Wednesday, June 12, 2013

"Trading credibility for the advancement of an agenda"

Today I ran across two articles that are must-reads on the NSA surveillance leak story.

The first is from Bob Cesca. He does a great job of summarizing the questions that remain to be answered on this story (please go read the whole article - these are critical questions). He makes an important point about how Greenwald says that his goal was to spur a public debate about surveillance, but then he refuses to answer the questions and blocks people like Cesca on Twitter. In the post, Cesca theorizes that its because Greenwald has an agenda and is approaching this as an activist instead of a journalist. For a guy who talks constantly about "transparency," Greenwald isn't handling his moment in the sun very well.
As Chez Pazienza so brilliantly wrote on Monday, “Being a good journalist is a little like being a scientist: You should constantly be testing your theory and findings for signs of confirmation bias or an agenda that’s getting the better of your commitment to the truth.” In the absence of this kind of professional integrity — integrity, by the way, which led the Washington Post to revise its initial story — the only conclusion to draw here is that Greenwald doesn’t want anyone to see the agenda behind the curtain. In that regard, he’s no better than Fox News Channel, passing off cleverly hand-picked stories and coded hard news. Consequently, he’s drawing other activists and voices on the left into a story that’s full of potential traps. If Snowden turns out to be a hacker nihilist who’s feeding Greenwald bad information, or if Greenwald’s reporting continues to be strewn with holes, it could seriously damage not only the effort to roll back post-9/11 overreach and opacity, but also the broader liberal movement — not to mention the credibility of future whistleblowers/leakers. You deserve to know whether your outrage is founded upon the full knowledge of the facts or if it’s been deliberately manipulated by Greenwald’s personal whimsy and cleverness.

To repeat: I’m interested in ending the war on terrorism and all of the awfulness that’s accompanied it. But I’m not interested in a counterproductive slash-and-burn approach, and I’m not interested in trading credibility for the advancement of an agenda. So I’m trying to get to the bottom of some of these rather shaky gaps in the story.
The second is an important post by Josh Marshall that focuses on his reaction to Edward Snowden. Like Cesca, he talks about the importance of understanding Snowden's agenda.
If you see the state as essentially malevolent or a bad actor then really anything you can do to put a stick in its spokes is a good thing...

From that perspective, there’s no really no balancing to be done. All disclosure is good. Either from the perspective of transparency in principle or upending something you believe must be radically changed.

On the other hand, if you basically identify with the country and the state, then indiscriminate leaks like this [he's referring to Bradley Manning here] are purely destructive. They’re attacks on something you fundamentally believe in, identify with, think is working on your behalf.

Now, in practice, there are a million shades of grey. You can support your government but see its various shortcomings and even evil things it does. And as I said at the outset, this is where leaks play a critical, though ambiguous role, as a safety valve. But it comes down to this essential thing: is the aim and/or effect of the leak to correct an abuse or simply to blow the whole thing up?...

The Snowden case is less clear to me. At least to date, the revelations seem more surgical. And the public definitely has an interest in knowing just how we’re using surveillance technology and how we’re balancing risks versus privacy...

But it’s more than that. Snowden is doing more than triggering a debate. I think it’s clear he’s trying to upend, damage - choose your verb - the US intelligence apparatus and policieis he opposes...He’s taking it upon himself to make certain things no longer possible, or much harder to do. To me that’s a betrayal. I think it’s easy to exaggerate how much damage these disclosures cause. But I don’t buy that there are no consequences. And it goes to the point I was making in an earlier post. Who gets to decide? The totality of the officeholders who’ve been elected democratically - for better or worse - to make these decisions? Or Edward Snowden, some young guy I’ve never heard of before who espouses a political philosophy I don’t agree with and is now seeking refuge abroad for breaking the law?

I don’t have a lot of problem answering that question.
Marshall's point about the agenda being one that sees the state as essentially malevolent is the important distinction here. Its why many of us are concerned about this libertarian philosophy creeping in to the thinking of too many liberals. Grover Norquist's goal of shrinking government down to the size where it can be drowned in the bathtub gets a boost from those who want to simply blow the whole thing up.

I know there are a lot of people who just want to have a discussion about the proper role of government in these areas and - as President Obama said - that is a conversation we should be having. But it has to be based on facts. And I have no desire to join a movement that wants to sensationalize and obscure in order to upend or destroy.


  1. I think the Libertarian way of thinking has taken root on cable news and has nothing whatever to do with being liberal or progressive. The insidious nature of Libertarians creep into the national discourse comes from their willingness to embrace the liberal side of the culture wars. That's what brings in the 'liberals'. Libertarians are too often also narcissists and charismatics, so their appeal to the emotional brain by-passes logic and reason.

    We get to keep countering the nonsense with facts, which actually does work with most true liberals. The people who want their daily dose of anger/sensationalism will still keep delivering the clicks, cult worship, dollars and eyeballs to these venues like MSNBC and the Guardian, etc. There really isn't anything we can do about it except continue to be there with these islands of calm like this blog for when they grow up and are in need of better information.

    1. This morning I've been thinking about how no one who has ever been marginalized or experienced life in this country as a minority should ever truly embrace libertarianism. It is the government they ultimately have to rely on to protect their rights. That's probably why - even though he's gay - Greenwald avoids the topic of LGBT rights.

    2. I agree, Libertarianism is the height of white privilege elitism.

  2. From the Cesca article: "...Greenwald may have been deliberately vague in some areas and deliberately misleading in other areas as a means of feeding his agenda..."

    This is pure, quintessential Glen Greenwald. I learned this back in 2007 when I read a GG story on GOS about how Lawrence Lessig, an early supporter of PBO who had a lot of credibility with the Netroots, had turned against PBO. All it took to debunk the story was to lookup Lessig's blog on Google and read what he actually wrote, in context. I was amazed at how few people did this (I was the only one, as far as I could tell). And I was amazed at how shameless GG was in cherry-picking statements and re-framing them to fit his agenda (he is quite good at it). It was almost as if he knew no one was going to check, or maybe he knew they wouldn't care. I stopped reading him after that, but I heard much the same criticism from others over the years.

    Now he's playing the same games on a much, much larger stage. I really hope the wider world is less gullible and lazy than the GOSosphere.

  3. 'Afternoon, Ms. Pants (and you, too, Tien Le)
    And, of course, there's that little aside of well, if it's so hot, why hasn't any government anywhere used this approach (and, I think E.J. Dionne asked this question yesterday)?

    Have a friend who defines himself as Liibertarian. Have had a few go-rounds with him. And, your point, Ms. Pants, is one of the very things that I said to him. You and I wouldn't be talking as we do (nor could I vote, or live where I do or be married to whom I'm married to) and CERtainly not as peers were it not for what the government did (and, as you've probably seen, The Obama Diary is running some VERY good stuff - as there have been asinine attempts to pair who I believe to be the traitor Snowden with Rosa Parks - on who a hero actually is annnnd 50th anniversary commemoration of Medgar Evers).

    Is it or has it been completely good? Most certainly not.

    But, it damn sure hasn't been nor is it completely evil, either.

    1. I'm gonna have to do some arm-twisting to get you on twitter. I got just a little (?) peeved when I saw that comparison of Snowden to Rosa Parks - and let one of the idiots have it. Here's a link to my tweet.

  4. Besides it being Greenwald who released this story, given the long trail of less-than-ethical behavior in his history, there are many things about this that don't pass a sniff test. Or rather, the smell of bovine fecal matter is rather overwhelming at times. There are numerous holes in Snowden's story, with a number of exaggerations or outright lies being pointed out. I fully expect that Greenwald will attack, scream, and generally obfuscate in response to any questions he receives. Then he'll try to paint a new story which proves him right, blithely waving aside any previous statements he's made.

    As for Snowden, I have no idea of what his "agenda" is, outside of some vague suggestions that he supported Ron Paul at one point, but to be honest, he doesn't strike me as the brightest light in the string, I think his pathetic attempts to portray himself as a hero are more delusional than based in reality.

  5. I do think Snowden, whether he means to or not, is confusing issues not clarifying. I takes some careful technical distinctions to try to tell what is being talked about. Some people were concerned about their browser history on their local machine that is at risk. While a hacker who planted a virus may take information from your machine, if the NSA is contacting operators of big web severs they would likely began with web server logs. Those can be customized but they likely contain IP addresses, user names, OS, browser, date, time and url. A lot can be learned from that. From there to understand, I would want to know whether Prism bypassed privacy settings without a warrant.

    Where I thought Snowden was most misleading was when he talked about his own ability to eavesdrop. He made it sound like something extraordinary. The fact of the matter is that a system administrator can read almost anything on a machine that isn't encrypted. The may have a harder time reading things stored in a database managed by a data base management system. Our dependence on the ethics of technicians may be something unsettling that people don't want to think about. The rules of evidence can keep data out of court, but they don't keep experts from seeing it.

    I some times obsess over that problem when it comes to nukes. We have rules that enforce the chain of command. But when it comes down to it, small groups of technicians actually control the nukes. We need to realize our dependence on the ethics of technicians when living in this digital world.

  6. Hmmm ... I'm not going to speak to the libertarian commentary going on for two reasons. First, it is accurate, but more importantly, I think it is our own red herring ... don't like what Snowden did? Call him a libertarian. What if Daniel Elsberg had called himself a libertarian? Would that have discounted what he did? All that being said, I clicked the link to read the full Josh Marshall article, and quite frankly, I don't think I've ever read something by him that was so pretzeled up. He rightfully and correctly distinguished Manning's total random dump of classified material from Snowden's "surgical" (I think he used that word) release of information, and acknowledges that Snowden has prompted a debate that we need to have about what we want our government doing, but then says, in essence, we need the debate but we shouldn't have had the very information released that is prompting the debate, and that Snowden was a bad person for having done it (I think because Marshall suspects and/or doesn't like Snowden's reasons for the info release). My view is that if we can finally get our government to have some more or less open hearings about what has been going on, then I consider that a positive. In the end, I feel no need to defend President Obama's handling of this any more than I feel a need to excoriate him for it. I suppose we need a CIA and an NSA, but that doesn't mean I trust them to be good without lots of outside monitoring and periodic exposure of their overreach. I think Booman had a nice piece up yesterday about past excesses and our need to be ever vigilant.

    1. I agree with a lot of your assessment of what Marshall said. I am just not troubled by the complexity of his thoughts. I think that's how a lot of us who are watching this are reacting. Information is coming out now that challenges a lot of what Snowden/Greenwald said. So the jury is still out. But his ending point - the one about whether or not we want the Snowden's of the world to be deciding on this - is spot on.

      When it comes to your question about what if Elsberg had called himself a libertarian I agree - it wouldn't have mattered. We knew what Elsberg's motives were in leaking. He had proof that the government was lying about Viet Nam. Snowden's leaks aren't about lying - they're about something that is classified information. Some of us have questions about his motives for doing that. His libertarian view might help explain that. That's what I thought yesterday when I wrote this. Now we learn that he is basically offering up further classified information to other governments who might protect him from extradition. So his motives might even be more nefarious than that. Truth is - we don't know. That's part of the complexity.