The Guardian's Glenn Greenwald presents NSA fugitive Edward Snowden's leaks as undeniable evidence of immoral and illegal spying by the U.S. government, and he is liable to attack anyone who says otherwise.
One such disagreement led freelance defense reporter Joshua Foust to shut off the comments on his personal website.
Foust, a former intelligence analyst, had asserted that Snowden's leaks, while valuable in exposing encroachment on civil liberty, also jeopardized legitimate security concerns. Quickly, he found his site bombed with negative comments from Greenwald supporters. Greenwald himself got in on the mix, implying over Twitter that Foust was secretly working for the government.
Despite the backlash, Foust has continued to offer a nuanced analysis of the NSA leaks — and no, he doesn't work for the government.
He holds a nuanced view of Greenwald, too: "Fundamentally, we agree on a lot of things," he tells Business Insider.
Indeed, Foust immediately recognized the significance of Greenwald's initial report about the NSA scooping reams of domestic telephony metadata via Verizon, a practice that legally circumvents the 4th Amendment through the business records provision.
"The Verizon metadata story is one, that one has caused me the most concern, for both the government’s conduct, and our own understanding of how much we’re being watched," Foust says. "Clearly [the NSA is] engaging in massive surveillance of American citizens. Saying they're not engaging in surveillance of Americans is a lie."
But Foust also recognized a subtle distinction that is lost on many supporters of Greenwald and Snowden, if not Greenwald and Snowden themselves. As he wrote on June 6:
In a normative sense, such an unusually broad act of surveillance is beyond the pale — or at least, probably should be. The reality, though, is that what the NSA did is perfectly legal. Moreover, Congress even went out of its way to keep the legal justification for it a secret.
The problem isn’t that the NSA is obeying the law: the law itself is the problem. And no matter the public outcry now, we not only supported that law when it was being created, we probably won’t change anything now that its most extreme practices are being exposed.
It's in the days and weeks following the Verizon piece that Greenwald and Foust started to differ.
Really it started with the video outing Snowden.
Bamboozled by Snowden
Protesters sporting Snowden masks.
Things got "bizarre" when Snowden identified himself, according to Foust, as suddenly the story was all about him.
Snowden proclaimed that he left the U.S. because he "didn't want to live in a society" that surveilled its citizens, all from a hotel in Hong Kong, which Foust called one of "the most heavily surveilled" cities on the planet. Soon, in an attempt to "ingratiate himself" to a Chinese government under pressure to extradite him, Snowden leaked IP addresses of NSA targets in China to the South China Morning Post.
At that point, Foust says, Snowden "lost of all his standing to be considered a whistleblower."
After all, spying on China should be a legitimate action of the U.S. government.
"It’s silly to pretend like they’re not a rival government. Massive amounts of government and corporate breaches come from Russia and China, on incredibly sensitive targets," Foust says.
It got worse when Snowden ended up stuck in a Moscow airport, presumably under the control of Russian intelligence.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Former NSA Chief Michael Hayden
"I would lose all respect for China's Ministry of State Security and Russia's FSB if they have not already fully harvested Snowden's digital data trove," former NSA Chief Gen. Michael Hayden said of Snowden.
Despite describing himself as "a spy for almost all of [his] adult life" and convincing Greenwald and documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras that he was some sort of 007, Snowden bungled his movements around the globe and foolishly or suspiciously outed himself in the middle rival territory.
"Calling yourself a spy when you work on a computer is just silly," Foust says.
All the while, Greenwald stuck to the narrative of Snowden as a brilliant whistleblower, totally in control of his situation.
His lawyer painted a different picture of Snowden, as scared and possibly in over his head.
“He’s a kid, I really think he’s a kid, I think he never anticipated this would be such a big matter in Hong Kong,” said Mr. Albert Ho, one of Snowden's lawyers. “He enjoys Pepsi, he prefers Pepsi to wine, that’s why I say he’s a kid.”
"Really Important Inaccuracies"
Greenwald's reporting since the Verizon story has been criticized by journalists, tech professionals, and former government insiders.
The "direct access" PRISM story is case in point. Greenwald's June 6 bombshell suggested that the NSA had "direct access" to user data at major tech firms. Silicon Valley firms immediately countered, however, that they set up different servers for information request, and sometimes even had people "hand deliver" the NSA's requests. Greenwald's "epic botch" was picked apart by CNET, TechCrunch, TPM, The New York Times, ZDNet, the Los Angeles Times. The Guardian offered a lame clarification.
PRISM was not even secret nor was it nearly as pernicious as Greenwald made it sound, wrote Kurt Eichenwald at Vanity Fair.
"There were really important inaccuracies, and there were some technology problems with his reporting," says Foust.
Similar confusion happened over the phrase "pre-encryption access."
NSA slide from 2009 brief.
When Greenwald reported about a program called XKeyscore based on a leaked NSA presentation, he presented it as a secret and said that it collected "nearly everything a user does on the Internet." But this wasn't right, as experts soon pointed out. Marc Ambinder clarified in The Week that the program was designed to surf already gathered information and it was not a secret at all, since Ambinder had written about it in his book years earlier.
Foust pointed out to Greenwald several times that the slides from Greenwald's report were from 2009, prior to the 2011 FISA Act amendment which curtailed certain NSA practices. Notably, Greenwald's entire report was in present tense, as if the slides reflected up-to-date practices.
"He refused to engage with fairly reasonable questions, when did these slides come from and where did these screenshots come from," says Foust.
Omission, Foust says, is one Greenwald's chief problems.
"He's pretty much proclaimed his intent is to unravel the intel community," says Foust, "As an activist who's approach to journalism is like a defense lawyer, I think if he had evidence that there was sufficient oversight, he wouldn't publish that, he's not going to allow contradictory evidence to get in the way."
Foust points to Greenwald's reporting in El Globo about NSA spying on the Brazilian government as a prime example of trying to make a scandal out of something that isn't.
"Brazil operates its own massive domestic spying operation — a detail Greenwald, who lives in Rio de Janeiro, leaves out of all of his outraged writing about the NSA," Foust wrote on Medium Sept. 4.
There are strong indications that Brazil has its own domestic spying program. There's also history that shows how Brazilian intelligence agencies were caught bugging their own heads of state — a far cry from what the NSA is accused of doing.
Greenwald and his husband David Miranda
Greenwald has also published leaks about U.S. spying in India, China, Germany, and the U.N. Although these leaks may be interesting, it is hard to see how they constitute whistle-blowing.
"What the hell does he think they do? All governments monitor each other," says Foust.
Even Michael Bohm of The Moscow Times called spying a "sovereign right" and, a year earlier, his colleague Richard Lourie wrote of spying, "Everybody does it: Enemies spy on each other, but so do allies."
Foust has also taken on the other journalists who published leaks from Snowden.
"A large number of the violations (60%) come from human error and 'lack of due diligence,'" wrote Foust Aug. 16 about Barton Gellman's Washington Post article, one which cited an NSA audit that showed "2,776" privacy violations per year.
"Moreover," continued Foust, "buried deep in the linked report is a graph showing the vast majority of violations were caught by 'automated alert.' It’s not entirely clear what that means, but it is suggestive that the NSA has systems in place to catch unauthorized or improper database queries."
"I mean, take LOVEINT, for example," Foust tells us about NSA analysts who spied on girlfriends, "It would be naive to pretend that privacy violation doesn't happen, but, again, every agency on the planet has unethical employees, what distinguishes them is how they respond to that employee. What we haven't gotten a good sense of is the NSA's tolerance for rule breakers, how pervasive deliberate rule breaking is."
Things get heated
REUTERS / Ricardo Moraes
Greenwald and his partner David Miranda
While Foust had commented on Greenwald's reporting from the beginning and sparred with him a few times, it was the lengthy detainment at Heathrow Airport of Greenwald's husband, David Miranda, that led to a very public showdown.
Foust wrote that Greenwald, "a very smart guy," knew exactly what he was doing when he sent his husband to carry illegally obtained Top Secret documents about U.K. signals intelligence through the U.K.'s busiest airport: He was trying to get attention.
"It’s a bit difficult to see why anyone would be surprised that he would be at the very least questioned by British authorities," wrote Foust on his blog the day after the detention. "They would have been negligent not to stop him."
Following this criticism, Greenwald immediately attacked Foust's character, accusing him of being a government shill.
"It's because he goes after people who disagree like they're mortal enemies," Foust says. "I don't like dealing with defamation. I'm not financially gaining from this. I'm not fond of being bullied. I'm perfectly fine with pushing back."
Foust did push back, pointing out that Greenwald used the same tactic on him in 2010.
Foust also points to other victims of Greenwald's attacks.
"Look at what he did to [host] Mika Brzezinski. She simply asked him what's illegal, and if there was evidence of any wrongdoing, and he attacked her as a shill," Foust says of Greenwald's Morning Joe appearance. "To me, that was the quintessential Glenn Greenwald ... instead of engaging with the topic he attacked her character."
Greenwald on MSNBC.
"He treated it like a defense attorney," says Foust, "Instead of arriving at the truth, instead of accounting for contradictory information, or missing information, he attacks any disagreement or question as evidence of malice and personally demonizes."
Foust contends that Greenwald applies a harsh double standard to government workers, treating them as credible sources when useful and dismissing them as shills when not.
"When someone tells him something he disagrees with, he assumes that person is lying, looks for evidence that he is, or just attacks their character," says Foust, "But when Snowden tells him something, he doesn't assume he's lying and look for evidence to the contrary."
Who is Foust anyway?
Foust had an inclination for international relations ever since his family took him to St. Petersburg as a kid. After college, he found his first real job with friends at a think tank. He started as a receptionist, asked questions, pushed, and eventually became a technical writer, then a full consultant.
"That's how I got into doing government work," says Foust.
Foust, whose entire work history can be found on LinkedIn, found himself on contract as a consultant in Afghanistan, until he wrote an Op-Ed for the The New York Times.
"I got fired, well, I didn't get fired, I got kicked off the contract."
The piece was about how interpreters were important to counterinsurgency operations but also about how they'd been misused and sometimes even abused by their coalition handlers. Unfortunately, someone in the chain of command had a financial stake in interpreters, and that person was fuming.
"Only reason I didn't technically get fired is because we checked with a senior government person that we (the company) interacted with prior to writing the piece, and he gave the permission," says Foust.
He got lucky not long after, landing a decent contract with the Defense Intelligence Agency, which required him to move to D.C. and work in a Department of Defense office. Hired as a political analyst, he wrote reports mostly about Yemeni politics, but he says they gathered dust.
"They went unread because they weren't of strategic value at the time," says Foust.
After taking a fellowship at a think tank called The American Security Project, Foust bounced around, contributing to The Atlantic as a foreign policy analyst and going in front of Congress to testify about the horrific state of contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"I don't have a problem with contractors as if they're mysterious creatures out to ruin civil liberties," Foust says. "[But] the system itself doesn't function very well, there's no oversight, and there's not a clear sense about why contractors shouldn't be doing certain government services for profit."
Spoken like a true government shill.
"A common slur that people sling my way, they say I’m tied to a secret magic interest. I don’t think they realize when these organizations and people actually pay for those things, they expect something of value back, not criticism," Foust says.
Foust says there are plenty of problems that should be investigated in in the U.S. intelligence community, starting with Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.
James Clapper is the Director of National Intelligence, the commander of all U.S. intel agencies.
He called the DNI's presence "counterproductive ... the moment [Senator Ron] Wyden knew Clapper was misleading Congress [about gathering domestic traffic through Verizon], Clapper should have publicly apologized immediately, or resigned."
"He will be a counterproductive presence until he leaves," says Foust, "The one thing you don't do about oversight and compliance is lie about it. I don't think Clapper can be a reliable narrator in this story."
Foust also brought our attention back to the DEA scandal reported by Reuters, where the Agency was found to be tapping phones across America for the purpose of drug arrests.
"The biggest weakness is the administration's response of 'just trust us' when they've proven they can't be trusted," says Foust in his own appeal for transparency, and yes, reform. "They need to be clear about these programs, if not revealing, here's how what we do has benefitted you, here's the cost it's imposed for these benefits, whatever the tradeoffs are, they need to talk about them."
Getting to the bottom of these secrets will require more facts.
As for evidence of abuse, Foust contends Greenwald either does not have it or is for some reason withholding it.
"He's had those documents for months, where is the evidence? Evidence of capability is not evidence of abuse."
Foust offers a few lines of advice for Greenwald:
"I wish I didn't have to fact check him, I'm sure plenty of other people wish the same thing. Fact checking shouldn't be the antithesis of Greenwald."
"He should interview actual experts in the fields that he's talking about."
"Stop making it about the personalities who run these agencies, instead show how they exist in law, and not that they might, but how they actually demonstrate misconduct."
"We don’t have much evidence that that is the case. If the intelligence community is operating in constraints of the law, but amorally, the only way to enlighten that is by discussing it accurately, I have a problem with how inaccurately this has been discussed."
Snowden and his Russian FSB lawyer, Anatoly Kucherena
"We both agree that there must be reform, if your concern is changing the conduct of war and over-classification, there's a sense that leaking is an acceptable shortcut to that, instead it only serves to deepen secrecy, battling that means changing the regulations, it takes presidential and congressional leaders, writing laws."
And some passing advice for Snowden, wherever he is:
"Drop the precious child act ... keep your head down, get out of Russia as soon as possible, go out of your way to demonstrate for the things you believe in, focus on the domestic surveillance issue, that's the only way to generate public sympathy and interest in your cause."
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