On May 19, The Intercept published Data Pirates of the Caribbean, an article detailing how the NSA had not only recorded the metadata of phone calls (who calls with whom) but was recording the actual conversations in two countries under a program called SOMALGET. Although SOMALGET is operational in two countries only one of them, the Bahamas, was named in the article. The other country was simply labeled Unnamed X by The Intercept “in response to specific, credible concerns that doing so (naming it) could lead to increased violence.”
This sentence left me very confused as a reader. Who voiced these “specific, credible concerns” to the authors of The Intercept? Just how would naming a country lead to increased violence? And increased violence by who against whom? The article fails to address any of these questions and simply carries on as if a whole nation was not just denied to know all their phone calls are being recorded.
But these are very important questions. Greenwald repeatedly stated that people should be informed about the NSA practices so that they can have a debate about them. Apparently, that is all well and good for the less than 400.000 people living in the Bahamas, but doesn’t seem to hold up for the population of Unnamed X in Greenwald’s world.
For someone who wrote a book titled “With liberty and justice for some”, that strikes me as a very odd move. Why are the people of Unnamed X not allowed the same information as the people of the Bahamas? Who told The Intercept that it would lead to increased violence and on what basis? And even if it would lead to increased violence, how is that the problem of the population of Unnamed X? What is next? Not reporting on America’s illegal drone strikes in Pakistan anymore because all it does is anger the Pakistani people?
On Tuesday May 20th, Glenn Greenwald was in Amsterdam to promote his new book, No Place to Hide. The venue, the Stadsschouwburg, was close to sold out and hundreds of people came to hear him speak. The moderator of the evening, Juurd Eijsvoogel, mentioned the article about SOMALGET in his introduction as an example of the great work Greenwald had been doing. Not a word about Unnamed X, which again was conveniently ignored.
Greenwald held about a 30 minute monologue on his work with Snowden and his new book. He ended the monologue on the note that there are a lot of conflicting messages in the debate around mass surveillance. Governments say it is very specific and targeted and necessary for public safety. Critics say that it is indiscriminate, overreaching and results in ‘suspiciousless’ surveillance. He then goes on to state:
“And it’s very hard to resolve that conflict except for the fact that we’re all really fortunate that we just so happen to have all of the NSA’s documents on this very question. And so we don’t need to trust the NSA or Dutch government officials or anybody else and we don’t need to trust me or Edward Snowden or critics of these agencies, we can look at what the NSA itself was saying in secret when they thought that nobody was listening.”
The problem of course, is that we can’t. In fact we all need to do exactly what he tells us we shouldn’t: we need to trust Greenwald and Snowden. Because although Greenwald, Snowden and Poitras might have access to the documents, we, the public, most certainly do not.
Where before we depended on governments to inform us about what they were doing, we now depend on Greenwald et al to do so. And as we have seen, depending on whether you live in the Bahamas or Unnamed X can make a huge difference in just how much of a debate Greenwald will allow you to have.
It makes you wonder if Greenwald realizes that people are bringing their governments to court over his releases and that these court cases would benefit tremendously from having access to all relevant documents. But we don’t. We just have to sit back and hope that one day, Greenwald will release enough to win a court case over.
Greenwald also took several punches at traditional journalism and the ‘unwritten rules’ about journalism, one of them being that you cannot feel anything for your source. That is something Greenwald finds nonsense, and rightfully so. He has much respect for Snowden and admires him for what he did. Why then Wikileaks’ Sarah Harrison had to fly to Hong Kong in order to get his source to safety and asylum in Moscow after Greenwald abandoned him remains completely unclear and, perhaps worse, completely unmentioned.
But perhaps the greatest moment of irony, that seemed to completely escape Greenwald, came when he talked about the unwritten rules of journalism when working with the government. About how you’re not supposed to express opinions, be too aggressive in condemning the government and how you’re supposed to pretend to have respect for their fear mongering claims about why you shouldn’t publish. And then:
“You’re supposed to give great deference to the things that they tell you about what should and shouldn’t be published. If you get a lot of top secret documents you’re supposed to publish just a few, so that the public can kind of get a little glimpse of what it is that you have and then kind of walk away before anything really changes and collect all your prizes and write a book.”
If the people are to challenge those in power then the people need access to the information required to do so. The “little glimpse” that has been provided so far has indeed kick started a discussion on privacy and mass surveillance as Greenwald says, but with the massive information disparity between the people and their governments, who will cry ‘national security’ at any request for more information, this discussion will die before anything really changes too. If The Intercept really wants to enable people to act, they should take a page from the Wikileaks book and create a highly searchable archive for the documents so that people around the world can find the information that is relevant to them and use it to take the action they deem necessary.
Update: Sander Venema has also written about the matter, his interesting article can be found here.