spy agencies and the war on journalism

Intriguing and disturbing perspectives regarding the US and UK surveillance apparatus’s war on journalism, employing the same sort of tactics used to disrupt terrorist cells.

Bruce Schneier on the detaining of couriers of journalists …

It could possibly have been intended to intimidate others who are helping Greenwald and Poitras, or the Guardian and its advertisers. This will have some effect. Lavabit, Silent Circle, and now Groklaw have all been successfully intimidated….

This leaves one last possible explanation — those in power were angry and impulsively acted on that anger. They’re lashing out: sending a message and demonstrating that they’re not to be messed with — that the normal rules of polite conduct don’t apply to people who screw with them. That’s probably the scariest explanation of all….

[Bruce further clarifies via later edit]

And, to be clear, I didn’t mean to say that intimidation wasn’t the government’s motive. I believe it was, and that it was poorly thought out intimidation: lashing out in anger, rather than from some Machiavellian strategy.

So the intell agencies are trying to intimidate the public and journalists either way; whether it was Machiavellian strategy or impulsiveness is another question. I’m guessing it’s a bit of both. People at the top want the story to go away or turn the tables on reporters. Gov’t minders at the bottom are feeling the stress and want to be seen as “doing their jobs,” even if this means interrogating and intimidating reporters.

What are the intell agencies trying to achieve with all this? Haven’t they received enough bad press?

They’re trying to make journalism harder and more expensive (Jay Rosen, of PressThink). The fact that couriers are being used is telling: flying internationally to deliver encrypted USB drives isn’t cheap. The spooks are trying to disrupt even this already-expensive form of journalism. These tactics make terror cells more expensive to operate; the same is true of journalism companies.

Making journalism harder, slower and less secure, throwing sand in the gears, is fully within the capacity of the surveillance state. It has the means, the will and the latitude to go after journalism the way it went after terrorism.

Barry Eisler’s perspective is concordant with this view, and along the lines of the surveillance state and war on journalism being very much purposeful.

… the National Surveillance State must do two things:  first, button up the primary means of human communication — today meaning the Internet, telephone, and snail mail; second, clamp down on backup systems, meaning face-to-face communication, which is, after all, all that’s left to the population when everything else has been bugged.  Miranda’s detention was part of the second prong of attack.  So, incidentally, was the destruction of Guardian computers containing some of Snowden’s leaks.  The authorities knew there were copies, so destroying the information itself wasn’t the point of the exercise.  The point was to make the Guardian spend time and energy developing suboptimal backup options — that is, to make journalism harder, slower, and less secure.

Mr Eisler has an excellent follow-up to the above article on why journalists should not give in to the temptation of doing a data dump of all unredacted documents onto the public domain, which seems very tempting and an option I’ve wondered about myself. His point is that a) it would not serve the public interest; rather than gradually and responsibly keeping the story alive and the good debate flowing, it would derail the effort, and b) it might even be the intell community’s objective (at some levels) to force the hand of journalists–in other words, the surveillance agencies might want journalists to irresponsibly dump unredacted data onto the public domain. I hadn’t considered that view myself, but he makes an intriguing case.

Incidentally, and bolstering the aforementioned idea, it seems plausible at this point that spy agencies are leaking top secret information themselves. If true, then it bolsters the aforementioned argument. The idea is that, if data were irresponsibily “dumped” onto the public domain, it would work in the spy agency’s favor by painting journalists as irresponsible and endangering the safety of the citizenry. The tone of the national conversation might then change in favor of the surveillance state and against the journalists. If spy agencies can’t intimidate journalists to act impulsively themselves and irresponsibly release unredacted material, then the intell agencies themselves might “simulate” this sort of reckless data leakage by doing it themselves and blaming Snowden, the Guardian, the NY Times, journalists in general, or whomever.

What to do? The spy agencies and their proxies have shown themselves to be willing to lie to the Congress and public, to overreach their authority, to overstep the legal boundaries of wiretap requests, etc. The public and its representatives must have greater insight into what their agencies are doing, whether they’re effective, and what checks and balances are in place on their power internally and externally. It seems that, thanks to whistleblowers like Snowden and many brave journalists, we finally have some insight into the spy agencies and their many transgressions. We need to keep the spotlight on them and the larger issues, without being distracted or derailed by the inevitable bumps in the road.

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