July 10, 2013

Edward Snowden (Glenn Greenwald/Laura Poitras/The Guardian Newspaper)

In a column Tuesday on the massive leaks regarding the National Security Agency (NSA), longtime Washington Post reporter Walter Pincus poked at questions surrounding the relationship between leaker Edward Snowden and the journalists who’ve written on his disclosures, most notably the Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald. The meat of the piece asked whether WikiLeaks and its founder, Julian Assange, steered Snowden toward Greenwald et al.:

Was he encouraged or directed by WikiLeaks personnel or others to take the job [with Booz Allen Hamilton] as part of a broader plan to expose NSA operations to selected journalists?

Pincus also cited “close connections” between Greenwald (and documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras, who also got a piece of the leak stories) and Assange/WikiLeaks. Here’s an example of those connections, via Pincus: “On April 10, 2012, Greenwald wrote for the WikiLeaks Press’s blog about Poitras and WikiLeaks being targeted by U.S. government officials.”

That claim was among the many that prompted Greenwald to go public with his concerns about the column. Greenwald: “I have no idea what you’re talking about here, and neither do you. I never wrote anything ‘for the WikiLeaks Press’s blog.’ How you decided to pull that fact out of thin air is a genuine mystery. The April 10, 2012, article of mine you seem to be referencing – about the serial border harassment of the filmmaker Laura Poitras – was written for Salon, where I was a Contributing Writer and daily columnist. Neither it, nor anything else I’ve ever written, was written ‘for the WikiLeaks Press’s blog.’ ”

Pincus now concedes Greenwald’s point. A correction on the point is in the works, he said. As for the rest of the piece, Pincus said it’s “argumentative.”

Maybe so. The suggestion that Greenwald and WikiLeaks are somehow collaborators, however, is a rather dramatic allegation. Absent the claim that Greenwald penned a column especially for WikiLeaks, what’s left of Pincus’s case that there are “close connections” between the journalist and advocacy group? Asked about that, Pincus pointed, again, to the WikiLeaks Web site. Specifically, this page, which directs the public to various experts on matters related to WikiLeaks. It’s divided into various subsections: “WikiLeaks,” for example; “Julian Assange,” “Freedom of the Press.” Under each section, it provides the names and contact information for folks who know about the topics. Greenwald is among them.

The page stipulates that none of the listed people are WikiLeaks officials: “These commentators do not represent WikiLeaks; they are listed because they are knowledgeable about the topics.”

Is Greenwald’s inclusion on such a directory evidence of “close connections” between him and Assange/WikiLeaks? If you need more, said Pincus, consider that Greenwald has written “a lot” about Assange and has “appeared with him.” His story also reported that a nonprofit in which Greenwald and Poitras are founding members strives to assist whistleblowers, “including WikiLeaks.”

The doctrine of “close connections” drew a fiery response from Greenwald, who insisted he’s never “appeared” anywhere with Assange: “I’ve never met Julian Assange in my life,” Greenwald told the Erik Wemple Blog. “I’ve certainly expressed support for WikiLeaks, am on the board of a group that raised money for them, and have communicated with him very periodically via e-mail. I would not describe that as anything approaching ‘close connections,’ but in the scheme of Pincus’s factual errors, that’s low on the list.”

In his brief column, Pincus managed to generate other flashpoints with Greenwald. For instance, he alleged that Assange, in a May 29 interview, “previewed the first Greenwald Guardian story based on Snowden documents that landed a week later. Speaking from Ecuador’s embassy in London, Assange described how NSA had been collecting ‘all the calling records of the United States, every record of everyone calling everyone over years. . . . Those calling records already [are] entered into the national security complex.’ ”

Given that interview, Pincus asked whether Assange knew “ahead of time” about the Greenwald story regarding the NSA’s collection of Verizon phone records.

No way, said Greenwald: “The sentence you quoted from Assange’s May 29 interview about the collection of phone records was preceded by this: ‘The National Security Agency — and this has come out in one court case after another — was involved in a project called Stellar Wind to collect all the calling records of the United States.’ Stellar Wind, as you rather amazingly do not know, is the code name for the 2001-2007 Bush NSA spying program. As part of that program, the NSA (as you also rather amazingly did not know) engaged in the bulk collection of Americans’ phone records.”

In his chat with the Erik Wemple Blog, Pincus said his point on this NSA program was “badly phrased” but contends that they’re addressing the “same program.”

Pincus is not the first to raise questions about the conduct of Snowden and the journalists that he tapped for his leaks. That said, he insisted he’s not poking at potential wrongdoing by the media. His focus is on Snowden. “Why did he go to Booz Allen? Why did he go to these journalists?” asked Pincus. “What interests me is, did he do this on his own or did someone else tell him to do it?”

The Erik Wemple Blog supports questions. Questions about politicians, celebrities, dogs, journalists — the whole lot. At some point, however, facts and findings about Greenwald & Co. are going to have to catch up with these various curiosities. As we’ve stated before, the public knows more about how these particular leaks dripped from source to recipient than we do about the average national security story, thanks to the disclosures of the reporters involved. Thus far, those disclosures have spelled out a set of captivating, though hardly scandalous, interactions between Snowden and his leakees.

Upon first reading the Pincus column, the Erik Wemple Blog noted its skeptical tone and figured that Pincus was sticking up for his killer sources in the national security community. Bah, responds Pincus. “I didn’t talk to anybody,” he said.

And that includes Greenwald, who wasn’t quoted in the story. “Fine Print,” the name of Pincus’s column, rests on a certain “conceit,” its author said. It examines documents and “puts things together,” in the words of Pincus. Given that MO, Pincus didn’t reach out to Greenwald to probe whatever connections he may have to WikiLeaks, or to ask how all this information flowed from Snowden. “It’s a strength and a weakness” of the column, said Pincus. In this case, we’re going with weakness. “He just spewed his false innuendo without bothering to check with me,” argued Greenwald.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.