The Intercept, the first of First Look’s many intended specialty magazines debuted today. It mostly sucks, but not in such an interesting way that one need belabor the details. However, since this is the debut issue, I’m going to pass along a few quick thoughts, on my way to encouraging people to start ignoring First Look and all media like it completely:
1. Remember how in December, when people charged that Greenwald and Laura Poitras had effectively sold the leaks to Omidyar, Greenwald countered that the NSA story might well be finished before First Look even launched? Those who smelled bullshit at the time were, of course, correct. The Intercept’s mission, at least in the short term is to “provide a platform to report on the documents previously provided by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.” (source: The Intercept).
2. Also largely unsurprising is the first big story published by The Intercept, “The NSA’s Secret Role in the U.S. Assassination Program“, authored by The Intercept’s editor Glenn Greenwald and Jeremy Scahill. The story is almost entirely free of genuine news, except for those who had no idea the NSA has historically provided signals intelligence for CIA assassinations, or who hadn’t read this Washington Post story filed in October by Barton Gellman, which detailed the NSA’s extensive role in the assassination of Hassan Ghul — an associate of Osama bin Laden.
If there is anything new here, it’s in the large extent to which the NSA is said to rely on cell phones for identifying and tracking targets for the CIA, which allegedly leads to increases in wrongly identified targets and civilian deaths. This differs somewhat from Gellman’s account, which described a more varied, conceivably more precise approach, using an “arsenal of cyber-espionage tools, secretly seizing control of laptops, siphoning audio files and other messages, and tracking radio transmissions.” Despite the differences, if there is something revelatory in the Intercept’s story from a technical standpoint, I’m missing it. Tracking by cell phone has been discussed before, including by Snowden. In light of signature strikes, the apparent recklessness of these methods also seems unsurprising.
Gellman’s story was rightly criticized for being effectively a dickwaving exercise for the U.S. Intelligence apparatus, since it detailed simply how a Bad Guy was killed by the Good Guys with all their sexy technology and savvy. In keeping with their adversarial brand, Scahill and Greenwald mix the NatSec dickwaving with some handwringing over civilians, most of which is provided via quotes from former drone operator and ostensible whistleblower, Brandon Bryant. This passage gives a taste of the overall dickwavey/handwringy mix.
The former JSOC drone operator is adamant that the technology has been responsible for taking out terrorists and networks of people facilitating improvised explosive device attacks against U.S. forces in Afghanistan. But he also states that innocent people have “absolutely” been killed as a result of the NSA’s increasing reliance on the surveillance tactic.
Near the end of the lengthy piece, Bryant even wrings his hands over the assassination program as a whole, at least as it results in the extrajudicial executions of American citizens like Anwar Al Awlaki. But overwhelmingly, both his emphasis and the emphasis of the piece are simply on the need to kill more precisely, by making greater use of informants and agents on the ground to supplement the NSA’s signal intelligence. Considering the degree to which civilian deaths are the inevitable consequence of using Hellfire missiles against human targets, the article’s emphasis on bad signal intelligence seems almost dishonestly over-broad. Even if bad metadata accounts for the murder of Al Awlawki’s 16-year-old son — which we don’t know — it surely can’t account for the eight people killed by the same strike.
But Scahill and Greenwald have seemingly not inconvenienced their ex-assassin source with hard questions. As is now customary for everything the Leak Keepers do, underlying National Security assumptions and values — such as the right to kill Afghans resisting a long U.S. occupation — are helpfully passed along without examination or rebuttal. And, as ever, the Leak Keepers are presenting us with a problem created by the security apparatus, while strongly suggesting that the security apparatus can solve it.
While the story claims to be ‘bolstered’ by Snowden leaks, not one Snowden document is provided to supplement the story. Here’s an amusing screen cap of the site’s ‘Documents’ page as of this morning:
3. The site’s staff page is also interesting for what it lacks. Of twelve staff people, nine are men, and ten are non-Hispanic white. In keeping with First Look’s democratic spirit, staff are listed alphabetically, which helpfully puts all the women on staff near the bottom of the page. I trust that aspiring First Lookers troubled by this will keep it to themselves. None of this internecine warfare stuff! What are you, jealous???
4. The first issue also features a spread of large, slick photographs of Intelligence Community buildings from three different agencies “revealed for the first time.” Some of my readers found this laughable, and the text that goes with it is certainly overwrought. But if the purpose is to provide a visual sense of how large and intractable the security apparatus is, the feature succeeds, I suppose, though it showed things pretty much as I imagined them. It’s encouraging at least to see Greenwald and Co attempting a bigger picture by including other agencies — if only by way of well, big pictures (h/t Kandy Kruschev) — since the usual narrow focus on the NSA minimizes more than it elucidates.
In summary, there is literally nothing about the First Look/Intercept debut to warrant the level of hype, sycophancy and self-congratulation that has been swirling around this entire enterprise since it was first announced. No doubt the interwebs will be full of happy hyperventilating today over the first issue, courtesy of aspiring First Lookers whose self-unaware ass-kissing is becoming an increasingly unedifying joke. The disparity between the hype and First Look’s dull, by-the-numbers first outing is the only reason why this first issue merits any attention at all, and even at that, very little.
New Twitter game: #LookAtMeGlenn. Nice interplay here between disaffected snark, sucking up and the contestant’s usual deftness with logical fallacy. One to watch, certainly.
Things are looking up since I posted this. I had complained that the crucial Documents page was blank for the launch, as per the screenshot immediately below. The second image shows the recent update. The third image is alleged to be the manager’s mockup for the requested update — suggestive perhaps of a rift between editorial and creative –but we cannot yet vouch for its authenticity.