Yes, Journalists Should Be Advocates For Shedding Light On Secret Government Powers

from the say-that-again dept

It’s been quite incredible to see defenders of the surveillance state attack not just Edward Snowden for leaking information about the NSA’s surveillance efforts, but also go after the reporters who broke the various stories concerning what he leaked. While many of the attacks have been focused on Glenn Greenwald, the other journalist who has access to Snowden is the Washington Post’s Bart Gellman, and apparently it’s his turn to be attacked for doing a good job in reporting. The attacker, in this case, is Stewart Baker, the former Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security and former General Counsel for the NSA. He wrote an incredible attack on Gellman, arguing that he has somehow crossed the despicable line from “journalist” to “advocate” in his reporting on Snowden’s leaks.

Baker and Gellman had a conversation via email concerning why Gellman chose to publish which information when, and as part of his response, Gellman pointed out — quite rightly — that in one of the recent leaks, concerning how the NSA goes about “minimizing” the likelihood that Americans are profiled, it needs to be acknowledged that the NSA is collecting tons of data on Americans and that can have a real impact — an impact that the NSA refuses to acknowledge. Gellman writes convincingly on this topic, and Baker’s response is to ignore the entire substance of Gellman’s argument, to condescendingly claim that this is no longer journalism:

Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t think anyone can read that without wondering whether Bart Gellman has slipped from journalist to advocate. And from there it’s a short step to wondering whether he suppressed the guidelines in his earlier story because they didn’t fit his preferred narrative. Somehow they were not worth disclosing when they might have blunted privacy concerns but they had to be disclosed once “they seem[ed] to demonstrate that the president’s words are untrue.” Put another way, it seemed better to hold the truth back until it could be used to sandbag the adversary.

Gellman shot back, via Twitter a key point that is all too often ignored:

What @stewartbaker overlooks is that my advocacy is for open debate of secret powers. That’s what journalists do

Journalists have always been advocates. They’re supposed to be advocates for openness and transparency, explaining to the public what others are up to which they should know about. To argue that Gellman’s reporting is somehow less than worthy because he’s advocating for open debate on secret programs of government surveillance is really quite pitiful on Baker’s part. Once again, it suggests that the defenders of this kind of surveillance cannot and will not debate the merits of the program in public, instead resorting to what appears to be petty name calling, rather than substantive discussion about this program they love so much.

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Comments on “Yes, Journalists Should Be Advocates For Shedding Light On Secret Government Powers”

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Loki says:

Re: To ask the question is to answer it

Because it opens up a whole shitload of questions they don’t really want to think about, much less have to try to answer:

1)While the full extent of these programs hasn’t been known until just recently (and likely still haven’t been fully revealed), at least some of these programs have been somewhat known for years (going back to at least the AT&T “secret room scandal” in like 2006/2007. With all this information being sucked up, how can we be sure it hasn’t sucked in something like a trojan or virus (like maybe a Stuxnet or a Flame) whether intentionally or unintentionally (and with that much data, can one really be 100% sure?) allowing outsiders to use part of all of that data for personal purposes?

2) If Snowden had access to so much information, how many of the 500,000+ other people with supposedly “top level clearance” had access to equal or better information? And what might some of THOSE people be doing with the information they have access to (because, you know, with that many people, what are the odds here could possibly be more than one “bad apple” right?)

Even if you agree with the “properness” of what the government is doing, those risks for infiltration or abuse need to be seriously addressed (and if Snowden showed us anything, it’s that the governments claims of “we’ve got it covered” are purely falsehoods).

Then of course, there is the bigger question of “properness”:
3) Making something “legal” doesn’t always make it proper. There is a reason Benjamin Franklin spent a decade plus in England trying to fight just these sorts of behaviors. There’s a reason this country eventually declared independence from England and fought two wars with her (not to mention a civil war, two world wars and numerous other conflicts – even though some of them we shouldn’t necessarily have been in, but that’s another discussion).

People talk about the Constitution, but people forget that the Constitution, like the Articles of Confederation that governed this country for the first 11 years of its existence, is merely a tool to help codify the principles set forth if the founding document, the Declaration of Independence.

Principles should always come first. When principles conflict with rules, principles should always have precedence. As the Declaration of Independence states:

That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.–Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

It then proceeds with a rather long “laundry list” of abuses. It seems fairly clear from that list (as well as other writings) that by Safety, they don’t mean simply “security”. While Obama said something to the effect of “you can’t have 100% liberty AND 100% security with 0% inconvenience. There has to be a trade-off somewhere.” But as Benjamin Franklin said They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety., meaning that if you’re willing to give up, say, half your rights, for perhaps something like a 1-2% increase in “security”, you’re getting screwed and you deserve to be.

As for the transcorps (and their elitist controllers) slowly attempting to subsume the rule of law much the way powerful landholders did centuries ago, they don’t seem to grasp (or are just content to grab as much short term benefit as they can manage) that while the vigilance of the people slowly wanes allowing such abuses to prosper, so too will such abuses be tolerated only for so long (just like it says in the Declaration), as can be evidenced by recent activity in places like Turkey and Brazil.

out_of_the_blue says:

It's not about reporters. Focus on NSA -- and Google.

Just had a minion write: “Focus on what is being revealed, not who is revealing it, I’m begging you.” — The minions plea falls on deaf ears of editor, as this piece is all about “Baker and Gellman”, whom I’ve never heard of.

Catchphrase: don’t adore the messenger.

Anonymous Coward says:

In all this, I am yet to hear those in support of all this internal spying, admitting the constitution has been broken, with the aid of congress as well as the executive branch. I don’t hear any coming clean about all this from government.

What I do hear are lies, half truths, evasion, and accusations to prevent revealing the real facts. As such there can be no “it’s going to go away” until investigations into this are public. It’s very obvious, barring less than a handful of congress critters we can’t get the truth or believe what is being said from most as they are implicit in it’s formation, creation, and maintaining, of this national spy data ring.

The Real Michael says:

Re: Re:

When was the last time that you heard a “journalist” (I use that term loosely) question the status quo about their brazen violation of our Constitutional rights?

Government seems to think that anything that they codify into law somehow gives them immunity from Constitutional law. IOW, might makes right. Constitutional law overrides all others by default; an unconstitutional law is still a violation of the high law of the land. Whenever government says “We need to sacrifice freedom for security,” what they’re really saying is that they intend to empower themselves at the expense of our civil liberties.

Citizen says:

I see intelligent observations, and legitimate concerns for the future of constitutional rights, but I don’t see distinctions made between monitoring entirely foreign communications, or foreign to US communications and entirely domestic communications.

I don’t think there has ever been a doubt that the NSA’s mission was to surveille foreign activities. The only new information provided by the leaks was detail about their methodologies. Is the argument that the NSA should be disbanded? That seems like a different debate.

If the concern is strictly for limits on domestic surveillance, then I don’t see how the leaks were aimed at addressing that. Rather than a surgical indictment of any violation of constitutional rights, it was more of a wholesale transfer of all the confidential information he could get his hands on.

That’s how I find it difficult to recognize his motives as anything but the self serving pursuit of notoriety. He could have probably mounted an effective defense of his right to disclose information about a breach of domestic rights. For all of his vaunted conscientiousness for the protection of our rights, he doesn’t seem to discriminate between nations. It looks pretty apparent that he’s prepared to trade national security information to foreign and potentially hostile governments in exchange for safe harbor, which is hard to recognize as anything but treason.

Citizen says:

Re: Re: Re:

Recognizing your sarcasm, is the the fact that he didn’t exact a fee first supposed to caste him as altruistic? He was satisfied to be recognized. He could have even achieved that, while appearing patriotic, without endangering national security if he had chosen to limit his exposures to domestic programs alone. He willfully, if not eagerly exceeded that.

Was his noble crusade to prevent nations from keeping secrets from each other? To echo your sarcasm, then maybe his trips to HK and Moscow were an effort to obtain and expose their security tactics as well.

Rikuo (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

You’re a bit behind the times. Snowden apparently wasn’t in Moscow. He gave everyone the slip apparently. Also, like the US government, you can’t just spew “endanger national security” without explaining what exactly is endangered by revealing that the US government is conducting mass surveillance on a global scale, is hacking the computer networks of foreign powers (all the while yelling for China to stop doing the same).

Rapnel (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

In this context my immediate opinion would be that offensive action, in this case cracking, is not quite as hunky dory as “monitoring foreign chatter”.

We, the US, have just spent several weeks crowing from the rooftops about China’s targeted cracks and yet …. it is now apparent that we are a full-blown offensive cracking machine.

The argument, I believe, is firstly that the US, specifically the DoD, is not authorized to collect, analyze or disseminate US communications and/or information pertaining to US citizens on US soil. Secondly, the insight and access into the privacy of all but every citizen on the planet is robustly in direct contradiction of the values that the country was founded on and, supposedly, values. Monitoring the global population is not a traditional sense of the politics of nations much less the spying of nations.

If you do not, in actions and words, value the privacy of your own citizens how the fuck is anyone ever going to take you seriously?

Our executive branch of government has turned into a hideous monster that twists laws into anything blunt and heavy enough to induce trauma at a whim. Our legislative branch fills their coffers from fat money and the overt belligerence of special interest lobbies.

The “public domain” is no longer a virtuous and ideological sphere of the wealth and greatness of man but a source of intelligence for the single most powerful and dangerous entity on the planet – the United States Department of Defense (followed closely by a compromised Congress that has, invariably, completely failed its charter)

No, the argument is not specifically whether or not the US should engage in surveillance of foreign countries rather it is an argument as to whether or not the US has failed its people and, more importantly, whether its people can retake the reigns and, once again, live the values that were once a righteous vindication on the value of a single man and the rights conferred to him simply by existing.

I sense a difficult path in the pursuit of happiness if my actions, words and movements are monitored. These are cages of minds and an oppression onto humanity. There is no just cause so great as to allow unfettered insight into the effects of every man.

But hey, I’m just me and that’s how I sees it. To a certain degree, I comprehend the intricacies of defense and its myriad requirements I simply no longer understand what we’re defending.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

My argument is that the spy agencies have shown (yet again) that they are untrustworthy and harmful to the citizens of the US. If they can’t be fixed (and it’s not obvious how they can be, but there may be a way) then they should be disbanded.

That is a different issue from whether or not spying on foreign powers is a legitimate activity in an abstract sense.

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