By Frank Snepp – Posted April 13, 2014
Luke Harding’s new book, “The Snowden Files,” shamelessly recycles many of the Top Secret NSA revelations first reported in his own newspaper, the Guardian, by Glenn Greenwald, his former colleague and Ed Snowden’s favorite press contact.
Harding rushed his twice-told tale into print last February in an apparent effort to gain a march on Greenwald who is preparing to publish his own Snowden tell-all a few weeks from now.
Besides stealing part of Greenwald’s own stolen thunder, the Harding tome serves to remind us there is no honor among thieves, especially when they’re vying to cash in on the biggest secrets heist in the history of U.S. intelligence.
Not that Greenwald suffered pre-emption easily. On February 10, he tried to nudge “Files” out of the headlines by planting a new Snowden bombshell on an “investigative” website he’d just launched with the Nation’s Jeremy Scahill and freelancer Laura Poitras.
That web exclusive – co-authored by Scahill – dealt with NSA’s alleged involvement in U.S. assassination plots. Never mind that the essence of the story had been surfaced months before by The Washington Post, in two reports based on Snowden documents in its possession. Greenwald apparently has no reservations about beating a dead horse if it will help him preserve his monopoly of the lucrative Snowden franchise.
He and Poitras staked a claim to this money machine last June when Snowden met with them and another Guardian reporter in Hong Kong and handed them most if not all of the secrets he’d lifted from his former employer, the NSA. Greenwald then worked with Harding and others at the newspaper to make the most of this bonanza. The Guardian owned a good chunk of the Snowden story until Greenwald quit in October, taking the leaker’s remaining stash with him for use on the new website, as if it were now his property.
Harding’s book may well be the Guardian’s way of sticking it to the guy who heisted the heist.
If all this seems a little crass for principled whistleblowing, Greenwald and Scahill’s web post fits right into the pattern. Its two antecedents in the Washington Post provided a studiously circumspect account of how highly classified NSA technology is being used to support drone strikes on foreign terrorists. According to the more expansive of these stories, published last October, the Snowden files “make clear that the drone campaign…relies heavily on the NSA’s ability to vacuum up enormous quantities of e-mail, phone calls and other fragments of signals intelligence, or SIGINT.”
What Greenwald and Scahill added to this narrative was a sensational detail of perhaps unintended irony. It involved a technique which they said the NSA now employs to locate prospective targets, a SIM card tracking process that keys on cell phone signals. They claimed it has resulted in innocent deaths because terrorist groups are now clued in to how it works and are handing out diversionary SIM cards to non-targets, who are “then killed in a strike.”
Greenwald and Scahill didn’t speculate on how terrorist thugs might have figured out the SIM card technique. Is it possible that Snowden’s own leaks have contributed to their lethal wisdom?
Greenwald and Scahill quoted a disgruntled drone operator as lamenting the lack of human informants to help sharpen NSA targeting. For anyone who lived through the Vietnam era, that plaint recalls the bad old days of the CIA’s Phoenix Program when poor human intelligence often led our special ops teams to kill the wrong Vietnamese.
During my early years as a CIA officer in Vietnam, I learned first-hand that Phoenix operations were too often dependent on vague tips from unverifiable sources with personal scores to settle. That taught me just how euphemistic “targeted killing” can be.
Improved reporting from the ground – combined with modern-day NSA surveillance – might have made the Phoenix more “efficient.” But, even if we can now better limit collateral damage from our “targeted kills,” does that make them any more defensible, politically or morally?
Wherever you come down on this issue, it goes to the heart of who we are as a nation, and deserves better than the self-serving sizzle of journalists in search of book sales or web hits.
So do the secrets they seem so willing to compromise. During my subsequent journalistic career, I’ve exposed controversial covert schemes without pandering to anyone’s voyeuristic yen for operational secrets. My own CIA memoir about the fall of Vietnam told of intelligence failures, but gave away nothing that would have further damaged our abandoned Vietnamese allies.
Government prosecutors later convinced the Supreme Court that I’d violated CIA non-disclosure agreements by publishing my book without official approval. But they never accused me of betraying any classified information. None, period.
Still, I got the story out.
The reporters who wrote the Post article in October about NSA-backed drone operations recognized the need for discretion. “The Post is withholding many details about those missions,” they acknowledged, “at the request of U.S. intelligence officials who cited potential damage to ongoing operations and national security.”
Without shortchanging the news, they struck a reasonable balance between the “people’s right to know” and our right to be secure against another 9/11. Would that Greenwald and Scahill were so even-handed. Exposing the specific technology used to locate terrorists’ cell phones goes well beyond what’s needed for informed public debate about “targeted killing” or alleged NSA privacy violations – Snowden’s own professed concern– and deserves to be labeled for what it is: cynical hype designed to turn our compromised security into cash flow for the journalists’ bank accounts.
Author’s biography: Frank Snepp is a Peabody-Award-winning journalist, author of two CIA memoirs, and the focus of a U.S. Supreme Court decision about national security and the First Amendment.