Conspiracy to commit journalism

"If sunlight coalitions are to succeed, they won't succeed by outwitting surveillance. Not better technology, but greater legitimacy is their edge."

20 Aug 2013 5:02 pm 16 Comments

Alan-RusbridgerThe 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.”

                                                                               —Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian

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, 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.


The growth of the national security state since 9/11 has greatly expanded the number of people who are employed to spy on us in an effort to protect us (in their minds). Any attack on the legitimacy of that role is an attack on their paychecks, prestige and roles in life. Also, the secrecy that they operate under hides loads of incompetence, fraud, and mismanagement that many in the NSS would surely not want to have exposed to the light of day.

Members of the “sunlight coalitions” will have a herculean fight to expose those systems and the people involved in them.

Jay’s otherwise excellent analysis omits mention of the fact that major military defense contractors comprise the backbone of the international surveillance state — and the same small group of contractors is behind the global deployment of a celltower/satellite radio frequency directed energy weapon grid that is being heinously used to silently torture, impair, subjugate, harm and slow-kill extrajudicially targeted “dissidents” and “undesirables”. This veteran journalist exposed this 21st century virtual Auschwitz four years ago and remains under daily, debilitating, painful attack:

Conflating the word “terrorism” goes down to the local police level…

Two drunks get in a bar fight. One tells the other he’s going to rip his head off if he ever runs into him again. Local cops come and haul the two off. In addition to drunk and disorderly charges, the one is also charged with making “terroristic” threats.

True story.

Another explanation by analogy:

A whistle-blower “breaks the law” by jaywalking across the street in the middle of the night to warn his neighbors that an arsonist has set fire to their home. After phoning the police and fire departments for assistance, the firemen arrive and turn their hoses on the whistle-blower while the fire consumes the home. The police arrest the whistle-blower for jaywalking, disturbing the peace, “narcissism” (for wanting to “play the hero”), and for not reporting to the arsonist first for clearance regarding “classified” information. Other, additional, charges against the whistle-blower follow at a later date once the arsonist has become a government informant eager and willing to give eyewitness “evidence” in a “secret” trial of the whistle-blower who, as it so happens, has unresolved gender-identification problems and other unsavory personal qualities.

I think that about covers the Obama administration’s jihad against whistle-blowers whom he once promised to cherish and respect.

proximity1 says:

Although you are right to point this out—

…”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: …”

—I think it’s a little more complicated than that.

For example: On Saturday, 25 August, 2012— soon, that is, four days shy of exactly one year ago, I wrote this to the Guardian‘s forums, where my posts at the time were subject to “pre-moderation”–their Orwellian term for prior censorship– it never appeared in the comments thread to which it was posted because, upon reviewing it, as all my posts were at the time, the persons concerned rejected it as worthy to be posted:

(cited as reference to which I reply)

Labour, meanwhile, is too polite or too frightened of the privilege in its own ranks to attack the Tory frontbench for its cartoonish affluence and state, quite clearly where is your empathy? National newspapers, largely owned by the very wealthy, don’t help. They confuse the issue by peddling stereotypes and routinely describe those on £80,000 a year as “middle class” (the average wage in Britain, in case they really don’t know, was £26,200 last year).”


True. Thank you for “pointing that out.” However, you never mentioned The Guardian by name in any of that. Why is that? Are they not included, notwithstanding your article here?

There’s something else which I see as intimately related to all that you argue here: these observations are exceedingly rare in their appearance in anything rightly called the mainstream news media–including The Guardian. Thus, they amount to what are, everywhere, and outside exceptional occasions, when they may be mentioned in a “safety-valve” sort of fashion, de facto taboo topics. One may rarely mention them, but only in carefully euphemized terms, avoiding things that would seriously and dangerously “connect-the-dots” for the general public.

What does it indicate when a “newspaper” –this newspaper–routinely resorts to censorship and repression of its readers’ comments when those readers’ comments simply present the writers and editors with comments and arguments that out-wit the latter? And, for irony, how about the habit of treating those who supply the majority of the content in the readers’ discussion fora, which the paper then profits on by advert sales in these spaces, are treated to subtle or open threats of having their comments summarily suppressed—without prior notice, without appeals, without any clear indications offered of what some “moderator” ‘s whim found deserving of censorship. This is your Guardian, but it certainly isn’t mine.

There is a serious and a fundamental problem when a newspaper, which should be devoted to the protection and promotion of free-speech is, instead, an ardent practitioner of censorship, including preemptory censorship–of the kind that my comments are now subjected.

Viz: leading every comment box when I sign in is the supposedly menacing, and intentionally menacing phrase: “Your comments are being premoderated.”

To what, I wonder, does the paper’s name, “Guardian” refer, anyway?

I gather it refers in actual fact to the paper’s own power, prerogatives and interests in peddling a narrative that is largely self-serving.

As I see and contend it, I “earned” that status by having consistently presented comments which certain of The Guardian‘s readers first complained about to the moderators and which then, on review, the writers and editors were suppressed because they contained reasoning and arguments which left both those readers and a moderator angry for the want of a solid rebuttal.

Their response? Prior censorship.

For me, perhaps you, as a writer, are indeed on my side of the imbalance, but, “on balance”, The Guardian“s routine writing, as I see and read it, consistently shows that its editors and writers never forget who butters their bread –when, indeed, they are not themselves full members of the bread-buttering ruling class.

(this post is archived in my files for future reference)


In another post sent the next day, Sunday, 26th August, 2012 — in the paper’s “Comment is Free” (& so is Irony!) entitled “How do we escape the hysteria that threatens to erode public debate?” (Peter Beaumont, 25 August 2012 :…/peter-beaumont-internet-ruining-politics How do we escape the hysteria that threatens to erode public debate?)


“How do we escape the hysteria that threatens to erode public debate?”

is a completely phony “problem”. Trust is eroded, faith is eroded, certainly
knowledge, intellectual openness, and sound reason–all those, too, are eroded,
but none of them are eroded by this alleged “hysteria”.

You’re mistaking cause and effect here. The hysteria follows from the
prior erosion of public debate, itself due to all the aforementioned

confused reasoning, ignorance of facts; hostility to considering new information, the (justified) losses of faith and trust in all public institutions and authority figures, etc.

Hysteria follows from that. Address these precedent problems and the level
of hysteria will diminish.

You could also lead by example in abandoning your ardent practice of
censorship of your readers’ comments— a practice which shames you, undermines
your own already diminished authority, and, ultimately, conditions, habituates,
the general public to a wider more general use of censorship everywhere—as
something “normal” in the public’s experiences.

When The Guardian, as an institution, as a newspaper, one day needs
a public which has a ready recognition of the inestimable value of free speech
and the harms of censorship, to whom shall it then turn for support and

Not its own readers. They’ll have been made accustomed to being censored and
shall not understand why there is anything wrong with it.

‘Think “better,” please.’

Now, in response to the latest turn of events with the detention of David Miranda in a stop-over in London’s Heathrow airport, and, today, no longer subject–as far as I know at this writing–to prior review of my comments, I re-sent the above comment to the thread of Simon Jenkins’ column, “Is Glenn Greenwald’s journalism now viewed as a ‘terrorist’ occupation?”

This time, it appeared for a while a drew two readers’ “thumbs up” and a reply which read, “excellent, excellent, and that is so true”.”

The next time I checked, it had been suppressed without even the usual “This comment has been removed for violation of the Guardian’s terms of use.” etc.

The Guardian “guards” first and foremost its own prerogatives and interests in free speech and then, only partially and secondarily, “free speech in general”.

That has a very great deal to do with the “edge” you write of–the edge of legitimacy : “Not better technology, but greater legitimacy is their edge.”

The Guardian‘s own policies seriously undermine this legitimacy.

Ramesh Kandukur says:

Well said, Sir.

Crenshaw says:

Guardian Editor Alan Rusbridger seems much too coy in ‘revealing’ his encounters with British GCHQ. Rather suspicious for a professional journalist who is supposedly bravely fighting-the-system.

Why did he not specifically name the “very senior government official claiming to represent the views of the prime minister”, who initially contacted/threatened him about the Snowden materials ? Nor did he name (or even generally identify) the other “shadowy Whitehall figures” arriving in his office.

Why is Rusbridger protecting these people ??

Also, his very brief mention of: “… one of the more bizarre moments in the Guardian’s long history – with two GCHQ security experts overseeing the destruction of hard drives in the Guardian’s basement” … without the slightest detail of the circumstances of how it happened. It was an outrageous criminal act, even under British law — but Rusbridger glosses over it like it was just some annoying computer crash his organization had encountered.

Rather dodgy journalism. Without Greenwald, the Guardian’s Snowden/NSA reporting might well be very weak. Perhaps the British press is still way too cozy with British politicians and bureaucrats.

Protecting sources and/or waiting for a news peg I can understand, but deliberately holding back news to try to maximize its political impact (which Jay seems to be suggesting here) doesn’t strike me as the kind of thing journalists do, or should do.

“Neither fear nor favor” cuts both ways.

Let me see if I understand you correctly:

In this corner, we have a literal handful of journalists exposing the Monolithic Global Leviathan’s malfeasance and ineptitude.

In this corner, we have the Monolithic Global Leviathan determined to snuff out journalism.

In the interests of “fairness,” let us require that the handful of journalists must report immediately anything they discover according to the 24//7 infotainment paradigm specifically designed by the Monolithic Global Leviathan to render journalism meaningless and instantly forgotten.

Yes. I think that describes your “cuts both ways” comment. Unfortunately, that implies that the handful of real journalists have no right to a say in the rules of the game whereas the Monolithic Global Leviathan not only has a say, but the only say.

No. Things do not “cut both ways” at all. “Play fair!” Goliath demands of little David. “Drop the slingshot!” But the new paradigm of “sticking with the story narrative and not allowing its fragmentation” — developed by a mere handful of journalists with few resources compared to the Monolithic Global Leviathan — seems promising indeed.

It looks like a little band of asymmetric guerrillas has invented the journalistic equivalent of the I.E.D.: cheap, intelligent, and deadly to “the terrible worms in their iron cocoons.”

And there is also this, that citizens must be told the truth by their government. I, as a citizen of the US, want to know what my government is doing, and I would prefer to know too much than not enough. Here is where the model was set: when the Americans liberated the death camps in Germany after
World War II, they came to realize that the local German citizens knew nothing of these atrocities, and the Germans were forced by the Americans to go and view what they knew nothing about, what the leaders they had been cheering on, had done. In a democracy citizens must be told pretty close to everything their government is doing. That’s why the Guardian, Greenwald, Snowden, Manning are all great Americans. I’ll not say what the other side is, if a truthful look is taken of that side.

Here is the problem I have with this “new model” being championed here: It is not sustainable.

Any model that is based on people stealing government documents and then having to go to jail for it is going to be tough to sustain over the long haul. Yes, every now and then a new sacrificial lamb will pop up -like a Snowden or Manning. But really, it’s a pretty flawed model.

And in the end, the traditional model – heavy research, asking the right questions, developing sources, befriending the Snowdens of the world and getting them to tell you suff – will prove more durable. It’s the kind work done by people like Barton Gellman and Kurt Eichenwald all the time. (You know, the guys Glenn Greenwald called a liar and a statist lackey.) And really, it’s a model that can people applied to other fields. We have a lot more problems in the world than the NSA.

Yes, that kind of work is harder and more difficult for reporters than having a government worker steal stuff and send it to you via email. (After all, the source is usually the one who has to go to jail, not the reporter.) But it ultimately makes a better contribution to us understanding to these situations, why they happened, and what they all mean.

The “stuff” belongs to the American people who pay for it and require it in order to exercise their oversight of the government that claims to act in their name. The citizens cannot “steal” what belongs to them already. Their government belongs to them, not the other way around. On the other hand, a government that regularly robs citizens of the 4th Amendment — and most of the others — and then attempts to keep their larceny secret needs to pay some whopping fines and do some serious jail time. You know, as an example to all that official and corporate crime (but I repeat myself) doesn’t pay. Failure to expose and expunge the arbitrary exercise of state power will only demonstrate to the real thieves that their crime does indeed pay.

The Founders of our Republic designed the Constitution specifically to make the arbitrary exercises of state power as difficult, costly, and time-consuming as possible — precisely so as to render its occurrence as rare as human ingenuity could make it. Arguing for “the convenience of government” in arbitrarily exercising “secret” state powers misses not just the letter of the Constitution, but its very essence.

From Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, by Robert Jay Lifton, M.D.

Milieu Control

The most basic feature of the thought reform environment, the psychological current upon which all else depends, is the control of human communication. Through this milieu control the totalist environment seeks to establish domain over not only the individual’s communication with the outside (all that he sees and hears, reads or writes, experiences, and expresses), but also – in its penetration of his inner life – over what we may speak of as his communication with himself. It creates an atmosphere uncomfortably reminiscent of George Orwell’s 1984.

Such milieu control never succeeds in becoming absolute, and its own human apparatus can – when permeated by outside information – become subject to discordant “noise” beyond that of any mechanical apparatus. To totalist administrators, however, such occurrences are no more than evidences of “incorrect” use of the apparatus. For they look upon milieu control as a just and necessary policy, one which need not be kept secret: thought reform participants may be in doubt as to who is telling what to whom, but the fact that extensive information about everyone is being conveyed to the authorities is always known. At the center of this self-justification is their assumption of omniscience, their conviction that reality is their exclusive possession. Having experienced the impact of what they consider to be an ultimate truth (and having the need to dispel any possible inner doubts of their own), they consider it their duty to create an environment containing no more and no less than this “truth.” In order to be the engineers of the human soul, they must first bring it under full observational control.

I don’t want military officers — or any government flack, for that matter — trying to engineer my soul by bringing me under full, or even partial, observational control. They had their shot at me for almost six years, but I escaped their bungling clutches after I came back from Vietnam in early 1972. I don’t answer to brown-nosing, ticket-punching military officers or their hysterical commander-in-brief. And I never will again. Fuck them and the white pig they rode in on. They don’t deserve to know anything because they would only use the knowledge for economic and political extortion. Think J. Edgar Hoover with a global database on everyone. No thanks.

Matt Stoller says:

In general, I like and respect your work. But as with your refusal to discuss the structure of media ownership in your general critiques of media, here too you refuse to deal with the elephant in the room. These are espionage agencies who work the press ferociously. J. Edgar Hoover, the CIA, the NSA, and so forth wiretapped, blackmailed, bugged, and ran a secret police state for decades. And while temporarily stymied in the mid-1970s, these institutions were NEVER reformed. And after 9/11, any pretense that they were on a leash was removed, and the money spigot was turned on. Why would they be acting any differently today than they have acted for decades?

This is from “Challenging the Secret Government”:

“According to the Church committee’s final report, approximately fifty U.S. journalists had covert relationships with the CIA, about half of which involved money… In a controversial article in Rolling Stone, Bernstein claimed that more than 40o American journalists secretly carried out assignments for the CIA from the early 1950s to the mid-197os.”

[…] against them to publish anyway and put the necessary materials beyond their reach.As I wrote in my last post, the surveillance state is global, so the struggle to report on its overreach has to move about the […]

[…] week, Rosen went even further. In a new post, he describes the need for a new, global “sunlight coalition” of “large and […]