Given the virtues of this spin-off effect, Team Greenbacks argues, the Snowden story becomes by its very nature the most important whistleblowing story in the history of national security reporting.
Stick a fork in the “Snowden Effect.” It's done...Or is it? A tit-for-tat took place online this week between Team Greenbacks and Team Security State. For those not in the know, “Team Greenbacks” refers to Glenn Greenwald (erstwhile reporter of the Edward Snowden documents leaking information about the NSA's illegal spying programs) and the hodgepodge of billionaire tech giants, 9/11 truth-averse 'reporters' and foundation-funded organizations that support him.
“Team Security State” refers to Greenbacks' critics. Or, more accurately, that subset of critics who are opposed to the Snowden leaks on the grounds that he's a “traitor” and the leaks “harm American security.” As you might guess, I am of the belief that there are more than just those two teams, but we'll come to that in a moment.
So Team Security State fired first this week, with Politico Magazine's Michael Hirsh penning an article with the interrogative headline “Has Greenwald, Inc. Peaked?” As one would expect, the article comes down on the side of “yes” without having the journalistic cajones to actually say it:
“Will there be many more Snowdens to come, based on Greenwald’s 'model'?” Hirsh asks. “Perhaps. But it’s more likely that Greenwald Inc. has already peaked. The NSA, duly chastened by Snowden’s leaks, is changing under presidential directives that will rein in its mass collection of telephone 'metadata'—its most controversial program—while most of the rest of us have moved on. 'I think there’s a bit of Snowden fatigue out there right now,' said former NSA director Michael Hayden.”
Team Greenbacks fired back with a flurry of “Why, I Never...” type articles. Erik Wemple's Washington Post entry, “7 problems with Politico Magazine’s hit piece on Glenn Greenwald” is a typical example:
“To count the fact that the NSA is being forced to rein in its telephony collection 'while most of the rest of us have moved on' points to a continuing — not withering — impact of the Greenwald-Snowden stuff,” Wemple objects, adding: “Only in a world with a sleeping editor can one quote Michael Hayden as attesting to Snowden fatigue.”
All of this is quite entertaining as far as these back-and-forth melodramas go, but is there any light to this heat? Or, to put it another way: whither the “Snowden Effect?”
The “Snowden Effect” was coined by Charles Pierce in a piece under that headline in Esquire's politics blog on June 10, 2013. It was quickly latched onto by Team Greenbacks to describe all of the knock-on effects from Snowden's “Revelations” (TM): the effect on other would-be whistleblowers who might be spurred into action by Snowden's example, the reporters who are motivated to uncover other aspects of the story because of the attention Snowden's story puts on government spying, the official admissions of programs and policies that would have otherwise remained hidden to the public. Given the virtues of this spin-off effect, Team Greenbacks argues, the Snowden story becomes by its very nature the most important whistleblowing story in the history of national security reporting.
Or something like that. Perhaps it was possible to make such an argument in June 2013, but here we are in September 2014 and, much as it burns in the pits of the stomachs of Team Greenbacks, it looks like Team Security State is right this time. The “public conversation” that was supposed to occur as a result of these leaks really has long since turned to more pressing matters, like hacked celebrity nude photos and the start of the NFL season. The extra digging that all the combined might of the MSM reporting industry was supposed to bring to bear to this issue has turned up nothing other than a few warmed-over stories about telephony metadata. The pressure that this was supposed to bring to bear on the Congress critters to rein in the intelligence agencies has resulted in the USA FREEDOM Act, a piece of legislation so anti-libertarian that it needs one of those Orwellian acronym names in order to escape scrutiny.
In fact, there is a very good case to be made that the “Snowden Effect” is not what Team Greenbacks has promoted at all, but in fact the exact opposite. Rather than encouraging further whistleblowing, the real-time hunt for Snowden and his sensational escape to Russia (where he has been actively handled by the Russian FSB, including his FSB-employed lawyer, since his arrival) send a clear message to whistleblowers: you must be prepared to live your entire life as a criminal fugitive under the supervision of a foreign intelligence service if you ever want to blow the whistle on government corruption. The team of reporters who never wanted to cover this topic in the first place have unsurprisingly done nothing more than scratch the surface of the implications of total internet surveillance, instead spinning the conversation off into a debate about “metadata” and completely ignoring the openly admitted fact that the government is now collecting all digital transmissions that are passing through the country (a fact that has been hardwired into law for 20 years and public knowledge for over a decade). And government officials are using the opportunity to hardwire and codify the apparatus of the Deep State spying behemoth into law. It's almost as if the “Snowden Effect” was designed to backfire.
And of course it was.
We can argue this philosophically, by discussing the Panopticon effect. A “panopticon” is a type of perfect prison designed by English philosopher Jeremy Bentham in the 18th century. The prison has a central guard tower and an outer ring of prison cells with windows on the outside, so that light shines inward (toward the guard tower). The set-up of the prison allows the guards to observe every prisoner in every cell without the prisoners observing the guards. As a result, the prisoners—always feeling like they are being watched but never knowing if they are—start to act as if they are being watched. They begin to self-censor. It is not difficult to see how this could apply to the Snowden case. Here we have the alphabet soup agencies who may or may not be watching everything you do on the internet at any given moment. Are you really going to re-tweet that funny meme making fun of the TSA patdowns? Are you really going to post that new Corbett Report video to your Facebook wall? After all, it could land you on a terror watch list. You might as well self-censor! This is the real Panopticon/Snowden effect in action, and it's something I talked about repeatedly on my podcast before Snowden ever came along.
We can also argue the anti-Snowden effect in more concrete terms. Everything Snowden has brought to light pales in comparison to what we actually knew about NSA surveillance before these leaks began. We've known for over a decade now (thanks to AT&T whistleblower Mark Klein) that the NSA has backdoor access to telecoms hubs in the US where they split the trunk of the internet into their own private stream and copy everything wholesale. We also knew about the NSA's Bluffdale data center that is specifically being designed to record as much data as the internet produces, which should tell us something about the scope of the NSA's ambition. We don't have to guess about what they're doing with this technology, though; significantly CNN intelligence analyst Tim Clemente revealed the fact that the intel community already had access to every single digital communication in the United States weeks before Greenwald began publishing the Snowden documents. Not one but two separate NSA whistleblowers (Edward Binney and Russ Tice, who, along with Kirk Weibe and Tom Drake, all blew the whistle on the NSA's illegal wiretapping programs before Snowden) have specifically referred to this stunning admission on live TV as the moment that they knew that the NSA was already collecting data wholesale, not mere “metadata” as the media began obsessing over after Snowden came along. In very practical terms, Snowden has succeeded in a) diverting attention from the long line of NSA whistleblowers who preceded him, and who in every case have been much more damning about the NSA's illegal practices and programs, and b) steering the conversation into a limited hangout dead end about metadata while obscuring the fact that the content of every phone call, email, fax, page and electronic bloop passing through the country is being recorded wholesale.
But don't take my word for it. Take Snowden's. He has been remarkably consistent in admitting that this was never about stopping the NSA (or, incidentally, the CIA, or any of the other dozens of alphabet soup agencies), from doing any of this.
He has declared “For me, in terms of personal satisfaction, the mission’s already accomplished,” adding “I didn’t want to change society. I wanted to give society a chance to determine if it should change itself.”
He has demanded that the documents should only be published “in coordination with government stakeholders.” As a result, we know at least one story was delayed at the request of the government and others have been redacted by the reporters themselves in anticipation of government concerns.
He has reminded the world that before he was an NSA contractor (and after he was a special forces “dropout”) he was a trained CIA spy, “pretending to work in a job that I'm not - and even being assigned a name that was not mine.”
He has berated former CIA whistleblowers, claiming “Leaking CIA documents can actually harm people.”
He has insisted on holding back the bulk of the documents that he supposedly took (however many that's supposed to be, anyway), so much so that Greenwald has admitted that “we have had tens of thousands of documents for over a year and only a tiny percentage of those have been released at his [Snowden's] insistence.”
Greenwald, for his part, has held back original reporting to help sell his book on the events, done a 180 degree about-face on the integrity of the folks at Sony Pictures after they bought the rights to his movie, lied about the details of his partner's detention at Heathrow Airport, cheerfully gone to work for (and subsequently defended) a man with multiple business relationships to the NSA and its contractors and who has been involved in “democracy promotion” in Ukraine, and carefully chosen the subjects of his supposed “fireworks” story to minimize the outrage it would generate.
With friends like these, why do liberty lovers need enemies?
Now, let's not leave it there. This is not a throw your hands up and walk away type of situation. Nor is it a situation where we should be cornered into supporting Team Greenbacks because, 'Hey, they're fighting Team Security State!' Because they're not, really. In fact, they've admitted they don't want to change anything the security state is doing and they don't want to publish anything against the security state's wishes. What we need to do is realize that we can form our own team. Team Smash The Security State. We have no interest in handling the alphabet soup agencies with kid gloves. They deserve to be smashed into a thousand pieces and scattered to the winds, exactly as JFK proclaimed before he had his head blown off in broad daylight.
Now let's not kid ourselves: this is not going to be an easy battle. Sad as it may be to admit, Hayden and Team Security State are right: the public really does seem to have become tired of the whole Snowden melodrama and each subsequent revelation is rolled out to increasingly diminished fanfare. But perhaps we can make lemonade from these lemons. For the first time, the public as a whole is actually aware of the government's total surveillance. Now the task falls to us, those in Team Smash the Surveillance State, to drive the point home. Every time a story like the nude celebrity picture story comes along, it's a chance to remind everyone that the NSA has all of these pictures (and emails and phone calls and messages) anyway, and we know that they are sharing them amongst each other. Every time we have a court case that hinges on an email, phone call or other electronic communication, we should remind the public that the NSA should be subpoenaed for their evidence. Every time a state passes a law banning cooperation with the NSA, we should celebrate and trumpet this fact.
Yes, we are preaching to a choir, but the choir is growing and our case is getting stronger every day.