Why is it such a scandal that a spy agency spies?
Warning: This post contains an image of a powerpoint slide marked TOP SECRET//SI//ORCON//NOFORN. Continue reading at your peril.
On June 29, the Guardian published another set of leaked NSA documents alleging that the National Security Agency is eavesdropping on European Union countries. Some of the details are eye-popping, including bugging devices on E.U. outposts in the U.S. But in broad strokes, the revelations are not terribly shocking. After all, is it any surprise that a spy agency that says right on its website that it snoops on foreign communications is actually snooping on foreign communications?
It’s normal for countries to be angry when publicly identified as targets of surveillance. But some of the outrage is difficult to understand, given how European countries themselves behave.
In 2011, for example, leaked Wikileaks cables revealed the government of France to be one of the world’s great industrial espionage powers. “French espionage is so widespread that the damages (it causes) the German economy are larger as a whole than those caused by China or Russia,” an undated note from the U.S. embassy in Berlin said.
An AFP analysis of the cables quoted Berry Smutny, the head of German satellite company OHB Technology, saying in 2009, “France is the Empire of Evil in terms of technology theft, and Germany knows it.”
At the end of 2011, the French government launched an investigation into Bernard Squarcini, then the head of Direction Central du Renseignement Intérieur, France’s interior security service, for illegally wiretapping journalists at the Le Monde newspaper. Squarcini was trying to discover who was leaking insider information about a political scandal to the paper. At the end of June, he was formally indicted.
The response from the U.S. government has been, essentially, that such surveillance is fairly normal activity. “I will say that every country in the world that is engaged in international affairs and national security undertakes lots of activities to protect its national security and all kinds of information contributes to that. All I know is that it is not unusual for lots of nations,” Secretary of State John Kerry said at a news conference in Brunei.
Yet few, if any, media outlets are reporting on the EU’s own extensive spying networks.
The reporting on these NSA leaks is still sloppy, often missing crucial context, and sometimes even misleading. Two weeks ago I catalogued an initial round of questions about the coverage in the Guardian and Washington Post, and much of the reaction here and on Twitter amounted to: So what? Why does it matter if some details were flubbed — the real story is the wiretapping.
Details, however, matter very much. On June 29, the Washington Post released another set of slides describing the controversial PRISM program. These slides dramatically change our understanding of the program, such that is now appears that initial reportings about the program were deeply misleading.
For example, in the original story, Barton Gellman and Laura Poitras said that the NSA was “tapping directly into the central servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies,” collecting data at will. As Mark Jaquith wrote for Medium,that story had significant problems. In the new set of slides, and the Post’s reporting about it, new details highlight just how misleading it was. Look at the title of the first slide:
The title itself, “PRISM Tasking Process” shows that PRISM is just a tool for tasking relevant agencies, like the FBI, to do collection via their own processes. Following the flowchart from the top, an analyst makes a request within PRISM. That request is reviewed by a supervisor and thenis sent after review to the FBI. It is not, on its own, a “data-mining program,” as reporters at both the Post and Guardian claimed.
Mike Masnick at TechDirt highlights some more problems with the Post’s reporting. After pointing out several claims about the program the Post cannot substantiate, he concludes:
It’s entirely possible that the Washington Post’s interpretation of these slides is accurate. It’s also entirely possible that the other slides, or additional reporting from WaPo reporters allows them to have more knowledge on these things, and it could be true that the companies in questions are not being fully truthful. However, especially given how it appears that the WaPo’s original reporting on PRISM was fairly sloppy, it seems worth reserving judgment until more information comes out.
Indeed, the haphazard reporting about this program raises a lot of questions about how journalists are covering the scandal.The timing of the disclosures is remarkably coincidental — first the leak about cybersecurity issues with China during the Obama-Xi summit in California, and now about surveillance on European countries right after negotiations began for the long-proposed U.S.-E.U. trade pact. the Guardian couldn’t time these leaks to damage the U.S. more if it tried.
When these leaks about American espionage activity are so outrageous that Vladimir Putin is defending his “American partners,” something incredible is going on. The Russian president has made no secret of his disdain for the U.S.: In the last year, he has kicked out USAID, expelled many democracy-promotion organizations, harassed human rights activists, needlessly humiliated an American diplomat, and blown the cover of the CIA Station Chief in Moscow. Putin is no friend to the U.S., and he still feels the need to come to its defense.
Yet the discussion about journalism and its ethics to report accurately are curiously removed from the conversation. Time after time, easily Google-able facts, context, and nuance are left out of stories about the disclosures. Instead, the conversation is about judging Guardian opinion journalist Glenn Greenwald as a person (he is not authoring even the majority of stories anymore), rather than whether his reporting and that of his colleagues can withstand scrutiny. Far too much of it cannot.
Incomplete, sloppy reporting about the NSA is arguably as important as the specific revelations about the NSA’s spying activities. Early reporting on the leaks was just wrong: Too much key information was left out to made an educated judgement what programs like PRISM are. Such a revelation cuts at the very heart of journalists as educators and discoverers of truth. As the Washington Post continues to trickle out the remaining thirty or so slides in the forty-one-slide deck about PRISM, we should be wondering whether our reporters are even bothering to report accurately and fairly what our government is doing in our name.