Glenn Greenwald versus the Big Brother state

June 3, 2014

On the eve of Greenwald's speaking tour, Nicole Colson looks back at what the past year of revelations has taught us about the U.S. government--and the lapdog media.

"COURAGE IS contagious."

When journalist Glenn Greenwald spoke via Skype to the Socialism 2013 conference in Chicago last June, it was just three weeks after he had begun reporting on the leaks provided by former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden that revealed the massive scope of government surveillance.

Greenwald's point was that the actions of whistleblowers like Snowden--who has done more than any other person to expose government spying in the age of the "war on terror"--matter, not only because of what they reveal about those in power, but because the only way to defend our rights is to be informed, and to question the right of the government to engage in such surveillance.

In the year since Snowden's revelations about the vast, illegal surveillance programs carried out by the U.S. government, much of the mainstream media has chosen to act in the service of power, rather than speak truth to it.

A media establishment that self-righteously claims legitimacy as a watchdog on the powers that be has clearly been derelict in its duty--if it was ever serious about that duty to begin with.

From left to right: Edward Snowden, David Miranda, Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras
From left to right: Edward Snowden, David Miranda, Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras

Snowden's act of bravery in deciding to reveal the extent of government surveillance and Greenwald's actions as a journalist--working with filmmaker Laura Poitras and others--in informing the public about how far our civil liberties have been eroded stand as a benchmark of the basic democratic principle that the public has the right to know what the government is doing while claiming to act in its name.

The attacks on them for taking their stands have been fierce.

Since the NSA revelations began last year, Snowden's motives and mental health have been questioned, and he has been called everything from a "narcissist" to a "coward" to a "traitor"--not only by U.S. politicians of both mainstream parties, leading figures of the mainstream media as well. He was forced to flee the U.S. and presently lives in Russia, one of the only places in the world that offered him asylum. He has been prevented from travelling anywhere else in the world under threat of arrest.

Most recently, Secretary of State John Kerry--sounding like a macho Neanderthal--ordered Snowden to "man up and come back to the United States"--ignoring the fact that were he to come back, Snowden would be immediately arrested and charged with treason.

Greenwald, meanwhile, has been attacked by political leaders and sneered at by mainstream media personalities for the simple act of doing his job as a journalist--something relatively few of them seem to want to do themselves.

He has also been called a narcissist and a glory-seeker for daring to reveal the extent of government spying to the public without receiving permission from those in power first--and for failing to accept "because we said so" as a satisfactory justification for the erosion of our civil liberties.

Even Greenwald's partner, David Miranda, has been targeted--he was briefly detained by the British government last year for questioning that was justified under an anti-terrorism law.

But it's only thanks to the revelations leaked by Snowden and published by Greenwald that we have insight into the vast infringement on our civil liberties perpetrated by the Obama administration.

NOW, IN a six-city tour beginning June 17 in Seattle and ending June 26 in Chicago, Greenwald will bring the message that "courage is contagious" to U.S. audiences once again.

It's a message that needs to be stated again--as the establishment media continues to roll over for a presidential administration that once promised to be the "most transparent in history."

What do we know now that we wouldn't have otherwise, thanks to Snowden and the journalists who have chosen to investigate his leaks?

The NSA has technology capable of compiling information on 1 billion cell phone calls every single day. Phone companies including Verizon and AT&T have been required by courts to hand over to the NSA bulk "metadata" that includes originating and terminating phone numbers, mobile subscriber identity numbers, calling card numbers, and the time and duration of calls.

The NSA has direct access, via a program called PRISM, to the servers of major U.S. tech and telecommunications companies, including Apple, Microsoft and Google--and it engages in massive data harvesting from private citizens, including the indiscriminate collection of hundreds of millions of e-mail records every single day from people in the U.S. and abroad.

This includes the harvesting of e-mail and instant messaging contact lists; information about where we send e-mails to, and where we open them from; and who is e-mailing us, and who we are e-mailing.

The scale of the NSA spying operation is so broad that in a one-month period from December 2012 to January 2013, the agency retrieved more than 70 million digital communications inside France, and more than 60 million phone calls of Spanish citizens.

The NSA hacked civilian computer networks in Hong Kong and mainland China, including those at Tsinghua University in Beijing and the Chinese University of Hong Kong, as well as Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei.

The NSA has an electronic spying program, SOMALGET, which is capable of capturing and "storing an entire nation's phone traffic for 30 days," and which is currently in use in the Bahamas and at least one other country. The NSA worked with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency to secure a "backdoor" to the Bahamian cell phone network without the knowledge or consent of the country's government.

SOMALGET is part of a larger program, MYSTIC, that captures metadata and allows the U.S. government to "rewind and review" calls. MYSTIC is currently used in the Bahamas, Mexico, Kenya, the Philippines and at least one other country (later identified by WikiLeaks as Afghanistan).

The NSA routinely spied on foreign officials, including at the 2009 G20 summit. German Chancellor Angel Merkel, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon were among those targeted. The U.S. also bugged the South African foreign ministry and planned to spy on envoys to the 2009 Commonwealth Summit.

The U.S. government engaged in possible corporate espionage by monitoring communications of and relating to foreign corporations, including the Brazilian oil company Petrobras and several German companies.

The NSA uses a tactic called "method interdiction" to intercept packages carrying computer, telecommunications and other electronic equipment en route to a targeted recipient--and install malware or backdoor-enabling hardware on the equipment before it is delivered.

A section of Britain's intelligence agency has presented documents to the NSA detailing spy tactics and dirty tricks to be used against activist political organizations, including using denial of service attacks, "honey traps"--luring people into compromising situations involving sex--and destructive computer viruses.

This, of course, is only a partial list of the spying and dirty tricks that we know the U.S. government has engaged in. (A full compilation of the major revelations relating to the documents leaked by Edward Snowden in the past year can be found at Al Jazeera America.)

WHEN GREENWALD spoke at Socialism 2013, he told the audience: "If you are pleasing the people in power with the things you are disclosing, you may be very good at your job, but your job is not journalism."

In the year since, many media personalities currently impersonating journalists have proven Greenwald's point for him.

Many of the best-paid and most powerful people in the media echoed the U.S. government line on the NSA revelations, not only denouncing Edward Snowden's leaks as worthy of prosecution, but attacking Greenwald and other journalists for reporting on such leaks.

Typical was the line of questioning of NBC Meet the Press host David Gregory, who last June asked Greenwald, "To the extent that you have aided and abetted Snowden, even in his current movements, why shouldn't you, Mr. Greenwald, be charged with a crime?"

As Greenwald noted in response, that someone claiming the mantle of journalism could even ask such a question is proof-positive of the bankruptcy of much of the U.S. press.

Reporting on the Snowden leaks isn't some journalism school exercise in ethics. It is central to the supposed role of a free press in a democracy.

Snowden's information has revealed probably the biggest infringement on civil liberties in the modern era of the U.S. Instead of demanding answers themselves, the mainstream media have largely accepted at face value the Obama administration's claims--recycled from its Bush administration predecessors--that the U.S. government must operate under a "new normal" during the endless "war on terror." The message is that there are some things the public shouldn't have a right to know--and the government's word on that ought to suffice.

The list of such establishment media personalities who have sided with secrecy and surveillance is a long one. There's Face the Nation host Bob Schieffer, who smeared Edward Snowden last year, accusing him of "putting the nation's security at risk and running away." Or Wall Street Journal columnist Gordon Crovitz, who last year asked for "more surveillance please" as he attacked Snowden and whistleblower Chelsea Manning as living in a "fantasy world."

NOR IS the abuse confined to conservative commentators. In one of the latest slanders, Vanity Fair columnist Michael Kinsley attacked Greenwald in the liberal paper of record, the New York Times, calling him "a self-righteous sourpuss." Kinsley suggested that Greenwald's prosecution might be warranted, and that journalists like him shouldn't have the right to disclose secrets without the approval of the U.S. government. (Kinsley's review was so out of bounds, in fact, that Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan later declared, "A Times review ought to be a fair, accurate and well-argued consideration of the merits of a book. Mr. Kinsley's piece didn't meet that bar.")

So who should decide what the public gets to know? Kinsley's answer is a stunner: "It seems clear, at least to me, that the private companies that own newspapers, and their employees, should not have the final say over the release of government secrets, and a free pass to make them public with no legal consequences. In a democracy (which, pace Greenwald, we still are), that decision must ultimately be made by the government.

"No doubt the government will usually be overprotective of its secrets, and so the process of decision-making--whatever it turns out to be--should openly tilt in favor of publication with minimal delay. But ultimately you can't square this circle. Someone gets to decide, and that someone cannot be Glenn Greenwald."

According to Kinsley, that "someone" should be the government, though he's vague about exactly who--an elected official? a legislator? part of the Homeland Security bureaucracy?--gets to represent the government in this scenario.

If Kinsley got his way, not only would we never know about egregious government spying practices today--since the Obama administration certainly wouldn't rush to inform us about them on its own--but we would never have known in the past about the Pentagon Papers, the Watergate break-in or any of the other myriad instances of government wrongdoing that have outraged anyone who cares about democratic rights.

All that is beside the point for Kinsley, who thinks only the government should have the final say about what's a legitimate secret and what's not.

There were plenty of media personalities who cheered Kinsley on, too--including David Gregory and the Washington Post's Jonathan Chait.

Greenwald had this to say in response: "So let's recap: The New York Times chose someone to review my book about the Snowden leaks who has a record of suggesting that journalists may be committing crimes when publishing information against the government's wishes. That journalist then proceeded to strongly suggest that my prosecution could be warranted. Other prominent journalists--including the one who hosts Meet the Press--then heralded that review without noting the slightest objection to Kinsley's argument.

"Do I need to continue to participate in the debate over whether many U.S. journalists are pitifully obeisant to the U.S. government? Did they not just resolve that debate for me?

"What better evidence can that argument find than multiple influential American journalists standing up and cheering while a fellow journalist is given space in the New York Times to argue that those who publish information against the government's wishes are not only acting immorally, but criminally?"

OTHERS IN the media claim to agree with Greenwald's basic arguments, but say that he uses too harsh a tone, alienating those who otherwise might be opponents of the U.S. surveillance state.

Liberal MSNBC personality Chris Hayes took this line when he interviewed Greenwald recently, oddly stating, "There are lots of people who watch this show who hate you, frankly...You have a way of making people very angry at you, and you have a way--I think sometimes, if you don't mind my saying--of alienating possible allies."

What Hayes is really saying is that Greenwald, by taking the Obama administration to task for its massive expansion and defense of the U.S. surveillance state, is pushing away the only possibility for reform.

"People feel like they have to choose between Barack Obama and Glenn Greenwald," Hayes added. "And there are millions of people in this country who are like, 'If that is the choice, I choose Barack Obama. I like Barack Obama. Like, Barack Obama got a lot of people Medicaid.'"

Hayes was at least honest that his primary priority is cheering on Obama and the Democrats, and attacking whoever their Republican opponents happen to be.

But what he ignores is that to speak about the U.S. surveillance state without mentioning the Obama administration and the Democrats would be to ignore the single biggest driving force in the expansion of government spying and the attacks on our civil liberties.

NSA surveillance is not something the Democrats simply inherited from the Bush administration against their will when Obama arrived in the White House in 2009. The Democrats have embraced and championed the spying state. Any defense of our right to privacy must make the case that the Obama administration is part of the problem, not the solution to government surveillance.

As Greenwald explained to Hayes: "The reason why I was able to build a platform in the years of George Bush was because progressives and Democrats and liberals, the very people you're talking about, were cheering for everything I was doing and didn't find problems with the 'tone'...

"I think there's no shortage of...people who use sort of muted and polite terminology and tone in order to make certain arguments. They're out there. I think there's a lot of those people.

"What we need is people who are making, particularly those with influence, uncomfortable...I'd much rather have positive results and be hated by a good number of people than the other way around--to be loved by everybody and fail."

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