Time to leave the airport

“I don’t want public attention because I don’t want the story to be about me,” Edward Snowden told Glenn Greenwald, Ewen MacAskill, and Laura Poitras. “I want it to be about what the US government is doing.”[1] It’s been over a month now since the Guardian, at Snowden’s request, exposed him as the leaker of—at the time, three bombshell stories about National Security Agency domestic spying. There have been many more stories since, and it is abundantly and increasingly clear, although there was very good reason to suspect before, that the National Security Agency and its partners—even including the United States Postal Service—are collecting all the information they can on everybody;[2] that the news media have been reporting it unimaginatively and repetitively as one huge and growing story; that ever more people all around the world may be outraged that their communications, too, have been swept up; that the story is beginning to sound like a rerun even with each new revelation. That leaves the saga of how Snowden escapes Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport to reach a friendly country—Bolivia, Venezuela, and Nicaragua have all offered asylum—assuming he’s even at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport.[3]

That’s a problem. Because it’s fairly obvious that as long as journalists are hanging out at the airport, hoping to catch even a glimpse of Snowden,[4] there are that many more pairs of eyes watching for him. Eyes that are connected to mouths that will blab. Eyes that are effectively helping the U.S. government to impede his escape.

From what I can see, the press has been mostly sympathetic to Snowden. They should be; he has given them the sorts of stories that, as putative watchdogs, they should be doing but generally do not.[5] And it is time for them to act on that sympathy by turning their backs on his plight.

Journalists need to focus on the story that Snowden identified at the beginning—what the government is doing to all of us and how it plays out in practice, as with no-fly lists. Instead, in their zeal to get a scoop as Snowden makes his exit—as I said, assuming he’s even at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport—they will rush to publish and to broadcast his whereabouts before his plane, assuming he leaves by that route, is even in the air. The journalists who get that scoop will draw attention to themselves: they will become the story, at least until the U.S. exercises its might to block Snowden’s path.

That would be a betrayal of people all around the world, people who now know that their communications are being swept up by an overzealous government:

When it is made to appear as though not knowing everything about everyone is an existential crisis, then you feel that bending the rules is okay. Once people hate you for bending those rules, breaking them becomes a matter of survival.[6]

As Stefan Wolle, curator of Berlin’s East German museum, and himself the subject of a Stasi file, put it, “when a wide net is cast, almost all of what is caught is worthless. This was the case with the Stasi. This will certainly be the case with the NSA.”[7] Wolle is right, for reasons I have already explained.[8] While there’s some evidence that this massive trove of data may be combed for use in extortion,[9] I am mostly concerned—and it has been reported—that it will be mined for what will amount to spurious correlations, based on superficial data.[10] Indeed, such is the only rational way to interpret statements like this one, made over a year ago, well before Snowden’s revelations:

“There is a genuine operational need to try to get us into a position where we can make the maximum use of the information the government already has to protect people,” said Robert S. Litt, the general counsel in the office of the Director of National Intelligence, which oversees the National Counterterrorism Center.[11]

In the same story that included that quote, New York Times reporter Charlie Savage explained that “pattern analysis” would now allowable under specific conditions,[12] and he was even more explicit in another story published the same day in Truthout, writing, “The guidelines are also expected to result in the center making more copies of entire databases and ‘data mining them’ using complex algorithms to search for patterns that could indicate a threat.”[13]. Another key word is analysis: the only way to “analyze” such a vast quantity of data is quantitatively and superficially, searching for spurious correlations. As correlations are identified, the consequences for individuals may be dire, as Ben Wizner of the ACLU explained about the “no-fly” list:

And once you’re on a watch list, you’re entirely at the government’s mercy if you want to get off. We’ve challenged this regime in federal court on behalf of fifteen U.S. citizens and legal residents who were not allowed to board flights but have never been given any explanation or opportunity to object. On Friday, my colleague Nusrat Choudhury appeared before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to argue that placing our clients on the No Fly List without providing them any opportunity to confront and rebut the “evidence” against them is unconstitutional.[14]

This new Stasi must be stopped. If journalists are to earn the stories Snowden has handed them, they need to follow up.

  1. [1]Glenn Greenwald, Ewen MacAskill and Laura Poitras, “Edward Snowden: the whistleblower behind the NSA surveillance revelations,” Guardian, June 9, 2013, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/jun/09/edward-snowden-nsa-whistleblower-surveillance
  2. [2]James Bamford, “The NSA Is Building the Country’s Biggest Spy Center (Watch What You Say),” Wired, March 15, 2012, http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/2012/03/ff_nsadatacenter/; Sven Becker, Thomas Darnstädt, Jens Glüsing, Hubert Gude, Fritz Habekuss, Konstantin von Hammerstein, Marc Hujer, Dirk Kurbjuweit, Mathieu von Rohr, Marcel Rosenbach, Matthias Schepp, Jörg Schindler, Gregor Peter Schmitz, Christoph Schult, and Holger Stark, “Indispensible Exchange: Germany Cooperates Closely with NSA,” Spiegel, July 8, 2013, http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/spiegel-reveals-cooperation-between-nsa-and-german-bnd-a-909954.html; Dashiell Bennett, “Obama Administration Defends Its Right to Take All Your Phone Records,” Atlantic Wire, June 6, 2013, http://www.theatlanticwire.com/politics/2013/06/obama-administration-verizon-phone-records/65954/; Max Blumenthal, “Obama and His Allies Say the Govt Doesn’t Listen to Your Phone Calls — But the FBI Begs to Differ,” Alternet, June 16, 2013, http://www.alternet.org/news-amp-politics/obama-and-his-allies-say-govt-doesnt-listen-your-phone-calls-fbi-begs-differ; Alexander Bolton, “Senators: NSA phone sweeping has been going on since 2007,” Hill, June 6, 2013, http://thehill.com/homenews/news/303891-senators-nsa-phone-sweeping-has-been-going-on-since-2007; Stephen Braun, Anne Flaherty, Jack Gillum, and Matt Apuzzo, “Secret to Prism program: Even bigger data seizure,” Associated Press, June 15, 2013, http://bigstory.ap.org/article/secret-prism-success-even-bigger-data-seizure; Democracy Now!, “Exposed: Inside the NSA’s Largest and Most Expansive Secret Domestic Spy Center in Bluffdale, Utah,” March 21, 2012, http://www.democracynow.org/2012/3/21/exposed_inside_the_nsas_largest_and; Democracy Now!, “National Security Agency Whistleblower William Binney on Growing State Surveillance,” April 20, 2012, http://www.democracynow.org/2012/4/20/exclusive_national_security_agency_whistleblower_william; Democracy Now!, “Whistleblower: The NSA Is Lying–U.S. Government Has Copies of Most of Your Emails,” April 20, 2012, http://www.democracynow.org/2012/4/20/whistleblower_the_nsa_is_lying_us; Democracy Now!, “NSA Whistleblowers: “All U.S. Citizens” Targeted by Surveillance Program, Not Just Verizon Customers,” June 6, 2013, http://www.democracynow.org/2013/6/6/nsa_whistleblowers_all_us_citizens_targeted; Democracy Now!, “Glenn Greenwald on How NSA Leaker Edward Snowden Helped Expose a ‘Massive Surveillance Apparatus’,” June 10, 2013, http://www.democracynow.org/2013/6/10/glenn_greenwald_on_how_nsa_leaker; Democracy Now!, “‘On a Slippery Slope to a Totalitarian State’: NSA Whistleblower Rejects Gov’t Defense of Spying,” June 10, 2013, http://www.democracynow.org/2013/6/10/on_a_slippery_slope_to_a; Democracy Now!, “‘You’re Being Watched’: Edward Snowden Emerges as Source Behind Explosive Revelations of NSA Spying,” June 10, 2013, http://www.democracynow.org/2013/6/10/youre_being_watched_edward_snowden_emerges; Democracy Now!, “More Intrusive Than Eavesdropping? NSA Collection of Metadata Hands Gov’t Sweeping Personal Info,” June 12, 2013, http://www.democracynow.org/2013/6/12/more_intrusive_than_eavesdropping_nsa_collection; “Edward Snowden Q&A: Dick Cheney traitor charge is ‘the highest honor’,” Guardian, June 17, 2013, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/jun/17/edward-snowden-nsa-files-whistleblower; “Edward Snowden Interview: The NSA and Its Willing Helpers,” by Jacob Appelbaum and Laura Poitras, Spiegel, July 8, 2013,http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/interview-with-whistleblower-edward-snowden-on-global-spying-a-910006.html; Peter Eisler and Susan Page, “3 NSA veterans speak out on whistle-blower: We told you so,” USA Today, June 16, 2013, http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2013/06/16/snowden-whistleblower-nsa-officials-roundtable/2428809/; Conor Friedersdorf, “3 Former NSA Employees Praise Edward Snowden, Corroborate Key Claims,” Atlantic, June 18, 2013, http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2013/06/3-former-nsa-employees-praise-edward-snowden-corroborate-key-claims/276964/; Ryan Gallagher, “Details Revealed on Secret U.S. ‘Ragtime’ Domestic Surveillance Program,” Slate, February 28, 2013, http://www.slate.com/blogs/future_tense/2013/02/28/deep_state_book_uncovers_details_on_ragtime_domestic_surveillance_program.html; Barton Gellman and Laura Poitras, “U.S. intelligence mining data from nine U.S. Internet companies in broad secret program,” Washington Post, June 6, 2013, http://www.washingtonpost.com/investigations/us-intelligence-mining-data-from-nine-us-internet-companies-in-broad-secret-program/2013/06/06/3a0c0da8-cebf-11e2-8845-d970ccb04497_story.htmlGreg Gordon, “Hints surface that NSA building massive, pervasive surveillance capability,” McClatchy, July 2, 2013,http://www.mcclatchydc.com/2013/07/02/195606/hints-surface-that-nsa-building.html; Glenn Greenwald, “Are all telephone calls recorded and accessible to the US government?” Guardian, March 4, 2013, http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/may/04/telephone-calls-recorded-fbi-bostonGlenn Greenwald and Spencer Ackerman, “NSA collected US email records in bulk for more than two years under Obama,” Guardian, June 27, 2013, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/jun/27/nsa-data-mining-authorised-obama; Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras and Ewen MacAskill, “Edward Snowden: US surveillance ‘not something I’m willing to live under’,”Guardian, July 8, 2013, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/jul/08/edward-snowden-surveillance-excess-interview; Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill, “NSA Prism program taps in to user data of Apple, Google and others,” Guardian, June 6, 2013, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/jun/06/us-tech-giants-nsa-data; Claus Hecking and Stefan Schultz, “Spying ‘Out of Control’: EU Official Questions Trade Negotiations,” Spiegel, June 30, 2013, http://www.spiegel.de/international/europe/eu-officials-furious-at-nsa-spying-in-brussels-and-germany-a-908614.html; Mark Hosenball and Susan Heavey, “Obama administration defends phone record collection,” Reuters, June 6, 2013, http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/06/06/us-usa-wiretaps-verizon-idUSBRE95502920130606; Lana Lam, “Edward Snowden: US government has been hacking Hong Kong and China for years,” South China Morning Post, June 13, 2013, http://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/article/1259508/edward-snowden-us-government-has-been-hacking-hong-kong-and-china; Natasha Lennard, “‘Now we are all persons of interest’,” Salon, June 6, 2013, http://www.salon.com/2013/06/06/no_surprise_says_nsa_whistleblower_thomas_drake/; Natasha Lennard, “Revealed: “Boundless Informant,” NSA’s powerful datamining tool,” Salon, June 9, 2013, http://www.salon.com/2013/06/09/revealed_boundless_informant_nsas_powerful_datamining_tool/; Niels Lesniewski, “Durbin Predicted NSA, Verizon Controversy in 2009,” Congressional Quarterly Roll Call, June 6, 2013, http://blogs.rollcall.com/wgdb/durbin-predicted-nsa-verizon-controversy-in-2009/; Eric Lichtblau, “In Secret, Court Vastly Broadens Powers of N.S.A.,” New York Times, July 6, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/07/us/in-secret-court-vastly-broadens-powers-of-nsa.html; Ewen MacAskill, Julian Borger, Nick Hopkins, Nick Davies and James Ball, “GCHQ taps fibre-optic cables for secret access to world’s communications,” Guardian, June 21, 2013, http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2013/jun/21/gchq-cables-secret-world-communications-nsa; Ewen MacAskill, Nick Davies, Nick Hopkins, Julian Borger and James Ball, “GCHQ intercepted foreign politicians’ communications at G20 summits,” Guardian, June 16, 2013, http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2013/jun/16/gchq-intercepted-communications-g20-summits; Declan McCullagh, “DOJ: We don’t need warrants for e-mail, Facebook chats,” CNET News, May 8, 2013, http://news.cnet.com/8301-13578_3-57583395-38/doj-we-dont-need-warrants-for-e-mail-facebook-chats/; Declan McCullagh, “NSA spying flap extends to contents of U.S. phone calls,” CNet News, June 16, 2013, http://news.cnet.com/8301-13578_3-57589495-38/nsa-admits-listening-to-u.s-phone-calls-without-warrants/; Claire Cain Miller, “Tech Companies Concede to Surveillance Program,” New York Times, June 7, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/08/technology/tech-companies-bristling-concede-to-government-surveillance-efforts.html; Ron Nixon, “U.S. Postal Service Logging All Mail for Law Enforcement,” New York Times, July 3, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/04/us/monitoring-of-snail-mail.html; Alex Pareene, “The government has all your info,” Salon, June 6, 2013, http://www.salon.com/2013/06/06/the_nsa_has_all_your_info/; Tony Paterson, “NSA ‘in bed’ with German intelligence says US whistleblower Edward Snowden – and GCHQ operates a ‘full take’ data monitoring system,” Independent, July 7, 2013, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/nsa-in-bed-with-german-intelligence-says-us-whistleblower-edward-snowden–and-gchq-operates-a-full-take-data-monitoring-system-8693793.html; Bill Quigley, “Twenty Examples of the Obama Administration’s Assault on Domestic Civil Liberties,” Truthout, December 7, 2011, http://truth-out.org/news/item/5454:twenty-examples-of-the-obama-administrations-assault-on-domestic-civil-liberties; Dan Roberts and Spencer Ackerman, “US intelligence outlines checks it says validate surveillance,” Guardian, June 15, 2013, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/jun/16/nsa-the-nsa-files; Larry Rohter, “Brazil Voices ‘Deep Concern’ Over Gathering of Data by U.S.,” New York Times, July 7, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/08/world/americas/brazil-voices-deep-concern-over-gathering-of-data-by-us.html; Steven Rosenfeld, “How Obama Became a Civil Libertarian’s Nightmare,” Alternet, April 18, 2012, http://www.alternet.org/story/155045/how_obama_became_a_civil_libertarian%27s_nightmare; Charlie Savage and Edward Wyatt, “U.S. Is Secretly Collecting Records of Verizon Calls,” New York Times, June 5, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/06/us/us-secretly-collecting-logs-of-business-calls.html; Bruce Schneier, “What We Don’t Know About Spying on Citizens: Scarier Than What We Know,” Atlantic< June 6, 2013, http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2013/06/whats-scarier-than-the-verizon-leak/276607/; Matthew Schofield, “European anger growing over extent of alleged U.S. electronic surveillance,” McClatchy, July 2, 2013, http://www.mcclatchydc.com/2013/07/02/195617/european-anger-growing-over-extent.html; South China Morning Post, “Edward Snowden: Classified US data shows Hong Kong hacking targets,” June 15, 2013, http://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/article/1260306/edward-snowden-classified-us-data-shows-hong-kong-hacking-targets; Christian Stöcker, “The Power of Britain’s Data Vacuum,” Spiegel, July 7, 2013, http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/snowden-reveals-how-gchq-in-britain-soaks-up-mass-internet-data-a-909852.html; WashingtonsBlog, “Americans Are The Most Spied On People In World History,” December 5, 2012, http://www.washingtonsblog.com/2012/12/americans-the-most-spied-on-people-in-world-history.html; Christian Stöcker, “The Power of Britain’s Data Vacuum,” Spiegel, July 7, 2013, http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/snowden-reveals-how-gchq-in-britain-soaks-up-mass-internet-data-a-909852.html; Shaun Waterman, “Whistleblower’s NSA warning: ‘Just the tip of the iceberg’,” Washington Times, June 7, 2013, http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2013/jun/7/the-national-security-agencys-collection-of-phone-/; Rachel Weiner, “Mark Udall: I tried to expose NSA program,” Washington Post, June 6, 2013, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/post-politics/post/mark-udall-i-tried-to-expose-nsa-spying/2013/06/06/6e567a52-cee8-11e2-8573-3baeea6a2647_blog.html
  3. [3]Hannah Allam and Matt Schofield, “Trapped: An air escape from Moscow unlikely for NSA leaker Snowden,” McClatchy, July 10, 2013, http://www.mcclatchydc.com/2013/07/10/196362/trapped-an-air-escape-from-moscow.html; Alex Halperin, “Where on Earth is Edward Snowden?,” Salon, June 24, 2013, http://www.salon.com/2013/06/24/where_the_hell_is_snowden/; Mercopress, “Evo Morales’ plane rerouted on suspicion Snowden on board,” July 3, 2013, http://en.mercopress.com/2013/07/03/evo-morales-plane-rerouted-on-suspicion-snowden-on-board.; J. Dana Stuster, “5 ways Edward Snowden can smuggle himself out of the Moscow airport,” Foreign Policy, July 2, 2013, http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2013/07/02/how_do_you_flee_a_country_without_leaving_it; Shaun Walker and Heather Saul, “Edward Snowden saga: Bolivia accuses Europe of ‘kidnapping’ Bolivian president in forcing Evo Morales’ plane to land in Vienna,” Independent, July 3, 2013, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/edward-snowden-saga-bolivia-accuses-europe-of-kidnapping-bolivian-president-in-forcing-evo-morales-plane-to-land-in-vienna-8682610.html; Jordy Yager and Jeremy Herb, “Obama administration set to make NSA leaker Snowden’s trip tough,” The Hill, July 9, 2013, http://thehill.com/blogs/defcon-hill/policy-and-strategy/309727-obama-administration-set-to-make-snowdens-trip-tough-
  4. [4]Tim Murphy, “A Day in the Life of a Snowden-Chasing Journalist at Sheremetyevo International Airport,” Mother Jones, July 5, 2013, http://www.motherjones.com/mojo/2013/07/snowden-journalist-sheremetyevo-international-airport
  5. [5]J. Herbert Altschull, Agents of Power: The Media and Public Policy, 2nd ed. (White Plains, NY: Longman, 1995); Noam Chomsky, Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies (Boston: South End, 1989); David Croteau and William Hoynes, Media/Society: Industries, Images, and Audiences, 3rd ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge, 2003); David Halberstam, The Powers That Be (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois, 2000); Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (New York: Pantheon, 2002); George Seldes, 1000 Americans: The Real Rulers of the U.S.A. (New York: Boni and Gaer, 1948; Joshua Tree, CA: Progressive, 2009).
  6. [6]“Edward Snowden Interview,” by Appelbaum and Poitras.
  7. [7]Matthew Schofield, “Memories of Stasi color Germans’ view of U.S. surveillance programs,” McClatchy, June 27, 2013, http://www.mcclatchydc.com/2013/06/26/195045/memories-of-stasi-color-germans.html
  8. [8]David Benfell, “Why you should be scared shitless,” June 11, 2013, https://disunitedstates.org/?p=5598
  9. [9]Dennis J. Bernstein, “Bush’s Foiled NSA Blackmail Scheme,” Truthout, June 23, 2013, http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/17154-bushs-foiled-nsa-blackmail-scheme
  10. [10]James Risen and Eric Lichtblau, “How the U.S. Uses Technology to Mine More Data More Quickly,” New York Times, June 8, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/09/us/revelations-give-look-at-spy-agencys-wider-reach.html
  11. [11]Charlie Savage, “U.S. Relaxes Limits on Use of Data in Terror Analysis,” New York Times, March 22, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/23/us/politics/us-moves-to-relax-some-restrictions-for-counterterrorism-analysis.html
  12. [12]Savage, “U.S. Relaxes Limits on Use of Data in Terror Analysis.”
  13. [13]Charlie Savage, “Total Information Awareness: Sweeping New Surveillance Measures Approved in the US,” Truthout, March 23, 2012, http://truth-out.org/news/item/8067-total-information-awareness-sweeping-new-surveillance-measures-approved-in-the-us
  14. [14]Ben Wizner, “Ninth Circuit Presses Government Lawyer on Watch Lists: ‘What Would You Do?'” American Civil Liberties Union, October 8, 2012, http://www.aclu.org/blog/national-security-technology-and-liberty/ninth-circuit-presses-government-lawyer-watch-lists

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