In the wake of the NSA affair, a couple of interesting things happened this week, two of which caught my particular attention:
1.) NSA officials admitted to a congressional panel that they “can look at data not only from a suspected terrorist, but from everyone that suspect communicated with, and then from everyone those people communicated with, and then from everyone all of those people communicated with…” and so on.
2.) Far from scrambling collectively to report no. 1.) some of the US media once again preferred to indulge in what seems to be becoming the new favourite American pastime – Snowden bashing. Instead of finally turning their attention to the substance of his revelations, some journalists still prefer to reproduce (and apparently without double checking too) absolutely laughable accusations against Snowden, the latest of which is that he has claimed to be impervious to torture. Both the actual misinterpretation of what Snowden wrote in an exchange of emails with former GOP Senator Gordon Humphrey and the apparently unreflected multiplication of this claim by some of the media upset me.
The interpretation of what Mr Snowden wrote as a claim to be impervious to torture was made by Geoffrey Ingersoll in the Business Insider and by Joshua Foust on his website. Read my response the gentlemen below.
P.S.: I am aware of the need to discuss the substance of Mr Snowden’s revelations rather than – or I would say in addition to – what is happening to Mr Snowden himself and I am shortly going to post something on this on here. I would have done so earlier but irritating pieces of “journalism” like Melissa Harris-Perry’s open letter to Snowden or the comments made by Messrs Foust and Ingersoll just keep getting in the way 😛
That said, the following might also be noteworthy:
1.) A court order that permits the NSA’s bulk collection of phone records on millions of Verizon customers expires today (Friday, 19th July) at 5 pm. So far, the Obama administration has not commented on whether or not it will renew that order.
2.) Tanya Lokshima’s (from Human Rights Watch) account of the meeting with Edward Snowden a week ago. Note how what she writes about the US embassy contacting her is contrary to what the US has said on the subject. While they acknowledge that a US official did contact her, they deny that “any official” asked her to relay a message to Snowden…
3.) a parliamentary committee in the UK found that GCHQ did not use PRISM illegally – this has been marked a “whitewash” by human rights groups and other critics.
Dear Mr Ingersoll, Dear Mr Foust
I hope my letter finds you well. I am writing to you because I am hoping that you can help me.
Mr. Ingersoll, I came across your comment in the Business Insider about “torture-proof” Edward Snowden. Inevitably, this led me to Mr Foust’s piece on the same subject and I have a rather pressing question for you both: are you serious? You see, I was certain that your comments were masterpieces of irony and acidic satire, aimed at those of our peers who will not stop speculating about Edward Snowden’s character and start discussing what’s truly relevant in this whole shambolic affair. But sadly, those same peers do not seem to have got the satire or the irony at all. They are reproducing what you have written as if you really mean it, and now I am not so sure if perhaps I got it wrong.
Surely, you cannot be serious?
You maintain that in his letter to Gordon Humphrey, Mr Snowden “declares himself impervious to torture”. You further suggest that “he claims that his encryption cannot be hacked”. Now, as you say, Mr Ingersoll, claiming to be impervious to torture would indeed be a “pretty strange” thing to do.
Mr Foust, kindly allow me to quote from your blog, where you write that the idea of “the nation’s secrets in the hands of an IT worker and an angry expatriate” does not make you “brim[…] with comfort”. Your apparent belittling of Mr Snowden as a mere “IT worker” (albeit a toture-proof one) and “angry expatriate” (as opposed to fugitive hunted by government), and Mr Ingersoll’s apparent derision at a “a guy who allegedly fled Hong Kong for fear of losing internet who’s now growing “tired” of living in a Moscow airport’s hotel” are amongst my favourite examples of irony. And the way you, Mr Ingersoll, manage to introduce the sex-and-drugs-factor into the discussion one paragraph further down is just genius!
Sadly, other journalists do not at all seem to have picked up on how wonderfully tongue-in-cheek you are being, and the idea of a torture-proof, disgruntled IT worker, who apparently has the “nation’s secrets” at the touch of his fingertips, and is “selectively spilling them” after putting himself under the risk of torture, is giving them the heebie-jeebies. I can understand why it would; if Mr Snowden was really arrogant or naïve enough to believe himself entirely impervious to torture or other forms of coercion that would be preposterous, and the idea of such an individual being in possession of potentially damaging information would indeed seem a little bit frightening. But I think I understand you correctly, dear Sirs. I am sure that you are fully aware that that’s not what Edward Snowden actually wrote.
If, however, you are being serious (and I apologize most humbly to you both for even suggesting that you might be inferring something this silly from what Mr Snowden wrote), then I humbly suggest that you re-read the exchange between Mr Snowden and Mr Humphrey. Because, with all due respect, Mr Foust, the case you are making about Edward Snowden being either naïve or a liar rests on the pretty shaky foundation of an illogical inference and a couple of omissions. Worryingly, some journalists have not noticed this. What’s worse, they seem to have taken your comments at face value and reproduced them without double-checking their validity.
You both quote the closing statement of Mr Snowden’s letter in which he says that “no intelligence service – not even our own – has the capacity to compromise the secrets I continue to protect. […] I cannot be coerced into revealing that information, even under torture.”
Both of you read this as Mr Snowden claiming immunity to torture. Or, to be more precise, you, Mr Ingersoll, ask the question if “everyone is to understand […] that methods of torture that make waterboarding look like a walk in the park […] are all in a day’s work for Snowden”. Mr Foust, you dismiss this as downright laughable. Which I admit it would be, if that was what was being said.
However, the answer to your question, Mr Ingersoll, is no. Not everyone is to understand it that way. Not everyone does, either. I, for one, fail to see where it is being said that Mr Snowden believes himself to be impervious to torture. Have you omitted the part of the sentence that reads: “…even under torture – to which, by the way, I am impervious”? Has this been taken out of the Guardian transcript as well? Now, that would be strange.
So supposing that the statement ends where it does, allow me to propose a different way of understanding this, namely that Mr Snowden, for whatever reason, could not reveal these secrets even (if he broke) under torture.
Now, I can imagine the two of you might raise two accusations against me. Firstly, that I am about as “gob-smackingly naïve” as Mr Foust suspects Mr Snowden to be, and therefore do not know what I am talking about. Secondly, that what I am proposing here is an interpretation and therefore just as valid as your own arguments.
Yet, Mr Foust, you in particular seem to be constructing your case around a rather strange piece of logic. Correct me if I’m wrong but I understand that your argument goes something like this:
“I cannot be coerced into revealing that information, even under torture,” says Edward Snowden, ergo what he is implying must be: “because I am impervious to it.”
Now, to me this seems awfully non-sequitur. How exactly does the claim that Edward Snowden is impervious to torture follow logically from the one that he cannot be coerced into revealing the information he has obtained? Yes, he says he cannot be coerced either by the US or any other government. You also take issue with what he says a bit earlier on about teaching “people at DIA how to keep such information from being compromised”. But no, it doesn’t follow that he must be claiming that, one, he is impervious to torture or that, two, “his counter-cyber-intelligence capability is greater than that of the U.S. government, Chinese government, and Russian government … combined.”
Therefore, if that is really what you mean, then, Mr Foust, like you, I am deeply upset. Because rather than to discuss the substance of what Mr Snowden has revealed or what the US government’s reaction to these revelations has been, you seem to prefer to analyze Mr Snowden’s utterances in a derisive and patronizing manner, based on a questionable and badly inferred argument. Why not instead discuss what has been revealed and what that implies for people’s right to privacy or free speech? After everything that has just come to light, one of the things I find most upsetting is that you, Mr Foust, a journalist and much-quoted expert, seem convinced that the “harm judgment of a reporter” cannot be trusted “over a government official trained to assess it”.
Are we to understand, then, that we should trust the government to tell us the truth because journalists cannot be expected to make an informed judgement about what is relevant enough to the general public that the publication of it justifies a certain risk? Are you saying that journalists like yourself are in no way able to assess that risk? Do you so severely lack confidence in the good judgement of your peers? (To be fair, in light of the fact that some journalists seem to be reproducing questionable opinions without double-checking their sources, my own confidence shakes a little). If that is the case and the media – and investigative journalists in particular – cannot be expected to possess the judgement necessary to identify that which affects all of us and should be discussed by all of us, and to then make it public, then what are they for?
Unlike you, Edward Snowden seems to have some confidence in the judgement of the journalists he entrusted with his information. As you may or may not have heard, he did so on the condition that any documents be thoroughly vetted before they are made public. In contrast to what you, Mr Foust, write about Snowden’s “claims [that] he’s not provided damaging information”, both Mr Snowden and Mr Greenwald have acknowledged the fact that he did provide such information but that they do not intend to reveal it. I fail to see, therefore, where precisely Mr Snowden is “lying about the nature of the data he stole”.
Interestingly, Mr Snowden also seems to have great confidence in our – the public’s – good judgement. His confidence in the ability of an educated people to deal appropriately with information that effects all of us is such that he has chosen to make it public, despite the cost to himself. I am guessing that this may be another reason why you, Mr Foust, accuse Mr Snowden of being “dangerously naïve”. How disconcerting though that you seem to have so little confidence not only in the judgement of your colleagues, but also in the judgement of the rest of us.
You go on to concede that “everyone can debate [how far to trust the harm assessment of a journalist] if they want”. Yet, you seem to think that there is little point because no discussion “will never change the classification rules in place: no government will ever willingly outsource its declassification authority to a journalist. It’s just that simple.”
But, you see, here’s the thing: it isn’t that simple, really. The point is not for the government to outsource its declassification authority to anyone. That statement is meaningless; of course the government will not “willingly” do that. We are all witnessing right now to which lengths the government is willing to go to protect its secrets.
The point is that some information should not be classified in the first place. Some members of Congress agree with me on this. Says Senator Jeff Merkley: “If the administration feels [that its Verizon] program [for the dragnet collection of telephone metadata] is vital to our national security, it should declassify the secret court interpretations that justify broad data collection so Congress and the American public can debate it in the light of day.” I think Mr Snowden would agree with that. So, I hope, would many members of the public. Should we not have a say in how far (if at all) we are willing to sacrifice our right to privacy in favour of national security?
If that’s not a good enough argument, then how about the one that the kind of secrecy exercised by the US government and the FISA court presents us with another set of problems entirely. For example, should someone become the subject of unlawful practices by the government or its agencies, it would be pretty difficult for those people to defend themselves. I am sure you have heard of Clapper vs. Amnesty International. That case made it clear just how problematic it is to determine legal standing when any “challenge to the application [of authority] gets into classified information pretty quickly”. Indeed, how are we to know whether offenses are being committed or not and whether there is legal standing or not, if we do not have access to the information we need to make an informed judgement about that? What are we to do when things become “too secret to allow courts to rule on” and “nobody can prove that they’ve been subjected to [an unlawful act], and therefore nobody has standing to contest the constitutionality of it” precisely because everything is kept so secret? Sounds awfully like a get-people-into-jail-free card for the government, doesn’t it?
It has been said that openness is the weapon of democracy. After what we have seen recently, this rings true. But you see, gentlemen, here is what really worries me: rather than to rush to discuss the information that Edward Snowden has revealed, rather than to argue about what is now out in the open, rather than to take the chance of voicing our disagreement, we subject his character to scrutiny. We speculate about Mr Snowden’s motives, if he really has a “dead man’s switch” and how willing he is to flick it. More than that, you, Mr Foust, automatically interpret what he and Glenn Greenwald have said on the subject as it being only a matter of time or circumstance until Mr Snowden does flick the switch because he “actually has every intention of leaking catastrophically damaging information under the right circumstances”. Again, this is not what he said and moreover, the circumstances under which these documents would be revealed cannot possibly be called “right” because this would be the kind of circumstance under which something actually would have happened to Mr Snowden. And this is not as bizarre a claim as you seem to believe it is, neither is it true that the “only party casually discussing Edward Snowden’s torture and execution is […] Edward Snowden”.
Marjorie Cohn, professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law, argues that “Since Bradley Manning […] was tortured by being held in solitary confinement for nine months, [it could be] conclude[d] [that] Edward Snowden might be subjected to the same fate” – a concern that many people around the world have picked up on, even if their governments and government-friendly media haven’t, or won’t admit they have. Stranger things have happened – I am sure you are familiar with the case of Barret Brown.
As journalists, can you really confidently say that there is no danger to Mr Snowden or other people trying to shine some light on potentially unlawful actions committed – and I hate to employ a worn-out metaphor but how else to put it? – behind a veil of secrecy?
Yes, like you, Mr Foust, I am upset. Not only by the fact that some journalists still seem to prefer discussions of Mr Snowden’s character to discussions of the substance of his revelations (and this at a time when NSA officials have admitted to a congressional panel that they “can look at data not only from a suspected terrorist, but from everyone that suspect communicated with, and then from everyone those people communicated with, and then from everyone all of those people communicated with…”)
I am even more upset by the “dangerous naivety” of anyone who believes that a government that “has gone after whistleblowers in an unprecedented manner, filing charges against eight people under the Espionage Act, more than twice all prior presidents combined” is really going respect the fundamental human rights of a man whom it denounces as a spy and traitor. Knowing this, can you really claim that Mr Snowden is in no particular danger, and that therefore his asylum request to Russia points to his having questionable motives rather than him reacting to the sabotage of his right to seek asylum?
And here is another upsetting thing; the self-righteousness displayed by the Obama administration over the past weeks is very deeply worrying. I think rather than to accuse Edward Snowden of being unable to “distinguish between various roles he thinks are essential to a democratic society”, things might be getting to the point where we need to be asking the question of how democratic the societies we live in really are. Now, excuse me if I’m not brimming with comfort at the thought of what that discussion might make us realize.