A Monday story in the Washington Post entitled “Putin grants citizenship to Edward Snowden, who exposed U.S. surveillance’” began:
Russian President Vladimir Putin granted citizenship on Monday to Edward Snowden, a former security consultant who leaked information about top-secret U.S. surveillance programs and is still wanted by Washington on espionage charges.
The story added:
Snowden’s disclosures, published first in The Washington Post and the Guardian, were arguably the biggest security breach in U.S. history. The information revealed top-secret NSA surveillance as part of a program known as PRISM and the extraction of a wide range of digital information.
Snowden is America’s most famous revealer-of-secrets, and the way he’s talked about has evolved to an extreme degree in less than a decade, showing how quickly a story about security overreach can be flipped into an argument for more vigilance. The press, which once worked with Snowden in its proper role as a bulwark against government excess, is effectively an arm of the state now, as is shown again in this absurd episode.
This article began as an aggressive rewrite of history and the Post’s own views, but underwent numerous alterations after it attracted criticism online yesterday.
The original version of yesterday’s piece depicted Snowden solely as someone wanted for “arguably the biggest security breach in U.S. history,” noting he’d revealed “top secret NSA surveillance” in the form of the PRISM program, which was not characterized. Written by Mary Ilyushina, the piece quoted former principal deputy director of national intelligence Sue Gordon, who said Snowden’s decision to accept Russian citizenship “takes away any illusion that what he was doing [through his disclosures] was to help America.”
Gordon added: “Knowing what we know about what Russia perpetrates, to become a Russian citizen right now. I think it diminishes any patriotic argument that he might have made back then.” The argument that Snowden was “not a traitor” was left to be made via a quote of Vladimir Putin, taken from a documentary made by Oliver Stone.
Finally, Ilyushina also got a quote from former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who said, “He exposed so much else that damaged foreign intelligence capabilities that had nothing to do with so-called domestic surveillance… What a great time to become a Russian citizen.” Ilyushina used her own words to note Clapper “acknowledged” that the bulk phone records program revelation “was perhaps justified given its focus on Americans.”
There was no reference to Clapper being inveigled in a perjury controversy for denying that fact, under oath. Asked on March 12, 2013 by Senator Ron Wyden, “Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions, or hundreds of millions of Americans?” Clapper responded, “No, sir. … Not wittingly.” A year later, we were still in a world where Politifact could rate an intelligence chief’s words “false.” That seems a lifetime ago, with Snowden in permanent exile and Clapper a paid TV analyst.
As my friend Glenn Greenwald pointed out at 1:51 p.m. yesterday, this was quite a turnaround for the Post, which back in 2014 congratulated itself for sharing in a Pulitzer Prize (which Glenn also received) for publishing Snowden’s disclosures:
It's extra weird for the Wash Post of all papers to do this since they enthusiastically congratulated themselves for sharing in the 2014 Pulitzer for Public Service for having published hundreds of Snowden's top secret documents. Then they turn around and malign their own source. https://t.co/BOU3ZKITN4— Glenn Greenwald (@ggreenwald) September 26, 2022
Back in 2014, the Post noted that “both the leakers and the news organizations that published the stories were accused by critics, including members of Congress, of enabling espionage and harming national security.” But they had it all wrong, said Executive Editor Marty Baron:
Disclosing the massive expansion of the NSA’s surveillance network absolutely was a public service… In constructing a surveillance system of breathtaking scope and intrusiveness, our government also sharply eroded individual privacy. All of this was done in secret, without public debate, and with clear weaknesses in oversight.
Baron added that without Snowden, “we never would have known how far this country had shifted away from the rights of the individual in favor of state power.” They also quoted reporter Barton Gellman, who said, incorrectly it would now seem, “The public gets to have a say on those things.” Finally, the Post in 2014 credited the work of several beat reporters who contributed, including Greg Miller, Carol Leonnig, Julie Tate, outside consultant Ashkan Soltani, and Ellen Nakashima.
So it was interesting when yesterday’s Snowden piece that was originally bylined just to Ilyushina suddenly appeared in co-byline, along with the aforementioned Nakashima. The changes since are interesting, reflecting an odd back-and-forth (and back) in the Post newsroom. Originally, the Post described Snowden as a pure fugitive-traitor, and relied solely on quotes from intelligence figures for color. The passage about PRISM was now rewritten to include the key, originally-missing detail that the disclosed program was ruled unlawful by a federal court:
This new version of the piece, published by 6:10 p.m., also contained a defense of Snowden from someone other than Vladimir Putin:
“Think what you want about Snowden and Russia,” wrote Jameel Jaffer, executive director of Columbia University’s Knight First Amendment Institute, in a tweet on Monday. “He did an immense public service by exposing mass surveillance programs that multiple courts later found to be unconstitutional.”
The update also put Clapper’s “acknowledgment” in his own words:
James R. Clapper, a former director of national intelligence, acknowledged Monday that the bulk phone records collection was one area where “we probably should have been more transparent” given the program’s focus on Americans.
Press treatment of the Snowden story has always been bizarre at best. Even back when the former NSA contractor was lionized enough that a documentary about his story by Laura Poitras could win an Oscar (and cheers from Hollywood’s beautiful people), we saw intense public focus on Snowden the person, and comparatively little about the part of the story that really mattered, i.e. the illegal PRISM program.
At the time, it was already shocking that the government collected the personal data of Americans without cause. How they did it was even worse: direct extraction, without permission or notice, from companies like Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube and Apple.
The Post yesterday characterized revelations about this betrayal of customers as important because they “damaged the intelligence community’s relationship with the American tech industry”:
[Snowden] also revealed details of industry collaboration with NSA intelligence-gathering in a separate program. Those disclosures greatly damaged the intelligence community’s relationship with the American tech industry.
Even back in 2013-2014, even in publications like The New Republic, we were constantly encouraged to set aside the meaning of leaks and revelations and focus on the motives of those who brought them to us. We were told Snowden had a gun fetish and odious opinions about Social Security, that Glenn defended distasteful characters as an attorney, that Julian Assange had once said the only hope for American politics was the “libertarian section” of the Republican party, etc. Similar stories about John Kiriakou, Thomas Drake, Jeffrey Sterling, and others always appear.
Snowden’s tale isn’t a “who” story. It’s a “what” story, the what being an illegal — or at least extralegal — decision by intelligence agencies to spy on American citizens, with the help of basically every private tech company and, now, nearly all national news media. Enough time has passed since Snowden’s story first broke that papers like the Post can begin re-wiring the brains of a new generation that either doesn’t remember or doesn’t know about the secret surveillance program, which the government claims was “shuttered.” (Such claims should be held at arm’s length, in the same way the Post writes that Snowden “considers himself a whistleblower”).
That Snowden ended up in Russia only speaks to the fact that there aren’t many places for people like Snowden or Assange to run, once the government decides to drop the hammer on them. Surely if Tahiti were an option, we’d find both men there, instead of chez Putin, in an embassy closet, etc.
The object of this propaganda game is to stamp out any space for revealers-of-secrets, even intellectual space, which means even former press partners have to turn on them, eventually. Congratulations, Washington Post, for getting there so promptly.