More than two weeks ago, when the first Guardian/Greenwald leaks about NSA were appearing, I suggested that Americans would be a lot less exercised about the “collection first” approach to phone data if they understood how NSA’s minimization procedures constrained the agency in dealing with US person data:
I would not be surprised to discover that minimization is the key to this peculiarly two-party, three-branch “scandal.” That is, while the order calls for the collection of an enormous amount of data, much of it probably cannot actually be searched or used except under heavy restrictions. (If I’m right, the administration is likely to find itself forced quite quickly to start talking about minimization, perhaps in considerable detail.)
Today, more than two weeks after publishing a FISA court order calling for the collection of noncontent calling data for all US phone calls, the Guardian and Glenn Greenwald got around to proving me right. They finally published NSA’s minimization procedures for handling records relating to US persons.
Assuming that the documents are genuine, they are broadly reassuring. There are elaborate sections on making sure that attorney-client communications aren’t retained, that inadvertent collections of Americans are destroyed as soon as possible, etc., etc. I did an online debate with the ACLU just an hour or two after the guidelines were released, and even the ACLU rep had to grudgingly admit that there were a lot of appropriate restrictions in the document. (He did complain that the agency allowed itself to retain certain encrypted communications, but this exception to the general rule applies only when the agency is trying to decrypt data reasonably believed to be related to foreign intelligence requirements.)
I said the documents were generally reassuring. To be clear, they’re generally reassuring about NSA’s respect for the rights of Americans. They’re not at all reassuring about the motivations of Glenn Greenwald or the Guardian.
Because it seems almost certain that Greenwald and the Guardian had these documents two weeks ago, and that they could have released the guidelines at the same time they released the order that started this flap. The original order, out of context, was disturbing. The minimization documents provide context and make the naked order less troubling.
So why did the Greenwald/Guardian team withhold documents that would provide important context for two full weeks as the controversy built?
This makes no sense if you’re practicing journalism.
But it makes all the sense in the world if you’re practicing advocacy, trying to hurt the side you hate by feeding a misimpression until the misimpression is self-sustaining. It also makes sense if you’re practicing Breitbart-style advocacy, in which your first story is carefully limited and material is held back in the hopes that you’ll be able to do followup stories, disclosing a second or third round of data that contradicts your enemy’s effort to explain away the first story. (Indeed, rather unpersuasively, the Guardian tries to frame its release as a rebuttal to US statements.)
At this point, then, Greenwald and the Guardian are emerging as a story that’s at least as interesting as NSA. If I’m right about their motives, Greenwald and the Guardian are treating NSA — or the United States government — as the enemy they hope to harm, and they’ve abandoned ordinary journalistic standards in an effort to do their adversary as much harm as possible. (Indeed, looking back, it’s pretty clear that the “PRISM” slides seemed scandalous largely because the original FISA court order predisposed us to read them too broadly. And, of course, I can’t help wondering what other documents Greenwald and the Guardian are suppressing to advance their preferred narrative.)
In short, Greenwald and the Guardian are engaged in something closer to a lobbying campaign than to journalism. I suppose that’s their prerogative, but it surely should affect how we read (and reread) their stories. To my mind, their stories are starting to tell me a lot less about NSA and a lot more about how to read even the most respectable of newspapers as the last pretense of objectivity leaks away.