Early NSA Reporting Amounts to “Journalistic Malfeasance”

Yesterday my weekly piece for Medium went online, where I unpacked just how much early reporting on the NSA leaks and Edward Snowden had to be either walked back or clarified:

Yet the rush to be first has also led to false or deeply misleading stories about the scope and purpose of government activities. Some of this misreporting goes viral, cementing untruths in the public that corrections after the fact will never repair.In the meantime, revelations that more than half the Senate skipped a classified NSA briefing last week go mostly unremarked upon, as do government claims that these NSA programs thwarted attacks in more than 20 countries. The U.S. is now openly concerned that Snowden could be an asset working for the Chinese government. Those stories aren’t nearly as sexy as theapparently shocking revelation that governments spy on each other…

Yet so long as breaking news dominates the coverage, there will continue to be frenzied periods of rushed reporting and eventual retractions or clarifications. Until we as people change our media consumption habits, the news organizations that continue to rush poorly researched information into the public record will have no reason to change their ways.

I wondered in the piece if the amount of retraction that’s happened amounts to journalistic malfeasance. I think it does, or at least it could — especially when considering how quickly other journalists were able to point out either flaws, inconsistencies, or outright errors and back those up with their own reporting. Still, a lot of people pushed back against it, arguing I’m quibbling with minor things and not the meat of the story, and I think it’s something we should definitely keep debating.

I do remain nervous at the idea of retreating into a “fake but accurate” type conversation (remember that?) where some larger truth — a spy agency actually engages in spying! — substitutes for accurate reporting and seeking the truth even if it doesn’t confirm one’s worst fears.

And also, none of this excuses the possible perjury James Clapper committed when he told Sen. Wyden under oath that the intel community does not collect any data at all on Americans. John Schindler, a former NSA analyst who now teaches at the Navy War College, clarified a bit about what that means in the FT:

As James Clapper, the US national intelligence director, sought to explain, for example, the NSA’s gathering of “metadata” about phone and online activities do not amount to “collection” in the sense that the intelligence community uses that word. These ideas are familiar to veteran spies, but are not something the public can easily grasp.

The NSA’s interpretation is that the gathering of information about patterns of calls and online exchanges is fair game. But if the agency wants to gather more information than that about an American, to actively “collect” in NSA language, court authorisation is required.

The challenge with this is that such a definition of “collection” is not a common sense definition even if it may be legally and technically accurate. No one at these agencies or in the Administration has done a good job of explaining that, and it’s seriously affecting their credibility. Maybe today’s hearing in the HPSCI will clear that up a bit. But it might not.

I suspect the NSA, and the intelligence community as a whole, does not understand how their actions look to the country, and I also suspect they overestimate how much of what they do is still a secret. That doesn’t mean their programs lack value. But it does mean they should be trying to explain more of what they do.

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