Commentary Magazine


Topic: Laura Poitras

Snowden, Greenwald, and the NY Times’s “High Standards”

Margaret Sullivan, public editor of the New York Times, believes that the paper’s Book Review made an error in assigning Glenn Greenwald’s No Place to Hide to Michael Kinsley. No Place to Hide is Greenwald’s account of how he helped to expose the revelations of fugitive National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden, first in the pages of the Guardian, where Greenwald briefly worked as a blogger, and then through the auspices of First Look Media, an online news organization that he launched last October alongside documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras and radical journalist Jeremy Scahill. (I wrote about this trio last year.) Kinsley, needless to say, did not like the book.

That’s his right, Sullivan acknowledges, but she nonetheless found his review to be “unworthy of the Book Review’s high standards.” Why? First is its “sneering tone about Mr. Greenwald,” a fantastically oblivious criticism given Greenwald’s trademark contemptuous writing style. Next, Sullivan accuses Kinsley of repudiating the “special role for the press in America’s democracy.” This is a complete mischaracterization of Kinsley, who merely argued that “newspapers, and their employees, should not have the final say over the release of government secrets, and a free pass to make them public with no legal consequences.” Snowden and Greenwald have arrogated to themselves that final say; Kinsley believes, quite reasonably, that these two men should not be the final arbiters of America’s national-security secrets.

Sullivan believes that Book Review editor Pamela Paul made a mistake in not thoroughly scrubbing the review of such heresies. “It’s wrong to deny that role,” she writes, of Kinsley’s supposed trashing of the First Amendment, “and editors should not have allowed such a denial to stand.” Having failed to adopt the Greenwaldian view of state secrets (a view apparently shared by Sullivan), Kinsley thus had no right to express his disapproval in the august pages of the Times

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Margaret Sullivan, public editor of the New York Times, believes that the paper’s Book Review made an error in assigning Glenn Greenwald’s No Place to Hide to Michael Kinsley. No Place to Hide is Greenwald’s account of how he helped to expose the revelations of fugitive National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden, first in the pages of the Guardian, where Greenwald briefly worked as a blogger, and then through the auspices of First Look Media, an online news organization that he launched last October alongside documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras and radical journalist Jeremy Scahill. (I wrote about this trio last year.) Kinsley, needless to say, did not like the book.

That’s his right, Sullivan acknowledges, but she nonetheless found his review to be “unworthy of the Book Review’s high standards.” Why? First is its “sneering tone about Mr. Greenwald,” a fantastically oblivious criticism given Greenwald’s trademark contemptuous writing style. Next, Sullivan accuses Kinsley of repudiating the “special role for the press in America’s democracy.” This is a complete mischaracterization of Kinsley, who merely argued that “newspapers, and their employees, should not have the final say over the release of government secrets, and a free pass to make them public with no legal consequences.” Snowden and Greenwald have arrogated to themselves that final say; Kinsley believes, quite reasonably, that these two men should not be the final arbiters of America’s national-security secrets.

Sullivan believes that Book Review editor Pamela Paul made a mistake in not thoroughly scrubbing the review of such heresies. “It’s wrong to deny that role,” she writes, of Kinsley’s supposed trashing of the First Amendment, “and editors should not have allowed such a denial to stand.” Having failed to adopt the Greenwaldian view of state secrets (a view apparently shared by Sullivan), Kinsley thus had no right to express his disapproval in the august pages of the Times

In light of Sullivan’s concern for how the Times chooses writers to cover particular subjects, I wonder what she has to say about another matter in this regard. Last August, the New York Times Magazine assigned Peter Maass to write a profile of Poitras, whose fervently critical films about the Iraq War attracted the attention of Snowden, who reached out to her when he was contemplating how to publish the NSA information he had stolen. Poitras, Maass wrote sympathetically, had become “the target of serious – and apparently false – accusations,” namely, that she had foreknowledge of a deadly ambush carried out on American troops in the town of Adhamiya in 2004 by Iraqi insurgents, an ambush that she filmed. Ever since that incident, Poitras has been questioned dozens of times by Homeland Security officials upon re-entering the United States, a tribulation that Maass writes about with uncritical sympathy.

The case, however, is not as clear-cut as Maass portrayed. “It seems that she had pre-knowledge that our convoy, or our patrol, was going to get hit,” Brandon Ditto, the leader of the platoon that was ambushed, told John McCormack of the Weekly Standard last year. Skepticism of Poitras was also voiced by John R. Bruning, author of a 2006 book that detailed the ambush. “To be exactly positioned to capture a vehicular ambush in the middle of Baghdad is either a huge fluke or you have foreknowledge that that was coming,” he said. To Maass, however, Poitras is a dissident hero, harassed by the jack-booted thugs of a government out to silence her.

Fast-forward six months. Maass is rewarded for his obsequiousness with a job as senior writer at none other than First Look Media. This is somewhat akin to the revolving door that thrusts mainstream, supposedly “straight” news reporters (16 at last count) into the Obama administration. When someone who has devoted their career to reporting abandons that line of work to join the very people he used to write about, it is entirely fair to question the quality and objectivity of their previous work. Why, after all, would Barack Obama choose a Jay Carney as his spokesman (as opposed to some career Democratic Party flack) unless he had found his reporting to be eminently favorable? In light of the Maass episode, which, to my knowledge, no media ethicist has yet to comment upon, one might think that an editor at the Times magazine (or, failing that, the Times’s public editor), would question whether the magazine has buyer’s remorse for assigning a piece about a highly controversial figure to a man whose writing about said figure was so credulous that she later awarded him a job.

Last year, when Poitras learned that the Guardian had assigned veteran news reporter Ewen MacAskill to accompany her and Greenwald to Hong Kong, where Snowden was hiding, she became angry and suspicious. “Who has vetted him?” she demanded of Greenwald. In the contest for most sycophantic coverage of the Snowdenista crew, Peter Maass passed with flying colors.

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Of Course America Spies on the UN

The American agency directed to collect foreign intelligence for the United States government is currently collecting foreign intelligence for the United States government. If that doesn’t sound like much of a bombshell, it’s because it isn’t. Or, conversely, it’s because you are just a government “tool,” as Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg would describe you. That duality of extremes is ever-present in the world of the transparency activists trying to take down American spy networks.

In the New York Times Magazine profile of Laura Poitras, the activist working with Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald, the author describes Greenwald as being “hailed as either a fearless defender of individual rights or a nefarious traitor, depending on your perspective.” In the world of the Times–and certainly that of Greenwald, Poitras, and Snowden–there is no other choice, just as to the self-aggrandizing Ellsberg you either believe he is the hero in his own saga and that Snowden is the hero in his, or you are giving up on the battle to keep your inner totalitarian at bay.

Pollsters fall into this trap too. As I wrote in July, Quinnipiac polled respondents on the following question: “Do you regard Edward Snowden, the national security consultant who released information to the media about the phone scanning program, as more of a traitor, or more of a whistle-blower?” Traitor or hero, traitor or hero–lather, rinse, repeat. But the truth, as always, is more complicated than that: in fact, Snowden most likely qualifies as neither a whistle blower nor a traitor. And sometimes the truth is downright mundane, as in the item with which I led off this post. This “revelation,” that spies spy, comes to us via Poitras, writing in Der Spiegel:

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The American agency directed to collect foreign intelligence for the United States government is currently collecting foreign intelligence for the United States government. If that doesn’t sound like much of a bombshell, it’s because it isn’t. Or, conversely, it’s because you are just a government “tool,” as Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg would describe you. That duality of extremes is ever-present in the world of the transparency activists trying to take down American spy networks.

In the New York Times Magazine profile of Laura Poitras, the activist working with Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald, the author describes Greenwald as being “hailed as either a fearless defender of individual rights or a nefarious traitor, depending on your perspective.” In the world of the Times–and certainly that of Greenwald, Poitras, and Snowden–there is no other choice, just as to the self-aggrandizing Ellsberg you either believe he is the hero in his own saga and that Snowden is the hero in his, or you are giving up on the battle to keep your inner totalitarian at bay.

Pollsters fall into this trap too. As I wrote in July, Quinnipiac polled respondents on the following question: “Do you regard Edward Snowden, the national security consultant who released information to the media about the phone scanning program, as more of a traitor, or more of a whistle-blower?” Traitor or hero, traitor or hero–lather, rinse, repeat. But the truth, as always, is more complicated than that: in fact, Snowden most likely qualifies as neither a whistle blower nor a traitor. And sometimes the truth is downright mundane, as in the item with which I led off this post. This “revelation,” that spies spy, comes to us via Poitras, writing in Der Spiegel:

The internal NSA documents correspond to instructions from the State Department, which then-US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton signed off on in July 2009. With the 29-page report called “Reporting and Collection Needs: The United Nations,” the State Department called on its diplomats to collect information on key players of the UN.

According to this document, the diplomats were asked to gather numbers for phones, mobiles, pagers and fax machines. They were called on to amass phone and email directories, credit card and frequent-flier customer numbers, duty rosters, passwords and even biometric data.

When SPIEGEL reported on the confidential cable back in 2010, the State Department tried to deflect the criticism by saying that it was merely helping out other agencies. In reality, though, as the NSA documents now clearly show, they served as the basis for various clandestine operations targeting the UN and other countries.

Experts on the UN have long suspected that the organization has become a hotbed of activity for various intelligence agencies. After leaving Prime Minister Tony Blair’s cabinet, former British Secretary of State for International Development Clare Short admitted that in the run-up to the Iraq War in 2003 she had seen transcripts of conversations by then-UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

The article details Poitras’s claim that the U.S. conducts surveillance on the EU and the United Nations. The UN is a dictator’s playground through which Western interests are relentlessly targeted and undermined and genocidal maniacs the world over are shielded from the consequences of their murderous depravity. This is all done while furthering anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and weakening sanctions regimes. The UN does this largely from its perch on American territory and with the help of billions of dollars of American taxpayer money. Of course the U.S. collects intelligence there.

But to those who are instinctively suspicious of the American government, even basic practices of modern statecraft take on a nefarious frame. There’s an interesting nugget along these lines in the Times Magazine profile of Poitras, when the author relayed a question to Snowden about Poitras:

In response to a question about when he realized he could trust Poitras, he wrote: “We came to a point in the verification and vetting process where I discovered Laura was more suspicious of me than I was of her, and I’m famously paranoid.”

Snowden was surprised to encounter someone more paranoid than he is. Together, these birds of a feather joined Greenwald.

There is another point worth making here. The American public has been fairly sensible throughout this NSA saga, uncomfortable with the sense that the NSA’s broad power has been abused (NSA employees spying on love interests would–and should–make most readers squirm) but unwilling to jettison the program. A poll late last month found, for example, that 70 percent thought the NSA data was being used for purposes other than combating terrorism, yet 50 percent still approved of the surveillance program.

Revelations about spying on the UN is unlikely to change that. Americans seem to be broadly comfortable with spy agencies conducting foreign surveillance. And they don’t tend to think too highly of the UN’s problem-solving capability. The idea that the U.S. spied on the UN’s nuclear watchdog, for example, will probably be encouraging to most Americans as the U.S. works to stop Iran and others (like Syria) from obtaining nuclear weapons. If Poitras, Snowden, and Greenwald want to turn public opinion against the American government, defending the UN’s sullied honor is probably not the best way to do so.

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