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.
The Banality of Privacy
Spinning the NSA's Espionage of the Human Race
The collective responses to the dramatic revelations of NSA mass surveillance feel like the well-worn plot of a classic movie. The story reminds me of the government's admission a few years back that Iraq did not, after all, have weapons of mass destruction. By the time it was admitted, everybody had already figured out the emperor was naked. But there was something about the formal acknowledgement that gave us permission to finally wrestle with the reality we had already suspected overwhelmingly.
Those of us who make a habit of dissent have gotten used to this frustrating complacency. It demonstrates that we as a social body don't trust ourselves, that the complex of media, government, academia, and business -- otherwise known as the state -- that proports to lead us can be better described as creating and curating our reality. This insight renders many radicals outright misanthropic, but I tend to approach our apathy sympathetically, regarding our behavior as a kind of learned helplessness inculcated by decades of spiritually arresting mediation. When political expediency necessitates disclosure, we don't know what to do with it, much like paroled prisoners who don't know how to live on the outside.
So when the school assembly is over and the principal has made her announcements, thank God the pundits are there to round us up and lead us back to our homerooms, single file. Our passive consumption of pundits' reactions give us a false sense of agency, as if somehow the variety of spins from which to choose is itself empowering. After all, we don't have time in our busy lives to mentally deal with this, let alone exercise our inherent duty to apprehend it. Better to signal our relevancy by choosing our coping mechanism from a buffet of cynicism, jingoist indignation, reformist compromise, or handwringing resignation.
Like everybody else in their right mind, I'm interested in the new Top Secret America project from the Washington Post. There's definitely much about this ballooning, labyrinthine fourth branch of the government to discuss. The project promises to explore the lack of accountability arising from all the secrecy and compartmentalization, the confusion and duplication of effort resulting from the creation of so much analysis material, and the private contractors being used to soak up all that excess cash thrown at these agencies. In particular, the phenomenon of agencies going after the low-hanging intelligence fruit, instead of looking into new, unexplored threats seems to reinforce the truth that intelligence professionals are no different than any other government employee: doing the least work for the most pay.
As you read the Post's stories on this topic, remember that the organization has had a cozy relationship with the intelligence community for decades. While it's not unique among the press in that regard (look into Operation Mockingbird, the CIA's media infiltration program), the question must be asked: why publish this now? That's the real story in my opinion, because as far as I can tell the investigation by the Post isn't treading on any important ground others haven't covered already.
I'll leave you with this quote from a speech the Post's former owner, Katherine Graham, gave at the CIA in 1988.