Reporters Once Challenged the Spy State. Now, They're Agents of It
News companies are pioneering a new brand of vigilante reporting, partnering with spy agencies they once oversaw
What a difference a decade makes.
Just over ten years ago, on July 25, 2010, Wikileaks released 75,000 secret U.S. military reports involving the war in Afghanistan. The New York Times, The Guardian, and Der Spiegel helped release the documents, which were devastating to America’s intelligence community and military, revealing systemic abuses that included civilian massacres and an assassination squad, TF 373, whose existence the United States kept “protected” even from its allies.
The Afghan War logs came out at the beginning of a historic stretch of true oppositional journalism, when outlets like Le Monde, El Pais, Der Spiegel, The Guardian, The New York Times, and others partnered with sites like Wikileaks. Official secrets were exposed on a scale not seen since the Church Committee hearings of the seventies, as reporters pored through 250,000 American diplomatic cables, secret files about every detainee at Guantanamo Bay, and hundreds of thousands of additional documents about everything from the Iraq war to coverups of environmental catastrophes, among other things helping trigger the “Arab Spring.”
There was an attempt at a response — companies like Amazon, Master Card, Visa, and Paypal shut Wikileaks off, and the Pentagon flooded the site with a “denial of service” attack — but leaks continued. One person inspired by the revelations was former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, who came forward to unveil an illegal domestic surveillance program, a story that won an Oscar and a Pulitzer Prize for documentarian Laura Poitras and reporters Glenn Greenwald and Jeremy Scahill. By 2014, members of Congress in both parties were calling for the resignations of CIA chief John Brennan and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, both of whom had been caught lying to congress.
The culmination of this period came when billionaire eBay founder Pierre Omidyar launched The Intercept in February 2014. The outlet was devoted to sifting through Snowden’s archive of leaked secrets, and its first story described how the NSA and CIA frequently made errors using geolocation to identify and assassinate drone targets. A few months later, former CIA and NSA director Michael Hayden admitted, “We kill people based on metadata.”
Fast forward seven years. Julian Assange is behind bars, and may die there. Snowden is in exile in Russia. Brennan, Clapper, and Hayden have been rehabilitated and are all paid contributors to either MSNBC or CNN, part of a wave of intelligence officers who’ve flooded the airwaves and op-ed pages in recent years, including the FBI’s Asha Rangappa, Clint Watts, Josh Campbell, former counterintelligence chief Frank Figliuzzi and former deputy director Andrew McCabe, the CIA’s John Sipher, Phil Mudd, Ned Price, and many others.
Once again, Internet platforms, credit card companies like Visa and MasterCard, and payment processors like PayPal are working to help track down and/or block the activities of “extremists.” This time, they’re on the same side as the onetime press allies of Wikileaks and Snowden, who began a course reversal after the election of Donald Trump.
Those outlets first began steering attention away from intelligence abuses and toward bugbears like Trumpism, misinformation, and Russian meddling, then entered into partnerships with Langley-approved facsimiles of leak sites like Hamilton 68 , New Knowledge, and especially Bellingcat, a kind of reverse Wikileaks devoted to exposing the misdeeds of regimes in Russia, Syria, and Iran — less so the United States and its allies. The CIA’s former deputy chief of operations for Europe and Eurasia, Marc Polymeropolous, said of the group’s work, “I don’t want to be too dramatic, but we love this.”
After the Capitol riots of January 6th, the War on Terror came home, and “domestic extremists” stepped into the role enemy combatants played before. George Bush once launched an all-out campaign to pacify any safe haven for trrrsts, promising to “smoke ‘em out of their holes.” The new campaign is aimed at stamping out areas for surveillance-proof communication, which CNN security analyst and former DHS official Juliette Kayyem described as any online network “that lets [domestic extremists] talk amongst themselves.”
Reporters pledged assistance, snooping for evidence of wrongness in digital rather than geographical “hidey holes.” We’ve seen The Guardian warning about the perils of podcasts, ProPublica arguing that Apple’s lax speech environment contributed to the January 6th riot, and reporters from The Verge and Vice and The New York Times listening in to Clubhouse chats in search of evidence of dangerous thought. In an inspired homage to the lunacy of the War on Terror years, a GQ writer even went on Twitter last week to chat with the author of George Bush’s “Axis of Evil” speech about imploring the “authorities” to use the “Fire in a Crowded Theater” argument to shut down Fox News.
Multiple outlets announced plans to track “extremists” in either open or implied cooperation with authorities. Frontline, ProPublica, and Berkley Journalism’s Investigative Reporting Program used “high-precision digital forensics” to uncover “evidence” about the Boogaloo Bois, and the Huffington Post worked with the “sedition hunters” at the Twitter activist group “Deep State Dogs” to help identify a suspect later arrested for tasering a Capitol police officer. One of the Huffington Post stories, from February, not only spoke to a willingness of the press to work with law enforcement, but impatience with the slowness of official procedure compared to “sleuthing communities”:
The FBI wants photos of Capitol insurrections to go viral, and has published images of more than 200 suspects. But what happens when online sleuthing communities identify suspects and then see weeks go by without any signs of action…? There are hundreds of suspects, thousands of hours of video, hundreds of thousands of tips, and millions of pieces of evidence… the FBI’s bureaucracy isn’t necessarily designed to keep organized.
The Intercept already saw founding members Poitras and Greenwald depart, and shut down the aforementioned Snowden archive to, in their words, “focus on other editorial priorities” — parent company First Look Media soon after launched a partnership with “PassionFlix,” whose motto is, “Turning your favorite romance novels into movies and series.” Last week, they announced a new project in tune with current media trends:
Are there legitimate stories about people with racist or conspiratorial views who for instance shouldn’t be working in positions of authority, as cops or elected officials or military officers? Sure, and there’s a job for reporters in proving that out, especially if there’s a record of complaints or corruption to match. It gets a little weird if the newsworthiness standard is “person with a job has abhorrent private opinions,” but it’s not like it’s impossible that a legit story could be found in something like the Gab archive, especially if it involves a public figure.
But that depends on the media people involved having a coherent standard for outing subjects, which hasn’t always (or even often) been the case.
Here The Intercept is announcing it considers QAnon devotee Marjorie Taylor Greene and Alex Jones “violent white supremacists” — they’re a lot of things, but “violent white supremacists”? In the first piece about “extremists” on Gab, reporter Micah Lee claimed to have found an account belonging to a little-known conservative youth figure; the man’s attorney later reached out to deny the account was his, leading to a correction. When asked about his process, Lee responded, sarcastically, that he “certainly wouldn't want to accidentally do investigative journalism about white supremacist domestic terrorists.” When asked how he defined a terrorist, and if he’d be naming public figures only, the sarcastic answer this time was, “Of course I won't be naming anyone. Racist white people must be defended at all costs.”
Greenwald left the organization among other things after an editor asked that he address the “disinformation issue” in a piece about Hunter Biden’s laptop, a reference to a claim made by 50 intelligence officers that the story had “the classic earmarks of a Russian disinformation campaign.” He found it inappropriate then for a publication with The Intercept’s history to be pushing an intelligence narrative, and the Gab project struck him in a similar way.
“The leap from disseminating CIA propaganda to doing the police work of security state agencies is a short one,” says Greenwald, “and with its statements about what they are doing with this Gab archive, The Intercept and its trite liberal managers in New York have now taken it.”
In a separate mailer, the Intercept — owned by Omidyar, whose net worth has risen from $11 billion just a few years ago to $22 billion now — complained that “while the right wing’s culture warriors will always be able to turn to the super-rich for financial resources, progressive organizations and independent news outlets are struggling for support.” As The Columbia Journalism Review reported a few years ago, the company has long struggled to attract enough outside funding to maintain its 501(c)3 status as a public charity, which may explain why an outlet owned by the world’s 81st richest person complains about a lack of access to “the super-rich” as it solicits donations from individuals.
When asked about the company’s public charity status, Intercept editor Betsy Reed said that because these and other questions were “filled with errors and more bad-faith distortions,” she would not be commenting.
It hasn’t escaped the notice of some current and former Intercept staffers that combing through the hacked private communications of ordinary people in an FBI-like hunt for “extremists” is more or less the exact opposite of the company’s original mission, which focused on the institutional abuses of the very counterintelligence and law enforcement bureaucracies they now seem anxious to aid.
“What a turnaround,” one former Intercept employee, who was there for the company’s early years, said last week. “The answer to white supremacy is not to bring the War on Terror home.”
“That a media outlet founded in order to battle mass surveillance of ordinary citizens and to safeguard privacy rights is now trolling through stolen digital data of private citizens in order to expose and punish them for thought crimes and ideological dissent is as grotesque as it is ironic,” says Greenwald.
The giveaway that these deviance hunts have little to do with holding the powerful to account is that they’re taking place as news outlets have given up even the pretense of interest in spy agency abuses.
Just last week, CNN explained that the Department of Homeland Security was thinking of pairing with non-governmental entities to conduct more aggressive surveillance of “potential domestic terrorists” than they would be legally allowed, by themselves:
The Department of Homeland Security is limited in how it can monitor citizens online without justification and is banned from activities like assuming false identities to gain access to private messaging apps used by extremist groups such as the Proud Boys or Oath Keepers…
The plan being discussed inside DHS, according to multiple sources, would, in effect, allow the department to circumvent those limits.
CNN added that if the public-private surveillance partnership went through, the “DHS could produce information that would likely be beneficial to both it and the FBI, which can't monitor US citizens in this way without first getting a warrant or having the pretext of an ongoing investigation.” They added: “The CIA and NSA are also limited on collecting intelligence domestically.”
News that the government is considering using private citizens to help it conduct what amount to vigilante intelligence operations for the DHS, FBI, CIA, and NSA — an end-run around once-cherished liberal values like the exclusionary rule — inspired almost no reaction in the op-ed pages of ostensibly liberal outlets. The perceived targets are white supremacists, as unsympathetic as al-Qaeda once was. Who cares?
Just last week it was announced the FBI had been caught, again, in abuses of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Also censured by the FISA court in 2011, 2016, and 2018, the Bureau was busted for “widespread” use of an NSA-managed surveillance tool meant for foreign cases only, using FISA to investigate “health care fraud, transnational organized crime, violent gangs, domestic terrorism, public corruption, and bribery.” The declassified report also worried the NSA might be passing to the FBI intercepts of attorney-client conversations, not that anyone in the press cares about that principle anymore, either. Except for one Fox story about Jim Jordan complaining, editorialists mostly took a pass on the FISC news.
All of this is taking place as a slew of War on Terror programs are being retooled for domestic use. A month ago, the New York Times casually reported that “The White House is also discussing… executive orders to update the criteria of terrorism watch lists to potentially include more homegrown extremists.”
Politico also reported the DHS was considering “analyzing the travel patterns” of right-wing suspects, expanding the No Fly List to include “domestic extremists,” and stopping such targets at customs, where officials may “search their phones and laptops” before allowing them back in-country (I know of at least one not-at-all-conservative African-American to whom this has already happened).
Vigilante press efforts at outing “domestic extremists” will function as an auxiliary watch list. Do we need help remembering how the last version worked out? Over 1.1 million names were entered on a list that was shared with 1,400 private groups, from hospitals to universities to prospective employers, resulting in people losing jobs, being denied banking services, having travel restricted, and experiencing all sorts of other difficulties.
The related No-Fly List, Kill List, and other suspect databases were fraught with similar problems, all stemming from the same issue: a lack of procedural oversight, combined with the absence of any requirement that targets commit a crime or be reasonably suspected of planning a crime before they were put on lists.
It turned out that was needed to get most of the press off the case was a little partisan catnip. Issues like mass surveillance and drone bombing were already more or less non-starters in media once the intel agencies started feeding reporters sensational (and often bogus) stories about the Russian-Republican conspiracy to conquer our precious bodily fluids, but in the later Trump years, and especially since January 6th, the FBI-CIA-media partnership has been cozier than a Swedish porn shoot.
Buzzwords cooked up by security agencies have for years now become media talking points instantaneously. Whether it’s “an attack on our democracy” or the “sowing of discord,” media outlets are happy to re-transmit propaganda constructions verbatim.
Two more recent security-agency talking points are now gospel. First, the greatest threat to America is no longer al-Qaeda but homegrown extremists, whom the FBI defined as being almost, but not quite, foreign, i.e. “inspired by, but not receiving individualized direction from, foreign terrorist organizations (FTOs).” Second, the security agencies are held back in their ability to combat such folks by “weak laws” and encryption. As FBI Director Christopher Wray told Congress last year, the FBI has “a decline in its ability to gain access to the content of both domestic and international terrorist communications.”
Since the January 6th riots, we’ve been hearing perfect media echoes of this. “Domestic Terrorism: A More Urgent Threat, but Weaker Laws,” was ProPublica’s formulation. “Domestic terrorism is a national problem. It should also be a federal crime,” wrote a Washington Post editorialist. On MSNBC, one recent guest said of al-Qaeda, “They got nothing on what this Republican Party is doing.”
A portion of blue-state voters, and a larger percentage of people working in media, are likely to be fine with media projects undertaken to track and identify dangerous elements. What could be wrong with “hunting sedition”? Are journalists not citizens? Why shouldn’t news outlets help plug the investigatory gaps for law enforcement officials held back by outdated civil rights laws?
If you have to ask, you missed the last War on Terror, where we learned the hard way that even the most unsympathetic surveillance targets will never come close to posing as big of a threat to democracy as the security agencies themselves can be, especially when they’re encouraged to operate without meaningful oversight.
They proved this through decades of droning, kidnapping, torture, warrantless detention, illegal surveillance, and blacklisting, and demonstrate it now through their treatment of whistleblowers like Snowden, Assange, and Chelsea Manning. A lot of these abuses start from a place of genuine concern about security threats, but unchecked, the agencies drift into extralegal solutions that become irreversible and a bigger threat to the rule of law than the original problems. The total inability to prevent misuse of FISA — the public has forgotten that even the Obama administration reached into that cookie jar to spy on congressional opponents of its Iran deal, and misuse has only grown worse since — is an example of extreme War on Terror abuses normalized by media indifference.
In the first War on Terror, at the exact moment when the public was at its most fearful, politicians convinced Americans to accept sweeping changes to how they understood citizenship. People stopped demanding presidents ask permission to go to war, gave up the expectation that everything from library records to medical histories remain private, were gradually disabused of the idea the state needed warrants to wiretap them, and came to accept the idea that the U.S. had the right to assassinate or detain without trial anyone from any country.
In the domestic sequel, the aim will be getting Americans to lose attachment to concepts like legal guilt or innocence. It won’t matter if you’ve actually committed or planned to commit a crime: if you check enough boxes, you may not be able to post on Internet platforms, fly a plane, use credit services, buy advertising, go on dating apps, work in your chosen profession (or at all), or do any of a dozen other things. A person’s quality of life might hang on whether or not someone — perhaps in the press — decides to publicly attach a name to a term like “white supremacist” or “domestic terrorist.” This is Hayden’s wet dream: “We ruin based on metadata.” There are dangerous racially-motivated extremists in America to be sure, but all of them combined don’t approach the threat of making the entire population subject to the logic of the Watch List.
Rather than take on those issues, the press is taking the easy way out, pinning deputy badges to their chests and diving into the lives of ordinary people in search of secret sins. That’s not journalism, it’s a Crowdsourced Inquisition, and by the time reporters realize what they’ve signed themselves up for, it will be too late. People like Brennan and Clapper must laugh themselves hoarse, to think they ever had anything to fear from this press corps.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly used the term “pushed out” to describe the departure of Laura Poitras from The Intercept.