So it seems increasingly likely that Glenn Greenwald got himself snookered by a egoistical liar.* In addition to his exaggerations about his own background, it appears Snowden either did not understand or deliberately mislead Greenwald about the nature of the PRISM program. Snowden claims in his video interview with Greenwald and Greenwald himself claims repeatedly in his original reporting that the NSA had direct access to Google and others’ servers which they could rifle through completely without notifying the companies involved or even without a judicial warrant (Guardian):
The National Security Agency has obtained direct access to the systems of Google, Facebook, Apple and other US internet giants, according to a top secret document obtained by the Guardian.
The NSA access is part of a previously undisclosed program called Prism, which allows officials to collect material including search history, the content of emails, file transfers and live chats, the document says.
The Guardian has verified the authenticity of the document, a 41-slide PowerPoint presentation – classified as top secret with no distribution to foreign allies – which was apparently used to train intelligence operatives on the capabilities of the program. The document claims “collection directly from the servers” of major US service providers.
The program facilitates extensive, in-depth surveillance on live communicationsand stored information. The law allows for the targeting of any customers of participating firms who live outside the US, or those Americans whose communications include people outside the US.
It also opens the possibility of communications made entirely within the US being collected without warrants.
Companies are legally obliged to comply with requests for users’ communications under US law, but the Prism program allows the intelligence services direct access to the companies’ servers. The NSA document notes the operations have “assistance of communications providers in the US”.
When the FAA was first enacted, defenders of the statute argued that a significant check on abuse would be the NSA’s inability to obtain electronic communications without the consent of the telecom and internet companies that control the data. But the Prism program renders that consent unnecessary, as it allows the agency to directly and unilaterally seize the communications off the companies’ servers.
The Prism program allows the NSA, the world’s largest surveillance organisation, to obtain targeted communications without having to request them from the service providers and without having to obtain individual court orders.
With this program, the NSA is able to reach directly into the servers of the participating companies and obtain both stored communications as well as perform real-time collection on targeted users.
Unfortunately, this looks likely to be false. According to statements put out by the affected tech companies and by original reporting by the NYT among others, it seems that Greenwald (and possibly Snowden) misinterpreted what was meant by accessing servers. These sources say the process works as such: the government makes a specific request of a tech company to hand over a defined amount of information about foreign nationals living overseas (backed by a FISA warrant), the tech company’s lawyers review the request and determine the extent to which the company must comply, and finally the tech company uploads the information it wishes to share with the NSA onto a special-made secure server for NSA to access. That’s PRISM, folks. It is Dropbox with better encryption and a larger data limit.
The Washington Post has since edited its story to reflect this reality without issuing a correction. The Guardian has not edited Greenwald’s reporting but has since published a new article that concedes its falsity:
The Guardian revealed last week that seven technology companies – Google, Facebook, Skype, PalTalk, Microsoft, Apple and Yahoo – were involved in the Prism surveillance scheme run by the NSA.
The Guardian understands that the NSA approached those companies and asked them to enable a “dropbox” system whereby legally requested data could be copied from their own server out to an NSA-owned system. That has allowed the companies to deny that there is “direct or indirect” NSA access, to deny that there is a “back door” to their systems, and that they only comply with “legal” requests – while not explaining the scope of that access.
Greenwald, however, appears to be under the misimpression that he is Malcom Fucking Tucker and is still claiming the program is as he reported it, even as his own newspaper retreats from that position. This points to the real problem with this sorry story: Glenn Greenwald is not a journalist, he is an activist. Journalists seek to report the truth as best they can, while activists try to build support for their cause and wrest the national discussion in their favor. A journalist is rightly embarrassed when her reporting does not align with the facts, an activist is less concerned because he has other metrics for success. Thus Greenwald felt no compunction to fact-check any of Snowden’s story (the compressed timeline of the Guardian’s reporting corroborates this) because it fit his agenda and thus served his purposes regardless of its veracity. Now that the report appears to have been less than true, Greenwald is in a similar position: any concession now would detract from the momentum his agenda has been building over the past week.
To recap: Glenn Greenwald reported that the Prism program allows NSA direct access into Google etc. main servers. It does not do anything remotely like this. Greenwald likely accepted Snowden’s faulty story initially and continues to stick by it to the present because it played to his biases and served his policy agenda.
However, perhaps it is not politics that draws Greenwald to a fanatical, delusional hypocrite with a martyr complex and a fathomless sense of self-importance. He may have simply found a kindred spirit.**
*For the record, Edward Snowden made half the salary he claimed at Booz Allen, did not work there for as long as he claimed, did not have the job or access he claimed while there, likely did not have the job he claimed at the CIA, never trained for the Special Forces, pretended to be a member of the foreign service on the internet (when at the time his official biography has him stationed as a security guard at the NSA), and is now giving US secrets to the Chinese, despite his prior assurances that he would not (I guess the good news is that these might be fabrications too).
**This might explain why Greenwald has stuck by Julian Assange as well.