Greenwald On The Reporting Of The NSA's Recent Denials: So, Now We Trust The Liars?

from the maybe-it's-the-uniforms... dept

The NSA has taken a different approach to addressing the recent leaks involving the surveillance of foreign officials (and foreign citizens). Rather than limit itself to bland statements about oversight and legal framework, the NSA has chosen to claim the reporting is "misleading," if not flat out wrong. (The NSA and the administration are also taking turns throwing each other under the bus. While this is very amusing, it does very little to address the veracity of the leaks…)

Glenn Greenwald notes on his blog that these recent tactics have a hint of desperation about them, considering they were only deployed after news broke of the NSA's surveillance of high-level foreign officials.

[T]hese exact same Boundless Informant documents have been used by newspapers around the world in exactly the same way for months. The NSA never claimed they were inaccurate until yesterday: when it is engulfed by major turmoil over spying on European allies.
The same documents the agency now claims are wrong or misleading have been public for months now, but it's only now, after the administration and Sen. Feinstein turned on the NSA, that Gen. Alexander and James Clapper are pushing the narrative that the documents themselves are being misinterpreted. Greenwald points out that both have been very careful not to deny the gist of the story itself (large scale collection of foreign phone metadata) but rather that the slides deployed by reporters in Spain and France are being misread.

The agency also made the dubious decision to implicate the foreign intelligence agencies that feed them information in hopes of undermining the reporting (as well as spreading the blame.
[T]he fact some of this data is collected by virtue of cooperation with a country's own intelligence service does not contradict our reporting. To the contrary: the secret cooperation between some European intelligence agencies and the NSA has been a featured part of our reporting from the start…

The NSA spies extensively with (but rarely on) its four closest, English-speaking surveillance allies in the "Five Eyes" group: the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. But for many European nations, the NSA cooperates with those nations' intelligence services but also spies on their populations and their governments without any such cooperation. That negates none of our reporting: it is simply a restatement of it.
The NSA seems to be running short on credible counter-arguments. Many representatives in DC simply aren't buying the lines about "oversight" and "legality" any more. Even its defenders have begun distancing themselves. So, it's decided to start casting doubt on those reporting on the leaks. Fair enough, I suppose. There are many rhetorical tactics it could deploy and seeding doubt by questioning the reporting is just one of them. The problem is that the press in general has been more than happy to give the NSA's responses a credibility they haven't earned.
NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander asserted yesterday that two "Boundless Informant" slides we published - one in Le Monde and the other in El Mundo - were misunderstood and misinterpreted. The NSA then dispatched various officials to the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post to make the same claim, and were (needless to say) given anonymity by those papers to spout off without accountability. Several US journalists (also needless to say) instantly treated the NSA's claims as gospel even though they (a) are accompanied by no evidence, (b) come in the middle of a major scandal for the agency at home and abroad and (c) are from officials with a history of lying to Congress and the media.
Sadly, despite a very long history (that spans several administrations) of general untrustworthiness in both intelligence agencies and administrations themselves, government officials (even those speaking from under the cover of anonymity) are instantly given more credibility than any journalist, even when those officials have the most to gain by lying.

Journalists who consistently lie or are repeatedly inaccurate tend to be speedily expelled from the system. Government and intelligence officials who lie tend to remain employed, or at worst, exit via the revolving door, landing well-paying gigs in the private sector. Journalists have the most to lose, while government officials (especially when granted anonymity) have nearly nothing to lose, not if the misstatements and disinformation help shore up the narrative.

Knowing this, why would journalists take these statements at face value? Even worse, why would they help the government PR machine by publishing a narrative handed to them by a faceless, nameless "official" who has everything to gain from spinning the story? That's not journalism. That's "reporting."

Greenwald quotes the EFF's Trevor Timm on this baffling attitude.
"Oh, NSA says a story about them is wrong? Well, that settles that! Thankfully, they never lie, obfuscate, mislead, misdirect, or misinform!"
Greenwald has taken a lot of heat for his lack of objectivity, but judging from this, more journalists need to be questioning statements coming from "officials" looking desperately for a place to plant their unreliable narratives. Four months of the NSA having to eat the words of each previous denial after each new leak should be more than enough proof that if its collective lips are moving, it's lying. At best, it's offering its least egregious "untruths."

Filed Under: glenn greenwald, nsa, nsa surveillance

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  1. icon
    John Fenderson (profile), 31 Oct 2013 @ 2:50pm


    I understand that pretty much all countries do it.

    (I know that you didn't put this forth as an excuse, but this line triggered a tangentially related thought).

    Using that as a reason that it's OK for the US to do it is quickly becoming a pet peeve of mine.

    For those who put this forth as an actual argument, my first thought is: what are you, 12? My second thought is connected to the fact that most of the people saying this are also people who believe in "American exceptionalism": if America is so exceptional, then why are we setting our moral compass according to what all the other nations do? Shouldn't we, I dunno, be exceptional?

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