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.

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."

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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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