NSA news of the week: Snowden speaks while British PM calls for investigation of the Guardian

This is the week in which Edward Snowden emerged from hiding.

In the wake of his being awarded the Sam Adams Award for Integrity in Intelligence by a delegation of whistleblowers who visited him at an undisclosed location in Russia, a video emerged of Mr Snowden speaking at the awards reception, saying that NSA spying does not make the world a safer place.

More than that, in an interview conducted by the New York Times via encrypted email, Mr Snowden addressed several accusations that have been repeatedly levelled against him over the past four months.

Meanwhile, especially in the UK, questions continue to be asked about the ability of the media to make judgements about what is in the public interest, and both Mr Snowden and the media institutions that have published stories about mass surveillance continue to be under attack.


Are Mr Snowden’s claims incredible or preposterous? Is investigative journalism harming national security?

Or are governments, particularly in the UK, in fact trying to undermine the public oversight afforded by whistleblowers and the Fourth Estate – the free press?

Let’s take a look at who has said what this week and ask ourselves what it might mean.


Edward Snowden: “There’s a zero percent chance the Russians or Chinese have received any documents.”

So a zero-percent chance that the documents Mr Snowden took from the NSA have been seen by anyone except Mr Snowden and the journalists he gave them to – except for those published of course.

I can just about imagine the sort of comment this is going to be met with from government friendly media and bloggers. When Mr Snowden made similar reassurances in June, Joshua Foust, for one, called him “dangerously naïve or a liar.”

Is he?

Let’s see. There is still no evidence that either the Russians or the Chinese have been able to obtain any of the Snowden material.

Now, you could argue that if they did, they’d hardly tell us.

If looked from a different vantage point, however, taking into consideration the care Mr Snowden has taken to safeguard the information, perhaps his claims start to be more believable.

In the New York Times interview, Mr Snowden stated that he had not taken any classified material to Russia with him as, this “wouldn’t serve the public interest”.

This is something you can believe or not. Snowden’s adversaries critics will quite possibly tell you (gleefully so) that it might have been very much in his own (financial) interest to sell the information to the Russians.

But if Snowden was a Russian spy, I don’t see why we wouldn’t know this by now. Considering how happily Russia has been taking the opportunity of sticking two fingers up to the US, I’d suggest they would have identified Snowden as a Russian spy once he was safely on Russian soil, just to add insult to injury.

(Similarly, if he had just been in it for the money, why bother and give any material to the media at all, let alone expose himself as its source? Then again, perhaps he’s just an attention seeker. Yes, I am being sarcastic.)

Jesselyn Radack, one of the group that visited Mr Snowden in Russia writes that Mr Snowden “darkly jok[es] that if he were a spy, Russia treats its spies much better than leaving them trapped in the Sheremetyevo transit zone for over a month.”

Ms Radack is convinced after meeting him that “Edward Snowden is not being controlled by the Russians, or anyone for that matter. He is fiercely independent and makes his own decisions.”

I do suggest you read Ms Radack’s article: her comments on why Mr Snowden is an “asylee” not a “fugitive” who has “the right to be left alone, not hunted like an animal” are excellent and thought-provoking.

Also, she lists a number of quite plausible reasons why Mr Snowden isn’t a Russian spy which I am going to quote in full by way of a summary:

“[H]e didn’t destroy his life to become a Russian asset.

“[H]e’s in Russia only because of the United States, which revoked his passport while he was en route to Latin America.

“WikiLeaks journalist Sarah Harrison has been by his side the whole time, in part to bear witness to the fact that he is not engaged in spying activity.

“[I]t is obvious that he chose to give information about NSA’s secret dragnet surveillance to the US people, not foreign adversaries.

“[A]nd perhaps most significantly considering the contrary narrative promulgated in the United States, he has not had access to the information he revealed since he left Hong Kong.”

While these reasons were given by Mr Snowden himself and I am sure someone will come up with some way of contradicting them all, I don’t think I have to point out that I do not – for a moment – believe that Mr Snowden is a Russian spy.

Nor do I believe that he has defected to China.

In fact, speaking of the Chinese; in the NY Times interview, Mr Snowden also said that he was confident that Chinese intelligence agencies had not been able to get any of his material because “he was so familiar with Chinese spying operations, having himself targeted China when he was employed by the NSA, that he knew how to keep the trove secure from them.”

Can we believe him?

Well. I am by now means a computer whizz kid but even I understand that hackers and security specialists have multiple ways of safeguarding themselves and information they do not want to become known by others.

The more I have read about this in the past couple of months, the more convinced I have become that it is perfectly possible to safeguard information like that (the British government, by way of one example, is still struggling to get the access codes to David Miranda’s equipment).

Interestingly, Mr Snowden suspects that the NSA knows he did not share his material with the Russians or the Chinese because if they did, they would have reacted differently – namely by giving concrete examples of damage done to national security: 

“N.S.A. would have set the table on fire from slamming it so many times in denouncing the damage it had caused. Yet N.S.A. has not offered a single example of damage from the leaks.”


“The system does not work.”

Still, assuming that Edward Snowden is neither a Russian spy nor a defector to China, apparently leaves the question of why he didn’t voice his complaints in accordance with the NSA’s system rather than to walk out on them with several computers full of classified material.

Says Mr Snowden that the option of “tak[ing] up an official complaint within the NSA, rather than travelling to Hong Kong to share his concerns about the agency’s data dragnet with the Guardian and other news organisations” is implausible because “you have to report wrongdoing to those most responsible for it.”

As a result, Mr Snowden believes that “[i]f he had tried to sound the alarm internally, he would have “been discredited and ruined” and the substance of his warnings “would have been buried forever””.

I have commented previously on why I believe Mr Snowden’s concerns are valid, the best example of exactly something like this happening being Thomas Drake who leaked information about the NSA’s dysfunctional project Trailblazer in 2006 (after unsuccessfully trying to make internal complaints) and was prosecuted under the Espionage Act.

Drake himself was in Moscow last week to honour Snowden with the Sam Adams award.

Moreover, given the treatment of other whistleblowers under the current US administration, the response to Mr Snowden himself, and the fact that “workers such as Snowden are not protected by [an] executive order,” intended to protect “whistleblowers uncovering corruption and inefficiency,” it seems that Mr Snowden has every reason to be concerned about his welfare, his chances of a fair trial if he returns to the US, let alone his freedom.


Handing documents to journalists

Another one of Mr Snowden’s decisions that has come under fire is the decision to “hand over all the digital material to the journalists he had met in Hong Kong,” especially because “[h]e added that he did not control what the journalists who had the documents wrote about.”

Now, it seems that a lot of people – some journalists included – do not believe journalists capable of making sound judgements on which disclosures are in the public interest and which are damaging to national security.

Again: there is no evidence that any of these disclosures have harmed national security. It seems that we will have to keep repeating that ad nauseam because the national security claim is also being resurrected ad infinitum.

Two of the most recent examples include British Prime Minister David Cameron saying that “[t]he plain fact is that what has happened has damaged national security and in many ways the Guardian themselves admitted that when they agreed, when asked politely by my national security adviser and cabinet secretary to destroy the files they had, they went ahead and destroyed those files. So they know that what they’re dealing with is dangerous for national security.”

This, frankly, is nonsense. For one thing, the British government didn’t ask the Guardian politely, they threatened legal action.

For another, the Guardian destroyed the files rather than hand them back. Now, I suppose it should come as no surprise that Mr Cameron would make this out as a success on his administration’s part.

A second example for someone beating the national security drum (quite loudly) is former UK defence secretary Liam Fox who asks the question of “whether it was double standards to prosecute newspapers that hacked the phones of celebrities, but not those papers that released information that endangered national security.”

It should almost go without saying that the answer to that is no. Mr Fox’s equation of responsible investigative reporting on borderline illegal NSA spying with the hacking of celebrity phones is simply outrageous.

The revelation of mass surveillance is in the public interest, private celebrity phone conversations or access to the voicemail of an abducted teenager are not.

Laws were broken in the phone hacking scandal. As far as we know, no laws were broken reporting on mass surveillance.

Actually, a friend of mine made a very astute observation when he said that Mr Fox’s comment was absurd and that phone hacking is comparable to surveillance, not the reporting of it.


Threat to national security? Take it with a pinch of salt.

And I am absolutely going to say it again. There is no evidence as yet that the Snowden disclosures have damaged national security.

To the contrary, I suggest you read the excellent article in the Guardian by Ian Cobain and Richard Norton-Taylor (of Tricycle Theatre verbatim theatre fame no less) on why it may not be a good idea to take such claims at face value.

Or, for more concrete evidence, read Yochai Benkler’s op-ed on why NSA dragnet surveillance should be ended precisely because there is no evidence that it is necessary for national security.

Rather, Benkler  points out in another op-ed that “all publicly available evidence presented to Congress, the judiciary, or independent executive branch review suggests that the effect of bulk collection has been marginal.”

Mind you, the claim of a threat to national security was already around when the New York Times published the Pentagon papers in the 1970s and it has been repeated whenever journalists made embarrassing revelations about the government.

Yet it is the responsibility of the media “to keep [people] informed and educated about whatever their government is doing on their behalf – and first and foremost on security and intelligence organisations, which by their nature infringe on civil liberties”.

This is a quote by the way from Aluf Been, editor-in-chief of Haaretz who, along with multiple other senior editors from around the world, rallied to the Guardian’s defence last week, following the allegations made by the Times, the Daily Mail and the Telegraph.


Distressing developments: investigating the Guardian

It is all the more distressing therefore that the Guardian is now set to be investigated by a “select committee” over claims that the paper’s revelations have damaged national security.

It is distressing that the UK government, rather than to make inquiries into their own shambolic spying programmes, is heaping blame on investigative journalists for doing their jobs.


Governing in the dark

And here is why this is so distressing.

“The secret continuance of these programs represents a far greater danger than their disclosures. So long as there’s broad support amongst a people, it can be argued there’s a level of legitimacy even to the most invasive and morally wrong program, as it was an informed and willing decision. However, programs that are implemented in secret, out of public oversight, lack that legitimacy, and that’s a problem.”

This, again, is Edward Snowden, speaking to the New York Times and we and governments around the world would do well to give his words some thought.

It is true that one of the greatest problems with these programmes is that they have been implemented without public consent.

And it doesn’t do to argue that governments need to be allowed to have secrets, or that considerations of civil rights need to be weighed against national security.

Snowden himself offers a very sound argument when he says that these secret programmes and equally secret processes of oversight “represent[…] a dangerous normalization of ‘governing in the dark,’ where decisions with enormous public impact occur without any public input.”

One of the greatest dangers with any kind of secret governance (and one of the reasons why we need a free press to expose it) is that it crosses and pushes back boundaries to legitimize questionable practices (or engage in them without legitimization).

It is only through public oversight that this can be prevented: “state power is best contained by making the overwhelming majority of what goes on in society invisible to the state [because] an omniscient government is too powerful for mere rules to restrain” because it will simply “violate[…] any rules in place meant to constrain it.”

Another example of this has come to light only this week: “that the NSA is collecting millions of email address books around the world, producing even richer and more invasive portraits than telephony metadata likely offer.”

As violations clearly exist, “[w]hy,” asks Yochai Benkler, “would we expect the[ir] self-monitored procedures to work?”

The answer is, we shouldn’t.

And, as a matter of fact, international law experts not only do not believe they work, they actually aren’t so sure if mass surveillance by NSA and GCHQ does not violate international law.

Edward Snowden is right to say that “[i]f the highest officials in government can break the law without fearing punishment or even any repercussions at all, secret powers become tremendously dangerous.”


Launching inquiries, debating legislation: a way forward?

It is a good thing then that in the US a bipartisan coalition continues to push for significant alteration to policies governing NSA spying while in the UK “the extent and scale of mass surveillance undertaken by Britain’s spy agencies is to be scrutinized in a major inquiry” which was launched this week.

Meanwhile, both NSA director General Keith Alexander and his deputy Chris Inglis have announced their impending departure from the NSA.

Reuters suggests that this might be a “development that could give President Obama a chance to reshape the eavesdropping agency”.

However, I for one, am not exactly sure that the appointment of Richard Ledget, “[t]he man who heads a new taskforce at the National Security Agency to handle information leaks” as Inglis’ successor is a promising idea.

After all, his current position was created after the Snowden leaks and Mr Ledget’s “duties include overseeing improvements to internal systems and assessing what information has been taken in unauthorised disclosures.”

It is perhaps just as well then, that Edward Snowden is still tucked away safely – and apparently not too unhappily – in Russia.

As to Glenn Greenwald’s announcement that he is leaving the Guardian to “create an online space to support independent journalists” with his colleagues Jeremy Scahill and Laura Poitras (who Snowden first got in touch with) – I am sure that will draw more than enough criticism of its own.

Already, the ever-bash-ready Telegraph decries it as a “clone factory” with a potential for creepiness.

As for me, I will make up my mind about it when I know what it is.

Yet considering the threat to independent journalism that seems to manifest itself in UK in particular (and which many people, including UK prosecutor Keir Starmer have spoken out against), perhaps a new journalistic venture that allows for “more quick response journalism” that “put[s] things out in more detail” and “tr[ies] to democratise the process” of journalism itself is not such a bad way forward.

I cannot help thinking, though, that they better have good lawyers.


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