A man uses his cell phone to read updates about former U.S. spy agency contractor Edward Snowden answering users' questions on Twitter in this photo illustration, in Sarajevo, January 23, 2014. (REUTERS) A man uses his cell phone to read updates about former U.S. spy agency contractor Edward Snowden answering users’ questions on Twitter in this photo illustration, in Sarajevo, January 23, 2014. (REUTERS)

Michael Kinsley, always a provocative thinker, has done quite a bit of provoking in his just-published New York Times review of Glenn Greenwald’s new book “No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State.” (Disclosure: We haven’t read Greenwald’s book.) It’s a pan, all 1,600 words of it.

Kinsley, a Vanity Fair columnist, doesn’t like Greenwald’s attitude, calling him a “self-righteous sourpuss.” (Okay, good point.) Kinsley doesn’t like Greenwald’s self-regard: “The ancien régime is corrupt through and through, and he is the man who will topple it,” says the book review. Kinsley doesn’t like Greenwald’s “me vs. them” worldview: “Throughout ‘No Place to Hide,’ Greenwald quotes any person or publication taking his side in any argument.”

All of these complaints are a mere warmup for the serious part of Kinsley’s onslaught, which relates to the role of journalists in sharing the secrets of government with the people. So thick is Greenwald’s book with bombast, suggests Kinsley, that Greenwald “makes no serious effort to defend as a matter of law the leaking of official secrets to reporters.” Of course, Kinsley’s referring to the leaks from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, a trove of documents that underlie Greenwald’s recent fame and a public-service Pulitzer Prize for the Guardian, where he used to work. Snowden passed along the information to Greenwald and asked the journalist to exercise his judgment in releasing it. Kinsley swings away:

The question is who decides. 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. In a democracy (which, pace Greenwald, we still are), that decision must ultimately be made by the government. No doubt the government will usually be overprotective of its secrets, and so the process of decision-making — whatever it turns out to be — should openly tilt in favor of publication with minimal delay. But ultimately you can’t square this circle. Someone gets to decide, and that someone cannot be Glenn Greenwald.

Oh yeah? And why not? Kinsley’s protests notwithstanding, that someone (or at least one of the key someones, along with The Washington Post’s Barton Gellman) has been Glenn Greenwald, for most of the past year. Should Kinsley wish to cement his case that Greenwald can’t be trusted with these decisions, perhaps he should specify just how Greenwald has mismanaged the information in the Snowden era. He doesn’t bother. To update the file on this front, just this week Greenwald and his colleagues at The Intercept published a story identifying a foreign country — The Bahamas — where the United States is vacuuming up all cell-phone communications. It also identified other countries involved in the program. That level of disclosure goes way beyond that of The Washington Post, which did the story months ago. (But it didn’t go far enough for Wikileaks. You can’t please everyone.)

Then Kinsley moves on to the David Gregory issue. Last June, not long after the Snowden-Greenwald connection plastered itself all over the front pages of national newspapers, Greenwald appeared on “Meet the Press,” where host David Gregory asked him, “To the extent that you have aided and abetted Snowden, even in his current movements, why shouldn’t you, Mr. Greenwald, be charged with a crime?” Greenwald all but spat the inquiry back at Gregory. Here’s how Kinsley sees this face-off:

And what was so outrageous? Well, for starters, Greenwald says, the “to the extent” formulation could be used to justify any baseless insinuation, like “To the extent that Mr. Gregory has murdered his neighbors. . . .” But Greenwald does not deny that he has “aided and abetted Snowden.” So this particular question was not baseless. Furthermore, it was a question, not an assertion — a perfectly reasonable question that many people were asking, and Gregory was giving Greenwald a chance to answer it: If the leaker can go to prison, why should the leakee be exempt? But Greenwald seems to feel he is beyond having to defend himself. Even asking the question, he said, amounts to “an extraordinary assertion” that “journalists could and should be prosecuted for doing journalism.”

We’ve been here before. Gregory’s question wasn’t, in fact, just a question. It was an accusation masquerading as a question, and an accusation that has never found any factual basis. Snowden did his highly technical work in harvesting top-secret documents from the government by himself. Just how was journalist Glenn Greenwald going to aid and abet that operation?

If Greenwald had actually aided and abetted Snowden in any material way, you can bet he wouldn’t have been able to move around the country on his recent visit. (Greenwald resides in Brazil.) Perhaps Kinsley is merely referring to Greenwald’s role in aiding and abetting the publication of certain documents? When asked about what Kinsley was saying with his “aiding and abetting” line, New York Times book review editor Pamela Paul responded, “According our interpretation of Kinsley, what Greenwald does is shift the definition of ‘aiding and abetting’ so as to be part of the standard practice of investigative journalism. Per Kinsley, what Greenwald actually did met the definition of ‘aiding and abetting Snowden.’ This is Kinsey’s opinion, as reflected in his review.” In any case, Greenwald has indeed denied the aiding-and-abetting charge.

On another note, Kinsley says the following question is reasonable and important: “If the leaker can go to prison, why should the leakee be exempt?” This legal distinction is a building block of an open society. We addressed the matter last year when discussing what it would take to prosecute Greenwald under the Espionage Act for his actions. A federal judge in a 2005 Espionage Act case distinguished between leaker and leakee:

The first class consists of persons who have access to the information by virtue of their official position. These people are most often government employees or military personnel with access to classified information, or defense contractors with access to classified information, and are often bound by contractual agreements whereby they agree not to disclose classified information. As such, they are in a position of trust with the government. The second class of persons are those who have no employment or contractual relationship with the government, and therefore have not exploited a relationship of trust to obtain the national defense information they are charged with disclosing, but instead generally obtained the information from one who has violated such a trust.

How’s that for an explanation?

Beyond these details, however, Kinsley’s attack on Greenwald suffers from a broader contradiction. In the same review that he acknowledges that the Snowden leaks were “important,” he blasts the system that has made them possible, just barely possible. You can’t have it both ways here: First Amendment protections enabled this information to surface. And we know full well how the government felt about it.

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