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Iraq, Vietnam, and Why US Foreign Policy Elites Won’t STFU

By: Barry Eisler Friday June 13, 2014 3:18 pm
Army soldiers at sunset

The Serious Foreign Policy Experts are eager for the next war … as long as it boosts our economy.

With Iraq splitting into three (eight years ago, I explained why this was going to happen and why the US should get behind it), I wondered whether any establishment media outlets would refer to a civil war there. I did a search for the applicable terms, and came up with … not much. Apparently, if it’s happening in a Designated Enemy Country like Syria it immediately gets called a civil war. But if it’s happening in a country we ourselves destroyed, we can’t bear to be overly accurate and descriptive in our nomenclature, so it’s just “militants.”

I also searched for “Iraq Vietnam.” Because you don’t have to be a historian to remember that this sounds an awful lot like the endgame in Vietnam:

White House officials said the president did not envision any circumstances in which ground troops could return to the country. Air strikes, however, are under active consideration. On Thursday the US began airlifting planeloads of its citizens from Iraq.

Here, I was intrigued to see that my search returned one big hit: a Daily Beast article by the ultimate foreign policy insider: Leslie Gelb. According to the headline, “Iraq Is Vietnam 2.0 And U.S. Drones Won’t Solve The Problem.” I thought, “Huh? That sounds reasonably insightful and even minimally sane. What’s going on?”

And then I read the article. Really, it is remarkable. Not for anything it intended. But rather as a perfect microcosm of the horrific failings of America’s inbred, immoral, ineducable foreign policy elite.

It starts immediately after the headline, when Gelb explains that “The problem is the Iraqi government.” I thought, “Holy shit, that is exactly what the foreign policy establishment kept saying about Vietnam, all the way to the bitter end! Is Gelb channeling Colbert? Demonstrating why Iraq is like Vietnam by saying the same incredibly stupid and self-serving things insiders once said about Vietnam?  A kind of performance art, maybe?”

And then I read on and realized that no, Gelb really is this blind. He’s not playing parody. He is parody.

So what’s the problem? The problem is not that these Iraqis weren’t well trained and equipped, it was they did not have a government worth fighting for. The Maliki government is Shiite, exclusionary and anti-Sunni. It is corrupt and inefficient. In sum, like most of these great freedom-fighting government we’ve backed over the decades—corrupt and inefficient. And certainly non-inclusive in its politics, certainly not welcoming of potential opponents, certainly ill-disposed to give non-Shiites a legitimate share of power. So the Iraqi troops throw down their arms and run away.

Look, Gelb supported the war in Iraq. He was part of it. He lent it triple-distilled establishment cred. So how incredibly psychologically convenient for him that “the problem” isn’t the war he supported, the war that killed up to 500,000 Iraqis and turned another 4,000,000 into refugees (in a population about 20% the size of America’s), the war that destroyed whatever infrastructure was holding the country together.

No, the only problem is the Iraqi government.

And it actually gets worse from there.

The U.S. fights in Iraq and Afghanistan and Libya and Vietnam and other places (maybe next in Syria), provides billions of dollars in arms, trains the friendly soldiers, then begins to pull out—and what happens? Our good allies on whom we’ve squandered our sacred lives and our wealth fall apart.

Our lives are sacred. But those far-away, brown-skinned lives? The hundreds of thousands of them in Iraq? Not only are they not “sacred,” they’re so meaningless they’re not even worthy of mention in a magazine article.

And this notion that when America “squanders” (rare moment of honest nomenclature there) the lives of its soldiers in foreign wars, we’re doing it for the good of the people of the countries we invade, rather than for our own selfish ends? It’s the psychological gift that keeps on giving, enabling people like Gelb to go on supporting America’s wars because America’s wars really aren’t wars at all, no, America’s wars are in fact simply the magnanimous gifting of freedom and democracy to poor benighted peoples overseas, bestowed in beneficence by a generous, loving, enlightened people. Gelb’s subtext is right there, though it would be considered uncouth in his circles to say it plainly: You’re welcome, Iraq, you fucking ingrates. Now no more freedom gifts for you until you show us you’re mature enough to use them responsibly.

Actually, I think Lyndon Johnson said it better: “We are not about to send American boys nine or ten thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.” Another unintentional bit of ironic Gelb performance art, doing his part to cement the parallels between America’s premier foreign policy disasters.

Either our super foreign policy elite hasn’t read Reinhold Neibuhr, or they can’t understand him:


The Importance of Polks and Pulitzers

By: Barry Eisler Tuesday April 15, 2014 12:35 pm

These Polks and Pulitzers matter, and we should be glad when they’re awarded to people who deserve them.

Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, two of the journalists whose reporting just won their organizations Pulitzers based on the Snowden revelations, have been reluctant to return to America because of various official calls for their arrest; the refusal of the Justice Department to provide any assurances that it would not arrest them; and the detention of Greenwald’s spouse David Miranda at Heathrow last August (nor are Greenwald and Poitras alone in being at risk of being arrested by their own governments for acts of journalism). But on Friday, they decided to come home to accept the prestigious George Polk Award they had won for National Security Reporting (and to dedicate the award to their source, Edward Snowden).

I was visiting my native New Jersey for a family event the day of the Polk ceremony, and managed to get a press pass so I could attend (thank you, Polk and Pulitzer winner and Rain fan Bart Gellman!). Greenwald and Poitras arrived together at JFK while the awards assembly was already in progress.  There was a phalanx of reporters and photographers waiting for them in the lobby of Roosevelt Hotel, where the awards were being presented, and outside customs at JFK. The presenters changed the order of award presentation to accommodate their schedule, saving the National Security Reporting awards for last. The whole thing was thrilling and hugely satisfying to see.

More importantly, it was exceptionally widely watched. And this is what I want to talk about here.

Of course I’m just speculating, but I imagine Greenwald and Poitras decided that if they timed their return to coincide with their acceptance of their award, they could make it maximally difficult for the government to do anything excessively vindictive and heavy-handed. It’s not just the sound bite the government would bee up against — “Two Polk Award Winners Arrested En Route to Receiving Journalism Award.” It was the massive attention focused on their return. All those photographers, at JFK and at the Roosevelt.  All those intrepid fellow award-winning journalists, and dozens more covering the event in the gallery and at the press conference afterward.  If the government had tried to move against Greenwald and Poitras just then, it would have faced a remarkable amount of real-time scrutiny. Or, to put it another way, there was never going to be a worse time for the government to act than during the half-day window of exceptional focus and watchfulness the Polk ceremony created.

Why does this matter? Because it suggests that whatever you might think of the substantive value of this or that award (and it’s true that with Tom Friedman using three Pulitzers to mangle his metaphors and Obama launching drone attacks from atop a Nobel Peace Prize, one might reasonably conclude that such awards can be handed out somewhat haphazardly), there’s no doubt the awards still garner great attention, attention that can act as a check on unconstitutional governmental vindictiveness.

For this reason, I was hugely disappointed that Time Magazine made the safe pick of Pope Francis for its Person of the Year, relegating Edward Snowden to #2. Pope Francis isn’t at risk of arrest, disappearance, torture, and murder. Snowden most certainly is.

For this reason, too, I’m pleased that Snowden has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. When I tweeted about this back in January, I was surprised at how many people, citing Nobel Laureate Obama among others, responded along the lines of “The Nobel Prize doesn’t mean anything.” Look, maybe you yourself are not impressed by prizes like the Nobel, but if you care about Edward Snowden (along with journalists and other whistleblowers) and appreciate the sacrifices he’s made for freedom and democracy all over the world, wouldn’t you want to make it more difficult for the government to arrest or mistreat him or worse? And if you do want to make such things more difficult, don’t you see that “US Government Arrests Nobel Peace Prize Winner Snowden” would at least to some extent serve that objective?

I think there are two general reasons people reflexively display their cynicism in the face of awards. One is what NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen calls “The Church of the Savvy,” which consumers of establishment media pick up by osmosis and then begin to ape. The other is an odd form of narcissism, because after all, if an award doesn’t matter to me, then it shouldn’t matter at all.

All of which is weird, when you stop to think about it.  Maybe you don’t care about the Academy Awards, but that doesn’t mean winning one doesn’t enhance an actor’s star power, increase her earning potential, and broaden the scope of roles she’ll be offered. Similarly, whatever else you might think of journalism awards, they can make it harder for the government to interfere with journalists exercising their First Amendment rights, or to throw whistleblowers in prison for espionage.

So those Polks and Pulitzers matter, and we should be glad when they’re awarded to people who deserve them. And here’s hoping the Nobel committee does the right thing in October, and gives Snowden some more of the recognition he deserves and some more of the the protection he needs.

P.S.  Thomas Friedman is so ridiculous and pernicious that I couldn’t possibly link to all the wonderful articles hilariously deconstructing and parodying his unique brand of destructive navel gazing. But here are a few.

No Kidding: The Most Incoherent Tom Friedman Column Ever
Flat N All That: Matt Taibbi Eviscerates Thomas Friedman’s “Hot, Flat, and Crowded”
Come Up With the Ultimate Thomas Friedman Porn Title
Surprise Winner in Thomas Friedman Porn-Title Contest
The Definitive Collection of Thomas Friedman Takedowns

Most especially, see the Friedman chapter in Barrett Brown’s marvelous book Keep Rootin’ for Putin — and contribute to Barrett’s defense fund, too.

When it Comes to Torture and Assassinations, Life Imitates Art

By: Barry Eisler Wednesday April 9, 2014 10:14 am

If you want that thriller to be as realistic as possible, then whatever you imagine, imagine it’s even worse

If you’ve read my 2009 novel Inside Out, you know that at the heart of the story were the “Caspers,” imprisoned war-on-terror suspects the government decided were too problematic to be dealt with even within president Obama’s new-fangled three-tier system of justice, and who were therefore emulsified, instead.

Today, we have Jason Leopold’s latest report in Al Jazeera, which includes the following:

According to the Senate report, Al Jazeera’s sources said, a majority of the more than 100 detainees held in CIA custody were detained in secret prisons in Afghanistan and Morocco, where they were subject to torture methods not sanctioned by the Justice Department. Those methods are recalled by the report in vivid narratives lifted from daily logs of the detention and interrogation of about 34 high-value prisoners. The report allegedly notes that about 85 detainees deemed low-value passed through the black sites and were later dumped at Guantánamo or handed off to foreign intelligence services. More than 10 of those handed over to foreign intelligence agencies “to face terrorism charges” are now “unaccounted for” and presumed dead, the U.S. officials said.

It reminds me of the Orwellian-named “International Terrorist Threat Matrix” hit list I imagined in my 2004 novel Winner Take All. That turned out to be not terribly fictional, as well, anticipating as it did the “Disposition Matrix,” “Terror Tuesdays,” and the due-process-free assassination of US citizens.

So what was posited as fiction in 2004 and 2009 is proven as fact just a few years later. What might have been dismissed as conspiracy a little while ago is now no more than the news of the day.

All of which perhaps suggests that thriller writers are slightly ahead of the establishment media—and that the government is slightly ahead even of thriller writers. Not a happy thought—especially when you consider the oligarchical coup at the heart of my novel The Detachment.

Look at what we know the government is doing, imagine what it’s probably doing, and you’ll have the workings for a good thriller. And if you want that thriller to be as realistic as possible, then whatever you imagine, imagine it’s even worse. The government will rarely disappoint you.

DoD photo of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay by Petty Officer 1st class Shane T. McCoy, U.S. Navy

The Torture Report America Won’t Be Allowed to See

By: Barry Eisler Tuesday April 8, 2014 9:21 am

Last week a reporter with DW, an English-language German publication, contacted me with some questions for an article she was writing about the Senate’s CIA torture report.  Here’s the full text of what we discussed.

Light spills into a prison cell as the doors open

The full CIA torture report will never see sunshine, Barry Eisler argues.

DW:  On Thursday we’re expecting a decision by the Senate committee on whether to release the CIA report to the executive for declassification. What would be the procedure then, are we likely to see the whole report and when?

Barry Eisler:  Judging from how long the government has taken to declassify studies like the 9/11 report, I would guess many months at least. And if it does finally happen, the public will only be permitted to see a tiny fraction of the 6300-page report. This kind of secrecy is typical in America today, where the government knows more and more about the citizenry and the citizenry is permitted to know less and less about the government. And the topics we’re permitted to know the least about all involve government criminality and corruption, along with anything that might embarrass the powers-that-be. It’s hard to imagine the founders would recognize this state of affairs as “democracy.”

DW:  Is Obama even that keen on dealing with this issue? When he took office, he said he wasn’t interested in prosecuting anyone from the previous administration regarding torture

BE:  No, it’s clear Obama wants the issue to go away. As he infamously (and ridiculously) put it several years ago, he wants the country “to look forward, not backward.” What could that possibly mean, in the context of crimes? Crimes by definition have already happened. Investigating and prosecuting them (and deterring future ones) requires looking backward, there’s no other way to do it. The only thing I’ve heard along these lines that can match it for sheer idiocy and deceitfulness is former vice president Cheney’s comment, delivered as part of a eulogy for former president Ford, that “there can be no healing without pardon.” What? Human nature is such that there’s unlikely to be healing without justice, so unless Cheney thinks “pardon” and “justice” are the same thing, his thoughts on this topic are incoherent, politically-driven nonsense.

As for Obama: the United States is party to the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, signed by president Reagan, ratified by the Senate, and by virtue of Article VI of the Constitution, the Supreme Law of the Land. The UNCAT not only prohibits torture; it also requires member states to investigate credible allegations of torture and to prosecute accordingly. Both former president Bush and former vice president Cheney have confessed in writing and on video to ordering waterboarding. Attorney General Eric Holder acknowledged during his confirmation hearings that waterboarding is torture. In failing to direct the Justice Department (an increasingly Orwellian name in modern America, akin to the Ministry of Truth), president Obama is violating his constitutional obligation to “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.” Which, if you think about it, is pretty much the core thing the chief executive is supposed to be doing. At least according to that pre-9/11 document called the Constitution.

But there’s a kind of professional courtesy America’s oligarchs extend to each other, and it clearly includes refraining from prosecuting past presidents and vice presidents for grave crimes. So yes, it would be an understatement to say that Obama is not keen on dealing with America’s descent into torture.

DW:  The Washington Post reported yesterday that there are discrepancies between low-level and senior staff in the CIA — that some tips or intel that were allegedly obtained by “enhanced techniques” were, in fact, not gathered in that way at all. What’s going on there, lack of communication, deliberate miscommunication?

The Real Purpose of the CIA Torture Report

By: Barry Eisler Friday April 4, 2014 9:30 am

Overall, I guess you could say it’s good that the Senate intelligence committee has voted to declassify portions of its report on the CIA’s torture program. Certainly the public has the right, as well as the need, to know more about government criminality. But there are a lot of problems that are going to be obscured by the good cheer and the acrimony accompanying the vote.

First, note that only portions of the report will be declassified, and that the White House and the CIA will be heavily involved in the decision about what those portions will be. Explain this to a child — “the subject of a damning report gets to decide how much of the report will be revealed” — and the child would laugh at the obvious absurdity. In America, of course, such nonsense is simply the oligarchical norm.

Second, the report was never intended to, nor will it, lead to prosecutions for those involved in torture. Listen to the rhetoric of Diane Feinstein and other committee members:

This nation admits its errors, as painful as they may be. (This one had me chuckling in its own right).

Torture is wrong, and we must make sure that the misconduct and the grave errors made in the CIA’s detention and interrogation program never happen again.

We need to get this behind us.

Not a lot of talk there about America being a party to the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, signed by president Reagan, ratified by the Senate, and by virtue of Article VI of the Constitution, the Supreme Law of the Land. The UNCAT not only prohibits torture; it also requires member states to investigate credible allegations of torture and to prosecute accordingly. Both former president Bush and former vice president Cheney have confessed in writing and >on video to ordering waterboarding. Attorney General Eric Holder acknowledged during his confirmation hearings that waterboarding is torture. President Obama has acknowledged the same. In insisting that >“we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards,” and in failing to direct the Justice Department (an increasingly Orwellian name in modern America, akin to the Ministry of Truth>), Obama is therefore violating his constitutional obligation to “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.” Which, if you think about it, is pretty much the core thing the chief executive is supposed to be doing. At least according to that pre-9/11 document called the Constitution.

Third, the primary, saddest, most pernicious effect of the release of some portions of the report is that the release will solidify America’s prevailing narrative on torture, which is that the appropriate question to ask about torture is, “did it work.” CIA critics will point to evidence that torture didn’t work; CIA defenders will counter with evidence that it did. The public will be left with a powerful metamessage that what really matters is >the question of whether torture is effective.

In fact, if America is indeed a nation under the rule of law (I know, it’s practically a laugh-line at this point), what matters isn’t whether you believe something “works,” but whether that thing is illegal.

Imagine you’re a cop. You come across a dead body with a bullet hole in the forehead, and there’s a guy standing over the corpse holding a smoking gun. You want to arrest the guy with the gun, and your partner says, “Hang on a minute there, pard. Can you honestly say that killing is never, ever justified?” This is exactly what torture apologists are doing in the face of actual laws and actual facts demonstrating that those laws were violated.

So yes, it’s nice that declassifying a bit of the report will offer the public a little more knowledge about torture. But at the same time, I expect the release will further cement some horribly insidious misapprehensions. We’ll get some knowledge, but no new wisdom. I’m not sure it’s a worthwhile trade.

Why the Brennan/Feinstein/Reid Cage Match Isn’t No-Holds-Barred

By: Barry Eisler Thursday March 20, 2014 4:53 pm

Following last week’s dramatic Senate speech by Intelligence Committee head Dianne Feinstein denouncing the CIA for essentially spying on her oversight committee, today Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid released his own statements, one to John Brennan, Director of the CIA, the other to Eric Holder, the Attorney General, regarding the CIA’s misbehavior. It’s quite a fracas: the Director of the CIA and the Chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and Senate Majority Leader suddenly throwing punches at each other! All the fascinated onlookers shouting, “Fight!  Fight!” An elbow, a knee, a bloody lip, a closed eye … is this thing going to get out of hand?

Two wrestlers climb atop a cage, one about to punch the other

Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill

Probably not.

When you’re watching a fight, it’s as important to consider what’s not happening as what is. Yes, the combatants are throwing wild punches, and cursing at each other, and rolling all over the floor scratching and biting … but is anyone trying to gouge out an eye? Has anyone picked up a weapon? Are the fighters trying to wound … or to kill?

In this regard, it’s worth asking why Senator Feinstein, whose oversight committee has reviewed a reported six million documents and produced a 6,300 page report, insists on referring merely to a CIA “interrogation” program rather than to a “torture” program.  Why she doesn’t declassify the report — as she claims she wants — simply by introducing it into Senate proceedings pursuant to the Constitution’s Speech or Debate clause.  Why she would claim ”the CIA’s search may also have violated the Fourth Amendment, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, as well as Executive Order 12333, which prohibits the CIA from conducting domestic searches or surveillance [and] may well have violated the separation of powers principles embodied in the United States Constitution”… and then ask for nothing more than “an apology and a recognition that this CIA search of computers used by its oversight committee was inappropriate” (and note that an apology is all Feinstein ever seems to want:  ”On May 17, 2010, the CIA’s then-director of congressional affairs apologized on behalf of the CIA for removing the documents. And that, as far as I was concerned, put the incident aside”).

That last item is particularly telling. All these grave charges, and all Feinstein is demanding is an apology? Does this sound like mortal combat? Or more like “Admit you crossed a line and back off, and we’ll be cool again?”?

And have a look at those Harry Reid missives, as well. His language couldn’t be more restrained. Like Feinstein, he’s careful never to say a word as problematic as “torture.” And nowhere does he demand a criminal investigation, instead merely asking for Holder’s “support” and noting “I trust you will carefully examine these concerns.” The only investigation that seems to really interest him is the very limited one he’s called for and can manage himself — that the Senate Sergeant-at-Arms conduct a forensic examination of the Senate computers the CIA seems to have searched and stay the hell away from the Senate’s staff (by the way, is it maybe time to update the Senate?  Do they really still need a sergeant-at-arms?  Everyone else seems to get along okay without one). Despite the presence of a bit of angry rhetoric (“Unprecedented!  Independence!  Separation of Powers!”), I think Reid’s letters can fairly be characterized as an attempt to contain the conflict rather than to escalate it.  He virtually acknowledges as much:  “The Senate has an interest in bringing final resolution to this dispute.” I don’t read that as “Heads will roll!” It feels more like, “We need to make this go away.”

“All right, Barry, I get it,” you might say. “They’re all fighting pursuant to some sort of agreed-upon rules. But why are they fighting at all? And since they are fighting, why aren’t they going all out?”

Two reasons:

Why Won’t Senator Feinstein Call Torture Torture?

By: Barry Eisler Tuesday March 11, 2014 3:03 pm

Senator Diane Feinstein

There’s been a lot of great commentary already about the brouhaha between the Senate and the CIA regarding Senator Dianne Feinstein’s allegations that the CIA has, in essence, spied on the activities of the Senate’s intelligence oversight committee. I just want to add a few thoughts.

First, it’s fair to wonder why the Senate is calling its own inquiry a report on the CIA’s “detention and interrogation program.”  Feinstein herself acknowledges her staff members have been “wading through the horrible details of a CIA program that never, never, never should have existed.” A horrible program that never should have existed? Does that sound like detention and interrogation… or like torture and imprisonment?

In fact, the word “torture” appears not once in Feinstein’s remarks. Think of the linguistic dexterity required to deliver a 12-page-speech about a CIA torture program and a Senate investigation into that program without even once mentioning the word torture! It would be like me writing this blog post without once mentioning the name “Feinstein.” I wouldn’t know how to do it, and I’m almost in awe of the propagandists who do.

Second, it was a little weird to hear Feinstein describe the “need to preserve and protect the Internal Panetta Review,” if only because “preserve and protect” is the language the Constitution mandates for the President’s oath of office: “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” It’s almost as though some people think an obligation to protect secrecy is as important as an oath to defend the Constitution.

Third, so much security! “[T]he committee staff securely transported a printed portion of the draft Internal Panetta Review from the committee’s secure room at the CIA-leased facility to the secure committee spaces in the Hart Senate Office Building.” I couldn’t help remembering this.

Fourth, if Senator Feinstein really is as outraged as she says, and really wants the Senate’s report on the CIA’s imprisonment and torture program to be declassified, all she needs to do is introduce the report into Congressional proceedings. She would have full immunity via the Constitution’s speech or debate clause, and there’s even precedent — Senator Mike Gravel did precisely this with the Pentagon Papers in 1971. Or Senator Lindsey Graham, who says Congress “should declare war on the CIA” if the spying allegations are true (wouldn’t an actual Congressional declaration of war be refreshing?), could do the same. Maybe the Senators are slightly less outraged than they profess?

Fifth, and most insidiously, note that the overseers of this country are still peddling the notion that torture is merely a policy choice, and not a crime. In this regard, Feinstein said, “if the Senate can declassify this report, we will be able to ensure that an un-American, brutal program of detention and interrogation will never again be considered or permitted.”

No. If Feinstein or anyone else is serious about ensuring America never again engages in institutional torture, it is imperative that the Justice Department (it’s gotten so hard to not put scare quotes around that phrase) investigate who ordered what Feinstein calls “an un-American, brutal program … that never, never, never should have existed” (hint: this would not be hard); to prosecute those people; and to imprison them if they are found guilty of violating America’s laws against torture. Anything else is implicit and unavoidable acknowledgment that torture is not a crime, merely a policy choice with which Dianne Feinstein happens to disagree.  And the notion that merely persuading people that torture is bad is the right way to prevent it from happening again is illogical, ahistorical, and, as Feinstein might put it if she were thinking a little more clearly or had slightly different priorities, unAmerican, too.

David Miranda and the Preclusion of Privacy, Part 2

By: Barry Eisler Tuesday August 27, 2013 12:07 pm

Last week I argued that the UK government’s lawless detention of David Miranda, spouse of Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, was intended to make journalism harder, slower, and less secure (and see this great follow-up by NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen of Press Think).

nsa, spyingToday, I’d like to discuss a common leftist reaction to the National Surveillance State’s war on journalism:  the idea that journalists should preempt government attacks like Miranda’s detention and the destruction of Guardian computers by immediately dumping onto the Internet any secret files that come into their possession.

The notion is superficially appealing:  if you’re a journalist, patiently examining a large trove of secret documents so as to minimize the private harm and maximize the public benefit of publication, and there’s a chance the government could impede or intercept your efforts, shouldn’t you insure against such a dire possibility by immediately publishing everything you have?

To answer this question, we should ask two of our own.  First, what are your proper objectives as a journalist?  And second, what does the National Surveillance State hope you’ll do?

I think many people would answer the first question with some version of, “The proper objective of a journalist is to make information public.”  This is fine as far as it goes, but I don’t think it’s complete.  To me, the proper objective of a journalist is to bring about meaningful change.  Publication by itself could conceivably serve a variety of functions:  it could embarrass, or titillate, or entertain… it could provide some level of emotional satisfaction for the journalist and her audience.  Any one or combination of these could be an objective of journalism, but is any of them a worthy objective?  I would argue no, not particularly, at least not in comparison to what I think is the most important objective of journalism, which is, again, to bring about meaningful change.

(For more on the exceptionally interesting and important topic of what journalism is for and how it can best be done, have a look at The Greatest Trick the Devil Ever Pulled, and especially at the links at the bottom of the post.)

If you agree that the proper objective of journalists like Barton Gellman and Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras is to use their reporting to bring about meaningful change, I think you have to agree that timing and tactics matter.  That is, what course of action would have a better chance of achieving meaningful change:  immediate, indiscriminate dumping, on the one hand, or deliberate, time-released reporting, on the other?  I would argue the latter, and I think the events of the last two months tend to suggest that the kind of drawn-out, deliberate reporting for which Greenwald has been criticized by some on the left support that argument.  James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, has been caught lying to Congresspublic opinion has shifted dramatically; voters are engaged in an overdue debate about programs of which previously they had no knowledge; Congress only narrowly defeated an effort to defund the NSA’s bulk collection of Americans’ phone records.  Of course I can’t prove causality, but I can’t see how any of this would have been achieved, or in any way better served, by an immediate indiscriminate data dump.

Pushing back the National Surveillance State is a long game that requires sound tactics.  Those tactics can only be properly understood by reverse-engineering from the correct objectives.  Yes, it might be emotionally satisfying to embarrass powerful officials, and it might be temporarily empowering to feel like you’re flipping the bird to a bunch of self-important oligarchs, and yes, an immediate dump might be the proper tactic in the service of such objectives.  But they are the wrong objectives.  If meaningful change is your primary goal, you have to work backward from that objective, and not let other, less worthy ones distract you.

But look, even if you disagree about which tactic would be most likely to bring about meaningful change, might the fact that we share a goal and differ only about tactics be cause for some perspective?  The fury I’ve seen in some portions of the Twitterverse at Greenwald’s insistence on a patient, deliberate approach seems out of all proportion.  I know patience, perspective, and civility aren’t necessarily the hallmarks of Twitter  discourse, but still.  This is — I think — a discreet disagreement about the utility of certain tactics, not a culture war about philosophical aims.

Okay, now let’s ask that second question.  What does the National Surveillance State want?