On Glenn Greenwald’s Trips to the Woodshed

In seeking to praise Glenn Greenwald and his new book, David Cole actually ends up condemning Glenn Greenwald and his new book:

. . . [Greenwald] reports, for example, that the NSA cooperates with other countries’ spy agencies, even as they spy on us and we on them. Is anyone other than Greenwald “shocked, shocked” by this news? He notes that the NSA collects data not only for counterterrorism purposes but for economic and diplomatic advantage. Again, did anyone think otherwise? Since 1978, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act has expressly authorized the collection of “foreign intelligence information,” defined to include any information about a foreign power or territory that “relates to . . . the conduct of the foreign affairs of the United States.” Surely oil supplies and trade negotiations are as relevant to our foreign affairs as terrorism is. And it hardly follows that, as Greenwald claims, “stopping terror is clearly a pretext” for the NSA.

Some disclosures raise more questions about Greenwald’s judgment than about the NSA’s activities. One document, for example, identifies the specific methods used to bug 24 named foreign embassies. The document reveals top-secret methods and targets, and its disclosure is likely to undermine legitimate intelligence-gathering and cause serious diplomatic problems. Yet it is difficult to see what possible value it adds to the public debate. It is one thing to disclose secret government practices that raise serious moral, political and constitutional concerns — as many of Snowden’s disclosures have done. But bugging foreign embassies is at the core of foreign intelligence, and there is nothing particularly surprising about the fact that we do it.

Greenwald does not always recognize the difference between justified and unjustified disclosures. And that’s too bad, as Snowden placed his trust in Greenwald to make such calls.

Greenwald’s descriptions of NSA programs can also be misleading. He never mentions, for example, that there are significant “back-end” limits on how the agency can search and use much of the data it collects. These limitations constitute the core of the NSA’s defenses of its programs. While I don’t find those defenses entirely convincing, a serious effort to grapple with the issue would not simply ignore them.

The force of Greenwald’s argument is sometimes undermined by his hyperbolic style and more-radical-than-thou attitude. He depicts the NSA, for example, as part of a grand scheme by elites to control the masses, of a piece with what he sees as “the response to the Occupy movement . . . to crush it with force, through tear gas, pepper spray, and prosecution.” Really? Maybe I’m imagining things, but I recall seeing Occupy demonstrations for months on end throughout the country, including in the nation’s capital.

And he asserts that “both the United States and the United Kingdom have made clear that there are no limits — ethical, legal, or political — that they will observe when they claim to be acting in the name of ‘terrorism.’ ” Has he read the substantial debates in Britain over preventive detention, control orders, complicity in torture and the like? Has he seen the Obama administration’s brief to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit insisting that the laws of war must limit detention authority at Guantanamo and urging the court to reverse a statement to the contrary? Or President Obama’s orders barring the use of enhanced interrogation techniques? Such overstatement weakens Greenwald’s credibility, which is unfortunate, because much of what he has to say is extremely valuable.

Of course, Glenn Greenwald doesn’t need David Cole to send him to the woodshed. Not when he has–wait for it!Glenn Greenwald to do the job:

Like a columnist jumping all over a movie he hasn’t seen, Sony Pictures has pounced on the movie rights to Glenn Greenwald’s new book, No Place To Hide: Edward Snowden, The NSA, And The U.S. Surveillance State.

“I’m very happy to be working with Amy Pascal, Doug Belgrad and the team at Sony Pictures Entertainment, who have a successful track record of making thoughtful and nuanced true-life stories that audiences want to see,” said Greenwald of the same executives he had previously accused of producing “the ultimate hagiography of the most secretive arm of America’s National Security State” when they made Zero Dark Thirty, but now heartily endorses, because they’re giving him lots of money.

So, it is clear now: When it comes to Greenwald, money talks and principles walk.