The RightsCon Big Picture: Has the Battle for Privacy Rights Online Already Been Lost?


San Francisco, CA—At the risk of committing a thoughtcrime, it’s hard to walk away from RightsCon day two without thinking that the battle for our privacy rights online has already been lost. While I would undoubtedly prefer to believe the opposite were true, that seems unlikely given present reality. Many people at RightsCon appear optimistic about the likelihood that one day we will be able to enjoy the Internet with our privacy rights intact, but the facts suggest that conclusion is unwarranted. Those who work and think about this issue should make no mistake about it: securing our privacy online will be a Herculean task.


As a starting point, the ongoing NSA revelations make absolutely clear that the United States is actively and aggressively involved in surveillance activities that infringe on your privacy rights online. The United States is not alone in digital surveillance, either, as it is joined by its Five Eyes partners (including the UK and Canada) as well as Russia and China, among others. But governments are not the only players in the game. As many people at RightsCon pointed out, private (and public) companies are collecting mind-boggling amounts of data from our Internet-based activity every day. Information about our activity online is being plucked by private and public hands from the moment we log in until the moment we shut down. Viewed from a distance, the end result is clear. The fight to secure online privacy begins from a near-impossible-to-overcome starting point: there’s essentially no privacy on the Internet as it currently exists.


And the people at RightsCon know this. That’s why you can easily find someone here who uses VPN, PGP, and/or Tor—they know that not doing so will mean exploring the Internet as it exists for everyone else, and that Internet is a place where you have no privacy. But the bad news doesn’t stop there. Outside of RightsCon and back in the real world, most people have no clue what VPN or PGP are, let alone how to use them competently and effectively. By comparison, just yesterday the Los Angeles Times published an article indicating that 11% of Americans think HTML is a sexually-transmitted disease. Here again the picture comes into focus when assessed from afar. On one hand, the people at RightsCon understand that the Internet offers no guarantees whatsoever regarding privacy and that the only way to protect oneself online is through an array of computer programs, and on the other hand you have the reality that most people can barely manage email and online shopping. Privacy online can be secured, it seems, but only through technological means that are as understandable to most people as Egyptian hieroglyphics. What are the odds the situation can be reversed?

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Numbers may help provide a sense of scale to the gargantuan hurdle facing digital privacy-rights advocates. The U.S. census indicates that the U.S. population last year was approximately 316,000,000. According to Tor’s own numbers, for reference, approximately 370,000 people use the software every day. Notwithstanding the millions of Americans who don’t use the Internet at all, you don’t need to be a mathematician to see that the number of people using Tor is greatly outstripped by the number of people using the Internet in general. And Tor is just one method of protecting your online privacy out of many. Most of us, in other words, experience the Internet in precisely the way that the people at RightsCon know leaves you exposed with zero privacy. Shockingly, Americans appear unconcerned, as 45% of them “say the government should be able to go further than it is” in its online surveillance, according to a Washington Post-Pew Center poll regarding the NSA last June.


On our current trajectory, there seems to be little reason to think that we will be able to secure privacy online in any meaningful sense anytime soon. How to believe otherwise? Both governments and private entities are extracting, aggregating, and analyzing data from our online activity everyday. The majority of Internet users have only the slightest idea of how the Internet actually works, let alone Internet security or encryption. Worst of all, most people just don’t seem to care. Does our right to privacy end where the Internet begins? I hope not, but the weight of the evidence tips the scales (heavily) towards yes.

This piece is not written to denigrate those who work towards securing our privacy rights online. I support that goal and that fight is important. At the same time, however, it is critical to understand the scale of the journey ahead. Only then can we begin to identify a way forward. Indeed, one of the panelists today—Richard Stallman (pictured below)—offered what might be the best advice regarding online security I heard all day: pay cash, get rid of your cellphone, and do less online.

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Where Human Rights Meet the Internet: RightsCon Day One


San Francisco, CA—technologists, lawyers, journalists, human rights activists, and others have gathered here in San Francisco to brainstorm solutions to the myriad human rights challenges that face the world in the digital age. I’m reporting live from RightsCon, a human rights conference hosted by Access, “an international human rights organization premised on the belief that political participation and the realization of human rights in the 21st century is increasingly dependent on access to the internet and other forms of technology.” While there’s no question that RightsCon represents a step in the right direction in terms of thinking about the intersection between human rights and Internet-based technologies, the journey has yet to come full circle. Here at the Fourth Estate Watch, I want to close the gap between a few things that others at the conference may have missed.

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– What I first noticed upon entering RightsCon was that event sponsors include various companies mentioned in the NSA’s PRISM slides: Microsoft, Google, and Facebook. These are also the companies that voluntarily dismissed their pending case before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) in exchange for the ability to publish (allegedly)  more robust corporate “transparency reports,” a move that even the Washington Post has described as “mostly a PR stunt.” Despite the NSA and FISC controversies, however, I later discovered that a panelist for “transparency reporting for beginners” was a Policy Communications Manager at Google.

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– During the event’s opening remarks, Nnenna Nwakanma reminded attendees that “more than half of the world’s population still does not have Internet access.” This is a critical point that I feel does not deserve enough attention. As I have previously reported, there is a gross disparity in Internet accessibility between people (and countries) of varying wealth, and the rule of thumb is that greater wealth equals greater Internet access. It is important for those thinking about human rights, then, to keep in mind that vast swaths of (largely indigent) humanity do not yet use the Internet. Internet-based approaches to human rights tend to downplay the reality that many victims of human rights violations simply do not have Internet access, rendering them out of sight, out of mind, and out of the conversation.

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– Lastly, I want to note that while everyone at RightsCon seems to be talking about the Internet, no one seems to be talking about the environmental costs of the Internet. The question has critical implications. The New York Times has reported that “[m]ost data centers, by design, consume vast amounts of energy in an incongruously wasteful manner … [o]nline companies typically run their facilities at maximum capacity around the clock, whatever the demand. As a result, data centers can waste 90 percent or more of the electricity they pull off the grid” (emphasis ours). All of the Internet-based solutions to human rights, then, will require more and more data servers on which to store all of  that Internet-generated data. But yet, as seen above, data centers can waste “90 percent or more” of the electricity they pull. Human rights activists who champion Internet-based approaches to human rights problems must find a way to square the ever-increasing energy consumption of the Internet and the ever-decreasing natural resources of our planet. Failure to do so could be catastrophic.

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Going for Gold: Journalism & the Sochi Olympics


Part of the reason the Fourth Estate Watch (FEW) exists is to keep establishment media organizations in check, as they have historically failed to do that themselves. And when it comes to the Sochi Olympics, many journalists appear intent on outperforming each other as they go for gold in what seems to be the main event: critiquing the Russian government at the expense of virtually all else. While we are certainly not here to defend the Russian government or its laws, we are here to keep an eye on the media. The Sochi Olympics coverage, however, suggests the flame of consistent and equitable reporting has been nearly extinguished.

Much of the Olympic coverage so far, for example, has been dominated by journalists who appear borderline-obsessed with addressing the question of LGBTQ rights in Russia, condemning Russia at virtually every turn. While the question of LGBTQ rights is undoubtedly an important one, we question why media organizations suddenly appear intent on focusing on human rights issues now that Russia is hosting the Olympics. We do not recall similar treatment of the U.S. government the last time it hosted an international sporting event. Can you recall the mainstream media ever criticizing the U.S. government for human rights abuses during the Olympics? We can’t. Although the Obama Administration has launched a record number of drone strikes (eight times more than his predecessor) and the U.S. previously engaged in the practice of “extraordinary rendition”—kidnapping someone from country X and then sending them to country Y for “enhanced interrogation” (read: torture)—we cannot recall a single instance of the media mentioning those human rights issues during international sporting events. Yet the impression one gets from media reports is that LGBTQ issues in Russia are (a) relevant to the Olympics and/or (b) the most important human rights issue of our time.

Again, there’s no question that LGBTQ rights are important and that the FEW believes all individuals should be treated equally and equitably. But instead of focusing on the status of various Russian laws that have little to do with the Olympics, we’d rather ask why media organizations have penned so many articles on human right violations committed by other governments but comparatively few articles for those those committed by their own. If media organizations are to be cantankerous and obstinate, to paraphrase Judge Gurfein’s observation in the Pentagon Papers case, why do they maintain relative silence when it comes to the alleged human rights violations of the U.S. government? In the lead-up to these Olympics, not a day went by without a new story about LGBTQ rights in Russia. The establishment media organizations have never done such consistent reporting on alleged human rights violations when the United States hosts an international sporting event. The stark contrast in reporting strikes us as both hypocritical and unhelpful.

The hypocrisy is evident in articles like this from The Verge, entitled “Hackers aren’t the Problem at Sochi, Surveillance is.” Right—surveillance is a problem in Sochi. Russell Brandom says in his article that what’s happening in Sochi is “one of the most intensive short-term campaigns of digital surveillance the 21st century has ever seen.” Again, we’re not here to defend Russian practices by any means, but The Verge appears to be writing about an alternate reality. The National Security Agency (NSA) has instituted surveillance programs for those who play Angry Birds and World of Warcraft, not to mention surveillance programs like XKeyscore and PRISM that, by design, are aimed to collect “virtually everything a user does on the internet.” In short, the notion that Russia—not the NSA—is engaged in “one of the most intensive” surveillance operations is nonsensical in the wake of Edward Snowden’s disclosures.

Media coverage of the Sochi Olympics has also been unhelpful. First, by focusing on the LGBTQ issue in Russia during these Olympics but downplaying U.S. human rights issues (Guantanamo Bay, drone strikes, extraordinary rendition, mass surveillance, etc.) during other sporting events, media organizations implicitly suggest that the latter issues are unimportant. At the very least, their reporting conveys to the reader that LGBTQ issues in Russia are far more important than any of the other issues mentioned above. Second, the media’s reporting is unhelpful to those who are actually participating in the Olympics: the athletes themselves. Although they have trained for years and are regarded as the best in their field, the media has so far preferred to focus on unrelated political issues in Russia. The athletes—and the victims of U.S. human rights abuses worldwide—deserve better.

“Objective” Journalism Doesn’t Exist: An NSA Case Study

“[W]ere it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
—Thomas Jefferson, 1787

Whether by design or dimwittedness, yesterday’s article in the Washington Post (WP) by Ellen Nakashima reporting that the National Security Agency (NSA) “is collecting less than 30 percent of all Americans’ call records” misleads far more than it informs. Critical information about the phone records collection program rests deep in the article and the overall tone is NSA-friendly. Put bluntly, the article sounds as if it were published by a PR department—not a cantankerous press. We know this because none of these facts from the article were chosen to be emphasized in the headline:

  • “One former senior official acknowledged that 100 percent [collection] was the goal”
  • “In 2006 … the NSA was collecting ‘closer to 100’ percent of Americans’ phone records”
  • “[T]he agency in 2009 struggled with compliance issues, including what a surveillance court found were ‘daily violations of the minimization procedures set forth in [court] orders’” (emphasis ours)

That’s just selecting three. Considering those quotes and others are buried deep in the article, the WP opted for an overall story arc that makes the NSA appear comparatively benign and well-intentioned—and its editorial decisions regarding style and presentation reinforce those themes throughout.

The second paragraph, for example, informs readers the headline is “likely to raise questions about the efficacy of a program that is premised on its breadth and depth, on collecting as close to a complete universe of data as possible” (emphasis ours). First, notice how Nakashima writes that the 30% figure will raise questions as the program’s efficacy, as opposed to its constitutionality, and second how she implicitly suggests the NSA’s collection of 30% of Americans’ call records is not enough. And did you catch how an article that began by suggesting the NSA is collecting comparatively little phone data segues directly into describing how the NSA is in fact intent on collecting virtually all of it? We’re unclear as to why the WP emphasized the former part of that question over the latter, but their decision highlights a narrative that portrays the NSA positively.

Like many establishment media outlets, the WP would likely respond to our criticisms by invoking what they always do: “objectivity.” Here at the Fourth Estate Watch (FEW), however, we want to make clear that claim cannot withstand serious scrutiny. Think about it. The examples above should suffice to demonstrate that, regardless of the facts in any given situation, one can always emphasize certain things over others to provide the story a frame or narrative. And fundamentally there’s no problem with that, since gathering facts and assembling them into a coherent story is part and parcel of journalism. The problem arises when these decision-making processes are described as “objective” when they are so obviously not.

Journalism, like everything else, involves decision-making. The WP’s headline was the result not of “objectivity” but of their subjective determination that the story about an NSA presently collecting 30% of all Americans’ call records made for a better lead than the story about an NSA intent on collecting it all. (Those remain, of course, only two possible narratives out of many). We’re unclear on why they made that choice, but there can be no doubt they made a choice. Indeed, they engaged in subjective, decision-making processes for the article’s entire life cycle. If and until establishment journalists acknowledge that their trade is fundamentally about subjective decision-making—in other words, accept reality rather than deny it—they do themselves, and the public, no favors.

If Money Talks, We Don’t Speak its Language: Reflections on the Media & The Economy


“The comfort of the rich depends upon an abundant supply of the poor.”

Newspapers from Sydney to Sao Paulo often report on the economy in a way that has no relation to how most people actually experience it. The Economist, for instance, recently published an article on the global economic outlook for the year that appears drafted of, by, and for the people in the corner office. The first sentence wastes no time in identifying their sole concern: “the world’s big stockmarkets[.]” Percentages and profits are tracked with the acuity of a hawk—a “worryingly low 0.8%” here, “market gyrations” there—but the rest blends in with the background and is rendered invisible. Words like people, person, human, worker, labor, staff, and employee never appear. Here at the Fourth Estate Watch (FEW), we write about the economy with Sophocles’ observation front and center: “Without labor, nothing prospers.”

The world as envisioned by The Economist is a world few visit. The Atlantic tells us that “the top 1% of the country controls between 40 and 50 percent of the total wealth from stocks and bonds,” suggesting stock ownership is a club with limited entry. Combine that information with this chart that indicates 90% of Americans own less than 10% of all stocks & bonds, and you realize you’re not the person in the corner office whose outlook on the economy matters to the major media. For those 4 million Americans who have been unemployed for 27 weeks or longer, how must it feel to hear a prominent publication proclaim: “America’s economy was roaring along at a 3.2% pace at the end of 2013”? (emphasis ours). For the approximately 1.5 million Americans who lost their long-term unemployment benefits, the concepts in The Economist sound alien and irrelevant: “[i]nvestors should recover their nerve as they realise that the bottom is not falling out of the world economy.”

What should be read as a dark joke—“the bottom is not falling out of the world economy”—comes packaged as sage advice from esteemed journalists. The reality is that for many workers worldwide, the bottom fell out long ago. As Harold Meyerson explains in his exhaustive study of American workers over the last 40 years, “[worker] [p]roductivity has increased by 80 percent, but median compensation (that’s wages plus benefits) has risen by just 11 percent during that time.” Management may try to characterize that as increased “efficiency,” but workers know that translates into much more work for roughly the same pay. At the same time, the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates 10.4 million Americans are currently unemployed and the labor force participation rate is at its lowest point since 1978. Challenges facing the unemployed are manifold and multiplying.

Instead of reporting on the economy as most people experience it—a brutal job market, crushing student loan debt, rapidly disappearing benefits, etc—The Economist genuflects in “worship of the ancient golden calf,” to quote Pope Francis. Money, from their perspective, is all that really matters. This unrelenting focus on the numbers behind profits and growth, however, has resulted in an income inequality so extreme that Oxfam reports that “[t]he wealth of the world is divided in two: almost half going to the richest one percent; the other half to the remaining 99 percent” (emphasis ours). Think about that. Present reality strikes us as both unsustainable and inequitable. “Inequality is the root of social ills,” Pope Francis tells us, and until media outlets understand that and change the focus in reporting on the economy accordingly, there is little reason to hope for change anytime soon. Engrossed by the allure of rising stocks and better rates of return, the view from the corner office obscures the tired, poor, and huddled masses struggling down below. The end result of such a perspective, to quote President Obama’s State of the Union address, is that “corporate profits and stock prices have rarely been higher, and those at the top have never done better.”

On Journalism & The Future of Surveillance: Orwell’s vision Realized?


“There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. … You had to live—did live, from habit that became instinct—in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized.”
—George Orwell, 1984

With government surveillance programs like XKeyscore and PRISM stretching the definition of “watched” to limits previously unimaginable, the future looks set to bring us closer to a literal interpretation of Orwell’s observation above. Craig Timberg’s recent article in The Washington Post sketches the contours of how we might get there: the next generation of surveillance cameras. These cameras, which are mounted onto Cessnas or tall buildings, command a bird’s-eye view of a large area as they hover above it continuously, collecting “a wealth of data” along the way. (Here’s the WP’s graphic of how this works). Since these cameras “can track every vehicle and person across an area the size of a small city, for several hours at a time,” the future of surveillance looks brighter than the future of privacy. Unfortunately, the WP’s reporting on these cameras fails to explain adequately the tension between surveillance and privacy, and here at the Fourth Estate Watch (FEW) we aim to bring you the stories the establishment media tends to overlook.

The WP’s analysis of privacy rights, for example, leaves a huge chunk of the story unexplained. Timber writes that “[c]ourts have put stricter limits on technology that can see things not visible to the naked eye, ruling that they can amount to unconstitutional searches when conducted without a warrant. But the lines remain fuzzy as courts struggle to apply old precedents … to the rapidly advancing technology.” What he fails to note is that any and all discussion of “unconstitutional searches” or “old precedents” refer to 4th Amendment constitutional analysis. And as any lawyer worth your time will tell you, the 4th Amendment only applies—a critical point, in our view—when there is “state action.” Put another way, when private individuals & corporations launch these next-gen surveillance cameras into the sky, any notion of 4th Amendment rights vanishes into the clouds and ceases to exist.

In other words, the only thing limiting what private individuals & corporations can do with these surveillance cameras is their imagination, technology, and any relevant regulations. That’s it. Timberg himself notes that “businesses and even private individuals can use [these cameras] to help identify people and track their movements” and that “giant defense contractors … are eagerly repurposing wartime surveillance technology for domestic use[.]” The intrepid journalist at the WP never asks why businesses might want to hover cameras in the sky for hours on end or why contractors want to “repurpos[e] wartime surveillance technology” for deployment over U.S. soil (emphasis ours). But instead of questioning who benefits from having “an unblinking eye in the sky,” the WP cites examples that make the surveillance technology seem either innocuous or beneficial. The article cites Ross McNutt—President of the Orwellian-named company Persistent Surveillance Systems—for the proposition that “[a] single camera mounted atop the Washington Monument … could deter crime all around the Mall.” And although an ACLU report bluntly concludes that “video surveillance has little to no positive impact on crime,” readers of the WP are left with the impression the evidence is inconclusive.

The primary fault with the WP article on forthcoming surveillance technologies, in short, is that it appears more fascinated with the technological wizardry of these cameras than it does with protecting privacy rights. This is made clear in the article’s very structure, which places “privacy concerns” at the tail-end, as if the right to privacy was an afterthought rather than a core concern. Given the rapid proliferation of surveillance cameras, we believe public-interest reporting should focus more on privacy and legal implications that may affect millions of people rather than the technological inventions that will most likely only benefit a select few. Recent revelations from Edward Snowden only underscores the point that limitless and ubiquitous surveillance threatens all of us.  The time is fast approaching, as Martin Luther King Jr. put it, “when silence becomes betrayal.”

Journalists and the public must speak loudly in defense of privacy rights so that we do not unwittingly sacrifice the light of liberty on the altar of surveillance. And while there are clear and significant differences between Orwell’s dystopia and the present, some parallels undoubtedly exist. Ask yourself, do you have “no way of knowing whether you [are] being watched at any given moment”? If you use the internet (i.e., if you’re reading this) then let’s be clear: the answer to that question is “yes.” With each passing day, it makes more and more sense why sales of 1984 skyrocketed last year in the wake of Snowden’s revelations. Perhaps, then, the establishment media has embraced another quote from 1984 as a guide to its surveillance reporting: “Always yell with the crowd, that’s what I say. It’s the only way to be safe.”

The Fourth Estate Watch – An Introduction to Aggressive, Adversarial Journalism

Hello and welcome to the Fourth Estate Watch (FEW). Here at FEW, we monitor how mainstream media organizations conduct their reporting and we offer our analysis when that reporting fails to live up to the standards of a cantankerous and obstinate press, to paraphrase Judge Gurfein’s observation from the Pentagon Papers case (see the “About Us” section). In short, we aim to demonstrate how aggressive, adversarial journalism benefits and informs the public to a much greater degree than the reporting currently done by mainstream media outlets.

Our inaugural post reviews David Remnick’s recent profile of President Obama. We believe Mr. Remnick’s piece is not worth your time, in large part because Mr. Remnick allows Obama to make a series of misleading or deceptive claims without aggressive follow-up or clarification to the reader. Obama’s word, left unchecked, is presented to the reader as factually accurate even when it is not. What is the point of journalism if an official’s words are simply repeated verbatim, without meaningful challenge when merited? We believe that type of writing should be left to public relations experts and not journalists. Below is a detailed look at some of the flaws in Remnick’s article.

  • Many of the article’s flaws deal with national security issues, as Mr. Remnick essentially allows Obama to say whatever he wants on the subject, unchallenged. Regarding recent disclosures from Edward Snowden, Remnick quotes Obama as saying: “Is the only way to do that by giving some twenty-nine-year-old free rein to basically dump a mountain of information, much of which is definitely legal, definitely necessary for national security, and should properly be classified?” (emphasis ours). This is factually incorrect on its face, but Remnick lets it stand. There is literally zero evidence that Snowden “dump[ed] a mountain of information” anywhere—instead, all of the evidence indicates Snowden gave the information to a handful of journalists (and, even among them, it is believed only Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras have the full set of documents) and those journalists have since released the documents in an extremely selective manner (after careful editing and review). Indeed, The Guardian’s editor Alan Rusbridger has previously said they have only published one percent of the documents they have. Obama himself previously lamented Snowden’s revelations were emerging in “dribs and drabs.” We believe, then, that Remnick should have explored Obama’s misleading statement further. Which is it, Mr. President: are the revelations coming out in “dribs and drabs” with barely 1% released, or is it a “mountain of information” just “dumped” online? Logically, it cannot be both a mountain dumped and a drip-drip-drip release. The fact that Obama has asserted both simultaneously is unsettling. Remnick should have pressed Obama on this inconsistency and demanded clarification. On another point, Remnick lets Obama’s assertion that the programs are “definitely legal, definitely necessary” stand, even if at least one Federal judge has suggested the programs are unconstitutional and an independent review board indicated that “We have not identified a single instance involving a threat to the United States in which the telephone records program made a concrete difference in the outcome of a counterterrorism investigation” (emphasis ours). So, despite serious doubt existing as to both the efficacy and legality of the NSA’s programs, Remnick lets Obama say that these programs are “definitely legal, definitely necessary” without so much as a word of challenge thrown in. The reader is left with the impression that Obama is correct when that is far from the truth.

  • Elsewhere on the Snowden revelations, Remnick writes: “Then Obama insisted that what Snowden did was ‘not akin to Watergate or some scandal in which there were coverups involved.’ The leaks, he said, had ‘put people at risk’ but revealed nothing illegal.” As perhaps expected, Remnick passively accepts Obama’s characterization that Snowden’s disclosures have “put people at risk.” Was the President asked for concrete evidence to back up his assertion? Could he even point to one instance in which someone’s life was put at risk as a direct result of the revelations? Were these questions even asked? The reader has no idea, because in Mr. Remnick’s view of journalism, simply quoting Obama’s naked assertion is sufficient.

  • Similarly, Remnick writes: “In Obama’s view, ‘the benefit of the debate he generated was not worth the damage done, because there was another way of doing it.’” Did Remnick ask Obama to elaborate on what the other way was? Did he ask, in detail, how Snowden’s “another way” could have worked? Again, we will never know if these questions were even asked, since Remnick decided Obama’s assertion that “another way” was possible was sufficient to confirm that another way was indeed possible (i.e., treating the President’s claim as fact).

  • Then there’s the recent disclosures regarding the NSA’s surveillance activity in Germany (in theory a nation with whom the US has friendly relations), in which Remnick writes: “Obama enjoyed a good relationship with Angela Merkel, but he admitted that it was undermined by reports alleging that the U.S. tapped her cell phone.” (emphasis ours). In Mr. Remnick’s view, then, Obama’s relationship with Merkel was undermined by reports of the surveillance and not the surveillance itself. Did Mr. Remnick ask Obama if he felt the relationship deteriorated, instead, because of reports that Merkel’s phone had been under surveillance for perhaps ten years? Was Merkel upset about the reporting or the surveillance? In Remnick’s view of things, apparently the reporting was what caused the relationship between the two leaders to fall apart—not the decade of surveillance of a head of state of a friendly, democratic nation.

  • Moving from NSA surveillance to targeted drone strikes, Remnick’s piece continues to fail the reader. Remnick allows Obama to say, unchallenged: “What I’ve tried to do is to tighten the process so much and limit the risks of civilian casualties so much that we have the least fallout from those actions.” How do we know if any of that is true? Mr. Remnick doesn’t seem curious, since he allows Obama to say it without asking for him to explain. In its famous article on Obama’s “Kill List,” The New York Times previously wrote that “[Obama’s] actions have often remained inscrutable, obscured by awkward secrecy rules[.]” So if Obama’s actions on drone strikes have “often remained inscrutable,” how can we possibly know whether it is true that Obama has “tighten[ed] the process so much”? Many of the legal memos outlining the President’s alleged authority to carry out these strikes remain classified and unreleased. What we do know is that the Bureau of Investigative Journalism writes that Obama has launched “eight times as many” drone strikes as George W. Bush, resulting in approximately 2,400 deaths (at least 273 of which are civilians). Did Remnick ask Obama whether these statistics reflect a tightening of the process of a limiting of risk to civilians?

  • Also, the NYT piece on the “Kill List” says “…Mr. Obama embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties that did little to box him in. It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.” (emphasis ours). Did Remnick ask Obama whether his unique way of defining “militant” (all military-age males in a strike zone) was part of “limiting” civilian casualties? Why wasn’t this issue pressed? Later on in the piece, Remnick allows Obama to say (again unchallenged) that a principle he cares deeply about is ensuring that everyone is “being treated with dignity or respect regardless of what they look like or what their last name is or who they love…” Did Remnick ask Obama whether the civilian casualities of drone strikes are “being treated with dignity or respect”? Is it dignifying or respectful to define ‘militant’ as all military-age males in a strike zone? (Let’s not forget a recent drone strike in Yemen recently killed many members of a wedding party). We will never know since Remnick never asked these questions.

While there are many flaws with Remnick’s profile of Obama, the FEW believes the most egregious of those relate to national security and surveillance, as outlined in some detail above. Rather than uphold the standard of a cantankerous and obstinate press in these matters, Remnick instead evidently preferred to allow the President a platform to make a series of misleading and inaccurate claims on these matters without challenge. In a sense, we are not surprised, since we seriously doubt the President would have offered Remnick the access he was allowed to report the article if aggressive questions from Remnick were forthcoming. More likely, instead, was that the President knew Remnick would not challenge him on these matters, which is perhaps why he was offered such access in the first place.