Greenwald goes on to note how the Obama administration has waged unprecedented attacks on journalism—“the most repressive leader in this regard since Richard Nixon”—and is frustrated that The Guardian needs to contact the NSA before publishing: “The government should not be a collaborative editorial partner with newspapers in deciding what gets published.” For Greenwald, the Snowden stories should “be released by a different set of rules, one that would define an independent rather than subservient press corps.” It is here that we glimpse Greenwald at his most intransigent. Rather than concede that some leaked classified information could actually compromise national security, he suggests that all is fair game for publication:
[National security officials] act abusively and thuggishly only when they believe they are safe, in the dark. Secrecy is the linchpin of abuse of power, we discovered, its enabling force. Transparency is the only real antidote.
Total transparency, everywhere and at all times? Do not security officials, by definition, sometimes have to work in the dark? Secrecy may well facilitate abuse of power but can it not also be employed legitimately? Perhaps as a hangover from his legal days, Greenwald is very good at mounting a spirited defense or carrying out a fierce attack while failing to recognize any alternative. Short shrift is given to exceptions, deviations, and differences of opinion. His way, it would seem, is the only way.
Greenwald gets back on track, to some extent, with his analysis and condemnation of the NSA’s justification for its actions. He slips into lawyer mode to probe, cross-examine, and ultimately debunk the “tired and predictable accusations” that journalists who reveal such secrets are necessarily endangering national security. He reserves particular ire for officials who regularly—almost reflexively—invoke 9/11 to justify ubiquitous surveillance. Not only is so much of the NSA’s bulk collection of metadata unrelated to terrorism, Greenwald writes, the collect-it-all yield that is relevant to it has never been effective enough to prevent attacks, 9/11 included. Indeed, Greenwald argues that the very nature of bulk surveillance makes terror prevention more difficult: Intelligence agencies are so overwhelmed by the glut of general information they receive that sifting for specifics becomes the equivalent of seeking the proverbial needle in a haystack.
And yet, as with various comments on journalistic practice, Greenwald is still reluctant to entertain any devil’s-advocate counterarguments. Granted, blanket surveillance is excessive, unethical, and should be curtailed, but Greenwald’s idea that true democracy can only be achieved if citizens are always apprised of what is being done in their name is specious. Just because they are “public servants, working in the public sector, in public service” does not mean the conclusions of in-camera meetings and genuine nation-protecting intelligence should, by default, become public knowledge. When “need-to-know” intelligence is corrupted into “right-to-know” information, then security organizations no longer function effectively. Furthermore, when journalists are allotted total freedom, there is a risk they will follow the lead of Britain’s News of the World and adopt the dubious data-collecting and privacy-destroying methods both Greenwald and Snowden are so eager to stop. Greenwald’s appeal for transparency is noble and right but only with limits. All-out transparency has every chance of being as dangerous as all-out surveillance.
Denying Greenwald the title of ‘journalist’ is churlish and misguided. As a lawyer he sounds fomidable; as a journalist he is remorseless, unflinching, and hungry for truth.
In the wake of the published articles, another side to Greenwald is visible, a combination of wounded pride compensated by angry defiance. Attempts are made to discredit him by certain media figures. For some, he was not engaged in “journalism” but embroiled in “activism.” The situation worsens when New York Republican congressman Peter King calls for Greenwald to be prosecuted. Others follow suit, asking for his head and branding him Snowden’s “co-conspirator.” When David Gregory, host of Meet the Press, accuses Greenwald of having “aided and abetted” Snowden, before asking, “Why shouldn’t you, Mr. Greenwald, be charged with a crime?” Greenwald is astonished. “This was nothing but a striking example of the ‘When did you stop beating your wife?’ formulation,” he writes. Then adds:
But beyond the rhetorical fallacy, a TV journalist had just given credence to the notion that other journalists could and should be prosecuted for doing journalism, an extraordinary assertion. Gregory’s question implied that every investigative reporter in the United States who works with sources and receives classified information is a criminal. It was precisely this theory and climate that had made investigative reporting so precarious.