Euphorias of SIGINT: Edward Snowden and the Passion of Glenn Greenwald

In May of 2014, I was asked to review Glenn Greenwald’s book about Edward Snowden. For a variety of reasons I was unable to publish it. Enough time has passed that I feel posting this text here will cause no one any heartburn.

The problem with Glenn Greenwald’s account of Edward Snowden, as told in his new book No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State, is that we have no way of knowing it is true. Ordinarily, when a journalist writes an account of her source, it is reasonable to assume she is largely telling the truth. But ordinarily, journalists do not angrily, even viciously defend the moral goodness of their sources with such fervor. In traditional journalism, a source is a source — necessary to the story, but not the story itself.

Snowden, so Greenwald writes, initially went by the online nom de plume Cincinnatus (Gellman said last year he also went by the name Verax). Using a supposed reference to Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, Snowden, it seems, was trying to channel the Roman aristocrat famous for voluntarily relinquishing dictatorial power after saving the Republic.

It’s not without coincidence that Cincinnatus is also the name of Nabokov’s hero in Invitation to a Beheading, who is awaiting his executing for the indefinable crime of “gnostical turpitude.” Nabokov’s Cincinnatus does not fit in with his nameless society, and agonizes in prison where his only outlet is writing, through which he creates an ideal world where he can belong.

Though Snowden, perhaps, meant Cincinnatus to conjure images of the great Roman hero, it is Nabokov’s version of Cincinnatus that bears far more relevance to Snowden’s lonely exile in Russia.

Or so we might think. Greenwald’s account of how he came to meet Snowden – through furtive messages online,– has shifted constantly, as has Snowden’s. The first version Greenwald told of Snowden’s flight from Hawaii to Hong Kong did not make any sense, and journalists quickly poked it full of holes, identifying little white lies, half-truths, and calculated omissions that subtly altered Snowden’s story (and made him less saint-like in the process). This was accompanied by Greenwald publishing a continuous string of misleading stories about NSA programs that were quietly corrected without public acknowledgment by The Guardian’s editors. The initial run of stories on the PRISM program included phrases like “direct access to servers” that simply were not (and could not be) true. After one dedicated writer demonstrated that the PRISM stories in both the Guardian and Washington Post were wrong, they were later edited without comment by both newspapers.

This continued to other programs. Greenwald and I once had a friendly rapport on Twitter, after he backed off an early round of falsely accusing me of hidden interests in the Wikileaks scandals. I later broke off Twitter contact with him when he openly lied about my views of the intervention in Libya (I opposed that war vociferously; he argued that I secretly supported it due to my alleged neoconservatism). Still, when I tried to ask Greenwald about some rather large holes in a story about XKEYSCORE, a favorite target of his relentless threat inflation, he ignored my email and later publicly denied I ever emailed him. When I asked his editor at The Guardian, Janine Gibson, she declined to comment.

What is Greenwald so afraid of, that he and his editors consider him above the very sort questioning that he subjects others to?

Snowdenism as a Movement

By now the story of how Greenwald met Snowden is familiar: after a series of anonymous messages, Greenwald, along with Laura Poitras and Ewan MacAskill, traveled to Hong Kong, where they released documents Snowden had sent them that contained explosive evidence that the NSA was engaged in mass surveillance in the United States. It is the stuff of journalistic legend, and never before, not even in the Wikileaks publications of 2010, has so much intimated documentation of the U.S. intelligence community come to light.

The origin of those documents and their presumed effect on the world are laid out in lawyerly detail in No Place to Hide. It is many things — an account of how Edward Snowden came to leak an untold (and frankly uncountable) number of documents from the NSA, details of how the NSA spies on terror groups and foreign countries, viciously personalized criticism of mainstream American journalism, and a vigorous defense of Greenwald’s rather radical views on privacy and government.

Glenn Greenwald is right about some things. In publishing a court order which uses the Foreign Intelligence and Surveillance Court to subpoena the metadata about phone calls collected by Verizon about its customers in the United States, Greenwald and Snowden revived an otherwise moribund debate about the tension between privacy and national security. If the federal government really was collecting all of U.S. telephony metadata, that would indicate a troubling act of surveillance by the federal government. It could enable the creation of a vast database that could be used to politically oppress dissidents, suppress speech, and cow people into submission to tyranny. Though legal under a precedent established by the Supreme Court in 1979, it is a truly problematic program and it demands public scrutiny.

The only problem? For metadata to be truly effective and scary — to have a huge dataset for identifying terrorism or to horribly abuse innocent people — then the agency must collect everything. It doesn’t. At best, it gets around 30% of American phone metadata — so little, in fact, that the collection in the first place probably does not help very much in terms of counterterrorism, and certainly is not any good for the acts of tyranny Greenwald supposedly fears – that is, the tyranny happening in places like Russia and China.

Yet before examining whether the program made sense, whether it was a real or theoretical concern, or whether it was even legal, Greenwald jumped immediately to screaming tyranny. The many times federal courts have found metadata collection legal, from 1979’s Supreme Court case Smith v. Maryland to round after round of lower court findings, are absent from Greenwald’s retelling. The 215 program, as it is known, is subject to layer upon layer of oversight and has even resulted in the NSA scaling back projects the FISA Court found too expansive, but you’d never learn that from Greenwald’s work.

He may be correct in identifying programs that could pose problems if they were unregulated and immune from judicial review. But Greenwald chooses to ignore the very simple fact that these programs are actually tightly regulated and subjected to constant review. Moreover, the damage done by these leaks has been established by classified military studies as “grave,” but that does not seem to faze Greenwald or his exuberant supporters. The simultaneous overselling of what the documents say, combined with the extreme amount of damage they’ve done to U.S. national security, is a poison pill to Greenwald’s entire intellectual artifice.

With such an unreliable narrator controlling the story, can we trust his version of Snowden’s evolution to leaker? Trusting Greenwald is essential to believing his version of events. Despite having them in his possession, Greenwald still, almost a year after releasing the first few slides, declines to publish the remaining slides about the PRISM program, which monitors internet traffic. He won’t say what those documents contain. It’s a safe bet that Greenwald will never disclose information that paints the NSA in a positive light — treating a subject fairly and without bias is not his role, he argued in a recent exchange with the New York Times former editor Bill Keller. Rather, Greenwald sees his role as exposing a system he feels is unjust, in order to hold the powerful accountable.

It is an appealing call to arms, yet Greenwald’s entire mythology of Snowden relies on both his and Snowden’s reliability in disclosing their own motives and behavior. Greenwald cannot construct his tale of an evil, out-of-control NSA trampling the law and violating privacy rights without omitting sympathetic documents or memos. Elevating Snowden to secular sainthood is essential to building absolute faith that he and he alone can be trusted to leak the right documents at the right time. Accepting his version of the agency and its programs requires an absolute faith in the moral intentions and intellectual fairness of a guy who said leakers “should be shot in the balls five years ago, but now thinks it entirely appropriate to steal hundreds of thousands of top secret documents and then flee to Russia.

The myth-making of Snowden by the journalists who covered him and his leaks is almost unprecedented in modern journalism. One journalist became so enamored of the felonious spy as to make a George W. Bush-style ultimatum to his fellow journalists, demanding they choose whether to be “with Snowden” or against him. The idea that journalists simply cover the story — are the sources credible, are claims verifiable, do documents tell the story being told in the papers, and so on — is not simply dismissed, but actively denounced. Greenwald’s fan club insists that  one must support Edward Snowden as a moral person and not just as a source of documents that should be assessed. Skepticism, or even a different conclusion based on the same set of documents, is out of bounds.

When mainstream journalists write of their sources in this way, Greenwald screams, quite often on Kremlin-controlled media, that they’re hopelessly incompetent and corrupt.

The relentless hagiography of Edward Snowden, which is taken to such an extreme as to border on satirical, permeates Greenwald’s account. From the grandiose pronouncements more suited to a bodhisattva, to the clever way he avoids ever discussing who pays for Snowden’s lifestyle in hyper-expensive Moscow for the past year, to who provides the metal detectors visitors apparently must pass through before seeing him in person, Greenwald is not interested in telling Snowden’s story per se — he is promoting Snowden as a savior. Greenwald often mocks those who suggest Snowden is briefing Russian intelligence officials, but in correspondence (pdf) with the European Parliament, Snowden openly admits he is in discussion with them, and is self-financing. Snowden wrote he wasn’t worried that Russian officials wanted to speak with him (“that’s their job” he explains), but he is deeply intolerant of U.S. officials also doing their jobs to protect the country. [editor’s note: Snowden recently recanted even that version of whether he spoke to Russian intelligence, and now apparently claims he never spoke with them at all.]

So what could possibly inspire this bizarre chain of events?

The Apotheosis of America-Hatred

From his writing, it is difficult to pin down what Greenwald believes in, apart from a fairly extreme sense of individualism. He writes policy papers for the right-wing libertarian Cato Institute on the dangers of drug policy, but then gives speeches on the “corruption” and “moral rot” of America to a Socialism Conference.

The only common thread linking the two together is a deep, almost visceral hatred of the American government and an extreme (not least in its selectiveness) form of libertarianism. Greenwald also believes strongly in the power of his own unique brand of “adversarial journalism.” He’s explained his philosophy as “People say things, you assume they are lying, and dig for documents to prove it,” with the rather obvious exception of Edward Snowden and anyone else who agrees with Greenwald’s views of the American government. That anything at all, whether law or social norm, might get in the way of his journalism is, to Greenwald, an unforgiveable attack on the very idea of free thought and speech.

While this may sound similar to the sovereign citizenship movement, whereby individuals assert their right to live in the United States without paying taxes or obeying any laws, it is more like a sovereign journalism movement — where reporters, though unelected and subject to zero democratic accountability, especially when privately funded by billionaires, nevertheless have the right to settle issues like national security, political discourse, and even the right to hold differing opinions (Greenwald and his followers routinely try to shout down, harass, and otherwise intimidate those who don’t share their opinions, which is a brazen attack on the very speech they say they defend).

Gone is Kennedy’s admonition to ask what you can do for your country, replaced here by an inchoate mixture of threat inflation about a tyrannical police state called America so extreme that it can only be called paranoid. In Greenwald’s universe, the government is not filled with bureaucrats trying to achieve discrete national security goals focused on terrorists; instead, Greenwald’s federal government is the living embodiment of what George Orwell depicted in 1984 (a cliché, he admits on page 174, but the “echoes” of it are “unmistakable”).

Despite Greenwald’s unequivocal declaration that America is a tyranny defined by the national security community’s politicized abuses, he cannot muster any evidence that this is, in fact, the case. Last October he said that a panoply of lawyers and friends told him he could not visit the United States from his home in Brazil because America is such a tyranny that the authorities would arrest him for political crimes. Yet when he came to the U.S. to receive a journalism award, no one touched him. America may be a tyranny in Greenwald’s imagination, but it sure does let him travel and speak freely anyway. (It goes without saying that Russian and Chinese dissidents are never treated so nonchalantly when they return home.)

In a recent interview on NPR, Steve Inskeep asked Glenn Greenwald if there was any evidence that the National Security Agency had used its massive collection capabilities to “blackmail people or ruin their reputations, or otherwise coerce and threaten them.” He demurred at first, going on a somewhat tangential discussion of abuses the U.S. government conducted of American citizens in the 1960s and 1970s. Inskeep pressed him again: was there evidence of abuse?

“No,” Greenwald said.

This sort of handwaving is rampant in No Place to Hide, in which past abuses like the CIA’s monitoring of domestic civil rights groups, curtailed by the Church Committee decades ago through the checks and balances built into the very structure of the government itself, are used in support of charges that the intelligence community is actively engaged in abusing citizens or violating the law today. By referring so constantly to Frank Church, Greenwald does not prove the government is out of control; he reinforces that it has significantly less leeway to surveil and abuse citizens that it did in the early 1970s.

Moreover, Greenwald has been promising for a good 10 months now that the biggest, juiciest revelations have yet to come, but so far he’s been unable to produce any evidence, for example, that the NSA is employed to harass political opponents (earlier in May he repeated his promise). His book certainly doesn’t have anything of the sort, unless he meant the unremarkable news that the NSA intercepts some internet routers to install tracking bugs (broken by Der Spiegel last December).

Greenwald’s campaign against the NSA is defined by such slippery logic, unsupportable rhetoric, and double-standards. In that same NPR interview, Greenwald allowed that no one would really object to the NSA using its vast powers to eavesdrop on Osama bin Laden, but his book is devoted to exposing, and thus neutralizing, the very tools the NSA would use to do such a thing… and that’s when he’s not attacking the very idea of “terrorism” as a socially constructed fiction used to persecute Muslims.

Nowhere in his book is a straightforward legislative history of how the NSA’s collection powers came to be — where they began, how they evolved, especially after 9/11, and where they are now. At one point, Greenwald asserts that the NSA began mass collection on Americans at the same time as the 2008 financial crash as part of an elite conspiracy to oppress citizens — a nonsense claim, as the NSA has been mining the rich veins of metadata since at least the STELLARWIND and Trailblazer programs of 2001-2, to say nothing of broad programs like ECHELON wherein the NSA gathered phone calls and emails in the 1990s. (It seems President Obama’s election was a radical turning both for Snowden and Greenwald, as the year 2009 seems to hold deep significance for both when explaining why they came to hate their own country so much.)

Beyond the conceptual level, it is clear Greenwald has seen in Snowden’s documents an opportunity to systematically attack American statecraft. His book, title aside, ultimately isn’t even about Edward Snowden — for Greenwald, Snowden is the cipher through which he channels his own hatred of the U.S. government, supported by a few dozen documents cherry-picked from an archive of hundreds of thousands. This is the other side of Greenwald’s and Snowden’s unspoken leaking agenda — they aren’t as concerned with violations of privacy so much as with the very act of spying itself. That is why so few documents Snowden stole actually relate to privacy issues, and why so many relate to methods and technologies used to spy on terrorist groups, foreign hackers, and other governments.

When viewed as an attack on American spycraft, and thus statecraft, many of Snowden’s and Greenwald’s non-privacy leaks make more sense. That’s why Snowden released files identifying IP addresses belonging to China’s People’s Liberation Army that are monitored by the NSA. It’s why Snowden pushed out operational details of how the United Kingdom and the United States tried to monitor Russian officials during a trade conference (Greenwald resisted any call to condemn Russia’s invasive mass surveillance of the Sochi Olympics). It’s why Greenwald timed his leak of NSA activities in Brazil to disrupt historic trade talks between Presidents Dilma Rousseff and Barrack Obama. It’s why Greenwald leaked embarrassing (and often factually incorrect) leaks about NSA activities to coincide with Secretary of State John Kerry’s trips to France, Germany, Italy, and Finland.

In fact, the act of spying is so outrageous to Greenwald that he nearly precipitated a war between Australia and Indonesia simply because of the idea of a western country spying on a non-western country was too abhorrent for him to countenance. Legitimately oppressive countries — like Russia or China — are never targets for such scrutiny or outraged by Greenwald or Snowden. Only America and her closest allies deserve scrutiny and condemnation even though the U.S. is the only intelligence community in the world that is subject to judicial, legislative, and executive oversight.

Settling Scores

At the end of it all, one is hard-pressed to see Greenwald’s book as anything other than self-serving score-settling. He certainly does not understand the documents Snowden handed him (or perhaps he treats them with a deliberate obtuseness). If he had, then he would know the difference between a PowerPoint meant to “sell” a program or capability to decision-makers, and a policy memo (or project report) that actually detailed specific activities and evaluated their outcomes.

In case after case, Greenwald demonstrates an inability to distinguish between a capability that could pose privacy implications down the road and actual abuses that have already taken place — and that’s when he’s not tendentiously misrepresenting documents to begin with.

Greenwald couples this amateur’s view of how the NSA and intelligence community as a whole operate with a vicious, smug personal agenda against reporters. A favorite target is Meet the Press’ David Gregory, who had the temerity to ask Greenwald if he had committed a crime. Rather than plainly answering the question (“no I did not”), he instead attacks Gregory for daring to question his holy mission. Journalism, in Greenwald’s appealingly simplistic moral universe, is only legitimate when it agrees with his assumptions and behavior.

It’s noteworthy that some of the most worrying leaks about NSA data possibly being used inappropriately haven’t even come from Snowden and Greenwald, again, probably because they had no idea what they have leaked (we don’t even know how many documents Snowden really took, and again instead of plainly answering the question, Snowden elides it while Greenwald mocks those who try to figure it out).

For instance, when it was revealed that the DEA is using signals intercepts in “parallel construction to nab Americans possibly involved in narcotics smuggling, the documents came not from Snowden’s archive but from diligent investigative reporting at Reuters.

That seems instructive. Despite his contempt for “objective” reporting, such reporting still holds enormous value. Despite his years of attacking insider reporting based on exclusive access to shadowy individuals doling out documents to drive a narrative, Greenwald has employed the exact same tack for taking down the NSA.

His criticisms come almost like clockwork now: while in his book the “good” guys are manly, upright, crusading heroes, all who don’t share his worldview are sniveling simps to the power elite, too concerned with their own access and privilege to bother rocking the boat. This review is almost guaranteed to elicit a snide comment about secret sources of funding, hidden agendas, and outright name-calling (a common tactic he employs to shut down debate on his pet topics).

Being an asshole is no crime in journalism, but being a dishonest hypocrite is. Greenwald is so convinced of his own brilliance, and the unimpeachable morality of his crusade, that he feels no need to treat his subjects fairly. Snowden is a saint, while the NSA is a den of scoundrels. There can be no middle ground. And with this book, no middle ground seems possible — everything is so neat, so clearly portrayed in such simplistic terms, that the very gray morality of international relations, terrorism, security, and even politics can never be contemplated.

I envy Greenwald. The world he constructs has an appealing simplicity I wish I could embrace. But I’m too attached to the real world for his fantasy.

Joshua Foust is a former intelligence analyst and former journalist. The views expressed here are his alone & unrepresentative of any employer past or present.