Sometimes all it takes is a new coat of paint.
In 2012, leftist activist journalist Glenn Greenwald and leftist activist filmmaker Laura Poitras had a story on their hands that was just barely treading water. Despite dramatic and shocking allegations, relatively few people in 2012 were interested in the story of an N.S.A. program initiated by President George W. Bush after 9/11 that was supposedly spying on Americans and routinely violating the Fourth Amendment.
In June, 2013 Greenwald and Poitras would hit media paydirt with the same exact same story–the current “NSAScandal” that has captured headlines since it broke in the Guardian and Washington Post.
Why did the NSA story fail to catch fire in 2012 but explode in 2013? There are a few factors that led to the newfound media traction and as the real story beyond Greenwald and Poitras’s hype becomes clearer, the history is worth examining.
For one thing, early 2013 saw a spate of Obama related scandals erupt including the I.R.S. scandal and accusations of the White House intimating journalists. These events created fertile ground for the belief that the Obama adminstration may have done something wrong with the N.S.A., despite a lack of any specific allegation of wrongdoing.
With the 2013 Snowden story, the new focus on Obama created an odd alliance of people willing to believe almost anything about President Barack Obama that ranged from mainstream conservatives to fringe types on the left and the right. The dearth of critical thinking or good reporting on the story crashed headlong with the surge in popularity of bad reporting, social media rumormongering and low rent conspiratorial thinking from popular pundits like Alex Jones. Greenwald, a leftist who hates Obama for being too far to the right, was able to capitalize on this.
The “Evil N.S.A. is Spying on Everybody” story is exactly the same one Greenwald and Poitras had been telling throughout 2012 but with the Obama scandals and the addition of Snowden, it was suddenly front page news. The Bush N.S.A. Scandal that was having trouble drawing eyeballs suddenly became the Obama N.S.A. Scandal that people couldn’t get enough of, even though the programs were exactly the same and there were no new specific allegation of wrongdoing.
Why the difference in 2013? Maybe the leading man had something to do with it. The main character in their N.S.A. story in 2012 was a man named Bill Binney, who had worked for the intellgence agency for nearly four decades. Binney resembles a more pugilistic version of comedian Bob Newhart–a stark contrast from the 2013 new leading man, former amatuer male model Edward Snowden.
Binney is an ex-N.S.A. employee who became upset when the agency chose another intelligenc gathering program over the one he was leading. He left the agency in October, 2001. Binney was believed to be the source for the New York Times piece on warrentless wiretapping and at one point, Binney’s home was raided, his security clearnence was taken away and the government considered pressing charges against him.
What did not happen to William Binney? He was not whisked away in the middle of the night. He was not assassinated or rendered or taken out by The Triads or any of the other self-aggrandizing paranoid fantasies that wannabe martyr Ed Snowden rhapsodized about in the Poitras/Greenwald video.
Greenwald: “Have you given thought to what it is that the US government’s response to your conduct is in terms of what they might say about you, how they might try to depict you, what they might try to do to you?”
Snowden: “Yeah, I could be rendered by the CIA. I could have people come after me. Or any of the third-party partners. They work closely with a number of other nations. Or they could pay off the Traids. Any of their agents or assets. We’ve got a CIA station just up the road and the consulate here in Hong Kong and I’m sure they’re going to be very busy for the next week. And that’s a fear I’ll live under for the rest of my life, however long that happens to be.”
“You can’t come forward against the world’s most powerful intelligence agencies and be completely free from risk because they’re such powerful adversaries.
You can’t? Don’t tell Binney, Greenwald or Poitras that. What happened in 2012 is that Bill Binney, Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald all made numerous, repeated public accusations that the whole country was being spied on from within and they went about their business just fine in the freest country on the face of the earth. What happened was, to them, most likely the worst possible outcome: they didn’t get traction on the yarn they were spinning.
Their story may have been dire but it was largely ignored because the story itself was fundamentally farfetched and distorted what was actually happening at the NSA and with United States intelligence gathering. The system of oversight, checks and balances that involves both houses of Congress, the executive branch, and federal judges was actually working and had created an intelligence gathering system to fight terror that, while not without flaws, was the most open and protective of citizen’s civil liberties of any other system on the planet.
The story of a military intelligence system that’s working isn’t particularly sexy, however, and for Bush hating liberal anti-war activists it doesn’t fit the narrative. And so Greenwald, Poitras and Binney tried to “shock and awe” their hyped-up conspiracy theory to life throughout 2012.
In March, 2012 Binney was the primary source for a piece in Wired on alleged N.S.A. constitutional overreach and tied it back to the Bush administration.
According to Binney, one of the deepest secrets of the Stellar Wind program–again, never confirmed until now–was that the NSA gained warrantless access to AT&T’s vast trove of domestic and international billing records, detailed information about who called whom in the US and around the world. As of 2007, AT&T had more than 2.8 trillion records housed in a database at its Florham Park, New Jersey, complex.
Verizon was also part of the program, Binney says, and that greatly expanded the volume of calls subject to the agency’s domestic eavesdropping. “That multiplies the call rate by at least a factor of five,” he says. “So you’re over a billion and a half calls a day.” (Spokespeople for Verizon and AT&T said their companies would not comment on matters of national security.)
On April 20th 2012, Binney appeared on left-wing talk show *Democracy Now!along with filmmaker Laura Poitras.
WILLIAM BINNEY: So–but after 9/11, all the wraps came off for NSA, and they decided to–between the White House and NSA and CIA, they decided to eliminate the protections on U.S. citizens and collect on domestically. So they started collecting from a commercial–the one commercial company that I know of that participated provided over 300–probably, on the average, about 320 million records of communication of a U.S. citizen to a U.S. citizen inside this country.
AMY GOODMAN: What company?
WILLIAM BINNEY: AT&T. It was long-distance communications. So they were providing billing data. At that point, I knew I could not stay, because it was a direct violation of the constitutional rights of everybody in the country
Binney appeared on Democracy Now! again on April 23rd. The Obama administration begins to make its way into the story and please note that it’s not unusual for people on the far left to criticize President Barack Obama.
And I guess that simply made it more important for me to try to do things to get the government, first of all, to correct its own criminal activity, and I did that by going to the House Intelligence Committees. I also attempted to see Chief Justice Rehnquist to try to address that issue to him, and I also visited the Department of Justice Inspector General’s Office–after Obama came into office, by the way, to no avail. I mean, that was before the 2009 joint IG report on surveillance.
Around this same time, Poitras did a “Survallience Teach-In” with Bill Binney in New York. In May, 2012 the story got some play on CBS’s 60 Minutes in a story that focused on Thomas Drake. Binney was also a guest in 2012 with Glenn Beck.
On August 22nd, the N.S.A. made the New York Times, but only as a Opinion piece; an OpDoc directed by Poitras and starring Binney. The Times–no fans of Pres. Bush–didn’t appear to find the actual story newsworthy enough. As Mandy Nagy pointed out in a recent piece on Legal Insurrection, the claims made by Binney closely parallel the claims made by Snowden months later.
In Sepetmber 2012, The Guardian did a piece on Binney’s accusations entitled “US data whistleblower: ‘It’s a violation of everybody’s constitutional rights” with the now familar narrative:
Binney, a tall, professorial man in his late 60s, led the development of a secret software code he now believes is illegally collecting huge amounts of information on his fellow citizens. For the staunch Republican, who worked for 32 years at the NSA, it is a civil liberties nightmare come true.
So Binney has started speaking out as an NSA whistleblower – an act that has earned him an armed FBI raid on his home. “What’s happening is a violation of the constitutional rights of everybody in the country. That’s pretty straightforward. I could not be associated with it,” he told the Guardian.
Where was the outrage? For example,a piece on Politico by Binney and Wiebe from late 2012 received only three comments, despite making shocking allegations.
The NSA cannot be trusted with this power. No agency should be. Since 2001, the NSA has been willing time and again to throw the Constitution overboard and snoop on innocent Americans who are not suspected of any wrongdoing. Using shockingly fast machines called NARUS devices, the NSA can monitor virtually every single phone call, email and text that passes through the United States. The agency can make a mirror image of all those communications, then funnel those copies to massive data vaults. When it wants to, the NSA can then go through and compile a dossier on each and every one of us. That would be well and good if the agency followed the law and tracked only suspected terrorists. But it does not. Under the warrantless wiretapping program and now the FISA Amendments Act, the NSA conducts blanket, dragnet surveillance of Americans’ international communications, even when there is not even a hint that we’ve done something wrong.
That Politico article was missing the “secret sauce” that catapulted the Snowden story into the spotlight a few months later; it didn’t even mention President Barack Obama and it didn’t come in the wake of Obama scandals. Instead the story was a straight attack on the N.S.A. and by extension, ex-President George W. Bush. Binney and Wiebe wrote:
Then came the horrific crimes of Sept. 11, 2001, and we lost our moorings. Shortly after that terrible day, President George W. Bush authorized the NSA to wiretap Americans’ international communications without any warrant, suspicion of wrongdoing or court oversight at all. The Bush administration managed to keep this secret for years, but inside the NSA, we knew what was happening. Together with large numbers of our colleagues, we objected to the abandonment of constitutional protections. We were told to mind our own business. But this is exactly the kind of intrusion into our private lives that the Founding Fathers wanted to prevent. We resigned in protest.
Binney, Greenwald and Poitras told this story over and over and over again in 2012. Then something changed, as my article on the timeline of Snowden’s contacts with Greenwald and Poitras showed; starting in early February, the leftist activists now had a man on the inside. They were in contact with somone who had both the ability to get his hands on documents and the williingness to lie, betray agreements and break the law in order to get them. In Snowden, they had someone capable of bringing life to their flailing story.
And the rest is history.