Cartoons and Cueballs: An Exchange with Glenn Greenwald
by Chris Floyd - Empire BurlesqueGlenn Greenwald stopped by the place Tuesday to respond to my last post. I thought I would bring his reply out of the comments and feature it here, along with my response. Glenn's statement is a lengthy and, to my mind, remarkable document: a powerful piece of emotional invective put together in the guise of an argument, based on wild and sometimes bizarre leaps of illogic that pack plenty of heat but tend to be short on substance.
Although he begins in friendly tones, and says he welcomes good-faith criticism, especially from the left, the piece becomes fiercer -- and more personal -- as it goes on, until it is abundantly clear that, in his eyes, it is impossible to offer any criticism of the handling of the NSA documents in good faith. Anyone who questions any aspect of the enterprise is a moral coward on a par with the neo-cons of "circa 2002/2003" who supported the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq but didn't want to go fight them. (It might not have been entirely wise for Glenn to refer to this particular stance during this particular time period, but more on that later.) Such critics also secretly wish to see Snowden put in more danger, and disparage his bravery.
There is a great deal more in this vein, some of which touches upon things I have actually said, and many of which do not. But enough intro. Here is Glenn's statement in full, to be followed by my reply.
Glenn Greenwald writes:Hey Chris – I’m visiting “these run-down precincts” to address a couple points you’ve made here and elsewhere because, as you know, I’ve respected your work for a long time, and that hasn’t changed despite the barrage of intense (and, I think, often unfair) criticisms you’ve directed at me over the past several months. I’m sure I’ll be attacked for responding here on the grounds that it shows how “thin-skinned” or “obsessed” with criticism I am or whatever, but I prefer that to being insular, non-responsive and unaccountable, which are the adjectives I think apply to those who ignore criticisms simply because they can. I actually do believe that one responsibility that comes from doing things that affect others is that you engage rather than ignore valid criticisms that are made in good faith, even if those criticisms aren’t made in some huge media venue.
Nobody contests your right to criticize how I’ve reported these leaks, or the propriety of voicing such criticisms, nor should Edward Snowden be immune from being criticized. To argue against any of that is to engage a strawman. I’m personally glad that at least a small fraction of the critiques I hear come from the pro-transparency left rather than the trite, predictable, dreary sloganeering of the pro-national-security-state authoritarians about how we’re Endangering Lives and Helping the Terrorists. I’m glad that the uber-nationalistic fear-mongering about our actions from the Michael Haydens and David Frums of the world at least have some counterpart, even if much less amplified, in the form of “publish-more!” missives from the Chris Floyds.
As I’ve said many times, I consider the criticism that we haven’t published enough (or quickly enough) to be far more valid and serious than the accusation that we’ve published too much or recklessly. I am certain that if someone else were doing this reporting, I’d also be questioning why more hasn’t been published by now. For 10 consecutive months, I’ve put a huge amount of pressure on myself to publish as much as possible and as quickly as possible and in as many countries around the world as I possibly could (which is why I’ve published far more documents on my own than anyone else with access to large troves of Snowden documents has, including the largest media institutions, and why this has been the largest leak of Top Secret documents in US history, with plenty more to come), but I’m still glad for the external pressure to publish more.
For all the accusations of “profiteering” and the like, I could easily have stopped after the first few stories, collected all the accolades and prizes, written a lucrative book, and – in the process - been threatened with far fewer dangers and recriminations for myself and the people closest to me. I didn’t choose that far more limited course because – as my work over the last 8 years demonstrates – my commitment to opposing the grand excesses of the Surveillance State specifically and the American National Security State generally are authentic. I didn’t need to publish story after story, document after document, in country after country, month after month, in order to get the personal benefits: if anything, doing all that has created more enemies and increased the threats. I know what motivates me and so I sleep very well at night, with a clear conscience. Still, critics keep one honest, and I’m glad for the better ones I have.
All that said, there are two vital points I think are most often overlooked, in your critiques:
(1) When Edward Snowden came to me as a source with the documents he had, he had very strong opinions on how they should and should not be published. We spent a good amount of time talking about that, but ultimately, there were several conditions on which he insisted and to which we, as journalists, agreed.
I think it would be unconscionable – despicable even – for me to violate my agreement with him in how I publish these materials. To do so would be to subject him to a wide array of legal and other risks he did not choose to undertake. It would be an act of great treachery to accept these materials based on an agreement that I then just disregard. It would ensure that no source in their right mind would in the future take these hugs risks to come forward to me – or other journalists – with classified materials if they know journalists are willing to violate agreements the minute it becomes convenient to do so.
The terms Snowden insisted on are not a mystery. They’re not secret. He’s been very clear publicly - both through his representatives and himself - about what they are:
He did not want all the documents uploaded to the internet (had he wanted that, he could have just done that himself: he did not need us for that). He did not want many of the materials he gave us to ever be published because their publication would harm innocent people in all sorts of serious ways (he gave them to us for background, or context, or in some cases because he thought they were borderilne cases). He wanted certain types of documents withheld. He wanted the documents published one by one, in a journalistic context, for both legal and strategic reasons: he primarily believed that an incremental release would be far more effective for generating a sustained global debate than a massive, indiscriminate dump or even a series of massive simultaneous releases. He left it up to us to decide what to publish and how and in what order, but this was the framework he created at the start.
Obviously,anyone should feel free to criticize him for those assessments. For multiple reasons, I happen to agree with him that this has been by far the optimal strategy in this case. As someone who spent years defending WikiLeaks and Chelsea Manning, I know that the most effective tactic used to demonize them and distract from the substance of their revelations was to focus the public on a few snippets of disclosed information that could be said (falsely but to many people persuasively) to put people in danger.
Snowden wanted to render that tactic ineffective, and to keep the public – and the media’s – interest high for a long period. I think he achieved both goals because of the method he wanted, certainly far more than a one-time dump of all the documents would have achieved.
But it’s of course reasonable to contest Snowden’s assessment, to have a different view. One can, if one really wants to, also argue that I should use a different method for reporting these documents, even though I entered into an agreement with Snowden about what I would and would not do here.
But those who want to criticize the method I’ve used should have the intellectual honesty and courage to expressly state exactly what they are actually advocating: namely, that I purposely violate my agreement with my source; that I subject him to massively increased legal risks and political attacks that he did not and does not want for himself; and that I override the agency and autonomy of the person who actually risked his life and liberty to make these documents available.
You made a point of saying that you’ve almost never criticized Snowden. That’s exactly the point: you can’t rationally criticize the methods I’ve used to report these documents without criticizing Snowden. That’s because the methods I’m using are the ones he insisted upon.
If you want to argue that I should release all the materials, or publish them outside the context of journalistic outlets, then at least have the honesty to admit that what you’re really advocating is that I violate my agreement with him. If you want to depict the methods we’ve used as some sort of pro-state, obsequious, insufficiently radical servitude to American empire - as you've done - then it’s necessary to acknowledge that these are Snowden’s methods for the disclosures. And that’s why critics like you don’t want to acknowledge that: because it’s facially absurd to try to depict Edward Snowden – facing multiple felony charges and decades in the US Prison State –as some sort of cowardly, government-subservient patsy. So you just pretend that it’s all my doing because that critique is easier.
(2) I won’t speak for Carl Kandutsch, whom I don’t know, but his criticisms of your post resonated with me (not the part about Arthur Silber’s fundraising, but the substantive points about your arguments). But in responding to him, I don’t think you fairly characterized his points, opting instead to fight against easy strawmen.
Again, nobody contests your right to criticize me, or Snowden, or anyone else involved in this matter. Nobody thinks you should have to first take similar risks yourself in order to have a perfect right to criticize. What we’re doing is public and has an effect on others, so everyone has the full right to articulate whatever criticisms they have, no matter what they have or have not done themselves.
He was addressing one particular line of attack: the notion that Snowden’s actions (and ours as well) are insufficiently radical, cowardly, too subservient to the state, etc. etc. That’s the critique for which I harbor particular scorn when voiced by people who refuse to take any risks themselves. It reminds me exactly of the neocons circa 2002/2003 who demanded that others go fight their wars and then pranced around as though they were tough, stalwart Churchillian warriors because of it: I wrote a whole book about those people: demanding that others take risks for a Cause rather than taking those risks themselves, and then feeling good and pure about themselves because of it
Edward Snowden is charged with multiple felonies, faces an almost certain prison term of decades if he returns to the US, and has been condemned as a traitor by America’s most influential factions. Senior national security officials and other influential figures have repeatedly and publicly called me (not Bart Gellman, not the NYT, but me) a criminal and an accomplice; argued that I should be prosecuted; detained my partner for 9 hours under a terrorism law and took all of his possessions; and are actively threatening criminal prosecutions under that terrorism law against him and me and Laura Poitras and others. Our lawyers have repeatedly told David that it’s not safe to travel to the EU and told us that it’s a big risk to try to return to the US.
To claim, in the face of all that, that we’re performing some sort of subservient service to the US National Security State for which they are grateful strikes me as a joke. The claim from Arthur Silber and others that we only publish what the government says we can is an outright lie: at least for the stories that I’ve worked on, the NSA and DNI’s arguments about why we shouldn’t publish – often made vehemently and threateningly - have been rejected in almost every case. Whatever else anyone wants to say, we have been subjected to all sorts of threats, recriminations, and attacks by the government and its apologists. That’s especially true, obviously, of Snowden.
So yes, there is something ugly and untoward about having a bunch of people who don’t take any risks themselves castigating the risks we’ve taken as insufficient and insubstantial. To be told by people who are too afraid even to use their real names on Twitter that we are cowards or state-servants for not taking even more risks is mind-boggling in its self-delusion.
It’s so incredibly easy – and cheap - to sit around demanding that others be more radical and risk-seeking. It’s a lot harder, but more valuable, to lead by example. The very ordinary and powerless people who broke into the FBI in 1971 and exposed COINTELPRO took matters into their own hands. That, to me, is what actual radicalism is about: not running around beating one’s chest proclaiming how radical one is, but taking actual steps to challenge and undermine corrupted power factions.
None of these radical heroes threw caution to the wind. The 1971 burglars didn’t take all FBI files: they only took what they thought the public should know. Chelsea Manning talked about her goals as sparking “debate” and “reform”, the same terms that prompt ridicule from self-proclaimed Super Radicals when used by Snowden. Aaron Swartz, if he were alive, would be mocked endlessly for his reformism by many of the same people who now exploit him as a martyr because he's dead. Dan Ellsberg made all sorts of arguments back then that would now be castigated by our self-proclaimed Super-Radicals as piecemeal and incrementalist. WikiLeaks redacted materials and sought the government’s advice on what to withhold. Tom Drake and other people I admire, who have been viciously persecuted, took very partial steps within all sorts of existing structures.
I spent years defending those people (and engaging in activism for them), not castigating them as insufficiently radical, because whatever else was true, they took a lot more risks than I was taking, and did more than I was doing, to challenge those I thought needed challenging. I felt free to criticize them, but not to attack them as cowardly servants of the state. That’s because I knew that doing so would be absurd until I was prepared to take similar action myself, and that ultimately, the real test of one’s convictions is not a willingness to sit around disparaging other people’s risk-taking as insufficient but rather a willingness to take those risks oneself.
Chris Floyd replies:Well, that's a fine settling of hash, and no mistake! It begins with professions of continuing respect and ends with vitriolic personal denunciations. Along the way it attacks me for several things I haven't said or done -- often, as I noted earlier, in a bizarre fashion.
For example, what is this about "people who are too afraid even to use their real names on Twitter" when launching attacks? There certainly are creatures like that out there, but what has that got to do with me, or with anything I have said, in my own name, about the Snowden archive or First Look? Glenn knows perfectly well that everything I have ever written on the internet or in print has been under my own name. I've been doing this since I first began writing critically about politics and the national security state many years ago. This includes the earliest days after 9/11, when I received several death threats for harshly criticizing the Bush administration -- at a time many other people were "ready to stand behind President Bush" and "strongly approved of his performance," as Glenn wrote of himself in his book, How Would a Patriot Act? These death threats included a couple that were more serious than the usual anonymous sputterings and had to be investigated more formally; one ardent supporter of the president in those days was stalking my elderly parents, staking out their house, even learning of its internal layout and dropping heavy hints to me about what would happen to them, and where in the house it would happen, if I kept writing.
This was also during the time when I was, to my knowledge, one of the very few people writing in a mainstream publication about the Bush Administration's creation of arbitrary death squads. I stated plainly that this was murder and that the government was now morally illegitimate. Again, this was when Glenn's "confidence in the Bush Administration" was growing, "as the president gave a series of serious, substantive, coherent and eloquent speeches." I was calling Bush a murderer, denouncing an out-of-control national security apparatus, in print -- and being threatened by the US Embassy in Moscow (and threatened with specious but crushing lawsuits from plutocrats connected to the Bushes) for doing so -- while Glenn was, by his own admission, growing ever more supportive of Bush and "wanting an aggressive response from our government."
In his comment above, Glenn likens me -- equates me -- with "neocons circa 2002/2003 who demanded that others go fight their wars and then pranced around as though they were tough, stalwart Churchillian warriors because of it." But in that exact period, I was writing frantically, relentlessly about the obvious deceptions the Bush Administration was using to push the country into a criminal war of aggression. I wrote of this in newspapers in Russia and America, drawing almost exclusively on published reports in mainstream sources available to any journalist, or any citizen. I was one of the very first writers in an American newspaper to detail PNAC's long-term plans for provoking war with Iraq and a vast militarization of American policy.
What was Glenn doing at that time? Well, despite some doubts, he tells us that "I had not abandoned my trust in the Bush Administration. ... I believed then that the president was entitled to have his national security judgment deferred to, and to the extent that I was able to develop a definitive view, I accepted his judgment that American security really would be enhanced by the invasion of this sovereign country." He didn't, however, sign up for the war. He was then, at that time, "exactly [like] the neocons" of that era, happy to support a war that he wasn't going to fight.
I am sincerely glad that Glenn later repudiated these beliefs, and now, after many years, no longer defers to the national security judgment of the president. I wish he had added his obviously passionate voice and ferocious energy to those of us who felt that way before the serious, substantive, coherent and eloquent President Bush set in motion the pointless destruction of hundreds of thousands of innocent lives. I'm sorry that it took the instigation of mass murder on this scale to shake Glenn's patriotism and turn him toward dissent.
I do not mean in any way to compare the relatively few, sporadic and unsystematic risks I faced in those days -- the threat of my parent's murder, my murder, the destruction of my livelihood, the ruin of my family -- with the dangers faced today by Edward Snowden, Glenn and David Miranda, and others, who face not a few lone nuts or wild Bush cronies but the full weight of a national security state that is now much bigger and more sinister than the one Glenn supported a few years ago. The risks they face are deadly serious, and their courage in facing them is unquestionable. And I have never questioned it, despite Glenn's wild imputations to the contrary. To question the efficacy or decisions of someone at risk is not all the same as questioning their courage in facing that risk -- although almost all of Glenn's "arguments" are based on this false premise.
But I bring up all this ancient history because I resent, with every fiber of my being, the accusation that I am or have ever been some kind of sniveling coward hiding behind anonymity, afraid to put my name or my person on the line for my political beliefs. I especially resent it coming from someone who -- at the very time I was facing my admittedly minor threats (although the murder of my parents was not a minor thing to me personally) for attacking the national security state -- was himself blithely ignoring the mountains of evidence about that state's crimes and giving it "the benefit of the doubt" as it planned and carried out mass murder.
I don't think Glenn's thunderous claiming of the moral high ground is appropriate in this case. Even if I were guilty of every wild accusation he throws at me, every imputation and insinuation, what, in the end, would I really be guilty of? An egregious failure to appreciate the courage and sacrifice of some people trying to do good. Well, that is indeed a serious failing. If I were guilty of that, I'd feel bad about it. But not as bad as I would feel if I had supported aggressive war and mass murder by "deferring" to the judgment of a blatant fool surrounded by a sinister clique of known warmongers. Now, I don't think that supporting such a thing is some kind of unforgivable sin; people can come to new understandings, and thank goodness they do, and thank goodness Glenn did. But had I been that morally blind as a full-grown, highly educated adult -- especially when millions of people around the world saw the obvious evil of this action, and stood up against it -- I think I might be somewhat more circumspect today about berating others for their moral failings.
To cut more quickly to the chase. In regard to any criticism about the way the NSA documents are being disseminated, Glenn refers to his agreement with Snowden. It's a valid point, up to a point. I would never want any journalist to dishonor an agreement they've made with a source, especially a whistleblower in grave danger -- and I'm not aware of ever calling on Glenn or anyone else to do so. However, such agreements are not set in stone. In his early interviews about the NSA material, Glenn stated that he was in touch with Snowden every day. Presumably he can still get in contact with him. It would be entirely possible to try to renegotiate terms in a way that still addressed Snowden's concerns, if Glenn felt there was now a better way to disseminate these documents. Glenn here states very plainly that feels that the initial agreement is in fact the best way to handle the material. That's fine. It all seems straightforward, and Glenn says that people of good faith can disagree on this. And that's true too.
But then he goes on almost immediately to say that anyone who criticizes the current method is guilty of intellectual dishonesty and cowardice, because they won't "admit" that what they're "really doing" is asking Glenn to violate Snowden's trust and put him in further danger. This is an example of emotional invective masquerading as an argument. It's such a bizarre piece of non-logic that it's hard to frame a coherent response to it. But let's try, slowly and simply.
I feel that, on balance, the method of dissemination has not been as effective as other approaches might have been. (I have never advocated a "total dump" of the data, by the way; in fact, I don't know anyone who has.) I feel that it is regrettable that the current course was the one that was chosen. I believe it would be possible for the custodians of the data to try to renegotiate those terms with Snowden, if they felt it was best, and always bearing in mind his very legitimate concerns.
There is absolutely nothing in these statements that calls for anyone to act dishonorably, or to betray anyone's trust. It is entirely possible to hold the positions stated above without secretly wanting Glenn to "violate my agreement with my source" or "subject him to massively increased legal risks" or override the agency of someone who risked their life and liberty. Such a thing never crossed my mind, and I have never seen anyone else advocate such a thing. Nor is it the logical conclusion -- or, in Glenn's strict binary world, the only conclusion -- one can draw from criticism of this methodology. Glenn berates me for attacking "straw men," but the amount of fury and space he expends on this single wisp is astonishing. He has whupped it good and proper; but as it is not a position I have ever held, I don't quite see the point.
This sort of furious illogic runs all through the comment. He says: "You made a point of saying that you’ve almost never criticized Snowden. That’s exactly the point: you can’t rationally criticize the methods I’ve used to report these documents without criticizing Snowden." Well, I didn't make a particular point about it; I was merely replying to the accusation of Carl Kandutsch that I had "repeatedly disparaged" Snowden. I said, no, the only direct criticism I've made concerned his recent remarks to the EU about the need to cooperate with "government stakeholders" in dealing with whistleblower revelations. Given the fact that he is now being hounded by the relevant government stakeholders in our national security system, I felt this might not be the wisest course. I did agree with Arthur Silber that if the state was brought into the loop on such revelations, then we could indeed end up with what are, in effect, state-sanctioned leaks.
However, if Glenn insists that to criticize the method of disseminating the NSA archive is to also criticize Snowden, then yes, I will plead guilty of questioning Snowden on this point as well. But as I said above, criticizing an action or decision of someone in danger is not at all the same thing as disparaging them or denying their courage or anything of the sort.
I am glad that Glenn disputes the notion, implied by Kandutsch, that only those who are at risk themselves can criticize others under threat. Glenn says that "everyone has the full right to articulate whatever criticisms they have, no matter what they have or have not done themselves." This is certainly gracious of him. Yet he immediately says that if anyone actually exercises this freedom, and says, for example, that they wish Glenn and Snowden had been more radical in their approach, then such critics are "exactly" like the armchair neocon warriors of 2002/2003 who joined Glenn in supporting the invasion of Iraq.
In other words, anyone is free to criticize Glenn -- as long as they don't actually criticize him. If they offer their opinion that Glenn isn't radical enough, then they are just like the moral cretins who supported the Iraq War without fighting in it. If they criticize the methodology, then they secretly want to put Snowden in more danger and make Glenn betray his word. If they advocate radicalism, but aren't actually handed secret documents by a whistleblower and given the chance to put their convictions to the test on a public stage (as opposed to the many unheralded ways that someone offering an opinion about radicalism on a blog might actually be practicing their radicalism in their lives and communities), then they should just shut up. If they express their concern that the national security state will try to turn the revelations to its own advantage, despite the sincerity of its challengers, then they are being cheap, ugly, untoward and delusional. As far as I can see, there is literally no criticism that can be offered of any aspect of this enterprise that is not, in Glenn's view, a mark of bad character, bad faith or cowardice.
Again, one is not even allowed to wish that the keepers of the NSA secrets were more radical in their attack on the war-making national security state -- without being "exactly" equated with the most ardent champions of the war-making national security state. The irrationality of this position boggles the mind. It is impossible to argue with, because it is a closed circle -- a circle of impenetrable and unchallengeable virtue.
Glenn makes several other points and accusations which deserve answering or debating, but I'm too exhausted to go on throwing myself against that ironclad cueball of virtue. And I'm sure anyone still reading is exhausted as well. But it is a strange experience to see a cartoonish misrepresentation of one's views set up and gnawed to pieces in this way.
But so what? I think that over the years I have established a record that can withstand the bizarre charges of cowardice and anonymous Twitter attacking and similarity to neocon warmongers and the rest of the katzenjammer Glenn has tossed around here. I know what I've done in challenging corrupted power factions, and the many ways I've fallen short. (I'm afraid I'm not possessed with the invincible moral superiority that Glenn so obviously enjoys.) I know what I stand for, and what I strive for. I've never denigrated Snowden's courage, or that of Glenn Greenwald or Laura Poitras or anyone else "taking actual steps to challenge and undermine corrupted power factions." (Some of my views on people like Chelsea Manning and Snowden can be found here.)
But enough -- more than enough -- of all this for now.