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).
Today, 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 Congress; public 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?
Well, let’s use that handy tool of trying to put ourselves in the shoes of those determined to spy on everything boundlessly and totally. You’re determined to make journalism harder, slower, and less secure by interdicting backup means of communication — detaining couriers, invading newsrooms, that sort of thing. But you’re smart, too, and you know that for every action, there is a reaction. Spies and soldiers are trained never to attack without first asking, How will the enemy react to my attack? Because that reaction could be dangerous, meaning you might have to reconsider your original plan, or it might be useful, creating a new vulnerability that you can then exploit.
Let me put it this way: do you think it’s even conceivable that the National Surveillance State is engaging in tactics like detaining the spouses of journalists and invading newsrooms, without having first imagined how journalists might respond? Is it even conceivable that the spooks are unaware they’re are creating an incentive for journalists to just dump everything on the Internet as a way of preempting governmental attempts at interdiction? No, it isn’t conceivable. The government is engaging in these tactics knowing full well that the tactics will incentivize less careful, patient, discriminate reporting. What follows, then, is one of two things: a journalistic “data dump” reaction is either a risk the National Surveillance State is willing to take… or it is an objective it is attempting to achieve.
Which is it? I would argue the latter. Again, put yourself in the shoes of our secret overlords: if you can goad someone like Greenwald into rashly dumping improperly vetted secret information onto the Internet, is that a loss for you… or is it in fact a significant win?
Answer that question by asking, what would the data dump cost you, and what would it gain? Operationally, it would cost you little. Spying operations have been continually outed since the dawn of the Cold War, and the size and power of the National Surveillance State has only grown. A few new revelations will have no more impact on the leviathan-like expansion of your reach than have any of the previous ones. Conversely, a blown listening station, or better yet, a dead human asset, would be enormously useful: it might enable you to shift the narrative from lawlessness and overreach to something more like “These traitor journalists have blood on their hands!,” which you know is your propaganda trump card.
All this being the case, you might not merely hope someone like Greenwald would abandon his patient, methodical reporting in favor of something more knee-jerk and less careful. You might go further than just hoping. You might even try to provoke Greenwald — say, by harassing his family. You might even try to manufacture opportunities to change the narrative — say, by leaking a few ostensibly damaging secrets yourself and blaming them on Edward Snowden. More than anything, if you’re the National Surveillance State right now, you crave a bloody shirt you might wave to try to blow back the tide of thoughtfulness and rationality precipitated by Edward Snowden’s whistleblowing, and by the extremely careful reporting accompanying it thus far.
(Or, short of that, wag the dog by going to war with Syria, I guess. That kind of thing is always a good distraction. But I digress.)
On balance, therefore, I’d have to say that if journalists start dumping secrets in response to government interdiction efforts rather than judiciously reporting them, it will be a win for the National Surveillance State. The National Surveillance State understands this, and is choosing its tactics accordingly.
Of course, if you’re one of the people who’s been agitating for an immediate, indiscriminate, knee-jerk document dump instead of the patient, deliberate approach that has kept Snowden’s revelations as front page news for over two months now, the fact that you and the National Surveillance State both want the same thing isn’t necessarily dispositive. But it ought to give you pause. When you find yourself and your antagonist both trying to bring about the same thing, one of you is being smart, and the other, naive. Best to give a little more thought about which is which, and choose your tactics accordingly.
Photo by Thomas Leuthard under Creative Commons license