Tag Archives: Glenn Greenwald

Journalistic civil war

David Carr has really hit the nail on the head with his latest:

The larger sense I get from the criticism directed at Mr. Assange and Mr. Greenwald is one of distaste — that they aren’t what we think of as real journalists. Instead, they represent an emerging Fifth Estate composed of leakers, activists and bloggers who threaten those of us in traditional media. They are, as one says, not like us.

“By no means was I treated as a hero when I first came forward. I was indicted and spent two years in court,” Mr. Ellsberg said in an interview. “But in those days, journalists were not turning on journalists. With Snowden in particular, you have a split between truly independent journalists and those who are tools — and I mean that in every sense of the term — of the government. Toobin and Grunwald are doing the work of the government to maintain relationships and access.”

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Whose “journalistic malfeasance?” Fact-checking Joshua Foust’s Guardian critique

Joshua Foust posted an article on Medium today, titled “A Catalogue of Journalistic Malfeasance.” In it, he castigated the work of The Guardian‘s Glenn Greenwald for allegedly misstating all sorts of facts in the rush to get Edward Snowden’s story to the public:

So what’s the solution? For one, stop assuming the first version of the “facts” is correct. So much of the initial round of NSA reporting has turned out to be false or misleading that it’s a wonder such misreporting hasn’t become its own scandal. The speed with which false information propagates in the public (and worse, in commentaries) is dismaying to those of us who’d prefer public debates be based in fact rather than fiction.

Yet so long as breaking news dominates the coverage, there will continue to be frenzied periods of rushed reporting and eventual retractions or clarifications. Until we as people change our media consumption habits, the news organizations that continue to rush poorly researched information into the public record will have no reason to change their ways.

But even a cursory perusal of Foust’s piece reveals the same tenuous grasp of basic facts for which he passionately condemns The Guardian and The Washington Post (among others). In order, starting from near the beginning of his article:

1) Foust writes:

For one, there is still no evidence about how many other phone companies have been compelled to hand over their records. On Twitter, Greenwald wrote, “The program we exposed is the collection of all American’s [sic] phone records.” That isn’t true — he exposed the collection of Verizon’s records. The only evidence that this is an ongoing, long-standing program involving other telecos is a statement by Senate Intelligence Committee chairwoman Diane Feinstein and various anonymous leaks to national security reporters.

Let’s get the obvious point out of the way: if the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee confirms the existence of an “ongoing, long-standing program involving other telcos,” then how can Foust write that “there is still no evidence about how many other phone companies have been compelled to hand over their records?” (Unless, of course, he means that there could be even more than those already uncovered.) Feinstein has made it painfully clear what she thinks of Snowden — “I don’t look at this as being a whistle-blower,” she said at one point, “I think it’s an act of treason” —  and so she has absolutely no incentive to lie about the existence of the programs he uncovered (certainly not, at least, in the direction of making him look more truthful).

Secondly, Foust’s link to Feinstein’s alleged statement goes, bizarrely, to Huffington Post article that makes no mention of other telecom companies at all. But based on its content, Foust seems to be referring to a Feinstein statement reported in a Politico article from the same morning, in which Feinstein not only did not state that similar operations were taking place at other phone companies, but specifically said she could not confirm that that was happening:

Feinstein said she could not answer whether other phone companies have had their records sifted through as Verizon has.

“I know that people are trying to get to us,” she said. “This is the reason why the FBI now has 10,000 people doing intelligence on counterterrorism. This is the reason for the national counterterrorism center that’s been set up in the time we’ve been active. its to ferret this out before it happens. “It’s called protecting America.”

The same incongruence holds true for the “various anonymous links to national security reporters.” The Wall Street Journal reported the following on June 7th:

The disclosure this week of an order by a secret U.S. court for Verizon Communications Inc.’s phone records set off the latest public discussion of the program. But people familiar with the NSA’s operations said the initiative also encompasses phone-call data from AT&T Inc. and Sprint Nextel Corp., records from Internet-service providers and purchase information from credit-card providers.

This, a prominently reported article by an internationally prominent newspaper, is also evidence. So it is decidedly unclear what Foust means when he writes, “There is still no evidence about how many other phone companies have been compelled to hand over their records.” That’s at least three in total, right there.

Finally, Foust claims that Greenwald only “exposed the collection of Verizon’s records,” not those of all American customers — as Greenwald had claimed in his Twitter feed. But Foust appears to be wrong on this count too (as is Greenwald). The secret court order published by The Guardian demands the following material from Verizon:

…all call detail records or “telephony metadata” created by Verizon for communications (i) between the United States and abroad; or (ii) wholly within the United States, including local telephone calls…Telephony metadata includes comprehensive communications routing information, including but not limited to session identifying information (e.g., originating and terminating telephone number, International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI) number, International Mobile station Equipment Identity (IMEI) number, etc.), trunk identifier, telephone calling card numbers, and time and duration of call.

Nowhere in the above order does it specify that this information be restricted to Verizon customers only. In other words, if an American Verizon customer calls — or receives a call from — someone abroad (or even locally) who is not a Verizon customer, this order appears to obtain at least the phone number of the non-Verizon customer and perhaps more. (My low level of telecom technical expertise is not sufficient to speculate about the IMSI and IMEI numbers.)

2) Foust continues:

The next leak Greenwald published, with veteran national security reporter Ewan MacAskill, made an even more eyepopping claim: “The National Security Agency has obtained direct access to the systems of Google, Facebook, Apple and other US internet giants.” That report also turned out to be largely exaggerated. Experienced tech journalists immediately seized on the description of the PRISM program (which accesses the data of internet companies) and poked it full of holes. Despite being described as “data-mining,” PRISM is really “nothing of the sort,” according to journalists who have covered the NSA in detail.

Foust is correct that the early descriptions of PRISM as a program of direct, real-time access to huge tech companies’ servers has since been walked back, in part. In retrospect, it’s become clear that The Guardian displayed an insufficient level of technical savvy — and perhaps even a spate of wishful thinking — in describing the program. Nevertheless, the above quote that Foust extracts from the article, written by Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill, leaves out a crucial qualifier that immediately follows the words he excerpted:

The National Security Agency has obtained direct access to the systems of Google, Facebook, Apple and other US internet giants, according to a top secret document obtained by the Guardian.

The NSA access is part of a previously undisclosed program called Prism, which allows officials to collect material including search history, the content of emails, file transfers and live chats, the document says.

“…according to a top secret document obtained by the Guardian.” And then, in the next paragraph, “the document says.” Now I’m not justifying Greenwald’s and MacAskill’s carelessness with words: the difference between direct access and, say, submitting individual requests for data is enormous and should be treated as such. But despite its obvious flaws, the article does make clear its reliance on the secret document — which itself, according to The Guardian, claimed “collection directly from the servers” of large American technology companies. It would, therefore, appear that at least some of the blame for the “exaggeration” rests with whatever NSA employee or contractor created the PowerPoint, not solely with The Guardian.

3) Foust writes, “IT work is not spying, even if it’s classified.” OK? Is there some new dictionary edict from on high about this, of which I’m not aware? “IT work” can refer to almost anything — and “anything” absolutely, positively includes spying. To be honest, I’m not confident I understood what Foust was trying to get across here, because reading the above sentence at face value makes no sense at all.

4) Contra Edward Snowden, Foust writes that “Robert Deitz, a former top lawyer at the NSA and CIA, told the L.A. Times that claim [that Snowden could 'access any CIA station in the world'] was a ‘complete and utter’ falsehood.”

To his credit, Foust admits the obvious reality that this is hardly proof of Snowden’s lying. (Consider the source, to put it lightly.) But Foust again errs when he quotes Snowden as saying he could “access any CIA station in the world.” That phrase has been repeated elsewhere as well. But Snowden never said it. Here is what he actually said:

I had access to, you know the full rosters of everyone working at the NSA, the entire intelligence community, and undercover assets all around the world, the locations of every station we have, what their missions are, and so forth.

It’s a very similar statement. But it’s not identical. Even more concerning than the misquoted phrase, however, is the fact that Snowden refers to “every station” immediately after referencing the NSA, not the CIA — as Foust incorrectly wrote. Yes, it is still likely that Snowden was implicitly referring to the CIA in his above statement about “the locations of every station we have,” but the quote Foust excerpts simply doesn’t exist.

5) Foust writes:

Snowden said he participated in a CIA operation to “recruit” a Swiss banker in Geneva through a manufactured drunk driving arrest. Swiss President Ueli Maurer over the weekend said that such a claim “does not seem to me that it… played out as it has been described by Snowden and by the media.”

But much like the quote above by Robert Deitz, Ueli Maurer has quite the incentive to downplay the incident. Switzerland would rather not get into a diplomatic tussle with the United States. Moreover, it would be embarrassing for a president to admit to the bumbling incompetence of one of his own countrymen in the face of the crudest spook tactics. (Getting a banker drunk and then encouraging him to drive? Not a good look for the banker, his president, or his country.)

6) Foust quotes NSA head Keith Alexander — of all people — as rebutting Snowden’s claims. Well, then…that settles it?

7) Foust writes:

The rush to be first out of the gate with explosive new details of anything — or, in the Guardian’s case, the rush to publish before Snowden could be located and arrested — created perverse incentives to publish without verification. Washington Post freelancer Barton Gellman even said that his attempts to verify some of Snowden’s claims led to Snowden pushing the same documents to the Guardian because they would publish faster.

Once again, the Gellman article to which Foust links says no such thing. Here is the actual excerpt to which Foust appears to be referring:

To effect his plan, Snowden asked for a guarantee that The Washington Post would publish — within 72 hours — the full text of a PowerPoint presentation describing PRISM, a top-secret surveillance program that gathered intelligence from Microsoft, Facebook, Google and other Silicon Valley giants. He also asked that The Post publish online a cryptographic key that he could use to prove to a foreign embassy that he was the document’s source.

I told him we would not make any guarantee about what we published or when. (The Post broke the story two weeks later, on Thursday. The Post sought the views of government officials about the potential harm to national security prior to publication and decided to reproduce only four of the 41 slides.)

Snowden replied succinctly, “I regret that we weren’t able to keep this project unilateral.” Shortly afterward he made contact with Glenn Greenwald of the British newspaper the Guardian.

And then further on down, Gellman refers to his “dispute [with Snowden] about publishing the PRISM document in full.” In other words, Snowden’s decision to go to The Guardian was apparently based on The Washington Post‘s unwillingness to accept certain conditions, not because The Guardian had sloppier fact-checking or looser editorial standards.

At the end, Foust laments the barrage of misleading and inaccurate news. He is right: the mainstream American press has had a rocky few months. (In reality, it’s been rocky for far longer than that.) Twitter and other real-time social networks have certainly contributed to the proliferation of these deceptions at ever-faster speeds, although they fact-check just as fast. I actually agree with the general thrust of Joshua Foust’s analysis of The Guardian‘s hasty reporting that appears to have cut corners in dangerous ways. But sometimes even the fact-checker needs a fact-checker.

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Just an observation

From the New York Times today:

The BBC and other British news organizations reported Tuesday that the police may be permitted to use rubber bullets for the first time as part of the government’s strengthened response to any resumption of the mayhem. David Lammy, Britain’s intellectual-property minister, also called for a suspension of Blackberry’s encrypted instant message service. Many rioters, exploiting that service, had been able to organize mobs and outmaneuver the police, who were ill-equipped to monitor it. [emphasis mine] “It is unfortunate, but for the very short term, London can’t have a night like the last,” Mr. Lammy said in a Twitter post.

This sounds awfully familiar. It is also, as Andrew Sullivan would likely dub it, Greenwald bait.

It goes without saying that most aspects of the London riots are entirely different than those that have been taking place all over the Middle East this year. Nevertheless, it is sometimes helpful to remind ourselves what exactly separates “us” from “them,” as a preemptive guard against a gradual erosion of civil liberties. We’ve learned that lesson the hard way in the United States since 9/11 — and perhaps more depressingly, many have yet to grasp it.

On Glenn Greenwald, Israel, and The Godfather III

Over the last several days, I’ve been commenting on the blog Sad Red Earth, run by A. Jay Adler. The post, guest-written by Rob H., that sparked the extensive comments was titled “Glenn Greenwald’s False Accusation Against The New York Times.” In it, Rob accused Glenn Greenwald, a political blogger on Salon.com, of falsely attributing anti-Muslim bias to the New York Times, which ran a headline immediately after the recent Oslo attacks stating, “Powerful Explosions Hit Oslo; Jihadis Claim Responsibility.”

Greenwald wrote that “for much of the day…the featured headline on The New York Times online front page strongly suggested that Muslims were responsible for the attacks on Oslo.” In reality, Rob countered, “the truth turned out to be that the headline he sharply criticized in two columns — over two days — was only online for about two hours, and NOT ‘much of the day.’ I confirmed this with a Senior Editor at The Times by simply sending him an email inquiring about the headline in question.”

First of all, assuming Rob is telling the truth (and I have no reason to believe otherwise), one should give credit where credit is due. Rob was right, and Greenwald was wrong. In fact, not only was he wrong, but his misinformation looks a bit suspicious: it’s difficult to mistake two hours for most of a day without some pretty severe preconceived biases.

The comments section of Rob’s post soon spun off into a million different directions, however, only some of which were related to the original subject. In general, the comments either supported or rebutted one of the following topics:

1) Glenn Greenwald “often makes mistakes and even admits it while declaring he’ll make many more.” He is thus irresponsible and unreliable as a writer/thinker, and is guilty of committing the same journalistic crimes as those he so often pillories.

2) Greenwald’s “worse [sic] trait is that, in Chomsky style, he truly sees the U.S. as nothing but a force of evil in the world, an [sic] also has this nasty little habit of advancing explicitly anti-Semitic arguments.”

3) As A. Jay put it, “Which is it – you want something ‘out of’ our relationship with Israel that you think we don’t get, or you morally can’t ‘stomach’ Israel? You can’t stomach Syria either, but at least you’re not paying for the upset, and that’s bottom line? And there are not other bases upon which to distinguish between then two and upon which to base our relations with them?”

4) The Godfather III. Don’t ask; I’ll explain later on in this post.

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The Oslo tragedy and media narratives

The facts of the Oslo bombing and shootings — already being called Norway’s September 11th — are still being discovered, and yet the mass media’s narrative, much like a preemptively written obituary of a public figure, was already neatly in place. Here are a few examples:

Kristian Harpviken, interview in Foreign Policy magazine:

“The only concrete supposition [as to the identity of the attackers] that would emerge in a Norwegian context would be al Qaeda.”

The Wall Street Journal:

“…In jihadist eyes [Norway] will forever remain guilty of being what it is: a liberal nation committed to freedom of speech and conscience, equality between the sexes, representative democracy and every other freedom that still defines the West. For being true to those ideals, Norwegians have now been made to pay a terrible price.” [Note: This quote appeared in the original version of the article, but the WSJ later deleted it along with other modifications, after it became apparent that a non-Muslim, non-al Qaeda-affiliated person was suspected of the crimes.]

Jennifer Rubin, The Washington Post:

“This is a sobering reminder for those who think it’s too expensive to wage a war against jihadists. I spoke to Gary Schmitt of the American Enterprise Institute, who has been critical of proposed cuts in defense and of President Obama’s Afghanistan withdrawal plan. ‘There has been a lot of talk over the past few months on how we’ve got al-Qaeda on the run and, compared with what it once was, it’s become a rump organization. But as the attack in Oslo reminds us, there are plenty of al-Qaeda allies still operating. No doubt cutting the head off a snake is important; the problem is, we’re dealing with global nest of snakes.’”

I could continue with additional quotes, but these and other, similar proclamations have already been covered and debunked by the likes of James Fallows at The Atlantic, Benjamin Doherty at Electronic Intifada, and especially Glenn Greenwald on Salon.com.

The point is that, not only is the media’s first instinct to jump to the Islamists-as-terrorists trope, but, as Greenwald helpfully exposes, sometimes the mistaken attribution to Islamic fundamentalists is the only prerequisite for labeling an act as “terrorism” in the first place. Thus, a horrifying act can only be terrorism if it’s committed by a Muslim; conversely, no matter how gruesome the act, it is not terrorism if it’s committed by someone other than a Muslim.

As it turns out, the story is already taking shape quite differently than initially reported. The New York Times’ lead article now states:

The Norwegian police on Saturday charged a man they identified as a right-wing fundamentalist Christian in connection with the bombing of a government building in central Oslo and a shooting attack on a nearby island that together killed at least 92 people.

As stunned Norwegians grappled with the deadliest attack in the country since World War II and a shocking case of homegrown terrorism, a portrait began to emerge of the suspect, Anders Behring Breivik, 32. He was described as a religious, gun-loving Norwegian obsessed with what he saw as the threat of multiculturalism and Muslim immigration to the cultural and patriotic values of his country.

“We are not sure whether he was alone or had help,” a police official, Roger Andresen, said at a televised news conference. “What we know is that he is right wing and a Christian fundamentalist.”

The enduring tragedy of the Oslo attacks is that the laughable performance of our mainstream media will go undetected and un-criticized by most, because it is far more convenient to stick to an accepted script than to question the prefabricated story-lines we’ve come to expect. The word “terrorism,” when used to such dubious and unproductive ends, has gained precisely the opposite of its original meaning: as my friend Sam described it, “This sort of language quickly becomes bloated beyond its meaning and has the tendency to pervert anything that precedes it or follows it. It is eager and anxious to be helpful but in doing so tries to excuse itself from being complicit with the historicity of the problems it is trying to rectify.”

By jumping to call anything and everything that is perpetrated by Islamists “terrorism” — even when, as in this case, the entire conjecture as to the identity of the participants was incorrect from the start — and refusing to use the same word to describe actions taken by other disaffected groups, we’ve stripped the word of all meaning. “Terrorism,” much like “Hitler” and “Nazi,” has undergone such a grotesque transformation in usage that it’s lost any true power it once had as a descriptor. Unfortunately, it seems very unlikely that anyone in a position of power is likely to notice or care.