Friday Round-up: NSA Leaks Edition

Are Glenn Greenwald and Edward Snowden's personalities off-limits? A kerfuffle among journalists threatens to obscure a key issue in the ongoing debate over NSA leaks.

By Nathan Pippenger

Tagged national security

The debate over Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks has always been, in reality, two debates. The first is a political argument over the programs exposed by the leaks, the need for intelligence reform, and the consequences (if any) that should follow for the NSA or Snowden himself. The second debate concerns Snowden’s personality and that of his partner in many of the leaks, the lawyer and civil liberties activist Glenn Greenwald. Because Snowden and Greenwald have chosen to release new documents at their own discretion, there is a tricky area where the political and personal issues intersect: Should we, at any point, become uncomfortable with Snowden and Greenwald as the self-appointed distributors of sensitive information?

One key lesson of the NSA story is that people in charge of sensitive information ought to be honest and responsible. The U.S. government, as Snowden and Greenwald have shown, broke that covenant with its own citizens—engaging in a vast surveillance overreach and misleading the public about it. Snowden and Greenwald should be praised for exposing that fact. But now that they have come to exercise substantial power themselves, should they be held to similar standards of honesty and integrity? Snowden recently and absurdly told NBC News that “I have no relationship with the Russian government at all.” Greenwald, who frequently skewers the U.S. media for being “too close and subservient,” even “pitifully obeisant,” to the government, just announced more leaks to the Lebanese newspaper al-Akhbar—which, as the Christian Science Monitor’s Dan Murphy notes, is “a transparently pro-Assad propaganda paper.” A distinctly odd choice —this was Greenwald’s first exclusive interview with Arab media—for someone so sensitive about media ethics and tyranny. (Because they lack access to Assad’s war zone, officials can no longer count the dead in Syria’s war, but the number is likely well over 200,000, many of whom are civilians.)

It seems fair, then—as long as they’re calling the shots—to see how Snowden and Greenwald’s trustworthiness and credibility stack up compared to the official organizations they’re criticizing.
Strangely, however, many want to avoid that very conversation. It’s not just Greenwald and Snowden’s most reflexive defenders, for whom any criticism is simply proof that the critic is a hapless stooge of the surveillance state. Margaret Sullivan, the public editor of the New York Times, recently joined the march, criticizing Michael Kinsley’s recent review (in the Times Book Review) of Greenwald’s new book. In the review, Kinsley calls Greenwald a “self-righteous sourpuss,” prompting Sullivan to admonish him for a “sneering tone” that failed to “meet that bar” demanded by the Book Review’s standards of quality. Notably, the Book Review’s editor, Pamela Paul, disagreed with that assessment, explaining that Kinsley was simply recounting his reaction to the book and its author—an act surely within the legitimate purview of a book reviewer. “For a reviewer to address how a writer comes across, particularly in a memoir or first-hand account,” Paul patiently noted, “is entirely fair game for a book review, and by no means an ad hominem attack.”

The move to declare all talk of personality out-of-bounds is especially strange since Greenwald and Snowden’s leaks have created a situation wherein NSA secrecy is governed by people, not by laws. If the release of secrets were governed by the rule of law—by consistent, publicly-agreed-upon procedure—then personality would indeed be largely beside the point. But that process has broken down. In his book, Greenwald argues that we now face “a system of omnipresent monitoring and control, beyond the dreams of even the greatest tyrants of the past.” Is that correct? Greenwald is now a key player in national security, and it matters if his perspective on the issue is accurate.

But as some of his critics have noted, characterizations like that are probably overwrought (and, as Kinsley might add, self-righteous). They suggest that Greenwald probably favors a more aggressive leak strategy than even many of the NSA’s critics. At any rate, the above remark prompted George Packer, in the UK’s Prospect, to share the opinion of “a friend from Iran who was jailed and tortured for having the wrong political beliefs, and who is now an American citizen,” and who “observed drily, ‘I prefer to be spied on by NSA.’”

As the Iranian-American friend’s remark suggests, the unofficial political role taken on by Greenwald and Snowden puts these issues of personality front-and-center. It matters whether Greenwald and Snowden are honest, credible, and responsible, because the decision to release sensitive information about the NSA now lies largely with them—not with authorities acting under the law or by official procedure.

But if criticisms like Sullivan’s browbeat writers into avoiding any mention of this topic, the result will be a deeply impoverished debate—and one that threatens to be saturated even further by journalistic pieties. In her column on Kinsley, Sullivan appealed to the “special role for the press in America’s democracy” and the Founders, and claimed it was “particularly strange to see [Kinsley’s argument] advanced in the paper that heroically published the Pentagon Papers, and many of the Snowden revelations as well.” This is fine for an eighth-grade civics class, but pace Sullivan, what’s strange is not Kinsley’s review; it’s the suggestion that legitimate arguments in a major national debate have no place in the paper of record, simply because they depart from the paper’s romantic self-regard. What a dreary idea. If it’s not too much to ask, I’d like the Times to be both heroic and interesting to read.

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Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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