Read: Myth-Busting XKeyscore

On Fri­day, I wrote a piece for Medi­um about Glenn Green­wald’s cov­er­age of XKeyscore, and the sig­nif­i­cant details in his sto­ry that leapt out as false or, at best, mis­lead­ing. Among them were the post­ing of slides from 2007 and 2008, and how they might have been altered by the 2008 FISA Amend­ments Act, which was almost cer­tain­ly passed after­ward.

They show that the Pow­er­point was first cre­at­ed on Jan­u­ary 8, 2007 and should be declas­si­fied on Jan­u­ary 8, 2032 under the stan­dard guide­lines of Exec­u­tive Order 13526. But if the slides were draft­ed in Jan­u­ary of 2007, then they pre-date both the Pro­tect Amer­i­ca Act (passed in August of 2007), which mod­i­fied large swaths of the NSA’s war­rant­less sur­veil­lance pro­grams first start­ed under Pres­i­dent Bush, and the FISA Amend­ments Act (passed in July of 2008), which insti­tut­ed strict lim­its on how the NSA can col­lect, and required a spe­cif­ic war­rant to inten­tion­al­ly col­lect, any data on a U.S. cit­i­zen. The title slide is marked 2008, but it’s unclear how it was mod­i­fied, since the clas­si­fi­ca­tion date would have to be updat­ed if it includ­ed new clas­si­fied data. It is also unclear if the slides were pub­lished in the months before or after the pas­sage of the FISA Amend­ments Act.

This struck me as a rather impor­tant point — after all, if he’s pulling from slides pub­lished before major changes to U.S. law that would have dra­mat­i­cal­ly altered the con­straints and focus of the pro­gram he was describ­ing, that is rather impor­tant detail. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, I asked three Guardian staff (their Edi­tor in Chief, a Senior Edi­tor appar­ent­ly respon­si­ble for the sto­ry, and Green­wald him­self) and they all declined to engage with the ques­tion. Green­wald even ignored sev­er­al emails to dif­fer­ent address­es, then took to Twit­ter to claim I had nev­er emailed him.

There are oth­er major errors of log­ic in how NSA pro­grams are being cov­ered as well. The dis­tinc­tion between a capa­bil­i­ty and the legal right to use it is acknowl­edged but com­plete­ly fudged togeth­er in the piece. Hence, peo­ple left angry com­ments demand­ing to know why the NSA is read­ing Amer­i­cans’ emails, when noth­ing of the sort is sug­gest­ed by either the slides or even by a close read­ing of Green­wald’s sto­ry. Nev­er­the­less, he’s writ­ing in such a way that peo­ple will think the NSA is both sur­veilling the con­tent of Amer­i­can­s’s phone calls and emails, and it is doing so in con­tra­ven­tion of U.S. law — despite not actu­al­ly pro­vid­ing any evi­dence to sup­port either claim.

This sort of men­da­cious nar­ra­tive-build­ing is, sad­ly, now a reg­u­lar fea­ture of the Guardian’s cov­er­age of the NSA. Which is a real shame, since there are seri­ous qualms to raise about blan­ket sur­veil­lance pro­grams (Sen­a­tor Wyden has been the clear­est voice in the Sen­ate ques­tion­ing not just their legal­i­ty but their util­i­ty as well), about over­sight, and about the law writ large. But that debate is get­ting crowd­ed out by the mis­in­for­ma­tion and exag­ger­a­tions that have replaced any sort of fac­tu­al debate about the NSA. We’re going to lose out big time on a chance for real reform if it con­tin­ues.

Joshua Foust used to be a foreign policy maven. Now he helps organizations communicate strategically and build audiences.

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