Streetwise Professor

October 22, 2013

Snowden vs. Greenwald vs. Occam’s Razor

Filed under: Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 12:37 pm

Catherine Fitzpatrick is less than convinced of the importance of the seeming contradiction between Snowden’s early claim that he vetted every document, and his current claim that he has no control over the documents and has outsourced all of the decisions regarding what to release to Greenwald and Poitras.  I get that there are ways to reconcile the statements, but they fail the Occam’s Razor test, IMO.  The simplest explanation for the statements is that they are in contradiction with one another.  Other scenarios are far more convoluted.

The fact that his June and October remarks are in stark contrast should at least prompt journalists to raise questions, and to demand that he reconcile the statements.  You know, journalists like James Risen, who just basically transcribed Snowden’s remarks and did not ask a tough question.  Or if he did, Snowden didn’t answer it, and Risen didn’t tell us that salient fact.

Catherine suggests that maybe Risen was unaware of Snowden’s previous remark.  If so, all the worse for Risen.  This interview-if it was really with Snowden, and if it was, whether Snowden was free to respond as he liked-is a major get.  Any respectable journalist preparing for such an interview should conduct exhaustive research and familiarize himself with things the subject has said before in order to prepare questions and to be ready for any inconsistencies.  I do expert witness work, and from that experience I know that every lawyer prepping a witness familiarizes him or herself with everything the witness has said or written on even tangentially related subjects: catching contradictions is the name of the game.  And for crying out loud, Snowden has been virtually silent for months, so there’s not that much to read.

But the contradictions don’t end with Snowden’s Hong Kong and Russia statements.  He and Greenwald also offer conflicting accounts of their collaboration.  In the Risen interview, Snowden claimed “he did not control what the journalists who had the documents wrote about” in order to “divorce” his “own bias” from the “decision making of publication.”

But Greenwald told a Dutch audience that he collaborates with Snowden closely, and is communication with him every freaking day.  (The same caveat of whether it’s really Snowden he’s communicating with holds here.):

But in an hour-long discussion on stage with a Dutch journalist, Greenwald suggested that his life was now immensely complicated. A New York lawyer before turning into a high-profile blogger in 2005, he revealed that he was in daily contact with Snowden—a fact that came as a surprise to most in the audience—in what is an active collaboration to sift through the mountain of documents Snowden carried out of the U.S. Snowden contacted Greenwald and U.S. filmmaker Laura Poitras after taking the information to Hong Kong.

Again, perhaps there is a way to square Greenwald’s description of a daily, active collaboration to sift through a “mountain of documents” with Snowden’s characterization of a relationship in which he has nothing to do with the documents, what Greenwald and Poitras write about, etc.  But the most straightforward reading is that the two descriptions are in total conflict.  Snowden describes his role as already washed his hands of both the documents and the decisions on how to use them.  Greenwald says Snowden is very hands on.   And how do they collaborate to “sift through a MOUNTAIN of documents” if Snowden doesn’t have them?  Again, they might be sitting somewhere and Snowden can access them electronically, but that seems to be a highly risky method of operation.  And it also would mean that Snowden’s statement that the journalists have the documents, and the related insinuation he doesn’t, is slippery at best.

Again.  Would somebody ask them?  Both of them?

Yes.  I understand. Eddie is so hard to ask.  And I repeat: why is that?  Can’t do YouTube? Can’t meet journalists face-to-face in a secure setting?  Can’t do Skype?

In other words, Eddie’s unavailability for questions is exactly what should be raising questions.  Including questions about his veracity.  And there are enough contradictions even in the existing thin record to make these questions very serious ones.

But nobody asks the principals, and indeed, virtually no one even raises the questions rhetorically in stories on Snowden. Most likely because journalists are largely invested in the Snowden narrative, and don’t want to pull on any threads that could make the whole thing unravel.

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  1. I think your last sentence is the key. Newspapers don’t exist to inform the public, but to sell newspapers. Journalists don’t exist to inform the public but to make sure journalists get employed.

    Neither of these goals is served by saying “Gee, this Snowden guy is getting less convincing every day. We could have been had.” And Greenwald is certainly not going to add “And maybe I was part of the con.”

    All concerned are trying to surf on a wave of public concern about internet and email surveillance. Greenwald in particular is leaving the Guardian to run some foundation that has something to do with “press freedom”. Things have gone so far that everyone is going to look very bad if they start asking awkward questions now. They have to keep the game going.

    They are like guys who foolishly lied in Court, and now they can’t back down.

    Comment by jon livesey — October 22, 2013 @ 2:29 pm

  2. There’s a whole industry of contradiction-hunting now — Tom Nichols, you, Jeremy Duns, Joshua Foust (who has a whole new piece lifting directly from your past blogs on this subject recently, and from tweets by you and Duns and me). And I’m all for inquiry but I think what’s happened is that people have run out of fresh facts to mine and are going over old material to find something, and it shows. I think maybe it would be better to crowdsource the wallpaper in that banquet room because if we knew where the banquet was, we’d know a lot more about who is funding this, really, and running it. Plus, waiters might talk…

    But there’s a simpler explanation than contradiction — and I really don’t have any reason not to be adversarial to Snowden. And that’s that he gave the documents to Greenwald, Poitras, Appelbaum and others like Barton Gelman and then truly didn’t physically have them right in his possession. Now, maybe the Chinese got them while he wsa in HK, and maybe the Russians, too. But he may have really given them away even as he retained access to them in some vault somewhere.

    He could also basically trust the journalists’ judgement how to frame the stories and how to order the stories, say, timing them to key events, i.e. Kerry’s visit to Paris for the French leak. But he could still be in on the discussions about them. These aren’t contradictions.

    Greenwald bragged that he was in touch daily, but maybe he isn’t *still*. On the BBC interview, which was so hostile, he flinched visibly when asked about his contact and said he was in “regular” contact. Now it wasn’t “daily”. Maybe he got into MORE regular contact after the four ex-officials were able to ferry new keys, passwords, aliases, who knows what. The BBC show precedes the Dutch audience.

    As for this idea that journalists are supposed to prepare for stories like lawyers taking a deposition — no, they aren’t like lawyers. They research much more in the vein of finding what they like and what sticks. Journalists don’t have to make adversarial defense of their theory of a case in a court of law to a prosecutor and a judge. In this case, we have an “adversarial journalist” — as Glenn calls this pack of Snowden adulators — but they are adversarial to the government, not to their own story. Risen is himself fighting off a lawsuit about the government’s demand to get at his source in a story about Iran, so he naturally gravitated to the Snowden Mania Club.

    Sure, Snowden should be able to appear on G+ or Skype or something else. I mean, if Weev gets tweets out of jail, if Barrett Brown gives interviews to Greenwald from jail, why doesn’t Snowden get straight interviews out of Moscow?

    But I have to say that even if Snowden showed up live on my FaceTime or Glide or something, I’d feel as if the situation were entirely under control of the KGB’s successors. At this point, it would be impossible to get him “clean”.

    Comment by Catherine Fitzpatrick — October 23, 2013 @ 12:28 am

  3. Catherine: There are physical documents and there is the information in them. If Snowden is logic chopping by making his claims about the physical documents, rather than who is in possession of the information, then he is being very slippery indeed.

    I am a bit surprised you don’t seem to consider the distinction.

    Comment by jon livesey — October 23, 2013 @ 2:31 pm

  4. Craig, why do you care so much if Snowden has more documents up his sleeve or not, and if his statements are contradictory? Are you a lawyer for the NSA?

    Comment by Vlad1 — October 23, 2013 @ 2:58 pm

  5. @Vlad1. Because it speaks to his credibility and veracity. His broader claims are unproven, so his veracity is a crucial issue. That’s pretty obvious.

    Not a lawyer for anybody. But I do a lot of legal work so I bring that mindset to analyzing such issues. Let’s put it this way. I would love the opportunity to depose Snowden, Greenwald & Poitras.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — October 23, 2013 @ 3:02 pm

  6. Craig, but my question is: why do you care about this whole issue so passionately? What is the worst that can happen if these 3 people get their way? The NSA will have to limit their eavesdropping from everybody to only people who are suspicious?

    Comment by Vlad1 — October 23, 2013 @ 5:39 pm

  7. @Vlad1. I cannot believe you are so naive to believe that the Snowden affair will have such benign effects. It has almost certainly compromised severely American-and British-intelligence methods and given the Russians and Chinese extremely valuable information on our capabilities and the information we have collected using those methods.

    Moreover, the diplomatic costs are already large and increasing. Look at the Merkel cellphone affair.

    But more crucially, look at the latest leak, in which Snowden is revealing 35 governments that have cooperated with the US on intelligence collection. Note particularly that several of these countries are providing information on Russia.

    But yeah. Snowden is not at all under the influence of Russian intelligence, and is doing nothing that could possibly benefit Russia.

    This is a big deal. Major ramifications. That’s why I care so intensely about this.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — October 24, 2013 @ 7:57 pm

  8. Craig,

    From what I see, everything that Snowden has told us has been assumed by the knowledgeable citizens anyway. What NSA “methods” has he revealed to the Russians that they can use to hurt us? And how can they hurt us? If anything, maybe Snowden will teach the Russians how to phrase their warnings about the terrorists like Tsarnaev better, so that the NSA will pay attention to Russian warnings next time.

    > Look at the Merkel cellphone affair.

    What about it? What is your opinion: is it OK for the American agency, charged with internal security, to listen in on private conversations of the leader of our biggest and most devoted ally? How does spying on Merkel help the NSA fight terrorists? Are you saying that Merkel knows about terrorist plots in the USA but keeps it secret from us?

    If you think that it’s OK – then why would this revelation be hurtful?
    And if it’s not OK, isn’t it nice that now the NSA will finally stop doing it? I mean,would you want the German internal security people to spy on the US President’s cellphone conversations? Is this REALLY what allies do to each other? Isn’t it time that our government stopped behaving like rogues and outlaws even towards best friends?

    Comment by Vlad1 — October 27, 2013 @ 12:16 am

  9. What is strange in this conversation for me is the presumption that the German security services are not listening to the U.S. president’s phone conversations – assuming of course that they have the technical capacity for it.

    Comment by MJ — October 28, 2013 @ 10:33 pm

  10. Who “presumes” this?

    Comment by Vlad1 — October 29, 2013 @ 2:57 pm

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