It must be nice to be Glenn Greenwald. He can claim expertise in things that he has never seen or touched, citing Edward Snowden as his authoritative source. Of course, Snowden has almost certainly never seen or touched those things he describes, either. This huckster act keeps earning credulous headlines from reputable journalists who don’t know better.
Take the latest hyperbolic charge in which Greenwald claims that “even low-level NSA analysts” are allowed to search the phone calls and emails in NSA databases. This new permutation of the Edward Snowden sensation is supposed to frighten us with visions of evil, low-level NSA employees run amok, all spying on our lives with sinister intentions. Be afraid! Be very afraid!
Unlike either Greenwald or Snowden, I have actually sat at a secure workstation hooked into the NSA. (All military signals intelligence passes through the NSA.) My workstation had the power to submit a CRITIC report at any time which would go directly to the President of the United States in ten minutes or less, with the standard being four minutes. Moreover, this system is considered so vital to our nation’s security that CRITIC messages take priority over anything else the president is doing. As a mere E-4 Specialist, I supposedly had the power to wake up the commander-in-chief in the middle of the night with a report of flying saucer attacks if I wanted to.
But I never used this power, and relatively few operators or analysts will ever use it. Policies and procedures exist to prevent abuse of the CRITIC system. Software provides instant accountability of who did what and when, so pranks and spoofing will result in consequences. That is exactly how the NSA also monitors access to its ginormous troves of metadata, by the way: any workstation has access to the data (because what good is a workstation with nothing to analyze?), but any workstation that accesses secure data is logged, and the person using the workstation is also logged. Everyone is accountable, so the NSA is hardly “out of control.”
Now what do you imagine would have happened to me if I had awoken the president with news of a Martian invasion? So what do you think happens to NSA analysts who get logged looking at prohibited data? The NSA doesn’t listen to your calls or open your emails without a warrant. Even Greenwald admits that; but he buries this admission in obtuse hype and deliberate conflation.
Sure, any low-level analyst can access data in the line of duty. What else would Greenwald imagine analysts do? What else does he imagine the NSA gathers data for, anyway? And he must be imagining, because Greenwald has zero experience or expertise in what intelligence analysts do every day. He knows even less about that world than Edward Snowden, who knows far less than he pretends to know. Neither Greenwald or Snowden can explain how metadata impacts the actual day-to-day business of intelligence gathering, nor do they particularly care what the truth about these issues are.
Frankly, an honest conversation of these topics is not what they want. For them, this fight is exactly like “End the Fed:” an existential battle against the demons of their drone-addled imaginations.
Underneath all of Greewald’s hype, Edward Snowden was never trained as an operator or analyst. He was a “technology specialist,” so his job was to deal with servers and dataflows, not workstations. He never had authority to access intelligence, collect information, or initiate surveillance. Moreover, Snowden had been on the job for all of four weeks when he absconded. How much can he actually know about software he has never even used? Has he ever even seen the interfaces he describes? I doubt it, and that goes double for Greenwald.
I don’t think the essential problem with Snowden and his interlocutor could be distilled any better than the first paragraph of this tellingly-short AP article:
WASHINGTON — NSA leaker Edward Snowden claims the spy agency gathers all communications into and out of the U.S. for analysis, despite NSA claims that it only targets foreign traffic.
This is forehead-slapping silly stuff, here. The NSA has no way of knowing which traffic is foreign, and which is not, until it has been “analyzed.”
In fact, for “analyze,” substitute “categorize.” The NSA watches the flow of data coming into the United States and categorizes as much as they can. Shockingly, they do this because NSA analysts actually don’t have all day to sit around spying on random people for no good reason. They have specific assignments to perform and missions to accomplish.
NSA analysts rely on computers to do the vast majority of this categorization before they ever touch the data. If their job is akin to finding needles in haystacks, the “analysis” here is like the hay running on a conveyor belt under magnetic sensors. Greenwald loves to frighten us with the size of the NSA’s haystack; he doesn’t think the needles exist, that they are straw men. The true, sinister purpose of the entire hay-monitoring machine, Greenwald says, is to control us all and stifle dissent. He’s got Mr. Snowden to prove it:
Snowden also said NSA chief Gen. Keith Alexander lied to Congress by saying the agency could not determine how many U.S. communications are gathered — something Snowden says NSA auditing tool Boundless Informant does.
Snowden has almost certainly never used Boundless Informant to audit collections activity, as it’s a job for supervisors. But Snowden has an advantage here. He can be completely off-base, hype irrelevant facts as sensational charges, and never once be answered on point by the agency he maligns. Snowden will never have to prove he has actually used the software he cites, or that he really knows anything thing about its capabilities or limitations. Because the NSA is not going to show us what Boundless Informant actually does, either — and that is a huge advantage for anyone who wants to score polemical points.
Greenwald is an expert propagandist on issues of state power and surveillance, but few people in the newsroom have the relevant experience or knowledge base to recognize what he’s peddling: a paranoid scare-story based on an uninformed, pseudo-”expert” reading of some PowerPoint slides that neither he or Snowden actually understand. Their narrative thrives on knee-jerk hatred of government and know-nothing attitudes about what the NSA is and does. And the best part of the scam is that big, bad, “black” government is actually not allowed to correct their distortions. Greenwald and Snowden probably figure they can pass themselves off forever as “experts” without challenge, and unfortunately they are probably right.