“If sunlight coalitions are to succeed, they won’t succeed by outwitting surveillance. Not better technology, but greater legitimacy is their edge.”
The mood toughened just over a month ago, when I received a phone call from the centre of government telling me: “You’ve had your fun. Now we want the stuff back.” There followed further meetings with shadowy Whitehall figures. The demand was the same: hand the Snowden material back or destroy it. I explained that we could not research and report on this subject if we complied with this request. The man from Whitehall looked mystified. “You’ve had your debate. There’s no need to write any more.”
That’s the government telling the editor of a national newspaper: Time’s up, no more of that journalism stuff! We’ll decide when there’s been enough debate. Stop now or we’ll make you stop. Rusbridger’s response: We will continue our careful reporting of the Snowden material. “We just won’t do it from London.” (The Guardian has a U.S. operation based in New York.) From Reuters:
The Guardian’s decision to publicize the government threat – and the newspaper’s assertion that it can continue reporting on the Snowden revelations from outside of Britain – appears to be the latest step in an escalating battle between the news media and governments over reporting of secret surveillance programs.
This battle is global. Just as the surveillance state is an international actor — not one government, but many working together — and just as the surveillance net stretches worldwide because the communications network does too, the struggle to report on the secret system’s overreach is global, as well. It’s the collect-it-all coalition against an expanded Fourth Estate, worldwide.
When Wikileaks first exploded onto the political scene in 2010, I wrote this about it:
If you go to the Wikileaks Twitter profile, next to “location” it says: Everywhere. Which is one of the most striking things about it: the world’s first stateless news organization. I can’t think of any prior examples of that. (Dave Winer in the comments: “The blogosphere is a stateless news organization.”)
Wikileaks was modeling the concept. Now we are seeing different expressions of it every day. “We just won’t do it from London” is one. The collaboration among Edward Snowden, an American exile living in Russia, filmmaker Laura Poitras, an American living in Berlin, and Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald, an American living in Brazil— that’s another. A few days ago, when Greenwald’s spouse, David Miranda, was detained at Heathrow airport by the UK branch of the surveillance state, Greenwald naturally alerted The Guardian’s lawyers in the UK, but he also alerted officials in the Brazilian government, who brought pressure to bear through the foreign ministry.
This tells us something. The battle I referred to is not a simple matter of the state vs. civilians. It’s not government vs. the press, either. It’s the surveillance-over-everything forces within governments (plus the politicians and journalists who identify with them) vs. everyone who opposes their overreach: investigative journalists and sources, especially, but also couriers (like David Miranda), cryptographers and technologists, free speech lawyers, funders, brave advertisers, online activists, sympathetic actors inside a given government, civil society groups like Amnesty International, bloggers to amplify the signal and, of course, readers. Lots of readers, the noisy kind, who share and help distribute the work.
This type of sunlight coalition — large and small pieces, loosely joined — is a countervailing power to the security forces, the people who are utterly serious when they say: “You’ve had your debate. There’s no need to write any more,” the same people who, as Bruce Schneier has written, “commandeered the internet” for their use because, viewed from a certain angle, it’s the best machine ever made for spying on the population.
If sunlight coalitions are to succeed, it won’t be by outwitting surveillance. Not better technology, but greater legitimacy is their edge. This attitude was perfectly captured by Ladar Levison, founder of Lavabit, who shut down his email service when the surveillance state demanded his submission. “I think if the American public knew what our government was doing, they wouldn’t be allowed to do it anymore,” he said.
Sunlight wins when the deeds exposed turn out to lack legitimacy under the greater scrutiny they receive because of the exposure. That can only happen through open argument over known facts. The argument is always about the same thing: what is truly in the public interest, and what violates justice, decency, common sense, national conscience, the requirements of a democracy. As Rusbridger told the BBC:
“If they were to arrest David Miranda in Heathrow car park they would have to use bits of the law which have checks and balances to protect journalistic material, among other things, but by doing it in a transit lounge they are operating in a kind of stateless way where they can interrogate someone for nine hours, seize whatever they want, under rules that are about terrorism. Once you start conflating terrorism and journalism, as a country I think you’re in some trouble.”
A conspiracy to commit journalism has to operate in the open. Its methods go beyond investigation, careful editing, truth and accuracy, telling a good story that brings complex issues home. There is inescapably a political element. Release-the-information coalitions can only form around broadly shared goals. People who disagree on other things are likely to agree on the need for sunlight. Those who would expose the misdeeds of an agency like the NSA need good arguments, not just good sources and good lawyers. Not the reach but the overreach of the surveillance state should be the object of their critique. It’s not enough that your story be right on the facts. Your thinking has to be right on the money. It has to speak to ends that are almost as universal as the emotion of fear, an always-on power source for the “collect it all” consortium.
Those who would expose and oppose the security state also need good judgment. What to hold back, when not to publish, how not to react when provoked, what not to say in your own defense: alongside the forensic, the demands of the prudential. All day today, people have been asking me: why did The Guardian wait a month to tell us about, “You’ve had your fun. Now we want the stuff back?” Michael Calderone of the Huffington Post asked Rusbridger about that. His answer:
“Having been through this and not written about it on the day for operational reasons, I was sort of waiting for a moment when the government’s attitude to journalism –- when there was an issue that made this relevant,” Rusbridger said.
That moment came after Sunday’s nine-hour airport detainment of David Miranda, partner of Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian journalist at the center of the NSA surveillance story.
“The fact that David Miranda had been detained under this slightly obscure schedule of the terrorism act seemed a useful moment to write about the background to the government’s attitude to this in general,” Rusbridger said.
Hear it? The holding back. The sensation of a political opening, through which the story can be driven. The alignment of argument with information. The clear contrast between a terror anyone can identify with — being detained for nine hours while transiting through a foreign country — and the state’s obscure use of terrorism law. These are political skills, indistinguishable from editorial acumen. In a conspiracy to commit journalism we must persuade as well as inform.
After Matter: Notes, Reactions & Links
You can find all the pieces I’ve written on Snowden, the press and the surveillance state here.
Public radio’s The World interviewed me about this post. Listen here. (It’s 5:41.)
John Naughton in the UK reacts to this post: Democracy as a ‘game.’
The big question, to my mind, is whether the kind of comprehensive surveillance deemed essential by the national security state is compatible with democracy.
The answer I’m heading towards is “No”.
Former CIA agent turned novelist Barry Eisler tries to explain why David Miranda got stopped at Heathrow by the UK authorities. His answer: to make further journalism about the Snowden material more difficult. I think he’s got it.
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.
Does this sort of “deny and disrupt” campaign sound familiar? It should: you’ve seen it before, deployed against terror networks. That’s because 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.
“If you support a free press publishing leaked state secrets you are apparently condoning terrorism. If you don’t object to his detention loudly, you are condoning the secret state.” On CNN.com, former BBC executive Richard Sambrook reflects on the hardening of positions.
Social media, advocacy journalism, the need to define and claim the narrative and to be heard leaves little room for middle ground, but it is there that this conflict will be resolved. In that gray area, the ethical bridge between these positions will have to be rebuilt.
My contribution to Sambrook’s bridging project in this post: “Not the reach but the overreach of the surveillance state should be the object of their critique.”
Mark Ambinder, national security reporter and columnist, explains his reasons to be troubled the NSA, and, in a separate column, why concerns about it are overblown: 5 reasons the NSA scandal ain’t all that. “I really do think tribal feelings determine how you view the significance of Edward Snowden’s revelations,” he writes. Conor Friedersdorf isn’t buying it.
The Press Gazette in Britain asks why newspapers in the UK are largely letting The Guardian go it alone, and not jumping fully into the fray.