learn a fraction of what is in these documents if they stay within the small circle of people with access to them.
What do these assholes have to do before other assholes hold them to account?
I have elaborated on this in another post.
NOTE: For people still too fucking stupid to get it, I did not draw attention to Oracle’s comment (see Update 1, below) to advocate a full, unredacted release of Snowden docs. I drew attention to it because:
1. It nicely demonstrates how more eyeballs on leaks means faster comprehension of important things. A relatively small trove like Snowden’s, widely distributed to, say, thirty different newspapers around the world could be gone through quickly.
2. The release of the HBGary trove achieved many useful ends — such as HBGary dissolving in an excruciatingly painful acid bath of bad publicity — without one fucking ‘debate’ or change in policy or savvy knowing knower talking non-stop shit about drips and attention spans and news cycles.
3. Greenwald has some nerve stigmatizing dumping and dumpers with Old Media cliches every chance he gets, considering.
Got that, Glenn? Got it, fanserfs?
Nah, didn’t think so.
A commenter, Oracle, whose language suggests involvement in the 2011 hack of computer security firm, HBGary, has left an excellent reminder that Greenwald himself was the beneficiary of the kind of radical transparency he now struggles so hard to distinguish himself from. The HBGary hack, which released a huge trove including 50,000 emails, exposed a report prepared apparently for Bank of America, about a strategy to destroy Wikileaks, a plot that included among its targets Greenwald himself. Oracle writes:
When we obtained the HBGary Federal information, many of us faced and still face serious legal peril. The amount of information as far as number of documents, makes the Snowden material look puny in comparison, Fortunately for Mr. Greenwald, we did not adhere to his methodology. Fortunately, I say, because by allowing thousands of individuals to review that material, it became evident that Greenwald and others were being targeted by the DOJ, BOA, HB Gary, Palantir, Hunton and Williams et al.
Greenwald benefited from the timely release of information that the aforementioned were developing an operational plan to discredit him using a “dirty tricks” attack. Considering the capabilities the NSA possesses, the timely release of this information to Greenwald may likely have prevented child pornography being “found” on his computer, at some airport, ending his career.
Here’s Greenwald’s post on the same incident, from his better days. Greenwald still insists that radical transparency is appropriate sometimes. Guess exposing a plot to bring him down is one of those times. Whatever his current ‘strategy’, you’d think he’d at least go easy with the whistleblower Dos and Don’ts.