“Courage is contagious.”
When journalist Glenn Greenwald spoke via Skype to the Socialism 2013 conference in Chicago in June last year, it was just three weeks after he had begun reporting on the leaks provided by former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden that revealed the massive scope of government surveillance.
Greenwald's point was that the actions of whistleblowers like Snowden matter, not only because of what they reveal about those in power, but because the only way to defend our rights is to be informed, and to question the right of the government to engage in such surveillance.
In the year since Snowden's revelations about the vast, illegal surveillance programs carried out by the US government, much of the mainstream media has chosen to act in the service of power, rather than speak truth to it.
A media establishment that self-righteously claims legitimacy as a watchdog on the powers that be has clearly been derelict in its duty ― if it was ever serious about that duty to begin with.
Snowden's act of bravery in deciding to reveal the extent of government surveillance and Greenwald's actions as a journalist in informing the public about how far our civil liberties have been eroded, stand as a benchmark of the basic democratic principle that the public has the right to know what the government is doing while claiming to act in its name.
The attacks on them for taking their stands have been fierce.
Since the NSA revelations began last year, Snowden's motives and mental health have been questioned. He has been called everything from a “narcissist” to a “coward” and a “traitor” by US politicians and leading figures of the mainstream media.
He was forced to flee the US and presently lives in Russia, one of the few places in the world that offered him asylum. He has been prevented from travelling anywhere else under threat of arrest.
Most recently, Secretary of State John Kerry ― sounding like a macho Neanderthal ― ordered Snowden to “man up and come back to the United States”. Kerry ignored the fact that were he to come back, Snowden would be immediately arrested and charged with treason.
Greenwald, meanwhile, has been attacked by political leaders and sneered at by mainstream media personalities for doing his job as a journalist ― something few of them seem to want to do themselves.
He has also been called a narcissist and a glory-seeker for daring to reveal the extent of government spying to the public without receiving permission from those in power first ― and for failing to accept “because we said so” as a satisfactory justification for the erosion of our civil liberties.
Even Greenwald's partner, David Miranda, has been targeted. He was briefly detained by the British government last year for questioning under an anti-terrorism law.
But it is only thanks to the revelations leaked by Snowden and published by Greenwald that we have insight into the vast infringement on our civil liberties perpetrated by the Obama administration.
Thanks to Snowden and the journalists who have chosen to investigate his leaks, we now know:
The NSA has technology capable of compiling information on 1 billion mobile phone calls every single day. Phone companies including Verizon and AT&T have been required by courts to hand over to the NSA bulk “meta-data”.
The NSA has direct access, via a program called PRISM, to the servers of major tech and telecommunications companies, including Apple, Microsoft and Google ― and it engages in huge data harvesting from private citizens. This includes the indiscriminate collection of hundreds of millions of email records every single day from people around the world.
The scale of the NSA spying operation is so broad that in a one-month period from December 2012 to January last year, the agency retrieved more than 70 million digital communications inside France and more than 60 million phone calls of Spanish citizens.
The NSA hacked civilian computer networks in Hong Kong and mainland China, including those at Tsinghua University in Beijing and the Chinese University of Hong Kong, as well as Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei.
The NSA has an electronic spying program capable of capturing and “storing an entire nation's phone traffic for 30 days”. It is currently in use in the Bahamas and at least one other country. The NSA worked with the US Drug Enforcement Agency to secure a “back door” to the Bahamian mobile phone network without the knowledge or consent of the country's government.
This is part of a larger program, MYSTIC, that captures metadata and allows the US government to “rewind and review” calls. MYSTIC is used in the Bahamas, Mexico, Kenya, the Philippines and at least one other country (later identified by WikiLeaks as Afghanistan).
The NSA routinely spied on foreign officials, including at the 2009 G20 summit. German Chancellor Angel Merkel, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon were among those targeted.
The US government engaged in possible corporate espionage by monitoring communications of foreign corporations, including the Brazilian oil company Petrobras and several German companies.
The NSA uses a tactic called “method interdiction” to intercept packages carrying computer, telecommunications and other electronic equipment en route to a targeted recipient and install malware or backdoor-enabling hardware on the equipment before it is delivered.
A section of Britain's intelligence agency has presented documents to the NSA detailing spy tactics and dirty tricks to be used against activist groups, including using denial of service attacks, “honey traps” ― luring people into compromising situations involving sex ― and destructive computer viruses.
This, of course, is only a partial list of the spying and dirty tricks that we know the US government has engaged in.
When Greenwald spoke at Socialism 2013, he told the audience: “If you are pleasing the people in power with the things you are disclosing, you may be very good at your job, but your job is not journalism.”
In the year since, many media personalities currently impersonating journalists have proved Greenwald's point for him.
Many of the best-paid and most powerful people in the media have echoed the US government line on the NSA revelations, denouncing Edward Snowden and attacking Greenwald for reporting on such leaks.
Typical was the line of questioning of NBC's Meet the Press host David Gregory, who asked Greenwald in June last year: “To the extent that you have aided and abetted Snowden, even in his current movements, why shouldn't you, Mr Greenwald, be charged with a crime?”
As Greenwald noted in response, that someone claiming the mantle of “journalism” could even ask such a question was proof of the bankruptcy of much of the US press.
Snowden's information has revealed probably the biggest infringement on civil liberties in the modern era of the US. Instead of demanding answers, the mainstream media have largely accepted at face value the Obama administration's claims ― recycled from its Bush administration predecessors ― that the US government must operate under a “new normal” during the endless “war on terror”.
The message is that there are some things the public should not have a right to know ― and the government's word on that ought to suffice.
The abuse of Snowden and Greenwald is not confined to conservative commentators. In one of the latest slanders, Vanity Fair columnist Michael Kinsley attacked Greenwald in the liberal paper of record, the New York Times, calling him “a self-righteous sourpuss”.
Kinsley suggested that Greenwald's prosecution might be warranted and that journalists like him should not have the right to disclose secrets without the approval of the US government.
So who should decide what the public gets to know? Kinsley's answer is a stunner: “It seems clear, at least to me, that the private companies that own newspapers, and their employees, should not have the final say over the release of government secrets, and a free pass to make them public with no legal consequences.
“In a democracy ... that decision must ultimately be made by the government.
“No doubt the government will usually be overprotective of its secrets, and so the process of decision-making ― whatever it turns out to be ― should openly tilt in favor of publication with minimal delay.
“But ultimately you can't square this circle. Someone gets to decide, and that someone cannot be Glenn Greenwald.”
For Kinsley, that “someone” should be the government, though he's vague about exactly who gets to represent the government in this scenario. An elected official? A legislator? Part of the Homeland Security bureaucracy?
If Kinsley got his way, not only would we never know about government spying practices. There were plenty of media personalities who cheered Kinsley on, too.
Others in the media claim to agree with Greenwald's basic arguments, but say he uses too harsh a tone, alienating those who otherwise might be opponents of the US surveillance state.
Liberal MSNBC personality Chris Hayes took this line when he interviewed Greenwald recently, oddly stating: “There are lots of people who watch this show who hate you, frankly ... You have a way of making people very angry at you, and you have a way ― I think sometimes, if you don't mind my saying ― of alienating possible allies.”
What Hayes is really saying is that Greenwald, by taking the Obama administration to task for its huge expansion and defense of the US surveillance state, is pushing away the only possibility for reform.
“People feel like they have to choose between Barack Obama and Glenn Greenwald,” Hayes added. “And there are millions of people in this country who are like, 'If that is the choice, I choose Barack Obama. I like Barack Obama. Like, Barack Obama got a lot of people Medicaid.'”
Hayes was at least honest that his primary priority is cheering on Obama and the Democrats. But what he ignores is that to speak about the US surveillance state without mentioning the Obama administration and the Democrats would be to ignore the single biggest driving force in the expansion of government spying and the attacks on our civil liberties.
NSA surveillance is not something the Democrats simply inherited from the Bush administration against their will when Obama arrived in the White House in 2009. The Democrats have embraced and championed the spying state.
[Abridged from Socialist Worker.]