Snowden…it is legitimate for NSA to engage in targeted surveillance (i.e., monitoring specific individuals whom a court, based on evidence, concludes are legitimate targets) but inherently illegitimate to engage in suspicion-less mass surveillance (i.e., subjecting entire populations to monitoring).
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LIKE MOST PEOPLE, I’ve long known that factual falsehoods are routinely published in major media outlets. But as I’ve pointed out before, nothing makes you internalize just how often it really happens, how completely their editorial standards so often fail, like being personally involved in a story that receives substantial media coverage. I cannot count how many times I’ve read or heard claims from major media outlets about the Snowden story that I knew, from first-hand knowledge, were a total fabrication.
We have a perfect example of how this happens from the New York Times today, in a book review by Nicholas Lemann, the Pulitzer-Moore professor of journalism at Columbia University as well as a long-time staff writer for The New Yorker. Lemann is reviewing a new book by Edward J. Epstein – the long-time neocon, right-wing Cold Warrior, WSJ op-ed page writer and Breitbart contributor – which basically claims Snowden is a Russian spy.
The book has been widely discredited even before its release as it is filled with demonstrable lies. The usually rhetorically restrained Bart Gellman, whose work on the Snowden story at the Washington Post won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service, called the book “bad faith work” that is filled with “distortions” and “baseless and bizarro claims,” several of of which he documented. I’ve documented some of the other obvious falsehoods in the book.
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Suffice to say, so fringe is Epstein’s conspiracy claim that even top NSA and CIA officials – who despise Snowden and have repeatedly attempted to disparage him – have rejected the book’s central conspiracy theory that Snowden has worked with the Kremlin. In 2014, Epstein, citing what he claimed a government official told him “off the record,” wrote my favorite sentence about this whole affair, one which I often quoted in my speeches to great audience laughter: “there are only three possible explanations for the Snowden heist: 1) It was a Russian espionage operation; 2) It was a Chinese espionage operation; or 3) It was a joint Sino-Russian operation.” He’s apparently now opted for Door #1.
Lemann himself is highly dismissive of the book’s central accusations about Snowden, and does a perfectly fine job of explaining how the book provides no convincing evidence for its key conspiracies:
Epstein proves none of this. “How America Lost Its Secrets” is an impressively fluffy and golden-brown wobbly soufflé of speculation, full of anonymous sourcing and suppositional language like “it seems plausible to believe” or “it doesn’t take a great stretch of the imagination to conclude.”
Lemann’s review is worth reading to see what a farce this book is, and especially – for all those authoritarian liberal New Cold Warriors tempted to embrace the book because it smears Snowden as a Russian operative – to understand who Epstein is and the ideological agenda to which he’s long been devoted.
NONETHELESS, there is one statement in Lemann’s review that is misleading in the extreme, and another that that is so blatantly, factually false that it’s mind-boggling it got approved by a NYT editor and, presumably, a fact-checker. But it is worth looking at because it illustrates how easily this happens. Here’s the first one:
Snowden, Julian Assange of WikiLeaks, and their immediate circle of allies come from a radically libertarian hacker culture that, most of the time, doesn’t believe there should be an N.S.A. at all, whether or not it remains within the confines of its legal charter.
Though ambiguous about who exactly it is describing, this passages strongly implies that Snowden “doesn’t believe there should be an N.S.A. at all.” Snowden believes nothing of the kind. In fact, he believes exactly the opposite: that the NSA performs a vital function and many of their programs are legitimate and important. He has said this over and over. That’s why he wanted to work for the agency. It’s why he refused to dump all the documents he took and instead gave them to journalists, demanding that they only publish those which expose information necessary to inform the public debate: precisely because he did not want to destroy NSA programs he believes are justifiable.
It’s unclear who Lemann means by Snowden’s “immediate circle of allies” but I personally have never heard anyone who qualifies as such express the cartoon view Lemann has manufactured here. What I’ve heard from both Snowden and his “immediate circle of allies” has been quite consistent: that – as is true of all countries – it is legitimate for NSA to engage in targeted surveillance (i.e., monitoring specific individuals whom a court, based on evidence, concludes are legitimate targets) but inherently illegitimate to engage in suspicion-less mass surveillance (i.e., subjecting entire populations to monitoring). Everything Snowden has said and done is the antithesis of this absolutist abolish-the-NSA view Lemann concocted (indeed, Snowden has been harshly criticized by actual radicals for being too protective and supportive of NSA’s functions, as have the journalists who worked with him for refusing to dump the whole archive).
But while that passage from Lemann is misleading, his final paragraph is outright false as a clear factual matter:
This time around, [Epstein’s] concern seems to be half with the celebratory closed loop between Snowden and the journalists who covered him, and half with the causes and consequences of a major security breach at the N.S.A. The heart of the matter is the second of these concerns, not the first. In the Snowden affair, the press didn’t decide what stayed secret, and neither did Congress, the White House or the N.S.A. Snowden did.