Omidyar’s New Site Hopes to Beat the Surveillance State Bloody

What does a quarter of a billion dollars buy in the world of left-wing journalism? So far, four thousand words on the use of metadata in America’s drone war and three photographs of the office buildings that house the American intelligence-industrial complex. The $250 million dollar venture in question is part of Pierre Omidyar’s First ...

Trevor Paglen
Trevor Paglen

What does a quarter of a billion dollars buy in the world of left-wing journalism? So far, four thousand words on the use of metadata in America’s drone war and three photographs of the office buildings that house the American intelligence-industrial complex.

The $250 million dollar venture in question is part of Pierre Omidyar’s First Look Media. The eBay founder has pledged that sum in an effort to support independent journalism, and on Monday he unveiled the first of several "digital magazines" that will make up his news operation. That site, The Intercept, is the new home of Glenn Greenwald and what might be called his merry band of left-wing muckrakers, Jeremy Scahill and Laura Poitras.

Their debut as Omidyar employees, however, is a modest one. The site’s lead story — with Scahill and Greenwald’s bylines — exposes how the NSA has turned its metadata collection program toward the battlefields of America’s drone war. By scooping up suspected militants’ cellular data, Scahill and Greenwald write, the NSA assumed an instrumental role in identifying targets for America’s deadly fleet of drones.

This technology, while excellent at tracking individual phones and building up networks, turns out to be less than capable in determining who is actually carrying the phone in question. While the NSA can tell you who a given phone has communicated with and where that phone is, the agency isn’t quite as talented in figuring out who is on the other end of that phone. Insurgents haven’t made things easier on the agency: They frequently switch SIM cards in the phones and distribute them among the local population. "Once the bomb lands or a night raid happens, you know that phone is there," a former drone operator for the military’s special operations command told Scahill and Greenwald. "But we don’t know who’s behind it, who’s holding it. It’s of course assumed that the phone belongs to a human being who is nefarious and considered an ‘unlawful enemy combatant.’ This is where it gets very shady."

Moreover, the lack of human intelligence assets in places like Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia has only magnified the role of the NSA metadata program in drone strikes.

In hiring Scahill, Greenwald, and Poitras, Omidyar in one fell swoop acquired three of the leading lights of aggressive national security journalism, and Monday’s offerings at the Intercept paint a fairly predictable picture of what we might expect from the site: aggressiveness, a skepticism bordering on paranoia, and plenty of documents provided by Edward Snowden.

As a result, national security flacks in Washington in all likelihood witnessed the site’s launch with heavy hearts. White House spokesperson Caitlin Hayden features heavily in the Intercept’s inaugural story, and it doesn’t require a great deal of effort to read between the lines of the statements she provided to Scahill and Greenwald and discover the loathing she must have for these men. She declined to discuss "the type of operational detail that, in our view, should not be published." Valiantly contradicting the main thrust of the story, she insisted that "our assessments are not based on a single piece of information."

Hayden also has a point: Scahill and Greenwald do include a perhaps surprising level of operational detail, including information about how a transponder bolted to a drone functions as a dummy cell tower to collect phone data. That’s the type of specific information that a detail a mainstream outlet would probably have excised at the request of government officials, particularly since it’s not clear what compelling public interest was served by publishing it. A recent New York Times story offers a constructive example. When the paper in January revealed how the NSA is able to access computers disconnected from the web, it offered extensive justification in the article about how the program had been revealed in bits through various reports based on Snowden documents. The paper had previously withheld details about the program, but with the Snowden documents having compromised the technology’s secrecy, the Times did an about face and ran the story.

The Intercept appears far less concerned about protecting the integrity of government surveillance technology. In an interview Monday with Democracy Now, Greenwald offered something of a philosophy behind his journalism and why he would choose to expose the technical aspects of a program that the White House adamantly maintains is crucial to national security. "You know, there’s a lot of debates about journalism and how it should best be practiced, but I think everybody ought to agree that journalism is supposed to be about informing the public of the truth, and especially debunking official lies," Greenwald said. "And a big part of our story and why we wrote it and published it was because you have President Obama running around saying that we only kill or target people when there’s a near certainty there won’t be civilian deaths, and, of course, we know that to be completely false, because the methods that we reported on have almost a — I wouldn’t say a near certainty — but a very high likelihood of killing the wrong people, killing innocent people."

Then again, there are also those who think that the Intercept didn’t go nearly far enough with its article. Most notable among them, Julian Assange:

But what did this story hope to achieve? The fact that the United States often kills the wrong people in the course of drone warfare cannot come as news. Rather, what we learn in this story is that the NSA is in part responsible for providing the faulty intelligence that sometimes results in American drones targeting wedding parties. That the NSA plays a role in determining targets for drones should not come as a surprise to anyone.

Scahill and Greenwald clearly lack interest in the mainstream media’s willingness to occasionally defer to government claims that national security could be harmed if certain classified information were to appear in the public domain. They have instead arrived on the scene to inform their colleagues in the media that this way of deciding what is and is not "news" effectively leaves journalists collaborating with the NSA and its partners in the U.S. intelligence community.

And that’s what the Intercept is about: tipping the scales of power away from the intelligence community. And that’s why Greenwald — as the journalistic face of the Snowden revelations — has become such a hated figure in much of Washington.

The photo essay that accompanies the Intercept’s launch may provide the clearer editorial mission. The photographer Trevor Paglen has built a vibrant artistic practice out of photographing the vast geography of America’s veiled national security apparatus. He travels the Nevada desert to take pictures of bases and snaps photographs of drones against Technicolor skies that evoke the grand traditions of landscape painting. In doing so, he turns the watchers into the watched. For The Intercept, he climbed aboard a helicopter and took photographs of NSA headquarters and the office buildings that house the National Reconnaissance Office and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. One of those photos illustrates this article.

The NSA probably doesn’t need reminding, but the message is clear: Glenn Greenwald is watching you.

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola