An anarchist critique of the reporting on the Snowden leaks

Update (Saturday, January 4, 2013) Glenn Greenwald has asked me to make certain corrections to reflect the facts, and I'm grateful for the opportunity to make them. You can find a copy of the old post here. I apologize to Laura Poitras and Ryan Gallagher if I misled folks about their roles, and I hope this sets the record straight.

As the year rolls to an end, I'd like to compile a few thoughts on the handling of the NSA secrets leaked by Edward Snowden to Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, Ryan Gallagher, and others. This debate has occurred on ephemeral media like twitter, and these matters deserve a more extended treatment. There have been many developments since my last post on the subject; one of the most interesting has been the journalistic issues surrounding this episode.

Throughout this post, keep in mind that I approach this as a radical, anti-institutionalist anarchist. My values place very little weight on compromising secret government plots for any reason. I disagree fundamentally with Snowden's desire for selective leaking, though it shouldn't surprise anybody that an ex-NSA employee would maintain very different priorities than an anarchist. Nothing could be more useless or moronic than to expect relatively establishmentarian, statist folks like Snowden, Greenwald, or Poitras to act exactly like I might were I in their shoes.

However, I have a basic respect for Snowden's sacrifice and Greenwald's work that transcends my political preferences (I'm not familiar with Poitras's work prior to this episode, though she has my respect as well). I will not sully that respect by dragging any of these people through the mud, even if their chosen acts don't quite conform to my personal standards. Indeed, I wish to advance a critique of their conduct that can actually contribute to the debate without drowning everything in the noise of acrimony and belligerence.

Unlike many on the radical left, I believe tone is important, both for maintaining crucial solidarity within the larger resistance and for disciplining our own thinking against irrational laziness. Snowden, Greenwald, Poitras, and others are fundamentally on my side of this issue, regardless of our differences in values and ideology. People on the same side can disagree and debate without devolving into crude infighting. I regard it as shameful, juvenile, and counter-productive to elevate any kind of political or methodological purity over those broad interests that unite us.

The powers that be are chiefly to blame

Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, Julian Assange, Jacob Applebaum, and others have had to sacrifice some degree of the kind of personal liberty, safety and security we all take for granted. They did so in order to facilitate an informed, urgent debate that could advance beyond breathless, unhinged conspiracy theory. It is the U.S. government that has created the best argument for why Poitras and Greenwald are careful about releasing NSA documents, as Greenwald has stated:

One of the few protections you have when you're reporting on classified materials is that you're doing it as a journalist. It's therefore vital that we never act as a source or distributor of the materials, which is what the DOJ would eagerly claim if - as individuals - we just started handing out massive amounts of documents to media organizations around the world, rather than doing what we've been doing: reporting on them on a story-by-story basis with those outlets.

And it's not just known legal precedent that hampers him. Poitras and Greenwald must also contend with all sorts of governmental deceit, spooky dirty tricks, and outright nationalist bellicosity. There is no certain, clear, safe path here at all, and if you think there is then I'd argue you don't really understand the material situation.

Remember: the U.S. Government is not engaging in this debate with critics of their policies. They aren't entertaining anything but the most trivial, shallow observations from insiders and loyalists who fundamentally defer to them. So it is to be noted that Greenwald, on the other hand, has shown remarkable (if finite) patience with his critics. From the very get-go he has solicited a debate around the ethics of the leaks, appreciating his unique position. Now he's not a public servant and has no inherent duty to do his job in the way we like, let alone according to values he does not share. He does not deserve bile for seeking out critique.

It's also curious to see how few complaints Greenwald's critics hurl at Snowden himself. Indeed, it seems to me the primary constraints on Greenwald, Poitras, Gallagher, et al's reporting were placed by Snowden himself through the source agreement they concluded at the beginning of all this. Why does Snowden get comparatively little criticism? People like me who would have prefered a mass dump of all these documents on Wikileaks ought not to ignore his initial gatekeeper role. I'm sad to say that Snowden escapes his critics because he does not seek them out in the way Greenwald has.

Just because I oppose writing rancid denounciations of these heroes' acts and motivating principles doesn't mean I agree with all of it. It seems vital to me that we all wrestle with these matters as we search for a new consensus about institutional accountability and individual conscience. An unprecedented leak obviously sets a precedent for future leaks, so everybody concerned with covert misconduct and government overreach has an interest in how this plays out. We are learning lessons and hashing out disputes that will guide future whistleblowers, journalists, and activists for decades to come, and that elevates both criticism and civility as dual imperatives in ensuring a productive debate.

Too much control over the story

Greenwald in particular has asked folks who criticize his approach to suggest better ways to go about it. There is a sense in which any suggestions are meaningless without his and Poitras's access to the source documents. It may be a reason to defer to his judgment, but it's an unsatisfying principle to uphold. The ideal situation would not depend on any one small group or career class. That said, I find certain problems with how he has reported this story, and I'll make some general suggestions as we proceed.

There's no doubt that all journalism implicitly serves some political narrative; probably what defines the status quo is it's ability to sneak in political assumptions as neutral facts of life. Nevertheless, Greenwald has explicitly stated (at 52:56 in the video) that he, Poitras, and other journalists who work with him choose to release documents and details from the NSA leak cache in order to "create the most powerful debate and the greatest level of recognition, and to sustain the interest that people have in the debate that we felt was so urgently needed". As much as I might personally approve of their ends, I find this a troublesome and potentially discrediting criterion for publicizing source material in the public interest.

Imagine for a moment that Greenwald, Poitras, et al both dumped all the NSA documents and wrote all the stories exactly as they have done. Accusations of bias would ring more hollow, because anybody who doubted their take could check the source materials themselves. Greenwald, Poitras, et al's particular narrative could be tempered by fully informed alternative interpretations.

Or imagine that Greenwald, Poitras, et al both followed their current source material release strategy and wrote in a much less opinionated, more neutral and descriptive voice. No speculations, no denouncements, no context from Greenwald's constitutional law background--just the absolute basic facts about a leak and its contents. The rest of us could build our stories around interpretations of this data, but there would be less of a sense that Greenwald, Poitras, et al are personally curating leaked information to serve their narrative.

The problem with withholding leaks is that one wonders whether they are telling the whole story. What if these journalists are not releasing documents that contradict the picture they are painting? There's a certain amount of trust Greenwald, Poitras, et al are asking of their readers and, indeed, an entire world that needs to understand that cache of secrets. Many like me see these issues within the same general narrative that the Greenwald, Poitras, et al do, but we don't really need to have our minds changed. Do others trust him enough to let him withhold information? Just because I share Greenwald's distaste for totalitarian government surveillance, I don't necessarily want to give him or his colleagues complete control over what I do and do not learn about.

To be clear, every journalist filters source information in this way. However, most journalists can be independently fact checked and followed up on by other outlets. It's the combination of public importance of the source material and Greenwald, Poitras, et al's exclusive control over access to it that makes this so uniquely problematic.

More oligopoly than monopoly

Greenwald refutes accusations that he and his colleagues are monopolizing the documents by pointing to other mainstream journalists with whom he and Poitras collaborate. So the accusation should rightly be oligopolization, not monopolization, but the root criticism persists. Working with other establishment journalists to reach a consensus on what should be published doesn't put my mind at ease because I remember how Assange got screwed over by mainstream papers.

Journalistic mediation of source materials is not supposed to restrict access to the source facts themselves; that's not it's intent. Journalism is supposed to add clarity and understanding to the facts but not exercise total access control over them. Remember when Greenwald calling out Dina Temple-Raston for reporting national security stories based on materials only she was allowed to see? This is not the same situation, but it has a similar feel to it, because we're just supposed to trust the journalist without verifying it.

Moreover, I can't help but regard Greenwald's arguments for the urgency of mediation here as inherently elitist; the idea that we, the public, must be guided or conditioned by the "drip" strategy of reporting on the leaks seems almost insulting. If this debate is so important, why does it require so much guidance, especially from one faction of one class in society? If we the people cannot be trusted to react to these disclosures in the "proper" manner, why bother with reporting at all? Ultimately, as noble as I think Greenwald, Poitras, et al's ends are, I can't help but find this reasoning a bit hypocritical.

Hypothetical sticky situations

How else can the leaks be safely consumed than having credentialed journalists dishing them out? Greenwald in a recent blog post lays out some hypothetical situations in which we would presumably approve of his withholding documents:

  • if we know the names of people the NSA is accusing of engaging in "online promiscuity" on the internet, or the names of those the NSA believes are terrorists, should we publish that, thereby invading their privacy and destroying their reputations?
  • if we have the raw chats, internet activity, and telephone calls of people on whom the NSA has spied, should we just publish those?
  • if we have documents that would help other states spy more effectively on their own citizens' internet activities, should we publish those, thereby subjecting hundreds of millions of people to heightened state surveillance?
  • if we have documents containing the names of innocent people whose reputations or lives would be endangered if they were exposed, should we just ignore their plight and publish those?
  • if we have documents that are so complex that we don't yet understand the potential consequences for other people from publishing them, should we just throw caution to the wind and publish them anyway, and learn later what happens?

Before I address his reasoning here, I must admit something a little sappy but sincere: I was astounded at how much more complex answering these questions became for me if I actually put myself in Greenwald's shoes in my imagination and considered the real logistics of my favored approach. There are no perfectly secure places to leak that volume of data. There's no sure-fire defense of Greenwald, Poitras, et al's conduct in this climate. Any act they would take would have downsides. That's why despite our differences I afford all of them a great deal of deference along with infinite gratitude for doing the job at all.

That said, let's address these hypotheticals by breaking the concerns down into three categories: Personal identity issues, technological issues, and national security issues.

Personal identity issues

This is a legitimate concern, so if it would speed up the release of documents I'd be in favor of redacting any and all personal names automatically, without exception. To me, the "who" is much, much less important than "what" and "how". Sure, there's probably some information that could be traced back to particular people even without explicit names, but at least some deniability would be preserved.

The advantage of this approach is that it is at once clear cut and achieves a stable balance between personal privacy and the public interest. A newspaper that legitimately cared about this debate could start churning through the documents as a public service, redacting names and releasing, all while maintaining a first scoop advantage. Frankly I fail to even see the controversy here, although Greenwald, Poitras, et al can't be expected to do all of it by themselves. As I'll get to later, they could convince these papers profiting off the leaks they provided to do the work as a public service.

Technological issues

I have a hard time believing that publishing any technological details mentioned by the documents would do more harm than good. Open information in this area can inform and quicken the production of countermeasures. I assume Greenwald, Poitras, et al would approve of the public at large learning to defend against NSA exploits. For me, that's enough to shoot down this criterion.

But there's a bigger issue here: the technical details matter relatively little because the most effective things the NSA has done are only possible at scale. The sheer amount of money and authority wielded by the NSA dwarfs any other institution and would make them powerful even if they had no technology. Think about it: they probably have enough resources to create a Stasi-like snitch network that could accomplish a good deal of the same work the technological approaches do that could do. It is the power, not the particular exploits or spyware schematics, that makes the NSA totalitarian.

The NSA's intentions are no more dangerous than those of other governments, organized crime syndicates, and gadfly hackers. Most of the technical methods they've employed can be discovered by anybody. But no one person, and probably no other institution on the planet, could assemble this kind of massive, comprehensive toolset.

For example, if the NSA had invested in uncovering only the software, hardware, and firmware exploits it absolutely needed for surveillance, that might be worth keeping secret according to Greenwald, Poitras, et al's less radical values. But the NSA has tried to amass an encyclopedic, overlapping catalog of exploits in the interests of maximizing not just the breadth of surveillance but its depth and redundancy as well. As a programmer I know that exploits can and will always be discovered in software; the NSA has simply directed their considerable resources towards cultivating and maintaining them for unclear reasons.

Couple that with the technological details about their collaboration with other companies and spy agencies, such as tapping into internet trunk lines and compromising encryption algorithms. These are methods that do not stem from technical expertise; they are hacks of other organizations through the projection of physical cloak-and-dagger force, intimidation, bribery, and mutual nefarious ends. Any agency operating with similar power could do the same thing--in fact, the U.S. has condemend China for precisely these kinds of activities. Political clout and force projection capabilities can greatly enhance technological sophistication, but it's still a crucial ingredient available only to organizations working at the NSA's scale.

I cannot accept that withholding technological information stops anybody from being spied on. Releasing this information publicly is in fact the best thing one can do to counter this power. Once these bugs, vulnerabilities, and technologies are public, they have the best chance to be addressed in the public interest. That's not to say there are no dangers, only that I see no scenario where those dangers outweigh the benefits by any civil liberties accounting.

National security issues

What if there are documents that, once published, would have consequences we simply don't or can't understand? To me, this line of thinking totally validates the arguments of the NSA's defenders who say public knowledge of any of this endangers us. I doubt that there are any legitimate national security secrets necessary to our survival as an independent nation--at least, an independent nation sans the empire we've collected over the past century.

Now, neither Snowden, Poitras, nor Greenwald are anarchists, so it surprises me not at all that they'd strike a very different balance on national security than I would. Berating them over this is particularly unhelpful, not least because it reinforces any elitist notion that the public at large is too immature or reckless to handle this information. However, the facts about the true state of our security are among the very most important revelations we could learn. Such facts could undermine the entire imperial narrative and change the game completely.

At least given what we have learned so far, the NSA has had very poor reasons for concealing their activities. If Snowden, Poitras, Greenwald, and others involved in the leaks have similar or superior reasons, they should not expect our patience with non-explanations. Make your case for withholding explicit, release it all entirely, or relinquish the moral high ground in this particular aspect.

A dual responsibility of stewardship

It seems to me that if Greenwald, Poitras, et al are going to control how these documents are disseminated, they cannot simply do so in the service of their own reporting or the reporting of their hand picked journalists and newspapers. There's been too much inside baseball already, and expanding the class of insiders is not equivalent to public knowledge. This story is just too important, and if the open debate he, Poitras, and Snowden seek is going to happen, one party cannot linger in a position to dictate terms.

Therefore, I'd like to suggest that as steward of these leaked documents, their reporting is only one part of the job. Within the constraints of their source agreement with Snowden, I argue Greenwald, Poitras, and other involved journalists have an equal responsibility to see that the documents get out as quickly as possible, regardless of whether they serve their particular reporting narrative. This is a unique duty that stems from the singular position these journalists, especially Greenwald and Poitras, occupy relative to a matter of such gravity.

As soon as documents are cleared according to whatever criteria they choose (I assume they include the conditions I discussed above), they should be immediately released regardless of whether Greenwald, Poitras, et al report on them or not. I realize they cannot be seen as a disseminator of these leaks in order to protect themselves legally. But surely they could find a way with the help of this worldwide network of newspapers with which he's collaborating. There's a ton of resources there that could be put to a real public good equal to their reporting: expanding the historical record. Keep in mind that this is an unprecedented scale of disclosures entrusted to one small group; to treat this as just another instance of journalism, conforming to the exact same rules, may not be appropriate.

Finally, I can't accept their "drip" strategy as a sufficient reason to withhold these leaks from the public. Keep in mind that the vast majority of people will not even want to read the source documents directly, so it's not like one cannot maintain at once a drip of contextual reporting as well as a healthy stream of primary materials.

There is only a political solution

I mentioned earlier that it is the scale at which the NSA operates that makes it dangerous. Only with such concentrated resources and authority can the NSA compromise the entire communications network infrastructure at every layer. Any defense strategy or reform that doesn't squarely address the issues surrounding this unprecedented concentration of power is worse than useless. Clever hacking will not save us from concentrated power; crypto is a workaround and not a sufficient response to the fundamental challenge here. New oversight practices, such as a "privacy advocate" position in the FISA court, will fail as surely as old ones. Organizations like the NSA specialize in telling themselves and others precisely the narratives that justify their abusive, disingenuous conduct in the dark.

Knowing this, statists of all varieties must wrestle with how to check and balance the government in this era. The sheer level of secrecy and abuse here can't help but give the lie to their minarchist approach of legal reform and institutional counterbalancing. Clearly any government abiding an organization like the NSA is no mere accomplice but rotten to the core. Any reform that does not squarely face this reality is insufficient and counterproductive on its face.

While anarchists understand that even this latest outrage will not bring about the revolution, I do think we are uniquely positioned to advocate for extreme measures that others currently find unthinkable. There literally is no alternative, because who could ever trust anything the government does in secret again? The NSA's power and operation in the dark must be scaled far, far back if we are to have a real solution to this crisis. Indeed, the state must be made to understand that its very legitimacy is at stake, and this is a core anarchist goal in the first place.

Dissolution of the state and the NSA may not be politically feasible, but a sharp and crippling cut to the budget--especially the abolition of the secret black budget--may be one concession we can extract from the establishment. After abolition, containing the budget is the next best insurance against power becoming too concentrated in an organization. Granted, this is a long shot, but it both has the virtue of being measureable and also marking a grave reappraisal of the government's legitimacy.

I'm sure each and every person responsible for bringing the NSA cache of secrets to light has a different vision of what reforms are best. However, we are at a unique juncture in history--one we indeed owe to Snowden, Greenwald, Poitras, and others, but nevertheless one which belongs to all of us. Never before have the people faced such pervasive and subtle totalitarianism so undermining to society as we know it. If folks finally consider radical solutions, it will not be because anarchists berated them into it. The right arguments could ensure the separation of the head from the snake this time, if anarchists can model a new attitude towards power that seeks not to alienate opponents but build a qualitatively different consensus.

Written on Tuesday, December 31, 2013 | Tags: anarchism, glenn-greenwald, edward-snowden, nsa, espionage, concentrated-power