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.