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Whose “journalistic malfeasance?” Fact-checking Joshua Foust’s Guardian critique

Joshua Foust posted an article on Medium today, titled “A Catalogue of Journalistic Malfeasance.” In it, he castigated the work of The Guardian‘s Glenn Greenwald for allegedly misstating all sorts of facts in the rush to get Edward Snowden’s story to the public:

So what’s the solution? For one, stop assuming the first version of the “facts” is correct. So much of the initial round of NSA reporting has turned out to be false or misleading that it’s a wonder such misreporting hasn’t become its own scandal. The speed with which false information propagates in the public (and worse, in commentaries) is dismaying to those of us who’d prefer public debates be based in fact rather than fiction.

Yet so long as breaking news dominates the coverage, there will continue to be frenzied periods of rushed reporting and eventual retractions or clarifications. Until we as people change our media consumption habits, the news organizations that continue to rush poorly researched information into the public record will have no reason to change their ways.

But even a cursory perusal of Foust’s piece reveals the same tenuous grasp of basic facts for which he passionately condemns The Guardian and The Washington Post (among others). In order, starting from near the beginning of his article:

1) Foust writes:

For one, there is still no evidence about how many other phone companies have been compelled to hand over their records. On Twitter, Greenwald wrote, “The program we exposed is the collection of all American’s [sic] phone records.” That isn’t true — he exposed the collection of Verizon’s records. The only evidence that this is an ongoing, long-standing program involving other telecos is a statement by Senate Intelligence Committee chairwoman Diane Feinstein and various anonymous leaks to national security reporters.

Let’s get the obvious point out of the way: if the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee confirms the existence of an “ongoing, long-standing program involving other telcos,” then how can Foust write that “there is still no evidence about how many other phone companies have been compelled to hand over their records?” (Unless, of course, he means that there could be even more than those already uncovered.) Feinstein has made it painfully clear what she thinks of Snowden — “I don’t look at this as being a whistle-blower,” she said at one point, “I think it’s an act of treason” —  and so she has absolutely no incentive to lie about the existence of the programs he uncovered (certainly not, at least, in the direction of making him look more truthful).

Secondly, Foust’s link to Feinstein’s alleged statement goes, bizarrely, to Huffington Post article that makes no mention of other telecom companies at all. But based on its content, Foust seems to be referring to a Feinstein statement reported in a Politico article from the same morning, in which Feinstein not only did not state that similar operations were taking place at other phone companies, but specifically said she could not confirm that that was happening:

Feinstein said she could not answer whether other phone companies have had their records sifted through as Verizon has.

“I know that people are trying to get to us,” she said. “This is the reason why the FBI now has 10,000 people doing intelligence on counterterrorism. This is the reason for the national counterterrorism center that’s been set up in the time we’ve been active. its to ferret this out before it happens. “It’s called protecting America.”

The same incongruence holds true for the “various anonymous links to national security reporters.” The Wall Street Journal reported the following on June 7th:

The disclosure this week of an order by a secret U.S. court for Verizon Communications Inc.’s phone records set off the latest public discussion of the program. But people familiar with the NSA’s operations said the initiative also encompasses phone-call data from AT&T Inc. and Sprint Nextel Corp., records from Internet-service providers and purchase information from credit-card providers.

This, a prominently reported article by an internationally prominent newspaper, is also evidence. So it is decidedly unclear what Foust means when he writes, “There is still no evidence about how many other phone companies have been compelled to hand over their records.” That’s at least three in total, right there.

Finally, Foust claims that Greenwald only “exposed the collection of Verizon’s records,” not those of all American customers — as Greenwald had claimed in his Twitter feed. But Foust appears to be wrong on this count too (as is Greenwald). The secret court order published by The Guardian demands the following material from Verizon:

…all call detail records or “telephony metadata” created by Verizon for communications (i) between the United States and abroad; or (ii) wholly within the United States, including local telephone calls…Telephony metadata includes comprehensive communications routing information, including but not limited to session identifying information (e.g., originating and terminating telephone number, International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI) number, International Mobile station Equipment Identity (IMEI) number, etc.), trunk identifier, telephone calling card numbers, and time and duration of call.

Nowhere in the above order does it specify that this information be restricted to Verizon customers only. In other words, if an American Verizon customer calls — or receives a call from — someone abroad (or even locally) who is not a Verizon customer, this order appears to obtain at least the phone number of the non-Verizon customer and perhaps more. (My low level of telecom technical expertise is not sufficient to speculate about the IMSI and IMEI numbers.)

2) Foust continues:

The next leak Greenwald published, with veteran national security reporter Ewan MacAskill, made an even more eyepopping claim: “The National Security Agency has obtained direct access to the systems of Google, Facebook, Apple and other US internet giants.” That report also turned out to be largely exaggerated. Experienced tech journalists immediately seized on the description of the PRISM program (which accesses the data of internet companies) and poked it full of holes. Despite being described as “data-mining,” PRISM is really “nothing of the sort,” according to journalists who have covered the NSA in detail.

Foust is correct that the early descriptions of PRISM as a program of direct, real-time access to huge tech companies’ servers has since been walked back, in part. In retrospect, it’s become clear that The Guardian displayed an insufficient level of technical savvy — and perhaps even a spate of wishful thinking — in describing the program. Nevertheless, the above quote that Foust extracts from the article, written by Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill, leaves out a crucial qualifier that immediately follows the words he excerpted:

The National Security Agency has obtained direct access to the systems of Google, Facebook, Apple and other US internet giants, according to a top secret document obtained by the Guardian.

The NSA access is part of a previously undisclosed program called Prism, which allows officials to collect material including search history, the content of emails, file transfers and live chats, the document says.

“…according to a top secret document obtained by the Guardian.” And then, in the next paragraph, “the document says.” Now I’m not justifying Greenwald’s and MacAskill’s carelessness with words: the difference between direct access and, say, submitting individual requests for data is enormous and should be treated as such. But despite its obvious flaws, the article does make clear its reliance on the secret document — which itself, according to The Guardian, claimed “collection directly from the servers” of large American technology companies. It would, therefore, appear that at least some of the blame for the “exaggeration” rests with whatever NSA employee or contractor created the PowerPoint, not solely with The Guardian.

3) Foust writes, “IT work is not spying, even if it’s classified.” OK? Is there some new dictionary edict from on high about this, of which I’m not aware? “IT work” can refer to almost anything — and “anything” absolutely, positively includes spying. To be honest, I’m not confident I understood what Foust was trying to get across here, because reading the above sentence at face value makes no sense at all.

4) Contra Edward Snowden, Foust writes that “Robert Deitz, a former top lawyer at the NSA and CIA, told the L.A. Times that claim [that Snowden could ‘access any CIA station in the world’] was a ‘complete and utter’ falsehood.”

To his credit, Foust admits the obvious reality that this is hardly proof of Snowden’s lying. (Consider the source, to put it lightly.) But Foust again errs when he quotes Snowden as saying he could “access any CIA station in the world.” That phrase has been repeated elsewhere as well. But Snowden never said it. Here is what he actually said:

I had access to, you know the full rosters of everyone working at the NSA, the entire intelligence community, and undercover assets all around the world, the locations of every station we have, what their missions are, and so forth.

It’s a very similar statement. But it’s not identical. Even more concerning than the misquoted phrase, however, is the fact that Snowden refers to “every station” immediately after referencing the NSA, not the CIA — as Foust incorrectly wrote. Yes, it is still likely that Snowden was implicitly referring to the CIA in his above statement about “the locations of every station we have,” but the quote Foust excerpts simply doesn’t exist.

5) Foust writes:

Snowden said he participated in a CIA operation to “recruit” a Swiss banker in Geneva through a manufactured drunk driving arrest. Swiss President Ueli Maurer over the weekend said that such a claim “does not seem to me that it… played out as it has been described by Snowden and by the media.”

But much like the quote above by Robert Deitz, Ueli Maurer has quite the incentive to downplay the incident. Switzerland would rather not get into a diplomatic tussle with the United States. Moreover, it would be embarrassing for a president to admit to the bumbling incompetence of one of his own countrymen in the face of the crudest spook tactics. (Getting a banker drunk and then encouraging him to drive? Not a good look for the banker, his president, or his country.)

6) Foust quotes NSA head Keith Alexander — of all people — as rebutting Snowden’s claims. Well, then…that settles it?

7) Foust writes:

The rush to be first out of the gate with explosive new details of anything — or, in the Guardian’s case, the rush to publish before Snowden could be located and arrested — created perverse incentives to publish without verification. Washington Post freelancer Barton Gellman even said that his attempts to verify some of Snowden’s claims led to Snowden pushing the same documents to the Guardian because they would publish faster.

Once again, the Gellman article to which Foust links says no such thing. Here is the actual excerpt to which Foust appears to be referring:

To effect his plan, Snowden asked for a guarantee that The Washington Post would publish — within 72 hours — the full text of a PowerPoint presentation describing PRISM, a top-secret surveillance program that gathered intelligence from Microsoft, Facebook, Google and other Silicon Valley giants. He also asked that The Post publish online a cryptographic key that he could use to prove to a foreign embassy that he was the document’s source.

I told him we would not make any guarantee about what we published or when. (The Post broke the story two weeks later, on Thursday. The Post sought the views of government officials about the potential harm to national security prior to publication and decided to reproduce only four of the 41 slides.)

Snowden replied succinctly, “I regret that we weren’t able to keep this project unilateral.” Shortly afterward he made contact with Glenn Greenwald of the British newspaper the Guardian.

And then further on down, Gellman refers to his “dispute [with Snowden] about publishing the PRISM document in full.” In other words, Snowden’s decision to go to The Guardian was apparently based on The Washington Post‘s unwillingness to accept certain conditions, not because The Guardian had sloppier fact-checking or looser editorial standards.

At the end, Foust laments the barrage of misleading and inaccurate news. He is right: the mainstream American press has had a rocky few months. (In reality, it’s been rocky for far longer than that.) Twitter and other real-time social networks have certainly contributed to the proliferation of these deceptions at ever-faster speeds, although they fact-check just as fast. I actually agree with the general thrust of Joshua Foust’s analysis of The Guardian‘s hasty reporting that appears to have cut corners in dangerous ways. But sometimes even the fact-checker needs a fact-checker.

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“The administration has now lost all credibility.”

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The Huffington Post, with a typically subtle headline.

When you’re a Democratic president and The New York Times’ editorial board has utterly lost its faith in you, you may have done something wrong:

Within hours of the disclosure that the federal authorities routinely collect data on phone calls Americans make, regardless of whether they have any bearing on a counterterrorism investigation, the Obama administration issued the same platitude it has offered every time President Obama has been caught overreaching in the use of his powers: Terrorists are a real menace and you should just trust us to deal with them because we have internal mechanisms (that we are not going to tell you about) to make sure we do not violate your rights.

Those reassurances have never been persuasive — whether on secret warrants to scoop up a news agency’s phone records or secret orders to kill an American suspected of terrorism — especially coming from a president who once promised transparency and accountability. The administration has now lost all credibility. Mr. Obama is proving the truism that the executive will use any power it is given and very likely abuse it.

Many responses to yesterday’s Guardian bombshell about Verizon call data being scooped up en masse by the NSA have been less than furious. Notably, the chair of the Senate intelligence committee, Senator Dianne Feinstein, said, “This is called protecting America. People want the homeland kept safe.” She also helpfully pointed out, without a trace of concern, that this secret court order is apparently just one in a long string of them dating back consecutively to 2006. She also made sure to explain: “This is just metadata. There is no content involved. In other words, no content of a communication.”

Andrew Sullivan likewise joined the quickly swelling ranks of those that are mostly unbothered by the revelation:

I’m neither shocked nor that outraged. Meta-data is not the content of our phone records.

On that front, this kind of meta-data gathering hasn’t outraged me too much under either administration. This kind of technology is one of the US’ only competitive advantages against Jihadists. Yes, its abuses could be terrible. But so could the consequences of its absence.

But Sullivan and his cohorts are completely wrong on this point — and they’re wrong in three crucial but different ways: technically, logistically, and philosophically.

First, metadata — even when it excludes the subscriber’s name, as the secret court order claims — is just about the furthest thing from anonymity. Back in March, MIT News reported on a new study showing just how little metadata is required to pinpoint a specific individual:

Researchers at MIT and the Université Catholique de Louvain, in Belgium, analyzed data on 1.5 million cellphone users in a small European country over a span of 15 months and found that just four points of reference, with fairly low spatial and temporal resolution, was enough to uniquely identify 95 percent of them.

In other words, to extract the complete location information for a single person from an “anonymized” data set of more than a million people, all you would need to do is place him or her within a couple of hundred yards of a cellphone transmitter, sometime over the course of an hour, four times in one year. A few Twitter posts would probably provide all the information you needed, if they contained specific information about the person’s whereabouts.

Second, as Jane Mayer of The New Yorker points out, the actual content of the call — that is, audio or a transcript of the conversation — is not necessarily as valuable as the patterns and networks that can be traced from metadata:

For example, she said, in the world of business, a pattern of phone calls from key executives can reveal impending corporate takeovers. Personal phone calls can also reveal sensitive medical information: “You can see a call to a gynecologist, and then a call to an oncologist, and then a call to close family members.” And information from cell-phone towers can reveal the caller’s location. Metadata, she pointed out, can be so revelatory about whom reporters talk to in order to get sensitive stories that it can make more traditional tools in leak investigations, like search warrants and subpoenas, look quaint. “You can see the sources,” she said. When the F.B.I. obtains such records from news agencies, the Attorney General is required to sign off on each invasion of privacy. When the N.S.A. sweeps up millions of records a minute, it’s unclear if any such brakes are applied.

Finally, even on a philosophical or ideological level, Sullivan is wrong about the danger of not pursuing such invasive surveillance tactics. Stephen Walt takes it away:

There are two obvious counters. First, the United States (and its allies) are hardly lacking in “competitive advantages” against jihadists. On the contrary, they have an enormous number of advantages: They’re vastly richer, better-armed, better-educated, and more popular, and their agenda is not advanced primarily by using violence against innocent people. (When the United States does employ violence indiscriminately, it undermines its position.) And for all the flaws in American society and all the mistakes that U.S. and other leaders have made over the past decade or two, they still have a far more appealing political message than the ones offered up by Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and the various leaders of the Taliban. The United States is still going to be a major world power long after the contemporary jihadi movement is a discredited episode in modern history, even if the country repealed the Patriot Act and stopped all this secret domestic surveillance tomorrow.

Second, after acknowledging the potential for abuse in this government surveillance program, Sullivan warns that the “consequences of its absence” could be “terrible.” This claim depends on the belief that jihadism really does pose some sort of horrific threat to American society. This belief is unwarranted, however, provided that dedicated and suicidal jihadists never gain access to nuclear weapons. Conventional terrorism — even of the sort suffered on 9/11 — is not a serious threat to the U.S. economy, the American way of life, or even the personal security of the overwhelming majority of Americans, because al Qaeda and its cousins are neither powerful nor skillful enough to do as much damage as they might like. And this would be the case even if the NSA weren’t secretly collecting a lot of data about domestic phone traffic. Indeed, as political scientist John Mueller and civil engineer Mark Stewart have shown, post-9/11 terrorist plots have been mostly lame and inept, and Americans are at far greater risk from car accidents, bathtub mishaps, and a host of other undramatic dangers than they are from “jihadi terrorism.” The Boston bombing in April merely underscores this point: It was a tragedy for the victims but less lethal than the factory explosion that occurred that same week down in Texas. But Americans don’t have a secret NSA program to protect them from slipping in the bathtub, and Texans don’t seem to be crying out for a “Patriot Act” to impose better industrial safety. Life is back to normal here in Boston (Go Sox!), except for the relatively small number of people whose lives were forever touched by an evil act.

In other words, the NSA’s wiretapping program that began under Bush and has now very apparently flourished under Obama is every bit as bad as it sounds. The New York Times got it exactly right: the Obama administration has lost all credibility. So why is it that we always seem so willing to forget this news so quickly?

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