Who decides what remains secret? Greenwald or Assange?

Michael Kinsley and the New York Times provoked outrage this week through a critical review of Glenn Greenwald’s new book, No Place to Hide.

Kinsley raised an important question, made some sound observations, but drew a self-contradictory conclusion. He wrote:

The Snowden leaks were important — a legitimate scoop — and we might never have known about the N.S.A.’s lawbreaking if it hadn’t been for them. Most leaks from large bureaucracies are “good” leaks: no danger to national security, no harm to innocent people, information the public ought to have.

Yet he concluded that the final say over the release of government secrets is a decision that “must ultimately be made by the government.”

So, Kinsley is all in favor of “good” leaks but believes that in a democracy these need to be government-approved leaks.

That doesn’t make any sense.

Once government decides to reveal a secret, it’s no longer a secret and there is no leak.

The whole idea of whistleblowing is that it challenges specific government claims that secrecy is serving a public interest.

On one side the government is asserting that the public is being protected by its ignorance, while on the other side the whistleblower is revealing information which he or she believes the public needs to know.

The beauty of this ad hoc mechanism is that we, the public, then get to decide who has made the stronger claim: the government or the whistleblower?

Yet Kinlsey raises an important question: who can be entrusted with the decisions about which secrets should be exposed?

It seems clear, at least to me, that the private companies that own 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.

Kinsley thinks we should defer to government yet fails to explain how he envisages there will ever be any more good leaks in this scenario. Are we to imagine a government that blows the whistle on itself?

On this much, Kinsley is emphatic: “Someone gets to decide, and that someone cannot be Glenn Greenwald.”

One can view that statement as an expression of antipathy towards Greenwald, yet it is also a response to the fact that when it comes to the Snowden revelations, Greenwald has been the central decision-maker.

His judgement and that of his confidants, has not gone uncontested.

This week we saw what looked suspiciously like a contest for the limelight. Julian Assange challenged The Intercept’s apparent deference to government pressure when it concealed the identity of a whole country whose cellular communications are being recorded by the NSA — “country X” as The Intercept reported, or Afghanistan as Assange claimed.

What neither side did was provide much detailed information about the process through which they had made their determination about what to conceal or reveal. That lack of transparency bore an uncanny resemblance to governments which say, trust us, we know what we’re doing.

For those of us who are not inclined to trust the government, it’s not altogether clear why we should trust the judgement of either Glenn Greenwald or Julian Assange.

In the age of Wikileaks and Snowden and the release of large volumes of classified information, it might look like whistleblowing has become a form of civil disobedience which challenges the very legitimacy of secrecy. Indeed, an argument can be made that the concept of secrecy is quickly becoming an anachronism.

Yet as things stand now, it seems worth trying to answer Kinsley’s question — who decides? — by reviving a more traditional view of the role of the whistleblower, there being no better example than that provided by Daniel Ellsberg.

Ellsberg had no legal authority to release the Pentagon Papers, but he had the moral authority. He decided that these documents must not remain secret and he was willing to face the full consequences of that decision. On June 28, 1971, as he publicly surrendered to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Massachusetts in Boston, Ellsberg said:

I felt that as an American citizen, as a responsible citizen, I could no longer cooperate in concealing this information from the American public. I did this clearly at my own jeopardy and I am prepared to answer to all the consequences of this decision.

When determining what should remain secret, Ellsberg neither deferred to the government nor entrusted that decision to a journalist.

Invariably, the whistleblower is claiming the authority to make a decision that would preferably never be left to one person. But if such an individual feels unqualified to determine what information should be made public and what should remain secret, there is also reason to question how he is going to make the determination about who instead is capable of making those decisions.

The fact that Snowden lacked the confidence to be a decision-making whistleblower doesn’t mean he should have kept quiet, but what he should have done is spread that responsibility more widely.

Should Glenn Greenwald decide? is a question that should never have needed asking.

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8 thoughts on “Who decides what remains secret? Greenwald or Assange?

  1. Ernie Urvater

    Not clear that there was world enough and time for Snowden to have looked through the millions of documents he had all by himself. Some he knew he shouldn’t release, and still hasn’t. Kinsley clearly hasn’t thought this through at all. He doesn’t like Greenwald–that much is clear. What would he have done if Snowden had released the documents to him? Gone to the government and asked them what they wanted to release? It is revealing that Kinsley has not pointed to a single document which he specifically feels should not have been released. He is engaging, in my view, in cheap-shot journalism.

  2. Paul Woodward Post author

    One of the most depressing features of political blogging is the fact that so often serious questions get reduced to taking sides — for or against Kinsley or Greenwald.

    Since Kinsley’s review got lambasted on Twitter and elsewhere, I thought that it was worth pointing out that he raised a legitimate question even if he reached a strange conclusion.

    The questions of what qualifies someone to become a whistleblower and what qualifies a journalist to pick and choose which secrets to publish, are questions that apply to most cases of whistleblowing.

    Questioning Greenwald’s judgement has nothing to do with deciding whether he’s likeable. This should be about process, not personalities, yet there happens to be a very strong personality at the center of this story who has no inclination to rein in his hyperbolic tendencies.

    In an interview with Stephen Colbert last week, while promoting his new book, Greenwald claimed:

    If people around the world buy routers and switches from American companies, they [the NSA’s Tailored Access Operations/Access Operations (AO-S326) employees] literally physically interdict the product out of the mail, open up the package, stick a backdoor device into it and reseal the products and send it on to the unwitting user.

    In order to clarify the scope of this operation, Colbert asked whether he should assume his own Netgear router came via the NSA, to which Greenwald responded:

    It probably came from them, there’s a good chance that it did.

    Imagine the scale of this operation as Netgear, Lynsys, Motorola, and Cisco routers and other devises get funneled through the NSA’s devise-modification facilities. This would have to involve a major production-line — except it doesn’t, as Greenwald knows perfectly well.

    The documentary evidence he bases this claim on makes it clear that these interceptions can involve no more than a handful of instances with devices being delivered to NSA targets. The NSA document states:

    Here’s how it works: shipments of computer network devices (servers, routers, etc.) being delivered to our targets throughout the world are intercepted. Next, they are redirected to a secret location where Tailored Access Operations/Access Operations (AO-S326) employees, with the support of the Remote Operations Center (S321), enable the installation of beacon implants directly into our targets’ electronic devices. [H/t Bob Cesca]

    Providing further confirmation about the minute scale of this operation, the document states:

    In one recent case, after several months a beacon implanted through supply-chain interdiction called back to the NSA covert infrastructure. This call back provided us access to further exploit the devise and survey the network.

    This doesn’t sound like mass surveillance. It sounds much more like rather traditional targeted espionage.

    The revelation here seems to have less to do with the NSA than it has to do with a willingness to hype a story in order to sell a book.

  3. BillVZ

    According to other sources the issue was because of Greenwald alluding to five small countries that are doing extensive surveillance of phone calls for the NSA. He named four but would not name the fifth as it would bring danger to the small company in that small country. Wikileaks respected Grrenwald’s reasoning but offered many ways that danger could be defused. Despite the NYT angry opinion it is just more of the NYT hype under an alleged unfavorable review of Grunewald’s book.
    As to about the minute scale of the operation Cobert inquired about it appears to be an excuse to pooh pooh the reality that it can and is being done! This very reply, as all my e-mails, are monitored and able to be read. That they “can and have call back that provided us access to further exploit the devise and survey a network” implies they can easily do so for the bleacher crowd. Was my lap top implanted before it came to the Acer dealer? Mass or traditional targeted espionage?
    I am not a spy!
    Of course we all know how our privacy can be invaded by Big Brother but too often we get articles like today’s and a response like yours Paul.. Mass or traditional targeted espionage….. Yikes!

  4. Paul Woodward Post author

    Wikileaks described Greenwald/The Intercept’s redaction of the name of “country X” as an “act of censorship” and wrote: “The censorship of a victim state’s identity directly assists the killing of innocent people.” To put it bluntly, Julian Assange is accusing Glenn Greenwald of complicity in murder.

    In the Colbert interview, Greenwald was asked whether he opposes all forms of espionage. He said he does not. The issue is not simply the practice of espionage but the conduct of mass surveillance. The Snowden documents have already revealed a plethora of ways in which the NSA is conducting mass surveillance but based on the evidence Greenwald has presented in the documents which accompany the publication of his book, the interception and tampering with routers does not appear to fall into the category of mass surveillance.

    There is no shortage of reasons to be disturbed by the crimes of the NSA, so why should anyone have any need to engage in any forms of exaggeration?

  5. BillVZ

    I realize that in my declining years and I am losing many qualities of mind; I am painfully of them. I am also aware of many of my remaining intellectual abilities. Reading comprehension, I like to believe is one of them. I have read your latest response several times and fail to see where “To put it bluntly, Julian Assange is accusing Glenn Greenwald of complicity in murder.” From what read Rather- it is the U.S. government “ that asserted that the publication of this name might lead to a ’rise in violence’ .Does the government take direction from Greenwald or was he following the governments take? Wikileaks says it is program of surveillance and WikiLeaks is saying it ought to be out there. Your blunt statement regarding the Assange accusation of Greenwald as hard as I try was not to be found; Perhaps a wishful inference on your part?

    Basta-enjoy your holiday.

  6. Paul Woodward Post author

    “Does the government take direction from Greenwald or was he following the governments take?” The Washington Post and The Intercept responded to requests not to reveal the name of “country X”. Publications frequently get told by government officials, you must not publish this information, but then go ahead and publish it anyway.

    Greenwald et al’s willingness to acquiesce to this pressure is what Wikileaks is describing as censorship. Wikileaks states:

    We do not believe it is the place of media to “aid and abet” a state in escaping detection and prosecution for a serious crime against a population.

    Consequently WikiLeaks cannot be complicit in the censorship of victim state X. The country in question is Afghanistan.

    Wikileaks is saying that by withholding the name of this victim state, The Intercept was helping the U.S. government avoid criminal prosecution.

  7. hquain

    Gotta disagree with the main line here. The question ‘who should decide’ doesn’t have a fixed universal answer, and we shouldn’t pretend (like the pernicious Kinsley) that it does. Nor does the question ‘what principle should compel us to disobey’. We have to work case-wise and backwards from results. Was Snowden right to capture the info, was Greenwald right to disclose? Yes. (Are those even questions?) Therefore we must allow for fuzzy boundaries that allow us to honor our ethical intuitions —- and save us from the generals. Even if there are risks. Because on the other side there is not risk but certainty of abuse.

  8. Paul Woodward Post author

    Since every case of whistleblowing is unique, I agree that there isn’t a universal answer to the question, who should decide?

    “Was Snowden right to capture the info, was Greenwald right to disclose? Yes. (Are those even questions?)”

    They’re not questions here. My question is: Given that Snowden was not willing to take full responsibility for determining which information should be made public and which should not, did he transfer too large a portion of that responsibility to Greenwald?

    For predictable reasons, Snowden was reluctant to work with the American mainstream media and was unwilling to hand over to Barton Gellman the editorial power that he later gave to Greenwald. But giving any individual the power to effectively become a gatekeeper over the release of such a valuable set of documents, is an invitation for that individual to abuse his power. Show me a single celebrity journalist who has not been corrupted by their own celebrity.

    While working directly with Greenwald, Snowden could have stipulated that the full set of documents be shared with a pool of major newspapers and also watchdog organizations such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation. In that event there would have been more news stories, few if any book tours and few reasons to wonder whether this story was getting strung out in the service of self-interest.

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