Do You Trust The Government Or Journalists More To Determine If Snowden's Docs Are Safe To Publish?

from the or-someone-else? dept

Nick Davies at The Guardian has an interesting article challenging those (including some competing UK newspapers) who have been arguing that it's somehow inappropriate for journalists to make the decision about whether or not Snowden's leaked documents can be revealed without revealing sensitive information that puts lives in danger. We've seen similar claims elsewhere, including in our comments, where some insist that it's preposterous to think that anyone other than the intelligence community can know for certain whether or not the documents are sensitive. Davies, however, makes the strong case that the government has a long and sordid history of hiding behind these kinds of claims to disguise highly questionable activity -- and, instead, it's the power of the press that is necessary to keep them honest.

The official answer is that we should trust the security agencies themselves. Over the past 35 years, I've worked with a clutch of whistleblowers from those agencies, and they've all shared one underlying theme – that behind the screen of official secrecy, they had seen rules being bent and/or broken in a way which precisely suggested that the agencies should not be trusted. Cathy Massiter and Robin Robison, for example, described respectively MI5 and GCHQ pursuing politically motivated projects to spy on peace activists and trade unionists. Peter Wright told of MI5 illegally burgling its way across London "while pompous bowler-hatted civil servants in Whitehall pretended to look the other way". David Shayler exposed a plot both lawless and reckless by MI5 and MI6 to recruit al-Qaida supporters to assassinate Colonel Gaddafi.

All of this was known to their bosses. None of it should have been happening. But the agencies in whom we are invited to place our trust not only concealed it but without exception then attacked the whistleblowers who revealed it.

Davies also destroys the idea that politicians in charge of "oversight" can do an effective job:

Would we do better to trust the politicians who have oversight of the agencies? It's instructive to look back from our vantage point, post-Snowden, to consider what was happening only two years ago when the government attempted to introduce new legislation which came to be known as the snooper's charter. If the oversight politicians are as well-informed as they claim, they must have known that this was in part a cynical attempt to create retrospective legal cover for surveillance tools that were already secretly being used, but they said nothing. And when parliament refused to pass that law, clearly indicating that there was no democratic mandate for those tools, they still stayed silent.

Politicians fall easy victim to a political Stockholm syndrome which sees them abandon their role as representatives of the people in favour of becoming spokesmen for the spooks. It was there in the 1970s when the New Statesman bravely exposed security lapses and financial corruption in GCHQ, only to face a prosecution orchestrated by a Labour attorney general; there again with Jack Straw describing in his autobiography how MI5 had spied on him and his family since he was 15 but declaring that he was "neither surprised nor shocked – this was the world we lived in"; and there again, of course, in the foreign secretary William Hague's bland presumption that "if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear" from the systems of mass surveillance exposed by Snowden.

These are all UK examples, of course. But we've seen the identical situation in the US as well. The over-classification problem in our government is well-documented and no one seems to want to fix it. Furthermore, stories of intelligence community abuses of power are well-known throughout US history. As for political oversight, the litany of stories we've had concerning Rep. Mike Rogers tells a different story altogether. He's supposedly in charge of oversight, but comes from an intelligence background and has shown, repeatedly that his focus is not on oversight, but on running cover to prevent real oversight of the intelligence community's actions.

Journalists may not be perfect, but they certainly have a much better track record than either governments or politicians in making these kinds of determinations.

Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 14th, 2013 @ 2:57pm

    who do I trust?

    well, I don't know who I trust more.

    but I do know one thing, I trust the us government a lot less than I trust snowden. I haven't trusted 'traditional' journalists in years.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    out_of_the_blue, Oct 14th, 2013 @ 3:09pm

    PUBLISH ALL. -- Where's the evidence for ANY harm?

    What a silly framing. Falls right into traps that a) Snowden actually has anything b) that there'd be any harm to publishing all. -- I admit that a) is contentious. But I really despise this dribbling out. If spies and sources get exposed, well, they knew it was risky when took the money...

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. identicon
    Johnny, Oct 14th, 2013 @ 3:09pm

    no brainer really...

    no contest really. Wouldn't trust the feds any farther than I could throw them, and that's a big throw! :-P

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 14th, 2013 @ 3:19pm

    One of the fallouts of owning newspapers is when the buyers of public media were allowed to have more than they had before in the same markets, it set up the mind numbing substitute that passes for news now. There is no longer, honest, investigative reporting. There's not the manpower since major media has cut back on reporters to look in all the dark corners.

    Was at one time that investigative reporting kept politicians fairly honest. None of them wanted to be on a front page expose. Now it's all syndicated news feeds with a vested interest in maintaining status quo.

    You look at the Obama administration and you see a micromanaged public image machine. One that does not welcome uncomfortable questions into policies and actions. Instead the Obama machine only wants journalists reporting things that make them look good. If they are uncomfortable with a reporter, the reporter gets phone calls at the office cussing them out directly from the Obama administration offices. This has been reported on time and again. If uncomfortable enough the reporter and paper are removed from the White House News Reporting pool and replaced with another paper and reporter.

    Almost at no time does Obama allow impromptu questions in news events. They are strictly scripted. Often no allowance is made for news reporters and the White House goes around them by publishing publicity photos and the like from it's own blogs rather than deal with reporters. Add to it the war on whistle blowers to prevent those that know where the skeletons are buried and you come up with things like the NSA revelations where it has been going on a long time but when faced with actual proof the citizens become very agitated over those actions.

    At this point I no longer watch MSM news. I don't trust them to tell a real story. I sure as heck have plenty of proof not to trust the government as their long history of hiding the truth is what has made the Snowden revelations so shocking to the public. Sometimes I read the RT (which you just as well call Pradva) because you can depend on them to point out the worst actions in the worst possible way. Realizing they too have a bias that can be depended on at least it isn't covering up the faults. It may not be so quick to show you the good parts but you will be informed of some of the worst, provided you take what you read with a grain of salt.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 14th, 2013 @ 3:20pm

    If its secret...

    Then they are hiding something, because in the vast majority of cases, "The People" would not approve!

    The only things that need to remain secret are all of the obvious stuff! We don't need to release every last detail on our latest stealth bombers, but there is no reason for us to hide how extensive our gubermint thugs has turned the Constitution into waste paper!

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 14th, 2013 @ 3:24pm

    Least untruthful ... under oath

    James Clapper’s ‘least untruthful’ statement to the Senate”, by Glenn Kessler, Washington Post, June 6, 2013
    SEN. RON WYDEN (D-Ore.): “This is for you, Director Clapper… …So what I wanted to see is if you could give me a yes or no answer to the question, does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?”

    Director of National Intelligence JAMES CLAPPER: “No, sir.”

    SEN. WYDEN: “It does not?”

    DIR. CLAPPER: “Not wittingly. There are cases where they could inadvertently perhaps collect, but not wittingly.”

    SEN. WYDEN: “Thank you.…”

          — exchange during a hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee, March 12, 2013

     . . . .

    In an interview with NBC’s Andrea Mitchell, he [DNI Clapper] said that “I responded in what I thought was the most truthful, or least untruthful manner, by saying no,” though he also called his answer “too cute by half.”

     . . . .

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 14th, 2013 @ 3:33pm

    Re: PUBLISH ALL. -- Where's the evidence for ANY harm?

    You don't want to publish everything all at once, because

    A) People will be rushing so fast to "one-up" everyone else that important details might be overlooked.

    B) People will be flooded by so much information that many of them will ignore much of it.

    C) Our Short Attention Span society will quickly fade the scandal from view.

    The way they are doing it is good, because it allows people to process the data at a reasonable pace, keeps the data in the public consciousness a lot longer, and allows the debunking of the governments "least untruthful" statements piece by piece.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. identicon
    Applesauce, Oct 14th, 2013 @ 3:35pm

    Most knowledgeable = most dishonest

    Truthfully, the intelligence services probably are the best judge of what is safe to release. Experience has clearly demonstrated however, that those same services are the least likely to be honest about the issue. Even to themselves, they have proven incapable of objectivity. While competent and knowledgeable, they are universally untrustworthy.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 14th, 2013 @ 3:36pm

    Untruthful before the court, too

    Declassified FISA Court Opinion Shows NSA Lied Repeatedly To The Court As Well”, by Tim Cushing, Techdirt, August 21, 2013. From the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) opinion:

    The Court is troubled that the government's revelations regarding NSA's acquisition of Internet transactions mark the third instance in less than three years in which the government has disclosed a substantial misrepresentation regarding the scope of a major collection program.

    A “substantial misrepresentation” to the court. For the third time in less than three years.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10. icon
    The Wanderer (profile), Oct 14th, 2013 @ 3:40pm

    I kind of have to split this up into at least two questions.

    One is the literal question raised by the headline: Which of the two would be better able to determine whether publishing a given document would be "safe"?

    Another is more nuanced: Which of the two can more safely be trusted to make that determination honestly, without bringing in other factors?

    There's also a third question: Once that determination has been made, which of the two is more likely to rely only on that determination when deciding whether to release the documents?

    On the first question, I have to give it to the government. The skill, experience, other knowledge, and technical expertise they have and/or can call on far outstrips anything the journalists are likely to be able to bring to bear. The government does have the better ability to judge the likelihood of harm from the release of any given document.

    On the second question, I have to give it to the journalists. There is no way the government as it is presently constituted (referring to the systems and mindsets that have built up over decades, not to any one political party or the like) can be relied on to be honest, even with itself, about whether any given document is safe to release. If nothing else, paranoia about being wrong would see to that.

    On the third question, it's a bit closer, but again I have to give it to the journalists. While they're likely to also give consideration to such concerns as sensationalism and so forth, the government is almost guaranteed to take into consideration questions of politics, ass-covering, face-saving, and preservation of power, among many other factors.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11. icon
    Jay (profile), Oct 14th, 2013 @ 3:46pm

    Trust the government?


    I don't even have to read the entire article to basically tell you what the security agencies can do. Every last LEO has done quite a lot of damage to democracy.

    The CIA has usurped democracy all over the world. It's biggest usurpation was Iran.

    The FBI usurps civil rights. There's the COINTELPRO program, their use of the code name "terrorist" to usurp the right of activists and then there's the entire throw people in jail mentality that is prevalent in all of the LEOs.

    And don't get me started on the DoJ...

    Then I can name a number of people who have used the power of their position in government to destroy public discourse...

    Richard Nixon
    E Howard Hunt
    Edward Bernays
    Murray Chotiner
    James Clapper
    Keith Alexander
    Woodrow Wilson
    George Bush
    Barack Obama
    Ronald Reagan

    I could go on and on with other names thanks to the entire Watergate Scandal, the NSA scandal, the Espionage Act passed by Woodrow, Bush's usurpation of democracy, Obama's fourth term of Bush, and Reagan's Iran-Contra Scandal, but you see the point.

    How can I trust the government when it does so much to destroy the public instead of help it?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12. icon
    scrivener50 (profile), Oct 14th, 2013 @ 3:47pm

    Snowden a limited-hangout psyop to deflect attention from NSA/Cybercom domestic "e-torture?

    Snowden didn't reveal all that much that wasn't known before -- but his revelations are helping to draw attention to other nefarious operations of U.S. Cyber Command and its prime cyber-contractor, Lockheed Martin. According to this veteran journalist, Lockheed/Cybercom operatives use a celltower radio frequency weapon grid deployed everywhere to silently torture, impair, subjugate and harm Americans who have been extrajudicially targeted as "dissidents" or "undesirables." See viclivingston(dot)blogspot(dot)com/2011/12/u.html Could THAT be the reason for a Snowden limited-hangout distraction psyop, and now, the prospect of more "Operation Chaos" false flag attacks?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13. icon
    John Fenderson (profile), Oct 14th, 2013 @ 3:50pm

    I trust them both equally

    If we're talking mainstream news, anyway, they are all owned and controlled by major corporations (the major reason why journalism is so rare in the US). These are the same corporations that have such an undo influence over the government, so it's six of one and a half dozen of the other.

    I trust them both about the same, which is to say not at all.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14. identicon
    Michael Kay, Oct 14th, 2013 @ 3:55pm

    Trust journalists? You're joking!

    We're seeing more and more journallists who are prepared to stoop to anything. Look at their willingness to provide a voice for the corrupt policemen who wanted to get Andrew Mitchell out of the way. If you're a journalist, and you think we trust you, think again. We may not like the politicians much but at least we can throw them out.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 14th, 2013 @ 3:57pm

    NSA director admits to misleading public

    NSA director admits to misleading public on terror plots”, By Natasha Lennard, Salon, Oct 2, 2013:
    In so many words, NSA director Keith Alexander admitted Wednesday that the Obama administration had issued misleading information about terror plots and their foiling to bolster support for the government’s vast surveillance apparatus.

    During Wednesday’s hearing, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy pushed Alexander to admit that plot numbers had been fudged in a revealing interchange:

    “There is no evidence that [bulk] phone records collection helped to thwart dozens or even several terrorist plots,” said Leahy. The Vermont Democrat then asked the NSA chief to admit that only 13 out of a previously cited 54 cases of foiled plots were genuinely the fruits of the government’s vast dragnet surveillance systems:

    “These weren’t all plots, and they weren’t all foiled,” Leahy said, asking Alexander, “Would you agree with that, yes or no?”

    “Yes,” replied Alexander.

     . . . .

    “NSA director Keith Alexander admitted Wednesday that the Obama administration had issued misleading information.“

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  16. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 14th, 2013 @ 4:05pm

    Re: Re: PUBLISH ALL. -- Where's the evidence for ANY harm?

    Also helps smoke out the liars when their lies are made evident by next weeks leak. They way they are doing it is indeed good.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  17. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 14th, 2013 @ 4:06pm


    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  18. identicon
    Brazenly anonymous, Oct 14th, 2013 @ 4:10pm

    Re: PUBLISH ALL. -- Where's the evidence for ANY harm?

    There is no harm to "dribbling out" the information unless you are a secret agency trying to deny the full extent of the programs and are so lax in your security that you can't even identify what was compromised. The Guardian almost certainly could have pushed this information out faster, even with careful review, but we learned so much more from the slower release.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  19. icon
    Chronno S. Trigger (profile), Oct 14th, 2013 @ 4:11pm

    Lesser of two evils

    If the government could be trusted to sift threw the information and release all the safe stuff to the public, this wouldn't be a question. So they're off the list instantly.

    Modern day reporting on politics has turned into what has been accurately described as a flamewar. They will say and do anything and everything to wind up the populous and get those eyeballs glued to the screen. Nobody trusts them, so even if they release true information, nobody would recognize it.

    If we only have those two options, and I can't think of a third, I'd go with the lesser of two evils, the journalists. The government will just mark everything as "eyes only" as proven by the debate we're having now. Journalists would probably release too much information, really putting people's lives in danger, but they'd at least release the information. These are the risks we must take for freedom.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  20. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 14th, 2013 @ 4:20pm

    Can we not trust either? Because, really, that's the only answer that has even the slightest hint of common sense.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  21. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 14th, 2013 @ 4:30pm

    Which do you trust more a Cotton Mouth Snake or a Water Monsoon Snake? If either bites you will be sick as a minimum or dead as a maximum.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  22. icon
    art guerrilla (profile), Oct 14th, 2013 @ 5:30pm

    Re: who do I trust?

    partly this...

    i don't 'trust' Big Media, but i 'trust' individual journalists: your bill moyers, your glenn greenwalds, your jeremy scahills, etc...

    here is the thing: you should NEVER 'trust' your gummint, EVEN IN THE BEST OF TIMES...

    these are not the best of times...

    we 99% are propagandized, marginalized, and criminalized...

    the 1% doesn't even make a pretense of 'needing' us for our labor any longer; most of us are expendable...

    we are zombies, and don't know it...

    art guerrilla
    aka ann archy

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  23. identicon
    Pixelation, Oct 14th, 2013 @ 7:29pm

    "Do You Trust The Government Or Journalists "

    They're both above reproach. Let's all drop our pants and be safe in the knowledge that they won't take advantage...

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  24. identicon
    Loki, Oct 14th, 2013 @ 7:41pm

    Given that most of the media are propaganda mouthpieces for corporations, and most of government are political mouthpieces for many of the same corporations, this is a trick question.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  25. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 14th, 2013 @ 8:08pm

    Do You Trust The Government Or Journalists More

    That's like the classic question:

    "So when are you going to stop beating your wife?"

    Journalists in a position of TRUST !

    or would you rather trust an NSA employee who quits his job and runs away to Russia ?

    Journalists are not generally considers pillars of society, or the public conscious. At least the Government is chosen by the people.

    It's clear TD has deemed the US Government THE EVIL ENEMY, and right up there with Bin Ladin.

    Of course the NSA should determine (as per the current law) what they tell about their activities, but it's its legal (and it is) why would they have to tell you anything ??

    It has been argued that NONE of it is 'safe' to release, as it assists those who want to counter those methods.

    If Snowden's Docs contain OPERATIONAL information (it appears it does) that information SHOULD NOT BE RELEASED AT ALL.

    Not by some lowly Journo, and not by the NSA or the Government. You just don't tell the enemy how you are trying to fight them, or how you are trying to defend yourself against them.

    How is a Journalist able to determine what is safe and what is not, when they cant even work out that NONE OF IT IS SAFE !!!!

    Snowden and Manning want to fight their own little ideological war, and damn anyone else who gets in their way. People are killed because of this type of information, and it's not the person how leaks it who are generally killed.

    But do they care ?? do they give a shit if their actions results in more deaths ?

    You might be able to look at the information and see no issue, but in the right hands, that same information might be a powerful tool, and might make them (the enemy) more effective and help them.

    How you can possibly tell what that information would be useful for in the wrong hands. (unless you are those hands).

    IF manning's released Video of shootings are circulated around the Middle East on CD and used to incite hatred of the US, how is that not aiding the enemy ? It's a powerful recruitment tool. How is a UK Journalist able to determine that ? Or the US Gov. for that matter?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  26. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 14th, 2013 @ 9:36pm

    Re: Do You Trust The Government Or Journalists More

    If someone is found recklessly shooting innocent people for no justifiable reason, they should be publicly shamed by both sides, because no one deserves to be rewarded for stupidity.

    That you would support killing anyone just because is disturbing, but not surprising for a jackass of your negative number-level intelligence. Obviously solar panels weren't good enough and you'd want everyone to be spy-monitored instead.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  27. icon
    techflaws (profile), Oct 14th, 2013 @ 11:09pm

    Re: Do You Trust The Government Or Journalists More

    or would you rather trust an NSA employee who quits his job and runs away to Russia ?

    No, I'd rather trust a government that broke the law and revoked his passport which made him "run away" to Russia in the first place.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  28. icon
    Ninja (profile), Oct 15th, 2013 @ 4:38am

    I'd trust any bystander on the streets better than the Government for these issues ;)

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  29. icon
    Seegras (profile), Oct 15th, 2013 @ 5:47am

    We can't trust the government, obviously

    ... because if we could trust it, there wouldn't be any of this "secret" material to leak out in the first place.

    It's quite clear that the government (= the executive branch) needs to be held in check, and if parliaments can't do it, the public must.

    Bureaucracy isn't just an organizational structure, it can be a form of government too, and it's one that's NOT compatible with democracy.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  30. icon
    anonymouse (profile), Oct 15th, 2013 @ 6:38am

    trust is earned...

    and so far neither politicians nor journalists have done much to earn my trust. politicians (in general) have always been swayed by lobbyists, and journalists (in general) have always been tempted more by recognition and personal/corporate gain than altruism. lesser of two evils...likely journalists, since they will be scrutinized by their competitors very closely.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  31. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 15th, 2013 @ 7:15am

    "Should I trust the child or the parent with who's hand was caught in the cookie jar."

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  32. icon
    John Fenderson (profile), Oct 15th, 2013 @ 11:22am

    The perfect example

    This is the perfect example of one of the big reasons why there is very little actual journalism coming from mainstream media outlets.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

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