Tag Archives: glenn greenwald

The downside to Glenn Greenwald

TW: police detention, mass surveillance, police brutality

You may have heard about the controversy earlier this week as Glenn Greenwald’s partner, David Miranda, was detained while returning to the UK from a visit to Brazil. Greenwald was understandably incensed and wrote several thousands of words on the subject for The Guardian over the course of these past few days. While this incident has been largely pushed aside in light of the sentencing news for Chelsea Manning, I think this story from earlier in the week in illuminating in terms of the flaws in Greenwald’s journalistic practices.

To be clear here, this is not to suggest that Greenwald’s reporting on these events was biased or that either he or his partner “deserved” the scrutiny or restrictions placed on them by the UK government (and, as Greenwald and others have alleged, at the US government’s request, which the Obama administration has wholly denied). There’s something of a media campaign underway to paint this issue as reasonable comeuppance for Greenwald and Miranda which is obviously an elaborate profession-wide apology by the highest echelons of US-based journalists who hope to be the best stenographers to power that they can be. Greenwald’s bucking of that trend is something that we should all appreciate, and even if failing that, we shouldn’t hold Miranda culpable for Greenwald’s actions.

That said, the way that Greenwald’s role in reporting international surveillance systems has expanded to experiencing them as well is worrisome. Concerns about bias are understandable, but in this case seem unfounded. Instead, I think the real damage is in how this limits the most public reporting on these issues of the increasing use of mass surveillance by the US and UK governments. As David von Ebers wrote at This Week In Blackness, the UK has its own history of using these same methods of surveillance and detention to crackdown on both anti-colonial activists that had been displaced from British colonies as well as against locally marginalized and anglicized Irish protesters. There’s more than a past pattern of those tactics, actually, as across the UK and other EU countries anti-surveillance protesters took to smashing CCTV cameras (publicly placed video recorders) this very week.

german_dissident
(One German dissident dismantling a public surveillance camera in January, from here.)

On the distinct but related issue of the wave of UK riots two years ago, which were prompted in part in opposition to police brutality, Greenwald struck an odd tone. While he admitted that the riots were rooted in opposition to exploitation and “the system,” he likewise reduce them to being nothing more than “opportunistic criminality and inchoate rage“. Instead of attempting to sort through the diverse motivations for the riots, Greenwald essentially gave up, and missed out on reporting a connection between this larger backdrop of protest and resistance and the state systems he now takes so seriously.

As long as he’s reporting on the US’s possible involvement in detaining Miranda and likewise the US’s National Security Agency’s broad surveillance programs, why can’t he also mention Stop and Frisk, which as near as I can tell, he’s never covered? It’s also rather timely this week, given how New York’s Mayor Bloomberg has responded to the declaration of that policy as unconstitutional with calls for mass fingerprinting in poor, predominantly Black and Latin@ neighborhoods. Both that former policy and Bloomberg’s interest in replacing it with a similarly overpowered form of policing has gone chronically underreported and could do with a larger name like Greenwald’s throwing some attention its way.

The problem here, to repeat myself, isn’t his choice to cover the surveillance state and police overreach as it affects him personally, but his decision to primarily cover it then and only describe the system’s hostile actions as violence in that case. The contours of his reporting on this issue leave so much beneath the surface, unexplored.

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There’s the how and there’s the against whom

TW: PRISM, government surveillance, drone strikes

The Ed Bott Report beat me to the punch on how (among other developments in the PRISM scandal) The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald and various Washington Post reporters have started surreptitiously qualifying their statements on the basic functions of the extensive and arguably unconstitutional information-gathering network. In a nutshell, most electronic surveillance requires information to come directly from a particular company, which the government cannot access without their knowledge or even cooperation (although, under those conditions, they do share significant amounts of information). PRISM has been used to supplement that data with what the NSA can pick up directly on their own, but under similar legal restrictions (namely the requirement of a warrant or court order).

Admittedly, I’m a bit skeptical of Bott’s conclusion that these data-amassing companies are privacy’s plucky canary in the internet coalmine, but his analysis of the shifting reporting on what programs are key to surveillance and how they operate is much less ideological and seems rooted in factual analysis.


(Image from one recent anti-PRISM protest, where the protester’s sign reads: “Hands off my meta-data”. From here.)

The legal system that surrounds the surveillance mechanisms that Snowden helped maintain was something that he appears to have remained ignorant of, like too many US citizens, since its failures are pivotal to understanding the risks and problems with PRISM. There’s a real missed opportunity in that, given how its already shaped how Snowden, and consequently Greenwald, and as a result many civil libertarians. In the second video of Greenwald’s interview with Snowden, which was released this week, Snowden opened with a frankly bizarre statement (in response to what response he anticipated from the US government): “That argument [that his leak aided and abetted enemies of the United States] can be made against anybody who reveals information that points out mass surveillance systems, because fundamentally they apply equally to ourselves [presumably meaning US citizens] as they do our enemies [presumably non-citizens].”

Actually, much like the legal standards of what’s cruel and unusual punishment and what’s a public and speedy trial, this entire debate is informed by radically different attitudes and procedures towards US citizens and non-citizens. This implied fear that that distinction is eroding at this point seems fundamentally central to the modern civil libertarian movement. From Rand Paul’s filibuster to Snowden’s analysis, lots of White men with US passports seem to be worried that drone strikes and excessive surveillance could become their reality in spite of their citizenship (and not, you’ll notice, their humanity – this is about the rights of citizens not all people).

The fact that the biggest threats are to those without US citizenship (or, complicating the issue, people of color who are presumed to lack US citizenship) is essentially missing from that political movement’s consciousness and specifically the picture that Snowden painted of US-run surveillance. Court orders and warrants to take the information of US citizens and non-citizens alike generally flow through the FISC (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court), which has frankly terrifying legal standards, but that’s not the only information that that unique court system handles. As the Washington Post reported, it was a member of the FISC who ruled that the Obama administration could keep a secret list of non-citizens it wanted killed. The same system is indeed spying on us all, but under court orders which view secret murder as a fair use of information gathered of non-citizens. In only one case, for this moment, have standards remotely akin to that been applied to a US citizen.

The system is predicated on a political distinction, which civil libertarians seem loath to acknowledge.

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Greenwald and Hagel

There’s many different critical responses that could be and in some cases have been launched against Glenn Greenwald’s recent article on how former Senator Hagel would be an acceptable Secretary of Defense because he says nice things about Palestinians (never mind doing anything about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict) and even if he’s part of the “Washington Consensus” so are all Democrats everywhere. Which is interesting because the evidence for how Hagel’s a part of that Washington Consensus suggests it’s more of a Republican Consensus which he’s been part of. As Greenwald discusses it, the consensus he disagrees with is “America’s posture of endless war and militarism, and ceasing our antagonizing of the entire Muslim world (and large parts of the rest of the world)”.

He ties this repeatedly to the carte blanche often awarded to Israel in wars of aggression with other nations that are predominantly Muslim, implying that Hagel has opposed such things. This of course overlooks Hagel’s controversial support of a 1998 Senate bill which protested UN examinations of violence against Palestinian people experienced with the support or permission of the Israeli state (and referred to such investigations as “inequality” faced by Israel, seriously). If you look at the break down on that controversial bill (which passed by a single vote, say, Hagel’s), it was overwhelmingly supported by Republicans and overwhelmingly opposed by Democrats. Some bipartisan consensus, eh?

And that was the major vote on Israel during Hagel’s tenure – an act of support for precisely what Greenwald is convinced he’s against. This isn’t a single comment about a potential ambassador being “militantly” gay that everyone can pretend wasn’t actually a big deal. This is Hagel’s legislative record that Greenwald has essentially denied as being what it patently is.

Of course, if we look at slightly more recent national security votes instead of those Greenwald purportedly found convincing, you look at early post-9/11 votes on national security issues, there sure does seem to be a bipartisan consensus that civil liberties need to be scaled back to fight the islamist menace and while we’re at it we should just bomb a few countries because we felt like it. “Moderate” Republicans like Hagel, the fire breathers, and Democrats all agreed with one voice to be the horrifying militarists that Gleenwald thinks they still all are.


(Behold the damning vote on our right to invade Afghanistan, as tabulated here.)

Of course, not only was this bipartisan consensus unrelated to Hagel’s apparent exception on Israel that Greenwald’s hallucinated, it didn’t last. Only slightly more than a year later, as the Senate debated showing support for a preemptive invasion of Iraq, the Democrats split and the Republicans forged ahead. The result was the passage of the bill, but with clear Democratic distaste for it:

A few years even later still, the Senate was forced to vote on whether we should explicitly work to avoid using cluster munitions, especially in fighting near urban areas densely populated with civilians. This was clearly of import to how we would wage the war in Iraq which was on-going and growing more heated in many Iraqi cities. It failed but with a significant minority of Democrats (and not a single Republican) supporting it:

One year later than that, the Senate would vote on whether we should begin drawing down troops in Iraq, spurred by the new Democratic majority in the House that it might be possible to end the war by voting in large enough majorities that President Bush wouldn’t or couldn’t veto the bill. They thought they could count on the support of “moderate” Republicans like Hagel. They thought wrong, and the bill failed in the Senate by two votes with clear party preferences on it:

Hagel voted in favor of actually all of the previous bills, except for the more mindful use of cluster munitions, which he voted against. He voted with his party every single time, defining in many of these crucial votes how the US would wage the “War on Terror” both at home and abroad for most of the Bush years. Yes, the Democrats are terrible people that caved in the aftermath of 9/11 and still cave a little too much – but many of them have been voting against the “DC consensus” as Greenwald calls it for years now, but he just knows in his heart of hearts, “they hug policies of militarism far more eagerly and unquestioningly than Chuck Hagel ever would”.

Of course, these comparisons might be groundless since we have many new faces in the legislature and a new president at that. Likewise, Hagel is no longer present to provide a voting record. That being said, the death of the consensus lives on, with the Senate Democrats trying to ban things like indefinite detentions of US citizens, and having a few too many of their party cross over to the other side and a few too few of the “moderate” Republicans come over to theirs. Still, to say there’s no difference means having some strange inability to understand the percentages of support for and against the bill:

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