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Fugitive Moments

Flashpoints in global justice, democratic process, and the history of ideas


U.S. Officials Say

NYT-Building

Something about Thursday’s New York Times top story stayed with me. You know, the one about the NSA searching Americans’ email and text messages to recipients overseas. I wasn’t thrown off by the story itself—after a summer of PRISM slides and XKeyscore leaks, it’s hard to be surprised that the government is reading the emails we send to other countries. What stayed with me was how it was reported.

Written by Charlie Savage, the article describes how even Americans “who cite information linked to” foreigners under suspicion can be targeted for surveillance. After describing the operation, Savage considers whether casting such a wide net is legal—and specifically whether it violates the 2008 FISA Amendments Act, which allows the government to surveil cross-border communications between Americans and foreign nationals without a warrant. Toward the end of the article, an unnamed “senior intelligence official,”—all of Savage’s sources for the leak are anonymous—assures us that the program is legal and does not result in “bulk collection” of Americans’ private data.

Oddly, Savage doesn’t mention any NSA programs by name, but it’s clear he’s describing something close to PRISM, which allows NSA agents (and private contractors) to monitor electronic communications between Americans and foreigners. Even stranger, Savage doesn’t mention XKeyscore, the data-mining NSA program revealed last week by the Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald. XKeyscore goes far beyond anything Savage describes, and would seem to contradict what the anonymous officials told him about NSA surveillance being so legal and precise.

But what really stuck out was the sourcing. Although there are some experts Savage quotes on the record from the ACLU and the Bush White House, all sources relating to the initial leak—that is, the backbone of the story—are anonymous. It reminded me of a column Robert Fisk wrote a few years ago about mainstream coverage of the Iraq War. Taking an LA Times profile of insurgency “mastermind” Abu Musab Zarqawi as an example, Fisk describes a pattern he sees in the paper’s sourcing:

Here are the sources—on pages one and 10 for the yarn spun by reporters Josh Meyer and Mark Mazzetti: "US officials said", "said one US Justice Department counter-terrorism official", "Officials ... said", "those officials said", "the officials confirmed", "American officials complained", "the US officials stressed", "US authorities believe", "said one senior US intelligence official", "US officials said", "Jordanian officials ... said"—here, at least is some light relief—"several US officials said", "the US officials said", "American officials said", "officials say", "say US officials", "US officials said", "one US counter-terrorism official said".

Of course, the LA Times is hardly alone in this, says Fisk. Open the international section of any major U.S. paper and you’ll find the same thing: reporters relying almost exclusively on anonymous, high-level government officials for tips, stories, quotes, and analysis. Leaks like this, adds State Department whistleblower Peter Van Buren, ensure that official messages, perspectives, and stories get priority coverage. And the Obama administration has this down to a science, from the bizarrely laudatory “kill list” story in the Times to cyber-warfare against Iran to the details of the bin Laden raid. This is exactly how the Bush administration’s fantasies about Iraqi WMDs became reported fact, says Glenn Greenwald. “Reporters are trained that they will be selected as scoop-receivers only if they demonstrate fealty to the agenda of official sources,” he adds. “It converts journalists into dutiful messengers of official decrees.”

Contrast all of that with the treatment the papers dished out to actual whistleblowers like Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden. Before contacting WikiLeaks, Manning famously attempted to get in touch with reporters at the Washington Post and the New York Times. Neither got back to him. In retrospect, that may have been a good thing, says Kevin Gosztola at Firedoglake—the Times has a history of checking with the White House before publishing top secret information, as they later did with the State Department cables.

Three years later, when Edward Snowden approached Barton Gellman at the Washington Post with his own groundbreaking leaks, he faced similar barriers. In exchange for the leaks, Snowden had asked Gellman for assurances that the paper would publish the full NSA PowerPoint presentation describing PRISM within 72 hours. Instead, the Post consulted with government officials who raised red flags about several of the 41 PRISM slides. When the story appeared two weeks later, the number of slides was down to four.

The most startling thing about this episode is that all of this information came directly from Gellman and the Washington Post. Gellman simply reports exactly what happened, without comment. Like the New York Times, the Post’s policy on national security leaks is apparently to check with senior officials before publishing—that way anything unflattering or embarrassing can be deleted. It’s as if—and this is hardly an exaggeration—Bob Woodward had contacted officials in the Nixon White House to approve the leaks he received from Deep Throat.   

Ultimately of course, it didn’t matter that the Times ignored Manning or how the Post edited the PRISM slides. Miraculously, both leaks found their way to readers, sparking rigorous debates about national security, privacy, and American imperialism. But that may not always be the case. The more reporters and papers rely on government officials to provide and approve their stories, the less we’re all likely to know.

Image by Thomas Roggero, licensed under Creative Commons.