Earlier this week, The Intercept reported:
Documents show that the NSA has been generating intelligence reports from MYSTIC surveillance [a voice interception program] in the Bahamas, Mexico, Kenya, the Philippines, and one other country, which The Intercept is not naming in response to specific, credible concerns that doing so could lead to increased violence.
Note that the report while acknowledging that its redaction of “country X” came in response to “credible concerns,” it did not reveal who expressed those concerns.
If a similar report had appeared in the Washington Post or the New York Times we would expect slightly more transparency — something along the lines that in response to concerns expressed by administration officials, the publication had agreed to withhold the name of this particular country. And we could also expect that this would be the kind of practice that Glenn Greenwald would characterize as an example of the mainstream media’s subservience to government. When The Intercept operates in a similar way, however, we’re supposed to see this as responsible behavior.
From his perch inside the Ecuador embassy in London, I imagine that Julian Assange has a cynical view of the Greenwald/Omidyar operation. While Assange is paying the price for publishing secret documents, Greenwald is reaping handsome rewards. And as Assange pointed out today, when claiming that “country X” is Afghanistan, the idea that sustaining the secrecy of the NSA’s mass surveillance program there might prevent increased violence, is highly debatable.
We know from previous reporting that the National Security Agency’s mass interception system is a key component in the United States’ drone targeting program. The US drone targeting program has killed thousands of people and hundreds of women and children in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia in violation of international law. The censorship of a victim state’s identity directly assists the killing of innocent people.
There’s a bit of a charade going on here with The Intercept guarding a secret and Wikileaks insisting that the truth must come out, because assuming that Afghanistan is indeed “country X” it’s very hard to imagine that many people there will be surprised to learn about the existence of this NSA program, least of all will it come as a surprise to many of the individuals whose activities and locations are of greatest interest to the NSA.
As The Intercept reported in February:
[T]argets are increasingly aware of the NSA’s reliance on geolocating, and have moved to thwart the tactic. Some have as many as 16 different SIM cards associated with their identity within the High Value Target system. Others, unaware that their mobile phone is being targeted, lend their phone, with the SIM card in it, to friends, children, spouses and family members.
Some top Taliban leaders, knowing of the NSA’s targeting method, have purposely and randomly distributed SIM cards among their units in order to elude their trackers. “They would do things like go to meetings, take all their SIM cards out, put them in a bag, mix them up, and everybody gets a different SIM card when they leave,” the former drone operator says. “That’s how they confuse us.”
The real story here is not about the NSA surveillance program in Afghanistan; it’s about the internal workings of The Intercept.
Suppose Greenwald is having some discreet conversations with NSA officials about what The Intercept will or won’t publish. No doubt that would cause some anguish across Greenwald’s fan base and it would undermine the adversarial image that he strives to sustain. But it would also demonstrate a capacity to operate as an adult who is not so preoccupied about his image.
Journalists shouldn’t make themselves subservient to government officials but neither should they be afraid of revealing that their work often demands that they communicate with officialdom. Talking doesn’t necessitate kowtowing.