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Since 2008 – Progress Through Politics

The Snowden Leaks: Source Protection and Regulatory Capture of the Press

First off: Moose I miss You. My long absences are only explained by manic writing sessions covering lots of breaking news (and a new novel). But I’m hoping, as so well displayed by Shaun in previous post, to have a sensible discussion about the NSA leaks without it reverting to the usual Rox/Sux Obama debate, or framing intelligence services as all good, or all bad.

I’ve published a piece today in The New Republic which (going beyond the personalities of either Manning or Snowden or their interlocutors Assange and Greenwald) tries to look at the role of whistleblowing and the press in the modern age.

More below the flip

One of my major interviewees for this piece, Heather Brooke, a US trained journalist who broke the MPs expenses scandal here, and was responsible for bringing the wikileaks classified cables to the Guardian makes two interesting points, often overlooked in the debate/furor

The first is how dangerous the surveillance powers are for any whistleblower wanting to contact a journalist.

Often overlooked in the discussion of personal privacy and national security is the impact that digital surveillance has on journalist source protection. Even if only a tiny fraction of social networking and email accounts are examined by government intelligence agencies (around 19,000 out of 1.1 billion Facebook users according to James Ledbetter at Reuters), that’s still an untenable risk for a would-be whistleblower contacting a journalist. “The flip side of the digital revolution is that this technology is so easily hijacked by state surveillance,” says Brooke, who has since written up her experiences in her book The Revolution Will Be Digitised. “It was a steep learning curve for me three years ago,” she says. Brooke would “go dark” before important meetings, ditching her smart phone which could be hijacked as a tracking device, electronic bug or remote camera. She was told most email and online messaging services were insecure, and she relied on encryption keys and secret chat rooms. Three years before it had been acquired by Microsoft, other journalists would communicate with Assange using Skype. She wouldn’t trust it now (nor Assange apparently, who she claims tried to destroy the credibility of the Guardian when it wouldn’t do his bidding).

The second is about the temerity of big news organisations these days, when confronted with government secrets

But Brooke, who cut her teeth as a crime reporter in the U.S., thinks the American press has since become a victim of “regulatory capture.” “Whistleblowers are vanishingly rare, and every newspaper needs government briefings and insider information just to survive,” she says. But since the Beltway is not the preoccupation of a U.K.-based news service, the Guardian could afford not to play ball.

It’s an odd side effect of the borderless exchange of information-a kind of regulatory arbitrage. While Apple, Amazon, Google and other corporations can use global communications to escape national taxes, the Guardian seems to have a found a niche where it can play to U.S. readers while avoiding the worst consequences from the authorities-exclusion from briefings, refusal to confirm or deny stories, or provide interviews from senior politicians and staff.

As you all know, I am an Obama supporter. But I’m also deeply critical of concentrations of power, in the media, in certain sections of international finance, and – because power corrupts – in an unaccountable security service.

On the Moose I look forward to discussing these issues without rancour or resentment

So fire away!


  1. I was listening to a discussion on this topic on the radio this past week and one of the commentators asked that we draw a distinction between “whistle blowing” and “leaking”.

    Edward Snowden leaked information but the jury is still out on whether he did it for any purpose other than to claim his 15 minutes of fame.

    When I think of “whistle blowers”, I think of Daniel Ellsberg or Wendell Potter.

    Maybe the controversy needs to steep for a while before we find out whether his revelations are important or make a difference?

    I also admit to bias because I am not a fan of Glenn Greenwald and that association brings into question the motives of those involved. If you leak to gain partisan advantage, is it really whistle blowing? Or is it just the same old same old … simply Darrell Issa’ing to avoid the important issues of the day: climate change, economic stagnation, human rights?

  2. bill d

    Is the postal service still an option for contacting the press? Then personal visits as follow ups, of course, but can’t anything be done without it being done in the wild west ether?  I know it is not geared to our instant gratification but there are a different set of laws governing the mail.

    There are a lots of reasons they call this the Information Age.

  3. Rustbelt Dem

    And the legal and ethical arguments are quite frankly not my field of expertise.  I’m a smart enough fool to know when to shut up.

    My interest lies in this question (and I will grant you that I am not in any way motivated by impartiality): Did Glenn Greenwald, sometimes financed by the Cato Institute and on record as having a hatred of Barack Obama and also knowing Edward Snowden before his employment at the NSA, purposely recruit someone to breach national security?  

  4. HappyinVT

    make our lives easier?  In a way they do but they are also a giant pain in the rear.

    We’ve given up bits of our time and privacy since the first pager rolled out of Asia.  Co-workers, friends, family could reach you at any time and woe! unto you if you didn’t respond rightthatminute.

    Then came cell phones and email and texting and GPS and Internet and data capture all intended to make life easier.  And it has, I think, for most of us.  But with that ease comes an apparent price.  You get targeted ads based on your browsing history.  Your favorite websites are remembered.  Shopping sites send you recommendations for future purchases.  The list goes on and on.

    Is it any wonder that the government would want to get into the data capture business?  If everyone else is doing it why shouldn’t they.  But here’s the thing: sometimes the old-fashioned way is the best way.  If someone wants to blow the whistle via a journalist (when did Greenwald earn that moniker anyway?) maybe meet in the dark parking garage; worked for Woodward and Bernstein.  Use an untraceable cell phone.  Jesus, be creative.  Or yeah, the USPS works, too.  Not like they don’t need the business.

  5. Kysen

    I hope you and yours are well…and I totally feel ya on the ‘I miss you’ to the Moose. I’ve only recently begun to engage again after a time away.

    Now, as to your subject matter.

    I am still ‘torn’ between the two sides. I am neither willing to declare Snowden a hero and the US too far gone the way of Rome….nor am I willing to dismiss the ‘leak’ as nothing to worry about and the intrusions into our privacy as a price to pay for security.

    The thing is, and where I get a bit Ouroboros about it in my head, I WANT our security/surveillance/spy  services (NSA, CIA, FBI, etc) to use EVERY tool at their disposal to do their jobs to the very best of their abilities…but, I ALSO want to know that they are using those tools against those who would harm us, not against every civilian/citizen of the US public…HOWEVER…if ‘I’, as a private US citizen, am given the information as to what they do, how they do it, when they do it, all in order to provide ME (as a member of the US public) the transparency that many seem to be crying out for….then that would mean that ANYONE would have access to that info, thereby weakening the effectiveness of the very groups/agencies that I want to be working at their very best of their abilities…..(and around we go again…the tail fitting quite nicely into the mouth)….

    Holy run-on sentences Batman!

    Point is…I want both the best that our security agencies can provide…AND I want transparency. Unfortunately I don’t see how, if being realistic, one can have BOTH. So, there is a balance that needs to be struck.

    Right now? It looks like things have tilted too far towards the lack of privacy due to poorly regulated powers….in correcting that, however, I don’t want to see it tipped so far towards transparency that we neuter our security/surveillance/spy agencies abilities to protect us (and the rest of the world).

    Our laws regarding privacy are antiquated. Not in intent, but in application. They were not written for an electronic/computerized age. They NEED to be re-worked in order to both protect our privacy as citizens AND provide level-minded judicial oversight of the groups/programs that exist to protect us and our interests.

    And, there, sadly, is the rub.

    The likelihood of our government reworking those laws in any manner that holds teeth any time soon is pretty much nil. You KNOW that the Republicans in Congress will NEVER agree to remove some of the powers of ‘information seeking’ that are currently legal….they would declare attempts to do as such as ENABLING TEH TERRRRRISTSSSS!

    So, yah, I’m torn. But, I think no matter where one lies on the dividing line of opinion of it…nothing much is really going to come of it because our current Legislature (Congress/House of Reps) is broken.

    Just my, overly wordy, 2 cents worth.

  6. bfitzinAR

    Power corrupts.  Absolute power corrupts absolutely.  And the other one – Knowledge is power.  Personalities don’t come into it.  Nobody, and certainly no organization public or private, is trustworthy after a certain point.  It’s why the “balance of power” shouldn’t be only within the government (3 branches) but within the public-private sectors.  The Founders put as many safeties into the Bill of Rights as they could think of (and get passed) – but it’s up to government to actually enforce them upon themselves as well as everybody else.  And the slippery slope of good governments going bad as they acquire enough power to send them after power for power’s sake (as opposed to power to do good in the world) ends in revolution.  For over 200 years we’ve managed peaceful revolution at the ballot box.  We either manage it again, despite gerrymandering, voter suppression, and anti-American “patriotic” propaganda – or we don’t.  We are here (and on DK, even with the rox/sux meta over there) because we are doing our best to make it the former.

  7. The problem as I see it is the line between the press reporting a story and crafting a story has been destroyed to the point I don’t have confidence in the integrity of the press.  It’s curious you’ve written about press surveillance through Newscorp and how Murdoch has actually attempted to subvert British Democracy what is our protection from that?

    I would personally like to restore trust in government and the idea that the security services are spending their time plotting against their citizens to the extent folks think makes me laugh from a dude who actually comes from a community where the american government did plot against our leadership.  I also have issue with accountability in that the mechanisms for it are there, but the people who are failing at it are not getting the level of blame they deserve, our Congress.  Your parliament jumped the entire hell down Murdochs throat, could you imagine us doing it?  lol not me.

    Do you trip you can’t step out of your door in London and not be on camera?  Is the English expectation of privacy different?  Cause I’ve known since the 80’s the FBI will park a van outside your house and listen to the sound of you fart on the word of a crack head with a warrant a sleeping Judge told his assistant to do in 15 minutes.

    The problem i’ve always seen with the Snowden affair is nothing, and I mean nothing he disclosed was not fully debated in the 2008 FISA debate and it appears to be the fuss is that the President actually did it.  As I have written in a piece here did Obama tell a lie, he didnt.

    However his story was crafted and it was done so to push an agenda.  Do I mind nope, god bless free press Glenn should only go to jail if it is found he colluded with Snowden before he got the BA job or anytime before to funnel information.  Just like the AP dude.  Not reporting a story but being active in the crafting of the narrative around it.

    What keeps me up at night?


    Wrote about not many Moose seemed interested, but the bottom line is the balance of powers and underlying paranoias underneath them aren’t always apparent to bloggers looking to pledge drive, and “journalist” generally have the ethics to speak to an authority before they report on national security matters.

    Anyhow nice to see you Brit.

    Oh like the C-net story it was suuuuch BS yet it’s in the collective.  I blame “journalism” or is it blogging.  I dont know.

  8. Edward Snowden Is No Hero

    Edward Snowden, a twenty-nine-year-old former C.I.A. employee and current government contractor, has leaked news of National Security Agency programs that collect vast amounts of information about the telephone calls made by millions of Americans, as well as e-mails and other files of foreign targets and their American connections. For this, some, including my colleague John Cassidy, are hailing him as a hero and a whistle-blower. He is neither. He is, rather, a grandiose narcissist who deserves to be in prison.

    Pretty strong words.

    Here is Toobin identifying the friction:

    What makes leak cases difficult is that some leaking-some interaction between reporters and sources who have access to classified information-is normal, even indispensable, in a society with a free press. It’s not easy to draw the line between those kinds of healthy encounters and the wholesale, reckless dumping of classified information by the likes of Snowden or Bradley Manning.

    The problem, of course, is one of who decides which encounters are reckless and which are healthy. Seems like we are always going to have to allow both and then deal with them whatever fallout they bring.

  9. fogiv

    My long absences are only explained by manic writing sessions covering lots of breaking news herpes (and a new novel syphilis).

    Fixed.  Anyhoo, I’ve only got just enough time for teh smarta$$, as it’s finals week for me.

    miss ya bro.

  10. Shaun Appleby

    Very interesting article and a good angle; no mention of Barret Brown however? Even tangentially? His case would seem to be the litmus test for whistle-blowing these days.

  11. ChurchofBruce

    Back in the day, I was quite the techie. Technology has gone beyond me nowadays :) but I used to manage a Radio Shack, and I was (probably still am) a licensed Ham Radio operator.

    When cell phones were in their infancy, it was absolute child’s play to listen into all kinds of conversations with nothing more than a good scanner. Of course, word of that got out, the cell companies panicked that people would never buy their phones, and started scrambling signals.

    The rub? This shit was still going over the airwaves!!! It was still interceptable, you just needed more sophisticated tools than a good scanner. Nowadays, it’s tougher, because cell signals are digital–however, it’s still doable. (Not by me, since, as I said, my techie geek credentials are still somewhere in 1990 :D).

    ANY expectations of privacy of ANYTHING that travels through the AIRWAVES is just foolish.  

  12. The danger in having a grifter lead the national conversation is that the floor of facts and issues are presented in a dishonest way.

    The NSA absolutely can not intentionally target U.S. citizens without an individual warrant. Even if you’re the most vocal Edward Snowden supporter in the universe, you have no choice but to acknowledge the truth and accuracy of this statement.

    How can I say such a thing? On Thursday, Glenn Greenwald wrote it deep within his latest “bombshell” article for the Guardian: “To intentionally target either of those groups requires an individual warrant.” The “groups” Greenwald referred to here are U.S. persons or residents.

    And there you go.

    This is easily the biggest news to come out of Thursday’s dispatch from Snowden and Greenwald (or “Snowdenwald,” as I’ve been using as a character-saving portmanteau on Twitter). Not only does it totally decimate CNet’s journalistic blunder from last weekend about the NSA “admitting” to listening to calls without warrants, but it also represents a striking clarification in Greenwald’s reporting, not to mention Snowden’s claims of being able to target any American including the president at his own discretion and without a warrant. The “requires an individual warrant” line isn’t the centerpiece of the article by any stretch. It’s tossed into the mix almost as a throwaway when, in fact, there’s nothing incidental about it at all.

    We will never have a discussion on the facts NEVER and we can thank our grifter “press” Glenn Greenwald (L) Brazil.

  13. U.S. Charges Snowden With Espionage, seeks extradition from Hong Kong

    “Federal prosecutors have filed a sealed criminal complaint against Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who leaked a trove of documents about top-secret surveillance programs, and the United States has asked Hong Kong to detain him on a provisional arrest warrant, according to U.S. officials.

    Snowden was charged with espionage, theft and conversion of government property, the officials said.

    The complaint was filed in the Eastern District of Virginia, a jurisdiction where Snowden’s former employer, Booz Allen Hamilton, is headquartered and a district with a long track record of prosecuting cases with national security implications. ”

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