Last week, the novelist and former CIA operative Barry Eisler published one of the most important posts I have read about what’s happening to the press since the Snowden revelations began in early June. In it, he tries to explain why authorities in the UK detained Brazilian national David Miranda for nine hours at Heathrow airport and confiscated all the technology he had on him. (Miranda, as everyone following the story knows, is the spouse of The Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald. He had been acting as a courier, bringing documents on encrypted thumb drives back and forth between Greenwald in Brazil and his collaborator, Laura Poitras, in Germany.)
Eisler’s explanation of this pivotal event is the most persuasive I have seen.
1. Sand in the gears
“Put yourself in the shoes of the National Surveillance State,” he writes. You’ve already commandeered the internet for state use and you have most of the world’s communications monitored and stored. Journalists are beginning to realize than none of their means is secure, so they’re retreating to face to face meetings, traveling backwards in technological time to evade your reach. But you find out about one of these meetings: Greenwald’s spouse is visiting Berlin. Eisler explains:
The purpose was to demonstrate to journalists that what they thought was a secure secondary means of communication — a courier, possibly to ferry encrypted thumb drives from one air-gapped computer to another — can be compromised, and thereby to make the journalists’ efforts harder and slower.
Recognizing that you can’t bring journalism to a complete halt, you try to throw sand in the gears. David Miranda was detained and questioned under a terrorism statute in Britain. What’s the connection? As Eisler says, “Part of the value in targeting the electronic communications of actual terrorists is that the terrorists are forced to use far slower means of plotting. The NSA has learned this lesson well, and is now applying it to journalists.” He writes:
To achieve the ability to monitor all human communication, broadly speaking the National Surveillance State must do two things: first, button up the primary means of human communication — today meaning the Internet, telephone, and snail mail; second, clamp down on backup systems, meaning face-to-face communication, which is, after all, all that’s left to the population when everything else has been bugged. Miranda’s detention was part of the second prong of attack. So, incidentally, was the destruction of Guardian computers containing some of Snowden’s leaks. The authorities knew there were copies, so destroying the information itself wasn’t the point of the exercise. The point was to make the Guardian spend time and energy developing suboptimal backup options — that is, to make journalism harder, slower, and less secure.
2. Working together
The day after Eisler’s post appeared, Ben Smith of Buzzfeed found out — and the Guardian then announced — that some of the Snowden documents had been shared with the New York Times, which will report in partnership with the Guardian on some NSA stories. Britain’s equivalent of the NSA, the GCHQ, had forced the Guardian editors to halt work in London on the Snowden leaks. But…
Journalists in America are protected by the first amendment which guarantees free speech and in practice prevents the state seeking pre-publication injunctions or “prior restraint”.
It is intended that the collaboration with the New York Times will allow the Guardian to continue exposing mass surveillance by putting the Snowden documents on GCHQ beyond government reach. Snowden is aware of the arrangement.
Sunday night, Ben Smith broke more news: another skilled newsroom, the investigative non-profit site, ProPublica, is also working on Snowden stories with The Guardian. This is the right move. They are trying to make journalism harder, slower and less secure by working together against you. You have to work together against them to publish anyway and put the necessary materials beyond their reach.
As I wrote in my last post, the surveillance state is global, so the struggle to report on its overreach has to move about the globe, as well. Another good sign:
In an open letter to David Cameron published in today’s Observer, the editors of Denmark’s Politiken, Sweden’s Dagens Nyheter, Norway’s Aftenposten and Finland’s Helsingin Sanomat describe the detention of David Miranda, the partner of the Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald, as harassment.
They say that the “events in Great Britain over the past week give rise to deep concern” and call on the British prime minister to “reinstall your government among the leading defenders of the free press”.
3. “Give me the box you will allow me to operate in.”
In an appearance last month on Charlie Rose, former NSA and CIA director Michael Hayden was asked about the “appropriate balance” between secrecy and transparency.
Hayden said that if it were up to him, he would “keep it all secret” because NSA could best operate that way. But: “I know I live in a modern democracy,” which won’t allow anyone to operate for long without a “national consensus” underpinning the program. You can’t have a national consensus without a national discussion, he admitted. And you can’t have such a discussion “without a significant portion of the citizenry” knowing something about what you’re doing. And so, Hayden said, he had come to accept that the NSA would have to “shave points off of our operational effectiveness” in order to become “a bit more transparent to the American people.”
As a former head of the CIA and the NSA, Hayden said he understood that he would be constrained by what American democracy thought acceptable. All he wanted from Congress was clear guidance. “Tell me the box,” he said, making a square with his hands as he talked. “Give me the box you will allow me to operate in. I’m going to play to the very edges of that box.” He said he would be “very aggressive,” and probably “get chalk dust on my cleats” but still:
You, the American people, through your elected representatives, give me the field of play and I will play very aggressively in it, as long as you understand what risk you are embracing by keeping me and my colleagues in this box, Charlie, we are good to go. We understand. We follow the guidance of the American people.
Hayden’s sketch of a surveillance state properly constrained by a wary public left a few things out, of course. When the Director of National Intelligence can lie to Congress in open session and keep his job, Hayden’s system has broken down. When United States senators, alarmed about what they are told, cannot alert the American people because of secrecy requirements, Hayden’s “through your elected representatives” becomes a hollow phrase. Over-classification makes “national consensus” impossible on its face. A ”secret body of law giving the National Security Agency the power to amass vast collections of data on Americans” is not likely to generate much discussion… is it? Hayden’s descriptions sound reasonable — reasonable enough that Charlie Rose didn’t push back on them — but the behavior of the surveillance state doesn’t match up with his soothing words.
WHICH IS WHY WE NEED JOURNALISTS! In fact, we can go further. Without including in the picture an aggressive press that is free to operate without fear or coercion, the surveillance state cannot be made compatible with representative democracy. Even then, it may be impossible.
4. The establishment press is beginning to get it
Barry Eisler concluded his compelling post with this:
The authorities want you to understand they can do it to you, too. Whether they’ve miscalculated depends on how well they’ve gauged the passivity of the public.
Making journalism harder, slower and less secure, throwing sand in the gears, is fully within the capacity of the surveillance state. It has the means, the will and the latitude to go after journalism the way it went after terrorism. News stories alone are not going to make it stop. There are signs that the establishment press is beginning to get it. Sharing the work of turning the Snowden documents into news is one. David Carr’s column in today’s New York Times is another. “It is true that Mr. Assange and Mr. Greenwald are activists with the kind of clearly defined political agendas that would be frowned upon in a traditional newsroom,” Carr wrote. “But they are acting in a more transparent age — they are their own newsrooms in a sense — and their political beliefs haven’t precluded other news organizations from following their leads.”
Only if they can turn a mostly passive public into a more active one can journalists come out ahead in this fight. I know they don’t think of mobilization as their job, and there are good reasons for that, but they didn’t expect editors to be destroying hard drives under the gaze of the authorities, either. Journalism almost has to be brought closer to activism to stand a chance of prevailing in its current struggle with the state.