Illustration via Josh Begley.
After his recent tour of the world’s mainstream media outlets to promote his new book, No Place to Hide, the primary keeper of Snowden’s documents, Glenn Greenwald – along with journalists Laura Poitras and Ryan Devereaux – released a stunning story about the NSA’s ability to suck up the content of every phone call made in the Bahamas, Mexico, the Philippines and Kenya. However, there was also one other mystery country that The Intercept is refusing to reveal.
The program that the NSA uses to vacuum up the phone calls of an entire nation, codenamed SOMALGET, is part of a larger NSA program called MYSTIC. The MYSTIC program was reported on by the Washington Post earlier this year, but the Post decided to not name any of the nations that MYSTIC was monitoring en masse. The Intercept took it one step further.
That one step, however, was evidently not far enough for WikiLeaks. In a heated Twitter back-and-forth between John Cook (The Intercept’s Editor-in-Chief), Jacob Applebaum (once a WikiLeaks hacker, now someone who has "access" to the Snowden documents and has detailed the ways in which mysterious people have broken into his apartment), WikiLeaks itself and Glenn Greenwald, the voice behind the WikiLeaks account berated The Intercept team for redacting the name of the final country. Applebaum went as far as calling that redaction “a mistake”.
You can read the entire back-and-forth here.
In the words of WikiLeaks, the group has condemned “Firstlook for following the Washington Post into censoring the mass interception of an entire nation”. This battle is not the only backlash Firstlook media is facing from internet activists right now.
In 2011, 14 individuals from the hacktivist group Anonymous were charged with launching Denial of Service attacks against PayPal (that never actually took the site down completely), because PayPal blocked money transfers to Chelsea Manning and to WikiLeaks. The 14 were charged under the controversial Computer Fraud and Abuse Act – the same act that led to such egregious and unreasonable charges against the late Aaron Swartz – which was written in the 1980s before computers as we know them even existed.
Firstlook’s founder, Pierre Omidyar, who also started eBay, PayPal’s parent company, was quoted at the time as saying the 14 deserved leniency. In the end, the PayPal 14 have been stuck with a bill of just over $80,000 (€58,000) to pay in restitution to PayPal; even though many of the PayPal 14’s defenders see their DOS attacks as a form of digital protest. There is an ongoing fundraiser to cover the 14’s costs. That charity drive is part of a new campaign, started by various online activists, which has also taken aim against Firstlook and Pierre himself for standing to profit from digital activists; while owning and operating a media outlet that strives to expose government secrets.
I can see why some may see that as a bit hypocritical on the part of Firstlook media.
Now, as The Intercept rages on with stories that aim to rip away the secrecy of the NSA, WikiLeaks and its supporters are furious at The Intercept for censoring the name of a country whose communications are being surveilled en masse. Glenn Greenwald tweeted yesterday that “we were *very convinced this 1 would —> deaths”, meaning that they received convincing information that publishing the name of the fifth country would almost certainly result in people getting killed.
This decision has led to a very interesting conversation about the responsibility of journalists like Greenwald, who are already publishing full, nearly uncensored materials that have leaked from secret government agencies, when it comes to filtering information. A new media shield law in the US is being written to specifically exclude journalists that write for places like The Intercept – as such brazen, ballsy publishing does not equal journalism in the eyes of highly protective US lawmakers.
Whether or not you agree that The Intercept should have published the fifth country, it appears as if WikiLeaks has been angered to the point of dropping the information on the world “in 72 hours” from the publication date; which means by Thursday, we may know who else the US is spying on. While it’s not clear how WikiLeaks knows the name of the country, Business Insider has some guesses as to where that info may have come from.
If Glenn Greenwald is correct in his appraisal of the situation, this information could cause a revolutionary uprising in an already volatile country; or at the very least, a handful of deaths. This purely speculative scenario has some very dangerous potential consequences, and it has further revealed the impact that Snowden’s leaks are having upon the world – now that his files are in the hands of people like Glenn and now, maybe, WikiLeaks.
We know that Snowden chose Greenwald for a reason, and avoided the New York Times for their shelving of a warrantless wiretapping story at the behest of the Bush administration. While shelving a story and omitting a crucial detail are very different choices, evidently The Intercept has upset the more hardline activists by censoring the fifth country. One can only guess what Snowden thinks about this, or what the fifth country is for that matter.
So I guess we’ll see what happens on Thursday.
Follow Patrick McGuire on Twitter.