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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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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Government DoubleSpeak & the Permanent War Footing

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“The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.”
—George Orwell, 1984

While the phrase “War on Terror” may have dropped from official parlance years ago, the term’s core feature—a violent conflict that knows no limits in terms of time or terrain—remains part and parcel of U.S. counterterrorism policy. Here at the Fourth Estate Watch (FEW), we look at the media’s discussion of the current drone war and we’re left wondering whether the more things change, the more they stay the same. Yesterday we learned from The Intercept that NSA surveillance of electronic metadata provides the intelligence behind many drone strikes, and we also learned from the Associated Press that the Obama Administration is weighing whether to kill (another) U.S. citizen via drone strike abroad. Taken together, these reports suggest that the U.S. government’s “Assassination Program”—to borrow the phrase from Glenn Greenwald & Jeremy Scahill—has expanded beyond the realm of reason or rationality. Indeed, that the U.S. government even has such a program should shock and awe those who value national sovereignty, international law, human rights, the U.S. Constitution, and human dignity. If we are to have any hope of changing the tide of history, however, we must begin to wrestle with the reality that this war has no end. After all—how can we hope to confront what we have not yet understood?

When President Obama declared that “America must move off a permanent war footing” in his State of the Union (SOTU) address, he could only have been intentionally channeling Orwellian DoubleSpeak for that phrase to make sense. In its first of a three-part series on Obama’s counterterrorism practice of targeted killing, for example, The Washington Post (Post) details the “disposition matrix” that the Obama Administration employs to determine whether an individual in the matrix lives or dies. A critical aspect of the Post’s article emerges partway through: the targeted killing program transcends the boundaries of time. “Among senior Obama administration officials,” the Post reports, “there is a broad consensus that such [targeted killing] operations are likely to be extended at least another decade” (emphasis ours). That time frame—another decade—would drag the drone war into 2024. Some Administration officials apparently conceded 2024 may be closing the curtain too soon on targeted killings, noting there was “no clear end [in] sight” for the program, and that there are plans to “continue adding names to kill or capture lists for years” (emphasis ours). And despite presiding over the implementation and expansion of these very programs, President Obama speaks with a straight face about moving away from a permanent war footing. How can that be? Obama has also allowed the NSA to launch surveillance programs such as XKeyscore and PRISM that, like the targeted killing program, suggest the government is engaged in a conflict that is almost infinite in scope and duration.

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And don’t take our word for it. Obama’s SOTU—yes, the same speech where he spoke of moving off the war footing—itself presages a conflict on which the sun will never set. “While we’ve put al-Qaida’s core leadership on a path to defeat,” Obama intoned, “the threat has evolved as al-Qaida affiliates and other extremists take root in different parts of the world. In Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, Mali, we have to keep working with partners to disrupt and disable these networks” (emphasis ours). Numerous aspects of that sentence should immediately jump out to careful readers. Notice that while the President suggests the war is over with one hand (al-Qaida is on the “path to defeat”), with the other hand he informs us the war is not really over at all (it has grown to include “Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, Mali”). And look at the countries Obama mentioned. Mali? Do most Americans even know where that is? (Answer: West Africa). More critically, what are U.S. drones doing in Yemen and Somalia? We—and the public in general—have essentially no idea. Obama has refused to release most of the legal memos that outline his alleged authority to engage in targeted killing, and so despite having previously assured Americans “an unprecedented level of openness in Government,” we only get a glimpse into the drone war during the occasional news story such as when a U.S. drone strike converts a Yemeni wedding into a family funeral. Iraq is also mentioned as a site of extremist activity to “disrupt,” which is somewhat curious given that here is a video Obama declaring the war in Iraq is over—back in 2011. How can the war in Iraq have ended in any meaningful sense if, three years later, we are actively “working with our partners” to “disrupt and disable” extremist activity there and around the world? It seems that the way to get America off the war footing (at least in DoubleSpeak) is to kill more people. This is not hyperbole: Obama has launched eight times as many drone strikes as his predecessor and there’s no end in sight. The light at the end of the tunnel is (yet another) drone strike.

Media outlets must write candidly about a war that appears to have no end, otherwise the debates surrounding the tactics, strategy, and legality of the drone war will reverberate into an echo chamber where they will be heard only by the speakers themselves. In the interim, those running the drone war and targeted killing programs will likely continue their actions more-or-less unchanged. A good example of this phenomenon is exemplified in the AP article cited above regarding the latest U.S. citizen abroad the Obama Administration has set its sights on. The AP begins its piece noting the targeting of another American citizen “underscores the complexities of President Barack Obama’s new stricter targeting guidelines for the use of deadly drones.” Read that sentence carefully. Why didn’t the AP say, for example, that the Obama Administration’s targeting of yet another U.S. citizen underscores a drone war gone out of control? Or that it underscores the increased acceptance of the (in our view, absurd) proposition that it’s OK to kill U.S. citizens abroad without due process? If, as The New York Times has reported, the targeted killing of a U.S. citizen abroad is “extremely rare, if not unprecedented,” then wouldn’t yet another targeting of a U.S. citizen just a few years later underscore something slightly more fundamental than “the complexities” of Obama’s “stricter targeting guidelines”? Various news outlets have already reported that Obama’s new guidelines are nothing but Orwellian “pure wind,” devoid of any real substance and designed to make murder respectable. To make matters worse, the AP article itself quotes Amnesty International’s Naureen Shah for the proposition that “[s]o little has changed since last year[.]”

The evidence suggests Shah stands correct, not just for last year but for many more before that. If and until journalists understand that the U.S. government is firmly implanted on a permanent war footing—in other words, understand that Obama’s SOTU was primarily delivered in DoubleSpeak—we will continue to witness the expansion of a drone war that has no end. And if that turns out to be the case, we will find ourselves in the company of the protagonist of 1984, for as we know, “Winston could not definitely remember a time when his country had not been at war…”

Going for Gold: Journalism & the Sochi Olympics

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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

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“[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.

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

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“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.”

On NSA Reform & The Media: Have we Learned Nothing?

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“POLITICS, noun—a strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage.”
—Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

We’ve long since lost confidence in how major media outlets report on national security / surveillance matters, and their take on yesterday’s hearings in Washington only entrenches that belief. After all, what’s the purpose of “journalism” if media outlets are content merely reporting the facts (i.e., describing them) instead of analyzing them? Here at the Fourth Estate Watch (FEW), we prefer journalism that’s in line with Judge Gurfein’s observation in the Pentagon Papers case: “[a] cantankerous press, an obstinate press, a ubiquitous press must be suffered by those in authority” (emphasis ours). Notice Judge Gurfein’s phraseology that the work of the press “must be suffered” by authority figures suggests that true journalism must be both tenacious and aggressive.

The majority of reporting on yesterday’s surveillance-related hearings fails on both counts. Take The Washington Post (WP), whose article on the hearings ran with the headline “Snowden’s Leaks: Are journalists ‘fencing stolen material’?” While the WP spent fifteen paragraphs exploring the question, they never bothered to present the obvious answer: no. The facts here should not be misunderstood—the answer to the WP’s question is a simple “no” because there is no evidence whatsoever that Glenn Greenwald or any of the other journalists reporting on the Snowden documents has ever sold anything to anyone. As Greenwald himself has stated: “I have never, ever sold a document[.]” That Greenwald has never sold an NSA document didn’t stop major media outlets from writing page upon page exploring the hypothetical situation of whether selling such a document would be a crime.

In other words, rather than explore whether everything Representative Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) and others said at yesterday’s hearing was based in fiction or fact, many media organizations quoted the officials at length, implicitly suggesting that what they said either makes sense or should be taken seriously. But we know neither is true. Take a look at this quote from Rogers, reprinted by The New York Times in its article on the hearings: “If I’m hawking stolen, classified material that I’m not legally in possession of for personal gain and profit, is that not a crime?” Almost every word of the sentence is inaccurate, yet readers of the NYT wouldn’t know it. First, Rogers’ hypothetical is nonsensical because (as noted above) there is no evidence that anyone has hawked confidential material. Rather, Greenwald has had a clear history of partnering with—not selling or hawking to—other media outlets in reporting on the Snowden documents, including Globo in Brazil and Der Spiegel in Germany. The second part of Rogers’ hypothetical—selling the materials “for personal gain and profit”—also emerges more from Rogers’ vivid imagination than concrete fact. While Greenwald’s prominence and stature have no doubt increased as a result of his work on the Snowden documents, there’s again no evidence to suggest he pursued this story for personal profit. And there’s plenty of evidence to indicate he’s working on these stories because he believes them to be in the public interest.

Regardless of whether media outlets believe their work to be better “after Snowden” than before, their reporting continues to leave much to be desire on these issues. We’ve previously documented how many politicians in Washington have essentially no credibility when it comes to speaking sensibly or truthfully about NSA surveillance or reform, yet the major media outlets continue to report on these events as if they do. Our question is a basic one: why?

Journalists on Twitter and elsewhere repeatedly declared that yesterday’s hearing demonstrated the Obama Administration’s desire to “criminalize” journalism, to quote Greenwald. Hearing that disheartens us somewhat, because these journalists should know better than anyone that this Administration already has taken significant, concrete steps in the attempt to criminalize journalism. Did we already forget the time when the Department of Justice (DOJ) obtained two months worth of telephone records from the Associated Press without their knowledge? At the time—and this was less than a year ago, keep in mind—AP President & CEO Gary Pruitt said “The DOJ’s actions could not have been more tailor-made to comfort authoritarian regimes that want to suppress their own news media,” (emphasis ours). Can it be we no longer recall that the DOJ suggested FOX News reporter James Rosen was a “co-conspirator” as part of his reporting? We remember those things, and we’re here to ensure you do too. Indeed, the mainstream discussion around NSA surveillance reminds us of the poem Ozymandias from Percy Bysshe Shelley—media outlets are focusing on NSA reform with bated breath without realizing there’s no reason to believe there’s any substance behind the Administration’s promises of reform. Promise of NSA reform is like the statue in Shelley’s poem—there’s nothing really there. “Round the decay / Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,” Shelley tells us, “The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Silence as Betrayal: Reflections on the Media & the Drone War

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“I’ve chosen to preach about the war in Vietnam because I agree with Dante, that the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in a period of moral crisis maintain their neutrality. There comes a time when silence becomes betrayal.”
—Martin Luther King Jr., 1967, “Why I am Opposed to the War in Vietnam

“The Champion”—the title of a recent article on President Obama in The Atlantic by Ta-Nehisi Coates—must have been written in a world where the surveillance disclosures and the drone war do not exist. For how else can one claim in good faith: “[t]here are moments when I hear the president speak and I am awed”? When it comes to surveillance / drone matters, we often find ourselves more shocked than awed, as Obama’s previous speeches on the subject would likely have been recognized by George Orwell as “pure wind.” Here at the Fourth Estate Watch (FEW), we believe these critical aspects of Obama’s presidency and legacy cannot go ignored.

Whether viewed from a Yemeni wedding or an Afghan village, no one familiar with the drone war would conclude, as Coates does, that “Obama is as thoughtful as ever[.]” The Bureau of Investigative Journalism reports Obama has already authorized eight times as many drone strikes as his predecessor, at least one of which intentionally targeted a US citizen—an act The New York Times has said is “extremely rare, if not unprecedented.” All military-age males at the site of a drone strike are now defined as “combatants,” regardless of whether they were carrying rifles or roses. And yet Coates expects “that admiration for [Obama’s] thoughtfulness will grow as the ages pile upon us.” The victims of the drone war seem unlikely to join the congregation.

And where Coates dodges the drone war, he sidesteps the surveillance state. Instead of asking how a “thoughtful as ever” President could embrace surveillance programs such as XKeyscore and PRISM, Coates says things like this: “I don’t expect, in my lifetime, to again see a black family with the sheer beauty of Obama’s on such a prominent stage.” We are unsure how to react to such a statement. While former NSA Director Michael Hayden has made clear surveillance programs have “expanded” under President Obama, instead of examining the issue up-close Coates prefers to focus on superficial “sheer beauty.”

In fairness to Coates, the primary topic of his article was, as the sub-heading put it, “how black America talks to the White House.” We’re not clear on Coates’ answer to the question, but in the context of the drone war, we are reminded of Martin Luther King Jr.’s observation in 1967 that “my own government” is “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today[.]” One can quibble with King’s characterization, but there can be no doubt of the drone war’s often violent—both physical and mental—impact on civilians. And while King was speaking with regard to Vietnam, his observations likely ring true for many of those living in the vast swaths of land from Somalia to Yemen to Afghanistan: “They must see Americans as strange liberators.”