It’s been a couple of months since the Washington Post published a scoop on the extraordinary overseas eavesdropping capabilities of the U.S. government. Under the bylines of Barton Gellman and Ashkan Soltani, the paper revealed that the National Security Agency (NSA) had amassed a system — known as “MYSTIC” — enabling it to “rewind and review” all of the telephone conversations of a foreign country.
From the story: “A senior manager for the program compares it to a time machine — one that can replay the voices from any call without requiring that a person be identified in advance for surveillance.” Details on the program came from documents supplied by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden as well as from sources familiar with the program.
A really juicy scoop, with one desiccating caveat: The Post withheld a detail critical to understanding the scope and capabilities of the program:
At the request of U.S. officials, The Washington Post is withholding details that could be used to identify the country where the system is being employed or other countries where its use was envisioned.
Ah, a legacy media outlet acceding to a request from the U.S. government. Or, in other words, the raison d’etre of Glenn Greenwald, the former Guardian columnist and current First Look Media talent who has long criticized American media outlets for wimping out on disclosure of sensitive information. In a recent interview with Amy Goodman of Democracy Now, Greenwald riffed, “[t]he editors at The Washington Post are very much old-style, old-media, pro-government journalists, the kind who have essentially made journalism in the U.S. neutered and impotent and obsolete.”
Following the Post’s story on MYSTIC, the Erik Wemple Blog waited a couple of weeks and then asked Greenwald, essentially, where’s your story on this thing? He responded, “I can’t comment on that yet, except to say that, obviously, if we were to publish something that the WashPost has announced it thinks shouldn’t be published, it would take work (and thus time) with editors, lawyers and the like.”
Time, indeed. Yesterday, The Intercept, First Look Media’s magazine on national security matters, published its version of the Post’s MYSTIC story. In the very headline of the piece, it drew a distinction between its piece and that of the Washington Post: “Data Pirates of the Caribbean: The NSA Is Recording Every Cell Phone Call in the Bahamas.”
The Bahamas? The what?
Under the bylines of Ryan Devereaux, Greenwald and Laura Poitras, The Intercept reports that the NSA worked with the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) to secure a “backdoor” to the cell phone network of the island nation, “without the knowledge or consent of the Bahamian government.” Noting that the agency commonly cites such life-and-death imperatives as anti-terrorism to justify its eavesdropping program, in this case it’s going after drug traffickers and smugglers, “a far cry from derailing terror plots or intercepting weapons of mass destruction,” notes the story.
If the Bahamas sounds like an odd place on which to focus such a spy initiative, that’s perhaps by design, notes the story: It could well be a “sort of guinea pig to beta-test improvements and alterations without impacting the system’s operations elsewhere.”
As for the “elsewhere,” Greenwald and The Intercept go there, to a point. Here’s the big reveal of the story: “Documents show that the NSA has been generating intelligence reports from MYSTIC surveillance in the Bahamas, Mexico, Kenya, the Philippines and one other country, which The Intercept is not naming in response to specific, credible concerns that doing so could lead to increased violence. The more expansive full-take recording capability has been deployed in both the Bahamas and the unnamed country.”
John Cook, The Intercept’s editor-in-chief, declined an interview request about the decisions behind the story, instead leaving the matter to Twitter. Which provides a rich back-and-forth for this case.
Following publication of the story, Wikileaks ripped The Intercept for failing to embrace a more radical form of transparency:
We condemn Firstlook for following the Washington Post into censoring the mass interception of an entire nation https://t.co/jTKVNCK5BJ
— WikiLeaks (@wikileaks) May 19, 2014
The principals then went off to the races:
@wikileaks that’s a willfully stupid interpretation of the relationship between our story and the post’s. but your condemnation is noted.
— John Cook (@johnjcook) May 19, 2014
@johnjcook The peoples of an entire nation have the right to choose their destiny. Not John Cook. History does not belong to you.
— WikiLeaks (@wikileaks) May 19, 2014
And then some input from The Intercept’s priest of adversarial press-government relations:
— Glenn Greenwald (@ggreenwald) May 19, 2014
Compare that sentiment with what Greenwald tweeted the day the Washington Post published its MYSTIC story:
— Glenn Greenwald (@ggreenwald) March 18, 2014
As part of the back-and-forth Wikileaks made a bid for renewed relevance with this boast:
— WikiLeaks (@wikileaks) May 19, 2014
The exchange proves that in the world of radical media-government adversarialists, purity is a prerequisite. Here, Greenwald apparently thought his publication was sticking to its governing principles in publishing the names of four countries, only to get shouted down by Wikileaks for not going far enough (Greenwald couldn’t be reached for comment). In a previous post, Greenwald has criticized the NSA for allegedly spilling details of top-secret programs when it suits its propaganda mission, only to turn around and insist to media outlets that lives will be endangered if they publish sensitive information.
The Intercept’s partial defiance of the NSA in publishing the names of four countries surely adds contour to the story of MYSTIC — the example of the Bahamas alone fleshes out various legal and diplomatic considerations involved in foreign surveillance. The more careful Washington Post version of the story was interesting yet unsatisfying: Absent a specific country, it was more difficult to reach hard conclusions on the program’s legitimacy, legality and efficacy. Those are the dangers of scaling back detail in consideration of security concerns. When asked if naming just the Bahamas as a way of explaining NSA capabilities would have been a tolerably cautious approach, Washington Post Executive Editor Martin Baron replied, “You make some assumptions here, but I’m not going to address them.”
There are also perils to The Intercept’s approach. It may have touched off a macho-transparentist scramble to out that one country whose secretness The Intercept genuinely wants to protect.
Whatever the outcome, each outlet apparently got the same pitch from the government: “We shared with both news outlets the very same concerns about risks to human life and national security,” says NSA spokeswoman Vanee’ Vines in a statement to this blog. She also sent along this statement:
Every day, NSA provides valuable intelligence on issues of concern to all Americans – such as international terrorism, cyber crime, international narcotics trafficking, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The fact that the U.S. government works with other nations, under specific and regulated conditions, mutually strengthens the security of all.
NSA’s efforts are focused on ensuring the protection of the national security of the United States, its citizens, and our allies through the pursuit of valid foreign intelligence targets. Moreover, all of NSA’s efforts are strictly conducted under the rule of law and provide appropriate protection for privacy rights.
The Agency collects data to meet specific security and intelligence requirements such as counterintelligence, counterterrorism, counterproliferation, cyber security, force protection for U.S. troops and allies, and combating transnational crime.