Still Spying

by Joe de Jonge, Alex Sammon & Meghan Sullivan

Illustration by Julieta Cárdenas

published November 2, 2013


EDWARD SNOWDEN IS A RELATIVELY FREE MAN. Four months into his year-long Russian asylum, he has managed to fly under the global media radar. That is until a photo of him—or his doppelganger—grocery shopping surfaced on October 7. Three days later, his father Lon Snowden flew to Moscow to see his son. The relationship between these two events is unclear and likely irrelevant, but let’s not forget, these are spies.

A condition of Snowden’s asylum is that he stop publishing classified documents. Yet revelations of US espionage net continue. On October 17, days after Lon left Moscow, The New York Times published excerpts from the first interview with Edward Snowden since he was granted asylum. The reportedly “wide-ranging interview” took place “over several days” while Lon was in town.

There are two interrelated points here. One, Snowden asserted that neither the Russians nor the Chinese accessed his trove. And two, after passing the files to journalists Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras in Hong Kong, he no longer has copies of the files. So, the Russians did not access the files because he did not bring them to Russia. It is a different story with the Chinese, as there is no doubt he had the files in Hong Kong. Still, Snowden told the Times, “There’s a zero percent chance the Russians or Chinese have received any documents.” Snowden claims that his previous work, including targeting (read hacking) the Chinese and teaching a course on Chinese cyber-counterintelligence, allowed him to evade his Chinese spy counterparts.

Snowden’s claims are believable, or at least plausible. But, again, we are talking about spies. Snowden’s assertions in this interview are undeniably thought out and motivated by his uncertain political position. 

As foreign heads of state express their outrage over the United States tapping their phones, we have to question the performance. Didn’t they know, or at least assume, something like this was going on? Weren’t they sharing data all along?

 And as Glenn Greenwald moves on to his new venture, shouldn’t we question his assertion that the best is yet to come? The news cycle is quick: Is he afraid his 15 minutes are up? Did you know his name a year ago? Will you know it in a year? ­–JJ



an iphone note is a private thing. It’s a to-do list, a diary entry, a description of your last one-night stand. And when it comes from a politician, it can even contain confidential state information. It’s no wonder, then, that the US spying on our allies has pissed people off. German Chancellor Angela Merkel confronted President Obama in a phone call on October 23 over indications that the National Security Agency has monitored the German Chancellor’s mobile phone. “We need trust,” Merkel said in a press conference on October 24, “Spying among friends is never acceptable.”

This revelation is only the latest in a stream of reports revealing the extent of American eavesdropping. On October 21, French newspaper Le Monde reported that the NSA tapped French phone conversations—70.3 million between December 10, 2012 and January 8, 2013. French President Francois Hollande had similar comments for Obama, saying that such actions infringe on the freedoms of the French people and are unacceptable between friends. And on October 28, the Spanish government summoned the US ambassador to discuss allegations that the NSA harvested data on nearly 60 million Spanish phone calls between December and January.

Our close allies, Germany and France in particular, are stewing in outrage and prioritizing efforts to improve data protection while the United States scrambles to control the damage. The President reportedly assured Merkel that the US government currently is not, and will not in the future, tap the Chancellor’s phone.  But Obama notably refused to comment on the NSA’s past relationship with Merkel’s cell. Facing demands for explanations of their alleged activity, the NSA commented that the American government “gathers foreign intelligence of the type gathered by all nations.” Indeed, a former US ambassador to NATO stated that each government attempts to collect intelligence to the best of its ability. 

It is worth noting that our allies co-operate extensively with United States on intelligence gathering. Gen. Keith B. Alexander, the Director of the NSA, told the House Select Intelligence Committee on October 29 that the data behind the recent outrage was collected in conjunction without NATO allies. “This is not information we collected on European citizens,” Alexander said. “It represents information that we and our NATO allies have collected in defense of our countries and in support of military operations.”

Nonetheless, American disregard for foreign laws threatens US relations with allies across the pond.  France and Germany have indicated that trust may be rebuilt. Obama is trying to rebuild bridges. He’s reportedly been considering an outright ban on spying on allied heads of state, and some have reported that a more informal version of this ban has already been put in place. Still, political theater has consequences, and our allies will likely be less willing to share confidential information with US intelligence agencies in the future. –MS



Greenwald’s World

everyone knows who edward snowden is. The man who engraved him into popular consciousness, however, has been far more anonymous, hidden in the umbrage of his own career-defining story.  

That is, until recently. This week, Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who first reported the Snowden leaks, has put himself in the headlines with news that he will be leaving the Guardian to establish a startup news venture. Mobility within journalism is nothing new—Greenwald himself was working for barely a year ago—but this move has piqued public interest far more than his prior relocation. Looking to capitalize on his recent success, Greenwald has joined forces with Snowden collaborators Laura Poitras and Jeremy Scahill to form a “momentous new media outlet with major financial backing,” as he told BuzzFeed last week.

       The new outlet, temporarily titled NewCo (Greenwald is emphatic that this name will be revisited and revised), is to be entirely online, though content will be behind a paywall. Greenwald’s manifesto paints the venture as a sort of investigative journalist’s utopia—investigative journalists will be staffed at all levels of management, production, and hiring—allowing immunity from “the pressures coming down on journalists at major reporting posts.” A press release emphasizes that “all proceeds from the site will be reinvested in journalism,” curtailing any potential for profiteering. The group aspires to report exclusively on issues of civic engagement, without any threat of censorship or external influence.

The major financial backing comes courtesy of Pierre Omidyar, a billionaire investor and the creator of eBay. Omidyar claims to feel similarly “passionate about civic engagement,” and shares Greenwald’s dream of establishing a new brand of unabated muckrakers. A native of Hawaii, Omidyar has already taken steps to help realize this new journalism. In 2010, he created the Honolulu Civil Beat, a highly regarded local publication that is founded upon “ferocious, investigative journalism.”

After extensive phone conversations—Greenwald lives in Brazil; the two have never actually met—Omidyar struck a deal to bankroll the endeavor to the tune of $250 million.

This move is not an unprecedented one for Omidyar, either. That figure is the same amount Jeff Bezos (billionaire founder of Amazon) spent to acquire The Washington Post a few months back. The paper actually reached out to Omidyar even before contacting its eventual purchaser, in order to gauge his potential interest in acquisition.

And yet, something about this setup feels like kissing your sister. This most recent transaction continues a trend of tech billionaires dipping their toes into journalistic waters and being exalted for it.

Termed “the billionaire savior phase” of new journalism by the Columbia Journalism Review, the implications of tech giants gobbling up reporting outlets should not be downplayed. These colossal Internet companies, eBay included, are the same ones harvesting data, monitoring online activity, and sending or selling it to the National Security Agency. Omidyar and Bezos alike have enormous vested political and economic interests in this system. Certainly Omidyar wouldn’t take too kindly to an expository piece about eBay’s user tracking provisions, even if it resembles “ferocious investigative journalism.”

There are other objections to be raised as well. NewCo’s payment structure allows it to function as a quasi-non profit, immune to almost all taxation but able to sell advertising space indiscriminately. This setup seems to be rolling out the red carpet for the same coercive, external forces NewCo has tasked itself with combating.

As fallout from the Snowden leaks continues, this serves as an important if unpleasant reminder there is always money to be made when it comes to information. Greenwald was effectively able to parlay the illicit surveillance of millions into a dream job—his own news outlet. While his stated intention was to battle back the invasive practices of the NSA, his affiliation with Big Tech gives reason to worry that the industry facilitating this spying in the first place marches onward.

On October 30, Greenwald announced the hiring of Liliana Segura and Dan Froomkin, two highly respected investigative journalists, both of whom have launched nonprofit justice-driven outlets in the past. Their tweets seem cautiously optimistic about the potential of NewCo. Maybe we should feel that way as well. ­–AS