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Encouraging Words of Regret and Weasel Words


NPR’s David Folkenflik has a revealing new look at what I have long believed is one of the most important journalistic stories of the last decade: The New York Times‘ 2004 decision, at the behest of George W. Bush himself, to suppress for 15 months (through Bush’s re-election) its reporters’ discovery that the NSA was illegally eavesdropping on Americans without warrants. Folkenflik’s NPR story confirms what has long been clear: The only reason the Times eventually published that article was because one of its reporters, James Risen, had become so frustrated that he wrote a book that was about to break the story, leaving the paper with no choice (Risen’s co-reporter, Eric Lichtblau, is quoted this way: “‘He had a gun to their head,’ Lichtblau told Frontline. ‘They are really being forced to reconsider: The paper is going to look pretty bad’ if Risen’s book disclosed the wiretapping program before the Times“).

As Folkenflik notes, this episode was one significant reason Edward Snowden purposely excluded the Times from his massive trove of documents. In an interview with Folkenflik, the paper’s new executive editor, Dean Baquet, describes the paper’s exclusion from the Snowden story as “really painful.” But, as I documented in my book and in recent interviews, Baquet has his own checkered history in suppressing plainly newsworthy stories at the government’s request, including a particularly inexcusable 2007 decision, when he was the managing editor of The Los Angeles Timesto kill a story based on AT&T whistleblower Mark Klein’s revelations that the NSA had built secret rooms at AT&T to siphon massive amounts of domestic telephone traffic.

In his NPR interview, Baquet insists that he has had a serious change of heart on such questions as a result of the last year of NSA revelations:

[Baquet] says the experience has proved that news executives are often unduly deferential to seemingly authoritative warnings unaccompanied by hard evidence.

I am much, much, much more skeptical of the government’s entreaties not to publish today than I was ever before,” Baquet said in a wide-ranging interview. . . .

Last week, Baquet told me the Snowden revelations yielded two key insights for American journalists. “First off,” Baquet said, “the public wants this information. Secondly, it does not destroy everything if the information comes out” . . . .

Baquet did say there were a few instances while he was managing editor in which heregretted holding back details from the public due to ominous warnings from intelligence officials over potential consequences. “The government makes it sound like something really large, and in retrospect, it wasn’t quite as large,” he said.

The Snowden revelations published in The Guardian and The Washington Post, he said, only underscored his conviction.

“I would love to be able to tell you it wasn’t good,” Baquet said. “But it was great. It was important, groundbreaking work. I wish we had it.”

Only time will tell whether Baquet’s proclamations on this issue result in any actual change for the paper, but it does shed light on an important question I heard many times over the last month as we approached the one-year anniversary of the first NSA story: what has changed as a result of the last year of disclosures?

One should not expect any change to come from the U.S. government itself (which includes Congress), whose strategy in such cases is to enact the pretext of “reform” so as to placate public anger, protect the system from any serious weakening, and allow President Obama to go before the country and the world and give a pretty speech about how the U.S. heard their anger and re-calibrated the balance between privacy and security. Any new law that comes from the radically corrupted political class in DC will either be largely emptyor worse. The purpose will be to shield the NSA from real reform.

There are, though, numerous other avenues with the real potential to engender serious limits on the NSA’s surveillance powers, including the self-interested though genuine panic of the U.S. tech industry over how surveillance will impede their future business prospects, the efforts of other countries to undermine U.S. hegemony over the internet, the newfound emphasis on privacy protections from internet companies worldwide, and, most of all, the increasing use of encryption technology by users around the world that poses genuine obstacles to state surveillance. Those are all far, far more promising avenues than any bill Barack Obama, Dianne Feinstein and Saxby Chambliss will let Congress cough up.

But beyond surveillance and privacy, one of the goals of this NSA reporting (at least from my perspective) was to trigger a desperately needed debate about journalism itself, and the proper relationship of journalists to those who wield political and economic power. The question of whyThe New York Times was excluded from this story led to a serious public examination for the first time of its decision to suppress that NSA story, which in turn led to public recriminations over the generally excessive deference U.S. media outlets have shown the U.S. government.

Obviously, that debate is far from resolved; witness the endless parade of American journalistswho, without any apparent embarrassment, cheered Michael Kinsley’s decree that for publication questions, “that decision must ultimately be made by the government.” But Baquet’s very public expression of regret over past suppression decisions, and his observation that “news executives are often unduly deferential to seemingly authoritative warnings unaccompanied by hard evidence” is evidence of the fruits of that debate.

That national security state officials routinely mislead and deceive the public should never have even been in serious doubt in the first place – certainly not for journalists, and especially now after the experience of the Iraq War. That fact — that official pronouncements merit great skepticism rather than reverence — should be (but plainly is not) fundamental to how journalists view the world.

More evidence for that is provided by Washington Post column today by one of the national security state’s favorite outlets, David Ignatius. Ignatius interviewed the chronic deceiver, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who now “says it appears the impact [of Snowden’s leaking] may be less than once feared because ‘it doesn’t look like he [Snowden] took as much’ as first thought.” Clapper specifically casts serious doubt on the U.S. government’s prior claim that Snowden ”had compromised the communications networks that make up the military’s command and control system”; instead, “officials now think that dire forecast may have been too extreme.” Ignatius — citing an anonymous “senior intelligence official” (who may or may not be Clapper) — also announces that the government has yet again revised its rank speculation about how many documents Snowden took: “This batch of probably downloaded material is about 1.5 million documents, the senior official said. That’s below an earlier estimate of 1.77 million documents.”

Most notable is Ignatius’ summary of the government’s attempt to claim Snowden seriously compromised the security of the U.S.:

Pressed to explain what damage Snowden’s revelations had done, the official was guarded, saying that there was “damage in foreign relations” and that the leaks had “poisoned [NSA’s] relations with commercial providers.” He also said that terrorist groups had carefully studied the disclosures, turning more to anonymizers, encryption and use of couriers to shield communications.

The senior official wouldn’t respond to repeated questions about whether the intelligence community has noted any changes in behavior by either the Russian or Chinese governments, in possible response to information they may have gleaned from Snowden’s revelations.

In other words, the only specific damage they can point to is from the anger that other people around the world have about what the U.S. government has done and the fact that people will not want to buy U.S. tech products if they fear (for good reason) that those companies collaborate with the NSA. But, as usual, there is zero evidence provided (as opposed to bald, self-serving assertions) of any harm to genuine national security concerns (i.e., the ability to monitor anyone planning actual violent attacks).

As is always the case, the stream of fear-mongering and alarmist warnings issued by the government to demonize a whistleblower proves to be false and without any basis, and the same is true for accusations made about the revelations themselves (“In January, [Mike] Rogers said that the report concluded that most of the documents Snowden had access to concerned ‘vital operations of the U.S. Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force’” – AP: Lawmakers: Snowden’s Leaks May Endanger US Troops“). But none of that has stopped countless U.S. journalists from mindlessly citing each one of the latest evidence-free official claims as sacred fact.

Dean Baquet’s epiphany about the U.S. government and the American media — “news executives are often unduly deferential to seemingly authoritative warnings unaccompanied by hard evidence” — is long overdue, but better late than never. Let us hope that it signals an actual change in behavior.

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