To make journalism harder, slower, less secure

That's what the surveillance state is trying to do. It has the means, the will and the latitude to go after journalism the way it went after terrorism. Only a more activist press, working together, stands a chance of resisting this.

26 Aug 2013 1:37 am 32 Comments

Last week, the novelist and former CIA operative Barry Eisler published one of the most important posts I have read about what’s happening to the press since the Snowden revelations began in early June. In it, he tries to explain why authorities in the UK detained Brazilian national David Miranda for nine hours at Heathrow airport and confiscated all the technology he had on him. (Miranda, as everyone following the story knows, is the spouse of The Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald. He had been acting as a courier, bringing documents on encrypted thumb drives back and forth between Greenwald in Brazil and his collaborator, Laura Poitras, in Germany.)

Eisler’s explanation of this pivotal event is the most persuasive I have seen.

1. Sand in the gears

“Put yourself in the shoes of the National Surveillance State,” he writes. You’ve already commandeered the internet for state use and you have most of the world’s communications monitored and stored. Journalists are beginning to realize than none of their means is secure, so they’re retreating to face to face meetings, traveling backwards in technological time to evade your reach. But you find out about one of these meetings: Greenwald’s spouse is visiting Berlin. Eisler explains:

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.

Recognizing that you can’t bring journalism to a complete halt, you try to throw sand in the gears. David Miranda was detained and questioned under a terrorism statute in Britain. What’s the connection? As Eisler says, “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.” He writes:

To achieve the ability to monitor all human communication, broadly speaking the National Surveillance State must do two things: first, button up the primary means of human communication — today meaning the Internet, telephone, and snail mail; second, clamp down on backup systems, meaning face-to-face communication, which is, after all, all that’s left to the population when everything else has been bugged. Miranda’s detention was part of the second prong of attack. So, incidentally, was the destruction of Guardian computers containing some of Snowden’s leaks. The authorities knew there were copies, so destroying the information itself wasn’t the point of the exercise. The point was to make the Guardian spend time and energy developing suboptimal backup options — that is, to make journalism harder, slower, and less secure.

2. Working together

The day after Eisler’s post appeared, Ben Smith of Buzzfeed found out — and the Guardian then announced — that some of the Snowden documents had been shared with the New York Times, which will report in partnership with the Guardian on some NSA stories. Britain’s equivalent of the NSA, the GCHQ, had forced the Guardian editors to halt work in London on the Snowden leaks. But…

Journalists in America are protected by the first amendment which guarantees free speech and in practice prevents the state seeking pre-publication injunctions or “prior restraint”.

It is intended that the collaboration with the New York Times will allow the Guardian to continue exposing mass surveillance by putting the Snowden documents on GCHQ beyond government reach. Snowden is aware of the arrangement.

Sunday night, Ben Smith broke more news: another skilled newsroom, the investigative non-profit site, ProPublica, is also working on Snowden stories with The Guardian. This is the right move. They are trying to make journalism harder, slower and less secure by working together against you. You have to work together 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 globe, as well. Another good sign:

In an open letter to David Cameron published in today’s Observer, the editors of Denmark’s Politiken, Sweden’s Dagens Nyheter, Norway’s Aftenposten and Finland’s Helsingin Sanomat describe the detention of David Miranda, the partner of the Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald, as harassment.

They say that the “events in Great Britain over the past week give rise to deep concern” and call on the British prime minister to “reinstall your government among the leading defenders of the free press”.

The World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers wrote a similar letter to Cameron. They understand this is a global fight. The rest of the British press is only beginning to wake up to it.

3. “Give me the box you will allow me to operate in.”

In an appearance last month on Charlie Rose, former NSA and CIA director Michael Hayden was asked about the “appropriate balance” between secrecy and transparency.Michael_Hayden,_CIA_official_portrait

Hayden said that if it were up to him, he would “keep it all secret” because NSA could best operate that way. But: “I know I live in a modern democracy,” which won’t allow anyone to operate for long without a “national consensus” underpinning the program. You can’t have a national consensus without a national discussion, he admitted. And you can’t have such a discussion “without a significant portion of the citizenry” knowing something about what you’re doing. And so, Hayden said, he had come to accept that the NSA had to “shave points off of our operational effectiveness” in order to become “a bit more transparent to the American people.”

As a former head of the CIA and the NSA, Hayden said he understood that he would be constrained by what American democracy thought acceptable. All he wanted from Congress was clear guidance. “Tell me the box,” he said, making a square with his hands as he talked. “Give me the box you will allow me to operate in. I’m going to play to the very edges of that box.” He said he would be “very aggressive,” and probably “get chalk dust on my cleats” but still:

You, the American people, through your elected representatives, give me the field of play and I will play very aggressively in it. As long as you understand what risk you are embracing by keeping me and my colleagues in this box, Charlie, we are good to go. We understand. We follow the guidance of the American people.

Hayden’s sketch of a surveillance state properly constrained by a wary public left a few things out, of course. When the Director of National Intelligence can lie to Congress in open session and keep his job, Hayden’s system has broken down. When United States senators, alarmed about what they are told, cannot alert the American people because of secrecy requirements, Hayden’s “through your elected representatives” becomes a hollow phrase.  Over-classification makes “national consensus” impossible on its face. A “secret body of law giving the National Security Agency the power to amass vast collections of data on Americans” is not likely to generate much discussion… is it? Hayden’s descriptions sound reasonable — reasonable enough that Charlie Rose didn’t push back on them — but the behavior of the surveillance state doesn’t match up with his soothing words.

WHICH IS WHY WE NEED JOURNALISTS! In fact, we can go further. Without including in the picture an aggressive press that is free to operate without fear or coercion, the surveillance state cannot be made compatible with representative democracy. Even then, it may be impossible.

4. The establishment press is beginning to get it

Barry Eisler concluded his compelling post with this:

The authorities want you to understand they can do it to you, too. Whether they’ve miscalculated depends on how well they’ve gauged the passivity of the public.

Making journalism harder, slower and less secure, throwing sand in the gears, is fully within the capacity of the surveillance state. It has the means, the will and the latitude to go after journalism the way it went after terrorism. News stories alone are not going to make it stop. There are signs that the establishment press is beginning to get it. Sharing the work of turning the Snowden documents into news is one. David Carr’s column in today’s New York Times is another. “It is true that Mr. Assange and Mr. Greenwald are activists with the kind of clearly defined political agendas that would be frowned upon in a traditional newsroom,” Carr wrote. “But they are acting in a more transparent age — they are their own newsrooms in a sense — and their political beliefs haven’t precluded other news organizations from following their leads.”

Only if they can turn a mostly passive public into a more active one can journalists come out ahead in this fight. I know they don’t think of mobilization as their job, and there are good reasons for that, but they didn’t think editors would be destroying hard drives under the gaze of the authorities, either! Journalism almost has to be brought closer to activism to stand a chance of prevailing in its current struggle with the state.


proximity1 says:

You mean, of course, that the national security state is intent on making the job of its being held accountable to the public–through the auspices of an effective press–harder, slower, less secure.

And you’re quite right. That objective serves another one which is implicit and about which we so far talk very little: the state authorities aren’t ashamed or embarrassed for what they’ve deliberately done in wantonly violating the law and the rights of millions of people, nor do they have the slightest intention of reforming their habits.

Unless forced to by a new-found responsible public and some new found rigor on the part of some in positions of divided government authority, there is no one and nothing to rein in the national security surveillance state’s collect-it-all plans and operations.

As I’ve described in a post at the Guardian’s pages, the national security state is akin to a boa constrictor squeezing the life out of a system which once allowed and intended the public to have some genuine privacy in thought and in action. At length, the victim suffocates when it can no longer draw a breath. The snake senses its victim’s heartbeat and when it ceases, it relaxes its grip and can consume its victim.

The state’s clear intentions–unless forced to stop, against the will of those in authority–is to carry the effective elimination of those conditions of relative freedom to their technological conclusion.

So far, we’ve seen outrage and objection on the part of some of the public and some of the professional press. We’ve seen cynical double-talk, lies, lame excuse-making and phony empty gestures of deceit-based “reform” or “debate” offered from a state apparatus placed in a rare state of discomfort by the press due to the acts of conscience of a single and all too rare individual who refused to continue to go along with the planned elimination of the last vestiges of a once-hoped-for democratic system’s institutions, emptied of their meaningful content and left to stand as window-dressing for a secret system of corrupt cronyism–expanded by and through the globalization of a laissez-faire capitalism which ultimately rendered the Soviet style of state oppression quaint and obsolete.

Now a kind of « arms race » is underway in which each of the opposing forces makes move and counter-move in an effort to survey on one hand and escape surveillance on the other. After electronic devices are proven vulnerable as safe means of storage and transfer of data, other means of storage and transmission shall be sought and used, and then these shall become the next targets of officialdom’s efforts to discover, capture, control and inspect. Unless at some point authority is brought once more to have to account for itself to the public and a newfound legitimacy on the part of the public’s representatives—so far still entirely lacking—there shall be no end to the struggle to survey and control and the struggle to resist that and to preserve something of a free society’s openness and on one hand and privacy for individuals on the other.

Right now, it has already become completely clear that what was formerly thought useful in laws and in the once-believed limits they imposed on government officials—despite all the sordid history to the contrary—are again seen, in fact, to be a chimera, completely useless to the general public whose interests they were supposed to have served.

Re. the “arms race”

…retreating to face to face meetings, traveling backwards in technological time to evade…

Perhaps the next technological devolution will amount to something like this…

(Although, I bet DARPA has already developed drones capable of countering this.)

Regarding Michael Hayden, I remain after all these weeks mystified how he can be repeatedly interviewed and quoted with almost no one adding some mention of his substantial and direct pecuniary interest in the direction of this debate on surveillance. I assume in today’s clubby Washington ‘journalism’ circles it is simply not considered “cricket,” unless there is another explanation I’m missing. And that is separate from the equal absence of any descriptions of Hayden’s track record while in the public employ, which was worthy of a fitted orange jumpsuit.

NadePaulKuciGravMcKi says:

wrenches in the gears .. lives not lived in vain

You miss a major point: Another eagerly anticipated benefit to the Surveillance State is the opportunity to create distrust of journalist/activists via the means such as those used with Mr Miranda. The Surveillance State seized the opportunity to paint their interdiction of him in terms intended to frighten both timid readers and compromised journalists (with reason to fear decreased “access” to their own sources) a target such as Mr Miranda, with no access to relevant passwords that would disprove claims of any “terrorist-aiding” nature of the material in transit, was simply too potentially valuable to miss.

Quixote says:

To which I would add, that we have defined the nature of the surveillance state too narrowly. Rather than limiting our focus to the NSA scandal, we should see it in the broader context of other efforts, including:

a) spying on Muslims in New York and New Jersey, as well as

b) stop-and-frisk and

c) the ongoing assault on whistle-blowing and related forms of free expression around the country.

In the latter category we would need to include not only (1) the arrest and prosecution of protestors who write anti-bank slogans on the sidewalk with chalk, but (2) the vicious police manhunt for an artist who created fake “NYPD drone” ads, and (3) the witch-hunt trial and media campaign against an academic whistle-blower who sent out fake “Gmail confessions” in the “name” of an NYU department chairman.

Need I mention the vicious prosecution of Aaron Swartz, and the problem posed by the complete lack of proportion in our criminal justice system in general?

All of these interrelated phenomena manifestly contribute to furthering, as well as “gauging,” the “passivity of the public,” and only intellectual laziness, or perhaps even a national suicidal impulse of sorts, keeps us from seeing the repugnant unity of what’s happening. For documentation of the exemplary NYU “Gmail confession” case, see:

gregorylent says:

the mainstream is already fatally co-opted ..

do we think wolf blitzer is going to give up his comfortable associations and world view? david books, roger cohen, tom friedman, the nightly news readers?

those in the system will never go against the system that feeds them

Schaefer says:

” 4. The establishment press is beginning to get it ”


No way.

They are merely noticing a predictable symptom of the government behemoth … that they have enthusiastically promoted over the past century.

The establishment press has not been co-opted — it’s always been a faithful pillar of Big-Government. They have always worked in ‘aggregate’ to ever expand government authority, power, and reach.

That ‘Press’ is still, as always, blinded by faulty ideology:
Government is Good… Bigger Government is Better… Huge Government is Great… every human problem ultimately has a government solution. They always trust Government as an overall force of good & progress… they see any government missteps (no matter how severe) as just temporary challenges to its beneficent progress.

They still believe American government would work really well– if we just got some very bright young people from Harvard or Yale to run it… and solve all of society’s problems.

The Establishment-Press does not learn from experience nor history. This NSA episode will be forgotten by the 2016 election cycle.

tim libert says:


glad to see you going strong on this topic for weeks now, great posts. one thing I would like to see you explore more if possible is the very cozy relationship between technology companies and the technology press. primarily the relationship is a step above PR (if in any way distinguishable at times!) and provides no adversarial or investigative insight whatsoever. the NSA didn’t bug every person on the planet – apple, google, facebook and the rest did, and when the “press” goes only so far as the next gadget release the public is severely under served.

TheThinker1958 says:

The US has to start pushing for a 3rd party that merges the 99%, Democrats and Republicans, just without the ties to Wall Street, just normal people, people that still thinks there are political parties working for them (they stop that a long time ago).

People has to realize that there is no space available for other parties to start revolting against the ones in charge.

Journalism’s default setting should be activism if by activism we mean actively pushing for anyone in power to be accountable to the people.

[…] Rosen (and Barry Eisler) on the surveillance state’s efforts to make journalism harder, slower, less secure. The gist: why would they destroy hard drives they know there are copies of, and detain couriers […]

Posted on Bitmessage 24Aug2013.

Subject: Re: David Miranda and Preclusion of Privacy

A more important reason for detaining David Miranda is the information haul that resulted from changes in the world wide information graphs before and after that event.

By grabbing Miranda and watching who squealed, previously hidden information was brought into the open.

The data Miranda carried was of small consequence relative to the massive information gain that came from recording the response to his detention.

The military is commited to a policy of total information dominance, and that necessarily means something different than protecting individual rights.

The general progression in the logic from passive observation to total information dominance are as follows:

— Passive information recording is simply observing the traffic.

— Active information gathering involves performing experiments. This is intrusion plus interference to measure response.

— Having obtained all information that can be gained from a target, the next step is to place the target at a disadvantage. This involves subverting their ability to know. Disinformation and psychological destabilization tactics are used for this.

So while you may have “nothing to hide”, the result of sanctioning mass surveillance is to sanction a step in a process that ultimately ends in thought control.

A principled opposition to the military’s policy of total information dominance is vital to the defense of individual rights.

A salutary — although ancillary — consequence of mainstream journalism identifying itself as activist by definition would be a transformation of the tedious and fruitless Liberal Media Bias debate.

The LMB formulation we have been saddled with for what now seems like more than half a century is exemplified in this very thread by Schaefer, who equates a liberal worldview with faith in, and propaganda for, an overweening state — a conservative bugaboo dating back to the Popular Fronts of the New Deal.

If contemporary journalism were to succeed in identifying itself with the activism against the surveillance state that this post suggests, it could at the same time accomplish two things in the Liberal Media Bias debate:

First, it would reset the definition of liberalism, which currently means nothing more in this debate than the polar ideological opposite of partisan conservatism. Such an activist journalism would embrace a different set of liberal virtues: transparency, tolerance, skepticism, accountability, cooperation, fearlessness, self-government.

Second, embracing those virtues, it would no longer need to treat the term “liberal” as a pejorative. Such journalism could not help being anything except liberal. In response to accusations that it was acting thus, the answer could be proud: “Damn Straight.”

The premise that a more aware public will be more vigilant and less tolerant of government spying tactics is the great loser here.

No matter the revelations hard won by journalists and their sources it’s all for naught if the corresponding public response is apathy. Which it is.

The public response to the Snowden revelations has been apathy? You think that’s a good characterization of it?

This is a superb essay, both in your own analysis and in the terrific quotes from Eisler.

Hayden’s hypocrisy is breathtaking. He says “give us the box, and we’ll play within that box”, though it is now abundantly documented that they were given a box, and they just ignored the box while lying and saying they were within the box. It’s really sad that Charlie Rose didn’t push back against Hayden’s (financially) self-serving BS.

Hooker Jay says:

Reading Hayden say that, I couldn’t help but strangle on my coffee. Whenever military apparatchiks mention the word “box”, they’ve only one box in mind: the Skinner box. People like him want control of the Skinner box with the public on the inside. To a greater extent, that’s all there is to the Surveillance State. The Skinner box gives the observer total information awareness on the subject(s) inside it.

Hooker Jay says:

Reading Hayden say that, I couldn’t help but strangle on my coffee. Whenever military apparatchiks mention the word “box”, they’ve only one box in mind: the Skinner box. People like him want control of the Skinner box with the public on the inside. To a greater extent, that’s all there is to the Surveillance State.

proximity1 says:

Exactly. Hayden takes an unconscious sort of cynicism to levels heretofore unexplored.

As does Obama, however, Hayden actually believes what he says–that BS about “tell mem the box”, “give me the box”– “I’ll get chalk-dust on my cleats.”

His self-deception, like that of Obama, is so complete, so nearly flawless, that neither of these men can doubt their good intentions or their question their capacity to do great harm in the pursuit of what they cannot question as valid or invalid in their own motives and aims.

Obama is Machiavelli’s ideal made real, without a trace of tell-tale odor of the foul interior he conceals–because he is completlely unaware of it.

[…] trying to make journalism harder and more expensive (Jay Rosen, of PressThink). The fact that couriers are being used is telling: […]

Roger Erickson says:

Hayden’s words turn on themselves – and foster paranoia just when the opposite – affinity and trust – are needed.

His actions are making it harder and slower to maintain an “Informed Electorate” – that will, paradoxically, be less secure simply for making that effort. I hope he realizes the contradictions in what he’s saying – and rephrases his comments in the future.

[…] bekannte Journalistik-Professor Jay Rosen schreibt, dass die Geheimdienste mit ihren Attacken auf den Guardian und die Journalisten die gleiche […]

Any significant capital outlay is typically driven by an investment thesis. An effective thesis is frequently supported by the observation of inexorable demographic, macroeconomic or technological trends.

As Albert Bartlett so eloquently points out, our ever increasing consumption of finite natural resources will hit insurmountable barriers – and soon. The result will be increased prices for commodities – including food. History indicates that rising food prices herald conflict.

It is probable that the next 50 years will be characterised, not only by the increasing pace of technological change, but also by increasing levels of violent conflict and civil disorder triggered by economic hardship.

Governments know this. The security services know this. The defence industry (and their investors) know this too. The security sector is poised for growth.

Increasing investment in security infrastructure, including increasing surveillance of citizens around the world is a symptom of this growth in investment in the security sector.

Liberty and the value of human life is already standing up against the wall – the first victim in a global wave of conflict that is yet to begin.

I too have travelled back in technological time. When being tracked last spring Stazi style I stopped carrying my cell phone with me and began wearing a watch. The Gang-Stalking harassment I was experiencing stopped. No longer were men (in one case a woman) staked out at my destination before I arrived frequently wearing jet shiny black polyester suits and china white dress shirts. Agents should also learn that homeless bums don’t have laptops. Except of course when the purpose is to actually terrorise and not investigate.

The line between surveillance used to investigate and surveillance used to terrorize is very thin. To expect otherwise would be to expect honour among thieves.

To expect government to resist temptation to use data collected by surveillance for their own private purposes and to expect them to use it only to look for imaginary enemies is ludicrous. Might as well expect bears in the woods to shit in porta-potties because that type of thinking is magical and ignores that corruption can exist.

[…] Piratenpartij heeft zo haar twijfels. Om te beginnen is er volgens de Amerikaanse mediadeskundige Jay Rosen een verandering nodig in de journalistiek: “Only a more activist press, working together, […]

Bryan Elliott says:

May I recommend using BTSync as a more secure, less tracable way to communicate encrypted documents?

(note: you still need to do the primary encryption, but then you just communicate the sync secret – a 40-digit code of random letters and numbers (you should also encrypt this for transfer) – and you’re able to transfer gigabytes worth of data using a message that’s short enough to look like you’re asking to pick up the milk).

[…] Rosen (and Barry Eisler) on the surveillance state’s efforts to make journalism harder, slower, less secure. The gist: why would they destroy hard drives they know there are copies of, and detain couriers […]

As college student and aspiring journalist reading this essay worries me that the art of journalism is in danger.

[…] NSA Director Michael Hayden exemplifies this in a quote from late July: “Give me the box you will allow me to operate in. I’m going to play to the very […]

Richard Aubrey says:

One use of the term “secret” is to put a negative load on a word or concept. Even items everybody knows–and which have never been classified–are sometimes modified with “secret” or “quietly” by partisans. It’s designed to kick up the ominousity quotient.
Manning’s haul to Wikileaks included the names of Afghans working for the US. When asked about this, Assange said the Afghans know what to do with collaborators.
It also included US diplomatic comms with unflattering characterizations of various big shots in other countries.
And it pointed out that the Gulf States are terrified of Iran–talking to each other–and that hating on Israel is to keep the mob quiet and focused away from the Gulfies’ incompetence.
Other than making it even more difficult to recruit people to help us, we don’t know of any actual classified, serious, info whose release would damage our interests.
When people complain that so much is overclassified, unnecessarily classified, they might think about whether a tanker-load of revelations might include that stuff.
It would also help if we didn’t have lawyers complaining that listening into a phone call one of whose ends is a number found in Khalid Sheik Mohammad’s rolodex is somehow a major, unjustified threat to the privacy of a US person. You go too far and people stop listening to anything valid you have to say.
So what to do about it? Elect pols who don’t like that stuff. The generation who might have been scared off by the prospect of Craig Livingstone’s 300 FBI files is gone now.
if you dislike the surveillance state, then the fate of medical info under the ACA ought to alarm you.
We shall see.