PRISM: Why the “directly and unilaterally” mistake matters.

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My post about how a central claim of the PRISM story turns out not to be true has drawn a wide range of comments. There’s one particular kind of comment I’d like to address here: the idea that, even if what I said was true, it was a mere technical detail and is not important in the larger story. (Here’s one such response.)

If the original claim about PRISM had been true, it would have had major implications for how we understand power and the nature of our political world.

The idea that the importance of a fact (or an error) would correlate to the number and familiarity of the words required to explain it is wrong. Just because life would be easier for reporters and readers if that were the case doesn’t make it the case. Sometimes, a thing is important even though it requires new words or concepts in order to be explained. This is one of those times. The number of syllables involved in causing a misunderstanding has no relationship to the significance of that misunderstanding.

Remember George W. Bush’s famous 16 words? “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” Those were just 16 words. The importance of the lie is unrelated to its length.

Greenwald and MacAskill did not lie. They simply misunderstood something. But what they misunderstood was very, very important. The issue in the PRISM reporting apparently arose because Greenwald and MacAskill misunderstood the meaning of this label on an NSA slide:

“Collection directly from the servers of these U.S. Service Providers: Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, Apple”

When the leaks first appeared, only two things really stood out as news, especially to the tech community — news in the sense of being something we fundamentally didn’t know before: the massive scale of phone call logs collection, and the claim that the NSA could “directly and unilaterally seize the communications off the companies’ servers” (referring to online services companies, not phone companies).

The latter claim about “directly and unilaterally” seizing communications from company servers was the more shocking one. This is partly because it was about data, not just metadata. But it was also because it meant that people we thought we knew — in many cases, people we’d worked with — had been hiding something big, something that, unlike (say) receiving and acting on National Security Letters, we didn’t think the law required them to hide and that we would not expect could be successfully hidden for long. It meant that not only did the system not work the way we thought it worked, it wasn’t even built the way we thought it was built. The moment I first read that quote, I straightened in my chair. If this is true, I thought, then we’re living in a very different place from the one we imagined.

The quote is from Glenn Greenwald’s and Ewan MacAskill’s original article in The Guardian on June 6th:

…defenders of the FAA 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.

Looking at that text, what would you think it means? (Go ahead and read it in context in the original article, just to be sure.)

The most natural interpretation of “directly” and “unilaterally” — really, the only interpretation the authors could expect, given the context — is that the NSA could get anything it wants directly from the servers of major online services companies, without asking the company first (hence “unilaterally”). In other words, the companies’ lawyers don’t have a chance to review the request and push back. It means a monopolar world in which even commercial services are essentially an arm of the government, instead of a multipolar world where, even though the government may be heavy-handed, there are still competing pressures, negotiations, and compromises — a world where the possibility of saying “no” still exists.

The scarier, monopolar interpretation was the one reacted to by the very next person the article quotes, Jameel Jaffer, the director of the ACLU’s Center for Democracy:

“It’s shocking enough just that the NSA is asking companies to do this… The NSA is part of the military. The military has been granted unprecedented access to civilian communications.

This is unprecedented militarisation of domestic communications infrastructure. That’s profoundly troubling to anyone who is concerned about that separation.”

Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill say nothing to correct Jaffer’s interpretation. As the authors of the piece, and therefore the people who chose to quote Jaffer’s reaction in the first place, one can only assume that the reason they did not correct Jaffer’s interpretation is that they did not think Jaffer misunderstood.

Eventually, I, along with many others looking at the primary source materials and other sources, realized that Greenwald and MacAskill had overstated this part of the case — the NSA does not have direct, unilateral access. It doesn’t have a secret route around company lawyers. It doesn’t have engineers planted in senior positions in every major online service company (or at least if it does, the documents leaked so far do not contain evidence of that).

Instead, what’s going on is, more or less, what we thought was going on, just with more abuse and less restraint on the government side. That’s serious, but it’s comprehensibly serious, not “Oops, I guess we live in the shadowy power of the Deep State after all” serious. The true situation is one that can still respond to popular pressure and political dissatisfaction.

I think it’s clear by now that what I (and Mark Jaquith and Rick Perlstein) wrote is right as far as the facts are concerned. For some other analyses that have come out since then supporting the claim that there is not direct and unilateral access, see Ashkan Soltani, and Declan McCullagh at CNET, and Hunter Walker’s piece at Talking Points Memo, especially the quote from Ben Adida of Mozilla, and the New York Times (despite the misleading title on the piece, its content confirms the less alarmist interpretation).

So why do I care?

Adapting a comment I made in reply to a reader of the earlier post:

The big picture is about understanding the true dynamics of the world we live in, so we can decide how to act and what is most important to focus on. The picture Greenwald originally painted is, more or less, one of government-dominated oligopoly in which basically all the big players sat down at the same table and agreed to play by the NSA’s rules. I don’t think that was an accurate picture. I see instead multiple power bases, with some degree of internal dissent within each organization (including even the NSA and the FISA courts, but much more so within the companies), and on important issues even open dissent between actors. Yes, there’s a lot of coercion and compromise, and there is no doubt that some companies hand over more than they should without asking enough questions — but they don’t all do that. Of course we shouldn’t be happy that the average person’s most immediate choice is which big protector(s) to grant conditional trust to. But as I said in response to someone else in a blog comment, it’s not like Russia and North Korea are the same thing (and the U.S. is neither). There are meaningful differences among surveillance states, and understanding the kind you live in is important if you’re trying to figure out which risks to take for what goals.

This is a more complex picture than the one Greenwald painted, but if it is a truer one, then the paths available for resisting a surveillance state are quite different than they would be in a more monolithic situation. Do you take to the streets, or do you file lawsuits? If the latter, then against whom, a company or the government? (I don’t mean to suggest these are the only options; they’re just examples.)

Hence the importance of people understanding that the government does not do unmediated “direct” and “unilateral” collection from the servers of all major private-sector online service companies. How realistic was that idea ever? What U.S. company, that originated as a mass-market services company and not as a government contractor, would agree to give government IT staff unfettered access to its live-data servers? The business risk would be incredible, the risk of public embarrassment incredible… the proposition just doesn’t make sense to me. It never passed the smell test.

People in the U.S. following this story are trying to figure out what kind of country they live in, because after all, there are countries where the companies wouldn’t have a choice about granting that kind of access. If Glenn Greenwald succeeds in persuading U.S. readers that they live in one of those countries, and he is wrong, then he will unintentionally help to erode the feeling of collective empowerment and of individual rights that is crucial for resisting further encroachment.

That’s why I care.

Addenda: One critic’s claim that I “repackaged” Mark Jaquith’s (very fine) post isn’t true. I wrote the bulk of my post before finding out about Jaquith’s; when I saw Jaquith’s, I thought it expressed the problem very well and I decided to point to it (and restructured my post accordingly). Also, though I am a Fellow at the New America Foundation, I had no awareness (until some commenters on my original post mentioned it) that NAF receives Gates or Schmidt money. Anyway, the funding for my work with NAF doesn’t come from those sources. Though the place the funding does come from won’t assuage those critics, since it’s the Open Internet Tools Project, which is largely funded by the U.S. State Department. To reiterate: the views expressed on this blog are my own and are not influenced by nor attributable to the New America Foundation, the Open Internet Tools Project, or any other organization. Finally, Mark Jaquith has updated his post to account for Greenwald’s response. I think Mark’s analysis of that response (search for the phrase “Update: Greenwald response”) is very good, and have nothing to add except a big +1.

9 Responses to “PRISM: Why the “directly and unilaterally” mistake matters.”

  1. wiley Says:

    Thank you.

  2. Rob H Says:

    A little late to the party, but since this piece concerns Glenn Greenwald, and as you brought up the monumentally horrific effects of George W. Bush’s 16 words, it’s instructive to note that Glenn, who’s expended (easily) far more than 160,000 words on his various blogs attacking Bush, was himself a Bush supporter.

    Not only that, he supported the wars in Afghanistan (because he wanted to “exact vengeance” on the perpetrators of 9/11), and Iraq (because of “trust,” in Bush and “loyalty” to his “leader.”) Furthermore, he stated that although he paid attention to debates: “I was never sufficiently moved to become engaged in the electoral process.”

    All fine and good to change one’s mind and become engaged (no problem there), but it took him over seven years to acknowledge these critical facts on the internet. They were buried – in print – in the preface of his first book. Only after withering criticism did he finally address them (especially Iraq). And even then, after seven years of savaging people for supporting Iraq, he denied that he’d supported the war. Why? Because he said he never actually expressed public support for the war, or Bush for that matter. So because it was tacit (blind) support, that made everything okay.

    All of which points toward the inescapable fact that through sheer apathetic support for Bush, when so many were crying out against his administration and its policies (including, of course, the Patriot Act), Glenn Greenwald helped enable all he decries today. After all, when and with whom did these surveillance policies begin?

    BTW, terrific pieces on this issue, Karl. Sorry I missed them when they came out.

  3. Karl Fogel Says:

    Rob H,

    Thanks, both for your kind words about these posts, and for the interesting facts about Glenn Greenwald’s reversal of opinion!

    For those who want the details, there’s plenty on the net at search://”glenn greenwald” bush support/. I think Greenwald’s defense — essentially, that his trust in Bush was a private opinion, and as he was not yet a publishing journalist his opinion couldn’t have influenced much — holds some water at least :-). To the extent Greenwald supported the Iraq war, he did so no more actively than the many other people who just decided to go along and trust their national leader. On the other hand, when the issue is preëmptive war, started by a democracy, there really isn’t any escape from responsibility. If Howard Zinn’s famous dictum “You can’t be neutral on a moving train” (whether you’re a Zinn fan or not, you have to admit it’s a pretty great saying!) applies to any situation, surely it applies to that one.

  4. Rob H Says:

    Not a Zinn fan (think he over-simplified issues far too much) but that is a great quote.

    As for Greenwald, I think it’s great he reversed his opinion on Bush, but (and this is a huge sticking point) he spent years handing out sanctimonious, self-righteous moral lectures to anyone who trusted Bush and supported the Iraq war while never revealing he’d done the same. Not to mention savaging people in the most personal of terms who thought as he did. I have zero tolerance for that kind of hypocrisy. But that’s who he is, who he was, and who he’ll likely always be.

    As a lawyer, before he was a “journalist,” he was cited for illegally and unethically wiretapping witnesses while defending a neo-Nazi. Once again, no problem there as everyone deserves a defense, but on that case he gratuitously attacked black and Jewish hate-crime victims (and their civil rights lawyers) as “odious and repugnant.” As they say, you can look it up!

    A. Jay Adler at Sad Red Earth did some terrific pieces on Greenwald, really breaking down what he does and what he’s about. Google “Hypocrisy and BS of GG”, I and II for an in-depth look at Greenwald’s “journalism.” And this piece which I wrote for A. Jay’s site when I caught him flat-out lying about the New York Times. So many people, you included, have caught him botching huge facts, omitting material, and lying, it’s gotten old. He’s about as much a real journalist as I’m an orangutan.

    And full disclosure: I’ve been hammering Greenwald for over four years now, both in his comment section at Salon and on Twitter. In A. Jay’s awesome Hitchens piece (which comes up in your link) I’m the Rob who sent him the info about Iraq. It spread from there until Glenn was finally forced to own up to his previous stances. So he doesn’t like me very much. And the feeling is mutual. Maybe my dislike came from asking honest questions about his error-filled work and basically being lied about and called a grade school crack addict who hated Muslims. He’s so filled with bile and venom, it becomes laughable. And if those traits didn’t get page hits, and generate $$$, he’d likely still be a failed lawyer.

    And if you really want a picture of his ugly side, try this piece about his execrable rape joke (and much more).

    Sorry for chewing your ear off, but it really sticks in my craw that he’s one of the go-to voices on progressive issues when he’s nothing but a two-bit charlatan. The more that know, the better.

  5. Karl Fogel Says:

    Wow. I’d heard about the witness harassment in the neo-Nazi case before, but not the rest of that stuff. Thanks for taking the time to write it up!

    I think, though, that despite all of the above Edward Snowden probably made a good choice in picking Greenwald for the leaks. He wanted someone who could be counted on to release the material and get it noticed. Greenwald delivered on that, and his words in defense of journalism since then have been right on. For example, see his response to David Gregory, and later Greenwald’s remarks at a conference: .

    Getting those big things right probably matters more now than getting a lot of little things wrong (even if under other circumstances they wouldn’t have been so little). I still don’t think highly of him as a journalist, but at least he’s staying on target when it really counts.

    But yes, it’s odd that he’s now going to be this famous journalist, on the Woodward/Bernstein level, essentially for having been picked by a great source :-).

  6. Rob H Says:

    Interesting that you mention Carl Bernstein.

    Bernstein lambasted Greenwald about a week ago, calling him “awful” and ripping his work.

    Greenwald’s response: A puerile attack which was … no surprise… 100% false. That’s how he rolls.

    As for Gregory, he’s become a chump in that chair, asking dumb questions that are easily batted aside. Greenwald’s reaction was easy because Gregory (and other reporters) make it easy. They don’t ask tough questions about this story that you and plenty of others who’ve looked closely at Snowden would. And even if they did, Greenwald would launch baseless attacks on them. It’s what he does. And as you’ve witnessed, it’s what his followers do. Sling mud to obfuscate the issue at hand. Call you ignorant, attack your motives, etc.

    As for the Socialism Conference, if I took the time read his speech, I’d likely find misrepresentations, inaccuracies, omissions, and probably a lie or two. But I won’t. I’ve grown tired of his drivel. And that’s what it is.

    And the problem with “getting a lot of little things wrong,” is just that. Those little things often add up to complete distortions of the stories he’s writing and contribute to the woefully inaccurate reporting that plagues us.

    As for staying on target, here’s a piece (rant) he wrote in 2005 about illegal immigration. This was after he’d allegedly done a political 180. It’s on-target with his remark about odious, repugnant Jews, blacks and civil right lawyers five years earlier.

    There’s so much out there if only reporters would dig a little and pose the uncomfortable questions
    bloggers like you do. And it all adds up to an utterly dishonest person posing as a journalist to collect ever-increasing paychecks. And yes, that’s what I believe.

  7. Karl Fogel Says:


    You’ve obviously done more homework here than I have, so I won’t say anything more except “thanks” and that I consider it one of the primary functions of blogs like mine to leave comments up because they’re often as sought-after as the posts :-).

  8. Rob H Says:

    What can I say except that he dishonestly trashed me one too many times. As a former professional researcher, he picked the wrong person. But as I found out, I’m just one of many people who’ve fought back against his lies and smears. Unfortunately, they didn’t ask me (or you) to go on Meet the Press. Think we’d have had fun with Mr. Gregory and Mr. Greenwald.

    I’ll leave you (for now) with one of the funniest/most pathetic episodes of his blogging career. A bunch of right wingers caught him using sock puppets in 2006. As someone who wrote about Greenwald’s lack of technical expertise, think you’ll find it interesting.

  9. Karl Fogel Says:

    That is indeed interesting.

    Using IP addresses for identity can be dodgy: it’s possible for multiple different participants in a thread to have the same IP address because (say) they’re all in the same geographic area and are using the same ISP. For most people on residential Internet, an IP address does not correspond to their machine, rather it corresponds to some server within the ISP that is providing access for a bunch of customers.

    I don’t know how to calculate the chances of the phenomenon you saw above. 1/1000? 1/1000000? Not sure. Someone who works at an ISP might be able to say. (Of course, that leaves aside the issue of the stylistic similarity between the comments, and the fact that Greenwald himself never seems to post directly by name in threads where one of those other commenters appears.)

    It seems at least very likely that sock puppetry is going on. Whether the hand in the socks is Greenwald’s or someone else’s is harder to say.

    One interesting thing to do would be to geolocate those IP addresses and then see if they match locations where Greenwald was known to be at the time of posting. That would vastly change the probabilities here, I would think?

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