U.S. Officials Say

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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
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

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
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
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 WashingtonPost 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
, licensed under Creative Commons.

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