Illustration by Agata Sasiuk
Edward Snowden risked his life to leak documents for the sake of “informing the public”. But how much wiser are we, the public, really? How much has actually been leaked so far, and who decides what gets published and on what grounds?
We first heard about the NSA files in June of last year over two successive scoops by The Guardian (June 5), and The Washington Post (June 6) that left the world screaming with outrage. Never had a single leak unleashed such a firestorm; never had a leaker been turned into such an instant hero. (His confessional video was uploaded to Youtube on June 9; it has since been viewed by over three million people).
By September 2013, Der Spiegel released the story about Angela Merkel’s cell phone being monitored by the NSA, scandalising the Germans and their Kanzlerin. More documents have been published since, bringing ever more shocking evidence of the NSA’s total impunity in its ambition of total surveillance. It seems that not a single country, community or activity escapes America’s all-seeing eye. How many more revelations are still to come?
At the current publication rate, it could take another half decade to go through Snowden's bounty.
In other words: how much has been published so far? Does anyone actually know the exact size of Snowden’s NSA cache? NSA Director Keith Alexander initially estimated that the former contractor had copied anywhere from 50,000 to 200,000 NSA documents. Today US officials claim it was 1.7 million – Snowden said he took far fewer, but never gave an actual number. Wild speculations concluded that at the current publication rate, it would take another half decade to go through Snowden’s bounty. Who knows?
What we do know is that what has been made public so far is only a small portion of what Snowden risked his life to tell the world. What we also know is that the flow and the content of revelations to the public is controlled by those who have access to the precious archive. “Who’s that?” you might ask. There’s the original duo Snowden met in a Hong Kong hotel on June 2, 2013 and entrusted with the leak – documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras and journalist/blogger Glenn Greenwald. They, in turn, enrolled the Washington Post and The Guardian, which was soon to share the spoils with The New York Times. The circle has grown to include Der Spiegel, since Poitras moved to Berlin with the files in her luggage to join old companions-in-digital-dissidence, cypherpunks Jacob Appelbaum and Andy Müller-Maguhn to work with the German newsweekly.
For his part, and while keeping his cooperation with The Guardian, Greenwald shared his own set of files with outlets in India and Brazil (he lives in Rio) and the French Le Monde. Ultimately he left the UK newspaper in October of last year to concentrate on an ambitious new venture, The Intercept, an ‘independent’ news site generously funded by Ebay mogul Pierre Omidyar. The site was launched in March with Poitras as a co-founder. The presence of both of Snowden’s initial confidentes on the masthead bestowed instant credibility upon the new online medium. Its mission statement? “To provide a platform to report on the documents provided by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden,” pledging fearless, adversarial journalism.
The pressure on media organisations to not publish information is enormous. It has, for one, driven The Guardian to do away with their own copy of the Snowden files in a highly publicised case of spy-media drama – complete with a self-promotional video showing editors laboriously destroying computer hardware with angle-grinders and drills under the watchful eyes of two representatives from the GCHQ, the British NSA equivalent. We also know that The Guardian and The Washington Post withdrew some information from articles they published – probably after negotiation with the authorities, mostly for ‘security’ reasons.
But what about when even the more ‘fearless’ ones succumb to the pressure? That’s what happened last May, when The Intercept failed to disclose the name of a country outed by a Snowden document as one of the five targets of total NSA telecom surveillance. It took WikiLeaks’ insider knowledge and Julian Assange’s outrage at what he called “censorship” to reveal that “country X” was actually Afghanistan. The Intercept’s defence, “credible concerns that it could lead to increased violence”, didn’t impress everyone. So, who are we to trust?
Originally published in issue #130, September 2014.