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NSA Bombshell Story Falling Apart Under Scrutiny; Key Facts Turning Out to Be Inaccurate
It turns out, the NSA PRISM story isn’t quite the bombshell that everyone said it was. Yes, there continues to be a serious cause for concern when it comes to government spying and overreach with its counter-terrorism efforts. But the reporting from Glenn Greenwald and the Washington Post has been shoddy and misleading.
We shouldn’t shrug off our weakened privacy as a merely a side effect of the digital age, either. We ought to fight to preserve as much of our personal information as possible. So if there’s any benefit to the NSA news, it’s to serve as a reminder that, yes, the government is serious about attaining information in its war on terrorism and that we should be aware of what’s going on — checking it when it gets out of control.
But with new contravening information emerging since the original stories were posted by Greenwald and the Washington Post, it’s clear that the reporting by each news outlet was filled with possibly agenda-driven speculation and key inaccuracies.
Greenwald told CNN, “It’s well past time that we have a debate about whether that’s the kind of country and world in which we want to live.”
Canonizing bad reporting as a means of inciting a debate is as bad as no debate at all. Attachment to empirical reality must remain a central trait of the left, otherwise the progressive movement is no better than the non-reality based propagandists on the right who will say and do anything to further the conservative agenda. So perhaps some positive changes on domestic spying are eventually achieved, but at what cost? Greenwald, who doesn’t really care about “left and right,” isn’t concerned with anything other than his personal agenda and clearly he’s willing to do whatever it takes in pursuit of those goals. Specifics presently.
It’s a shame because there’s a way to have this debate without selling out to misinformation. Instead, we appear to be careening way off the empirical rails into hysterical, kneejerk acceptance of half-assed information.
Here’s how this story has played out since late Thursday.
1. Both Glenn Greenwald and the Washington Post reported that the NSA had attained “direct access” to servers owned by Facebook, Google, Yahoo, Apple and other big tech companies in order to attain private user information via a top secret government operation called PRISM. Initially, this appeared to be a major violation of privacy. The implication is that the government enjoyed unchecked, unrestricted access to metadata about users any time it wanted.
2. Then, naturally, heads exploded throughout the blogs and social media. Left and right alike.
3. While everyone was busily losing their shpadoinkle on Twitter and the blogs, Google, Facebook, Dropbox, Yahoo, Microsoft, Paltalk, AOL and Apple all announced in separate statements that not only were they unaware of any PRISM program, but they also confirmed that there’s no way the government had infiltrated the privately-owned servers maintained by these companies. Furthermore, Google wrote, “Indeed, the U.S. government does not have direct access or a “back door” to the information stored in our data centers. We had not heard of a program called PRISM until yesterday.” Google also described how it will occasionally and voluntarily hand over user data to the government, but only after it’s been vetted and scrutinized by Google’s legal team.
4. The freakout continued.
5. Furthermore, Glenn Greenwald used the phrase “direct access,” as in unobstructed direct server access, four times in his article, most prominently in his lede, “The National Security Agency has obtained direct access to the systems of Google, Facebook, Apple and other US internet giants, according to a top secret document obtained by the Guardian.” Unless the tech companies were collectively lying, Greenwald’s use of “direct access” is inaccurate. And if it’s inaccurate, the most alarming aspect of this NSA story is untrue.
On Twitter, Greenwald defended his reporting by reiterating that the NSA said within the PRISM document that there has been “collection directly from the servers of these US service providers: Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook…” But this could mean that the data was drawn from the servers, vetted and handed over to the NSA per Google’s stated process of legal vetting. And if the data was made available, it’s possible that the tech companies posted it on a server for the NSA analysts to download, just as you might download a file from work or a friend via Dropbox or an FTP server. Regardless, it seems as if Greenwald’s entire story hinges on a semantic interpretation of the PRISM language. And his mistake was to leap from “collection directly from servers” to “direct access.”
6. More exploded heads anyway. Anyone relaying the new information is accused of being an Obamabot.
7. Additionally, the NSA whistleblower who provided the information to the Washington Post was quoted as saying, “They quite literally can watch your ideas form as you type.” Without direct access to the servers this would be impossible — that is, unless the NSA was intercepting user data in transit. But that’s not what Greenwald reported, which was direct server access. This was the bombshell — that the NSA could grab information at will — and, as of this writing, it’s inaccurate.
8. In spite of these new revelations, epidemic-level outrage continued to spread all around. Michael Moore and others applauded the anonymous whistleblower(s) who provided information to Greenwald.
9. By the end of the day Friday, Business Insider reported that the Washington Post had revised its article. The article no longer reported that the tech companies “knowingly” cooperated with PRISM. But, more importantly, the phrase “track a person’s movements and contacts over time” in the article’s lede was revised to “track foreign targets.” There’s a huge difference between the two phrases. Public outrage was almost entirely based on the idea that the NSA was spying on everyone who uses those services — broad, unrestricted access to private information (as private as social media and email is). But the revision limits the scope of the operation to international communications.
As of Saturday, Greenwald, unlike the Washington Post, hadn’t corrected or revised his reporting to reflect the new information, and, in fact, Greenwald continued to defend his reporting on Twitter. (It’s worth noting how speculative Greenwald’s article was. The following line was particularly leading: “It also opens the possibility of communications made entirely within the US being collected without warrants.” There’s no indication whatsoever that the government was gathering information without warrants.)
10. Heads, sadly, continued to explode all over the place in spite of the total de-fanging of both stories.
11. Meanwhile, TechCrunch‘s Josh Constine reported on Saturday, “[T]he NSA did not have direct access or any special instant access to data or servers at the PRISM targets, but instead had to send requests to the companies for the data.”
This is vastly different from what Greenwald reported.
12. Rampant outrage all day Saturday.
13. And ultimately, other than the PRISM Power Point, the NSA’s surveillance story isn’t anything new. Some headline history via ProPublica:
Bush Lets U.S. Spy on Callers Without Courts, New York Times, December 2005
NSA has massive database of Americans’ phone calls, USA Today, May 2006
The NSA Is Building the Country’s Biggest Spy Center (Watch What You Say), Wired, March 2012
U.S. Terrorism Agency to Tap a Vast Database of Citizens, The Wall Street Journal, December 2012
But the Greenwald and Washington Post stories are somehow bombshells, taken at face value. Has our collective attention span become so ridiculously short that we’re suddenly shocked by news of the NSA attaining data about Americans as a means of fighting evildoers? Has everyone been asleep for the last 12 years?
To summarize, yes, the NSA routinely requests information from the tech giants. But the NSA doesn’t have “direct access” to servers nor is it randomly collecting information about you personally. Yet rending of garments and general apoplexy has ruled the day, complete with predictable invective about the president being “worse than Bush” and that anyone who reported on the new information debunking the initial report was and is an Obamabot apologist.
Speaking for myself on that front, I’m not apologizing for anyone. I’m merely noting that Greenwald and the Washington Post reported inaccurate information. I’ve spent a considerable chunk of my writing career eviscerating the post-9/11 surveillance state and its accompanying trespasses against privacy and civil liberties. While I’m encouraged by the president’s vow to begin rolling back the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force, winding down the endless war and its accompanying endless war powers, I’m also concerned about the continued bartering of privacy for the sake of a little more security — a through-line that began under George W. Bush and continues today.
But this prioritization of security over liberty wasn’t invented by this president. It began as the unforgivable exploitation of fear in the days after 9/11 and became entwined in the American worldview. We’ve sadly become just as accustomed to unnecessary searches and privacy intrusions as the federal government has grown accustomed to going beyond its mandate to smoke out the evildoers.
- So what's his point?
I read the original article and the updates - they don't seem substantial to me.
As far as the denials from corporations - no direct access, but all the access they wanted.
Finally it's easy for someone like Cesca who is not a journalist to be a Monday morning quarterback.
It's a big story - and it has legs.
- How shocking. It turns out the government will request user data when someone is under investigation for being involved in a crime.
When will the madness end?
- Our govt:
- I don't understand why this is news. I saw this NOVA report in 2009. Partial transcript:
JAMES BAMFORD: If you want to tap into international communications, it seems like the perfect place is San Luis Obispo. That's where 80 percent of all communications from Asia enters the United States.
NARRATOR: But under NSA's new orders, they don't tap in here. Instead the cables run straight from San Luis Obispo to a building in San Francisco.
The building, at 611 Folsom Street, is AT&T's regional switching center. All the international traffic snakes up to the seventh floor, and it is here that a crucial change takes place. The seventh floor is also where AT&T's domestic traffic is routed—a cacophony of millions of conversations: cries and laughter, hopes and dreams, emails, faxes, bank statements, hotel reservations, love poems and death notices, all sent by people from inside the United States. The only thing they have in common is a reasonable expectation of privacy.
NARRATOR: In 2003, an AT&T engineer notices that the cables on the seventh floor have been rerouted, and a mirror image of all the traffic, both domestic and international, is now being sent to a secret room one floor below.
MARK KLEIN (Former AT&T Technician): It was obvious that this was some kind of NSA installation. I figured out that what they were doing was a blind wholesale copying of the entire internet data flow. And this meant randomly scooping up huge amounts of purely domestic data, as well as international data.
BRIAN REID (Internet Systems Consortium): When I hear the word wiretap, I've always imagined some person in a trench coat and a black hat and sunglasses, skulking around after dark, secretly tapping into a wire and hoping that no one notices. But what they've done in that facility is by full light of day, they've cut the fiber optic cables and then reconnected them in a splitter. What they have built is a facility that is capable of monitoring absolutely all data communication through it.
NARRATOR: Brian Reid, a communications expert, has examined AT&T's internal documents that Klein provided. They show that the secret room contains electronic equipment specifically designed for signals intelligence, equipment programmed to sift through millions of messages, searching for keywords like the ones Bamford sent from Kuala Lumpur.
BRIAN REID: The most curious piece of equipment in that room is a completely flexible monitoring system that can be told on a moment's notice, "Please monitor all conversations that contain the word hummingbird. Please monitor all conversation that goes to Mobile, Alabama. Please monitor all conversations that contain both the word hummingbird and go to Mobile, Alabama."
NARRATOR: NSA has turned its giant ear to listen in on America.
BRIAN REID: Based on everything I know, I believe that there are between 15 and 30 of these secret rooms around the U.S.
NARRATOR: The post-9/11 rules authorized NSA to listen in to Americans both inside and outside the U.S., without any special court approval.
- R5 - The issue isn't that the government went to a regular public court and got warrants based upon evidence.
The issue is they go to a secret court and get warrants for all communication. Then they sift through the data looking for possible crimes or potential crimes. Or people who are connected to people who might potentially commit a crime.
- thanks op
- Nice spin OP. both the Post and Nyt were on board until the WH busted them for going off the party line.
- People that believe this propaganda bullshit are the same people that believe that late model MBenz cars will explode into flames after a crash.
- The only witness to Hastings crash claims the car started exploding prior to the crash.
- Cesca is a diehard Obama-bot. The NSA scandals are only going to deepen as more is revealed. As the Congresswoman said the other day, Prism is the tip of the iceberg.
"Direct access" is a dodge and obviously a talking point they were supplied since all of them used the same language.
As for the "oh this is old news" crowd. No, it's not. We suspected they were up to this kind of behavior, but no one "knew" it. You were a tinfoil hatter if you said as much a year ago. Now, you're old news. Bullshit.
- More Kool-aid, OP?
This is why I HATE Obamabots and Hilaroids and Bushtards.
They can say "Bush is the devil" for spying, but once their guys get busted they claim he is still good despite his shitting on their civil rights.
I hope that this scandal destroys what little legitimacy DC still has, and that all states secede from their slavemasters.
Any intelligent person would prefer a system where each state was sovereign to a system where a central politburo can spy on them 24/7.
- R15 here
I cannot figure out what "childish epithet posted by a republican tool" means.
I was just looking for something to go with "Bushtards" and don't remember exactly what I posted.
- They killed Hastings just like they killed that Dorthy lady from What's My Line in the 60s. She was an investigative journalist with too much information too.
- Well hell, R/11/12/15/16/17/18: if you want to say something judgmental about [bold]FAGGOTS[/bold], why the hell don't you?
- Calm down R20. If I had typed faggot it would display. Look at your post- the F-word is there. It was some iteration of Obama-(ist? Onics? -ism?) and I genuinely have no clue what the term I posted that caused the webmistress to replace it. Apparently Obama is untouchable and holy.
I see that Bushtards and Rethuglican don't set her off, so I wonder why she cannot face the fact that Obama is even worse than Bush when it comes to civil liberty violations. At least Bu$h could deny it- now the whistleblowers have proof that Obama has increased the levels of domestic spying far above what the moronic Rethuglican assholes dreamed of.
I guess Obama knows he has a bunch of pathetic [censor] that will lick his [censor] while he destroys our civil liberties to serve his [censor] masters like a good house [censor] and that his sycophants will defend him. I hated Bu$h, but Obama makes him look like a saint.
Fuck them all. I wish the states would tell all federal satraps to fuck off and secede. Local government is far more effective than lazyass moron bureaucrats that live thousands of miles away.
- The propaganda around Snowden is becoming comical.
When Kerry, Graham, Obama, McCain, Biden, Cheney and Pelosi are ALL calling for him to be murdered while IGNORING the fact that our government has killed millions, "rendered" tens of thousands illegally from Middle East countries, it makes me sick
He's a hero.