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Protecting Whistleblowers since 1977

Snowden's Faceless Accusers

Bea Edwards, July 11, 2013

The following piece first appeared in the Huffington Post.

In the second part of his interview with Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, Edward Snowden said, "Our government will say I aided our enemies." The retroactive prediction was accurate. Although the clip was released on July 8, it was recorded on June 6, well before government officials let fly the charge of treason.

Snowden was prescient. In the weeks after his first disclosures, many US politicians called him a traitor who gave aid, comfort and secrets to enemies of the U.S. The pundits also piled on. David Gregory of Meet the Press went so far as to suggest that journalist Glenn Greenwald, too, should be charged with a crime for actions that "aided and abetted" Snowden.

Then, on June 23, The New York Times published this:

Two Western intelligence experts, who worked for major government spy agencies, said they believed that the Chinese government had managed to drain the contents of the four laptops that Mr. Snowden said he brought to Hong Kong, and that he said were with him during his stay at a Hong Kong hotel.

The allegation was based on information provided by sources "...who like many in this article spoke on the condition of anonymity [in order ] to talk freely about confidential discussions."

So the Snowden case takes a tricky turn here. The officials who say that Snowden is a leaker who aided enemies of the United States are leaking information, too.

As Peter Hart of Fair Blog points out, the aid-and-secrets-to-the-enemy charges rapidly proliferated without attribution. Hart enumerates some of the reporters who published these anonymous allegations:Ellen Nakashima and Greg Miller of the Washington PostBarbara Starr of CNN, and Kimberly Dozier at Salon.com, among others.

Take a look: In the June 24 Washington Post piece, Nakashima and Miller quoted "a former government official," "a former senior U.S. official," "a senior intelligence official," "a second senior intelligence official," and "a former senior U.S. intelligence official who served in Russia." At one point, Nakashima and Miller paused to tell us: "The official, like others in this article, spoke on the condition of anonymity because the official wasn't authorized to discuss the matters on the record." In other words, this official, like the others quoted, was leaking.

So who are these people? And why has no one investigated their violations of confidentiality? As far as we know, no one is even looking for them. Neither John Kerry nor Keith Alexander seems disturbed at the breakdown in discipline. And the reporters - Nakashima and Miller - give equal, if not more credibility to their anonymous sources as they do to Kristin Hrafnsson, Julian Assange and Glenn Greenwald, all of whom pronounced for the record - providing their full names and affiliations - that the leaked secrets-to-the-enemy allegations were nonsense.

It's clear from all of this that leaking per se is not the problem that rankles the government. Revealing illegal programs is the problem. Leaking baseless allegations concocted to smear a whistleblower as a traitor is fine. In contrast, revealing the actions of a secret court that makes outlandish secret rulings based on tortured interpretations of plain English words (such as 'relevant') is a crime.

This doesn't seem quite fair. After all, leaking is leaking, and we are a nation of laws. The nameless sources speaking to reporters are also aiding "our enemies" by publicizing what US intelligence agencies believe about their methods of communicating post-Snowden.

At the Government Accountability Project (GAP), where we work with whistleblowers, Kathleen McClellan, an attorney who specializes in national security cases, has said repeatedly that "The Snowden case is not about leaking. It's about information and control." She's right. Official national security leakers, the ones who whisper into the ears of reporters for prestigious newspapers and networks, get a pass. They're pushing the official truth; America now has a coordinated propaganda machine.

The logic of the Snowden story is complicated, but one question must still be asked: why won't these officials allow their names to be published when they make their claims about what Snowden has done?

One serious possibility is that the information is classified. Many of the statements these officials make actually confirm Snowden's disclosures. Consequently, they're taking the same liberties with US secrets that Snowden took and for which they've condemned him.

Or two: the information is untrue and neither they nor their agency will be publicly associated with it.

And then, three. The information is both classified and untrue. This is the most compelling reason for being anonymous: the circulation of a secret that is also a lie. And this is also the real danger of the surveillance state. Information is collected and assembled about all of us secretly. Snowden showed us this. Then it is analyzed by a person or by a system and conclusions are reached. The government, presumably, then acts on those conclusions.

But what if the conclusions are mistaken? Or malicious?

In the days following Snowden's disclosures, many people shrugged about mass surveillance. "I'm not a terrorist," they said. "Why should I care?" You should care because, after mapping your friends and your phone calls, and your friends' friends and their phone calls, and their travels, and their relatives, the government may conclude that you are a threat of some kind. Or that it would be politically convenient to portray you as one. Or that it would be advantageous to charge you with treason for giving secrets to China, even if you did not. And you couldn't prove you did not because the charges are made by faceless accusers based on information you've never seen and have no right to see.

This has happened. It's happening now to Edward Snowden.

 

Bea Edwards is Executive & International Director of the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower protection organization.