How Surveillance-State Insiders Try to Discredit NSA Critics

Journalists opposed to the surveillance state are accused of sensationalism and withholding context. But unlike our critics, we're eager for the whole truth to out.
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Reuters

Who has done more than anyone else to increase public understanding of what the National Security Agency does? A top-10 list would have to include James Bamford, its first and most prolific journalistic chronicler, and Glenn Greenwald, a primary recipient of classified documents leaked months ago by whistleblower Edward Snowden. Over the weekend, I engaged in a back-and-forth with a former NSA employee who harshly criticized both (and me, too) with words that illuminate how some insiders view the press and the national-security state.

His name is John R. Schindler. In his own words, he is a "professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College, where he’s been since 2005, and where he teaches courses on security, strategy, intelligence, terrorism, and occasionally military history." He previously spent "nearly a decade with the National Security Agency as an intelligence analyst and counterintelligence officer," and he is "a senior fellow of the International History Institute at Boston University and is chairman of the Partnership for Peace Consortium's Combating Terrorism Working Group, a unique body which brings together scholars and practitioners from more than two dozen countries across Eurasia to tackle problems of terrorism, extremism, and political violence." In addition, his blog has some smart commentary on it.

He is certainly a surveillance-state expert. In comparison, I started writing regularly about surveillance in June when the Snowden story broke. If we're going by the dictionary definition, Schindler is correct that I am a neophyte, "a person who is new to a subject, skill, or belief." As Schindler and I interacted on Twitter, a predictable divide opened up between his followers, who are generally supportive of the surveillance state, and mine, who are more skeptical of it. Highlighting parts of our exchange* will permit me to better explain what it is that many of us "outsiders" find so frustrating about how "insiders" treat this subject. 

* * *

Every so often, journalists begin to cover a new subject. When I started reporting on Rancho Cucamonga, California, I was a neophyte. Eventually I knew everyone and my reporting spurred a recall. It wasn't so long ago that I'd never thought about drones. Now I can hold my own in an extended debate with an esteemed alumnus of the Oxford Union. The benefits of constrained surveillance are obvious enough. One day, I'll be more adept at pinpointing what surveillance-state insiders obscure with their jargon, elide with technically accurate but misleading statements, and tell credulous politicians to delay or water down reforms. Today it takes me a long time in front of the keyboard and a lot of open tabs to figure all that out, and there are worthwhile angles I'm still not able to cover.

So I have a long reading list, a desire to engage smart colleagues with different perspectives than my own, a reporting trip to Germany under my belt for international perspective**, an inclination to air smart dissents, and an eagerness to engage transparently. Implicit in all this is a belief that a generalist opinion journalist can add value to public discourse while developing expertise on a subject, and can gain invaluable knowledge from the audience too. There is no better example than the Snowden revelations of all outsiders learning significant new information together. If there were enough experts with the time, inclination, ability, and independence to write fluently and enjoyably for a general audience, there would be no need for journalists as informational middlemen. But experts are often busy, compromised, insular, boring, uninterested in reaching general audiences, or inclined to pull up informational ladders rather than lower them. 

That brings me back to Schindler, who I follow, and who retweeted the following:

This is factually inaccurate. Numerous news organizations have spent untold sums attempting to investigate the context of Snowden's leaks. They have added lots of context beyond reproducing slide decks. (To cite one typical example, see Barton Gellman in this story, augmenting his analysis of leaked documents with independent verification from intelligence sources. Also see much of what Marc Ambinder writes.) And while there's been a lot of flawed journalism on this subject, as on all subjects, many commentators have been more unfair to Snowden and Greenwald than the NSA. Richard Cohen puts himself in that category! 

Rather than focus on the obviously incorrect "100 percent context-free" claim, I noted that "the obstacle to context is overclassification, not an unwillingness to investigate among journalists." Going back to the very first leak story, "The Guardian approached the National Security Agency, the White House and the Department of Justice for comment in advance of publication." National-security journalists scrambled en masse to find sources to provide context for the leaked documents. I'd never claim that no mistakes have been made in reporting on them. These are highly classified, technologically complex programs, and it's perfectly legitimate to observe that presentation decks don't always square with reality. 

But officials have actively stymied journalistic efforts to determine the whole truth. They've lied under oath to Congress and held back relevant information prior to important votes. They've long over-classified material on a wide range of subjects. And they still insist that many aspects of NSA surveillance ought to remain secret, unknown even to many members of Congress. National-security-state "insiders" are entitled to the belief that classified mass-surveillance programs are legitimate and that obfuscation by officials is understandable. They are not entitled to falsely claim that journalists are not interested in gathering context, even as many labor mightily to do so and gradually make gains, to the consternation of insiders and their allies. 

That is a debate I'd have liked to hash out with Schindler. But oftentimes, insiders will shift the focus away from positions they can't defend by making an implicit or explicit claim that outsiders aren't even qualified to disagree with them. Here's how Schindler responded to my point about context:

Suddenly, my assertion that journalists are, in fact, trying their damnedest to provide context was no longer the subject of debate—instead, we were talking about a recent item I wrote revisiting the first chapter of The Puzzle Palace, Bamford's 1982 book that gave the general public its first journalistic look at the NSA. I did so in an effort to give my readers more context. Schindler's position is that I am discredited by virtue of revisiting it! I'm highly skeptical, for reasons that we'll get to shortly, but open in the sense I always am—that is to say, I want to hear specific critiques of any book I'm reading and writing about so that I can be aware of and note any actual errors.

The response I got:

If you click through to that link, you'll find—in addition to some useful pointers to information about the NSA that makes exchanges like these worth having—attacks on Bamford that are totally lacking in specificity. His book is called "a gossipy tome that was culled largely from unclassified Agency newsletters." He is criticized for failing to note in some versions of his bio that "he served for three years in the Naval Security Group, the Navy’s portion of NSA, so he was a cryptologic insider," experience that seems like a point in his favor to me. "Bamford’s writings on NSA, which are considerable, are noted for their quantity, not quality," Schindler states in the passive voice, neglecting to say who rendered that judgment. "He tends to sensationalism and sometimes outright fabrication. Bamford cannot be considered a reliable source on SIGINT and his methods tend towards the sleazy; before 9/11, when the Cryptologic History Symposium was held inside NSA headquarters, Bamford used to try to chat up random NSAers, hoping they would tell him secrets."

So he is "sleazy" because he was writing a book on the NSA and tried to get NSA employees to tell him secrets? I see that as a mark in his favor too. 

I kept pressing for specifics.

Now, I didn't just pluck Bamford's book off the shelf at random. His work on the NSA comes highly recommended by numerous sources knowledgeable about the surveillance state, who independently urged that I add it to a long list of "homework" I requested. Also, the author is a former U.S. Navy intelligence analyst, a law-school graduate, and a National Magazine Award winner. And no one has suggested anything in the chapter of his book I summarized is inaccurate or misleading. I'd never counsel relying exclusively on his book, but many people recommend it as a great resource for anyone trying to get educated on the NSA's history.

So Schindler declares a widely respected author a sleazy fabricator. And pressed for evidence—because if there's a serious problem with the book that none of my sources mentioned, I want to know about it!—he declares, "I'm not your research assistant," as if I initiated the subject. No, Professor Schindler, you're not any journalist's research assistant. You're a college professor and a public intellectual making a public criticism of a widely respected author, and of a journalist who is revisiting that author's work. Backing up your claims with evidence is something you do for the sake of your own intellectual integrity and a productive public discourse.

With regard to the latter, it isn't anyone's "job" to help inform debates on Twitter. People do it because the Internet often permits us to be helpful and advance discourse with incredibly minimal effort. Being helpful is often as easy as being unhelpful. This is not the behavior of a U.S. Naval War College professor who is engaged in earnest attempts to increase the general public's understanding. The exchange was, rather, an attempt to discredit the NSA's critics without refuting them, and it earned predictable atta-boys from other NSA insiders who dislike Bamford. 

Journalism has its flaws, but the profession is useful in part because practitioners don't initiate exchanges of this form:

- This is so.
- I disagree. What's you're evidence?
- You should already know! It isn't my job to tell you. 

It is our job to increase public understanding as best as we can, and having institutions with that purpose is essential in a democracy because insiders have different interests. NSA insiders, in particular, believe that lots of true things should be obscured. 

Next up was this gem:

You might conclude from the quotations marks that I'd called Bamford "the leading expert on the NSA." I did not. That did not stop his followers, including numerous veterans of the national-security state, from concluding I'd written so imprecisely. Of course, Schindler does not regard his own imprecision as disqualifying. 

On the other hand:

Cheap pedantry. And then there was this telling missive:

And this:

That really sums up the attitude on display throughout. I have a Ph.D. You don't have a credential, therefore you aren't worth debating, just trolling. I presume, based on the fact that Schindler is a teacher, that his real-life persona isn't the same as his Twitter persona. Some of his efforts are actually aimed at better informing the public, albeit within the constraints of our overzealous system of classification. I'd bet heavily that this exchange doesn't sum him up as a professional. And finally, after repeated requests, he offered up this specific critique:

The controversy he references doesn't happen to be about the book I am reading and reprising. Having looked up the controversy, I see that it pertains to an incident involving the Israeli military firing on an American naval vessel and whether it was an accident or intentional, not to Bamford's account of the NSA's history. And while I have no idea who is right about the naval incident in question, accusing Bamford of fabricating his source material is a significant leap. (All that said, I'm glad to know about this controversy, and if I write about the book in which it appears I'll be sure to link the inconclusive arguments on both sides. And if anyone has specific criticisms of Bamford's first book, let's hear 'em!) 

What vexes me most is the claim that non-Ph.D. journalists are uninformed, careless, and sensationalistic, degrading the elevated discourse that insiders would ostensibly be conducting in our absence–and Schindler's simultaneous ad hominem and tendency toward brazenly asserting wild, unproven charges.

Set Bamford and his aside. Shortly after that exchange, Schindler tweeted:

FSB is Russia's successor to the KGB.

So to sum up: A former NSA employee and U.S. Naval War College professor insists that journalists are sensationalists too lazy to back up their assertions with reporting ... and then he breezily accuses two Americans of a capital crime, implies without evidence that Greenwald has been motivated to report on the Snowden leaks for love of money (see Greenwald's response here), and alleges without evidence that half the Snowden operation was orchestrated by Russian authorities. As it turns out, knowledgeable NSA insiders with Ph.D.s and fancy institutional affiliations are every bit as capable of sensationalism and trafficking in evidence-free conspiracy theories as the least responsible members of the press.

Consumers of journalism should be aware of its limitations. On most topics, there are experts who know more than journalists (though it is rare that they're able and willing to share their expertise with a general audience). Even the most careful journalists can make mistakes. As in any profession, some journalists are less diligent than they ought to be about what they publish and how open they are to revisiting it. And there is a consumer-driven incentive to write sensational headlines.

What the web era offers is a journalistic ecosystem that's more transparent and rich than any that preceded it. Implicit in Schindler's critique is a notion that in a perfect world, all journalists would be Ph.D.-holding insiders, and (if his work is any indication) they would also use insider terminology and assumptions and refrain from opinionated criticism. As a reader of journalism watching the Snowden story unfold in real time, I value the diverse approaches to the story that are available to us. Greenwald's work is characterized by a fierce independence and refusal to uncritically accept official statements. His collaborations with establishment news organizations have brought careful editing and verification to bear. Marc Ambinder brings expertise and a different ideological orientation to surveillance issues, and offers very smart analysis and dogged reporting, often of official perspectives. Marcy Wheeler's ability to dive deep and make connections everyone else missed is vital. So is generalist Jack Shafer's ability to write sophisticated commentary and analysis that broad audiences can understand. There are many other journalists doing good work on this story, some as straight reporters, others as analysts and commentators; some experts, others generalists. Subjecting them all to criticism is highly desirable, but it ought to be specific, so that public understanding is actually advanced. 

Alas, surveillance-state insiders have a monopoly on some facts by virtue of classified information to which they're privy. Some of them, like Schindler, adopt the insider mindset so completely that any critic who doesn't share national-security-state assumptions is declared unworthy of substantive engagement:

That mindset is a shame, and betrays a degree of intellectual dishonesty: some national security state insiders write as if they just want journalists to be professional and offer full context. In fact, they favor journalism that leaves out all context that is classified, even insisting the notion that full context should be reported is childish. The prevalence of that mindset among insiders is exactly why outsider journalists are needed. Outsider journalists assume that self-government requires an informed public. And we believe even members of the public who believe spy agencies should be denied much of the secrecy they now enjoy are fully legitimate participants in public discourse, not people to be diminished and dismissed. 

__

* I've done my best to accurately represent the parts of our exchange relevant to journalism and NSA coverage, but I am obviously an interested party. Schindler's Twitter page is here, and searching it for my handle, @Conor64, will yield the full content of our exchange, along with others who added to the conversation.

** Story coming soon.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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