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Reporters Once Challenged the Spy State. Now, They're Agents of It
News companies are pioneering a new brand of vigilante reporting, partnering with the 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:
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.
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An earlier version of this article incorrectly used the term “pushed out” to describe the departure of Laura Poitras from The Intercept.