Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.
Janet Malcom, The Journalist and the Murderer, via Slate. The Storytellers: Walter Kirn gets taken in by a con man.
So begins a review in Slate of Blood Will Out, a new memoir by Walter Kirn about his relationship with Clark Rockefeller, a real life Mr. Ripley who impersonated a famous name, lived the high life and was eventually charged on kidnapping and murder charges. Kirn’s book explores how, as a writer, he was taken in by the faux Rockefeller. Or, more precisely, by the German-born Christian Gerhartsreiter who successfully played a Rockefeller in New York City social circles.
But while Kirn explores why and how he was taken over a decade-long relationship, let’s go back to Malcom’s original quote, to the journalist as con man, to his or her relationship with sources, and why sources should talk with reporters.
In the wake of NSA revelations, national security journalists have spoken about their increased difficulty reporting the news (see here, here and here). And with the Obama administration’s use of the Espionage Act to prosecute whistleblowers you can see why that would be the case.
So why should sources talk to reporters? It’s an important, unasked question, says Edward Wasserman, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley:
When you think about it, that question goes to the foundation of the entire edifice of a free press. And that foundation, at the moment, is shaky.
Let’s back up. No honest press, whatever its sense of mission and however firm its legal protections, can outperform its sources. It can’t be any better, stronger, braver, more richly informed, or more dedicated to broad public purpose than the people who swallow their misgivings, return the phone call, step forward, and risk embarrassment and reprisal to talk to the reporter.
The mythology of journalism enshrines the sleuths, sometimes the editors, even the publishers, but sources are really the whole ball game. Press freedom is nothing more than source freedom, one step removed. The right of a news organization to tell what it learns is an empty abstraction without the willingness of news sources to tell what they know.
Considering how important sources are, it’s stunning how little affection they get and how flimsy the protections are that anybody claims for them.
Give Wasserman’s article a good read.
It moves well beyond national security issues as it explores, again, why when a source’s quote can be nitpicked a thousand different ways — in “the online multiverse, and his or her words, motives and integrity will be denounced or impugned, often by pseudonymous dingbats, some of them undisclosed hirelings” — he or she should ever want to talk to the news media.
Internet governance is too important to be left just to governments.
Seven months ago, the world began to learn the vast scope of the National Security Agency’s reach into the lives of hundreds of millions of people in the United States and around the globe, as it collects information about their phone calls, their email messages, their friends and contacts, how they spend their days and where they spend their nights. The public learned in great detail how the agency has exceeded its mandate and abused its authority, prompting outrage at kitchen tables and at the desks of Congress, which may finally begin to limit these practices…
…All of this is entirely because of information provided to journalists by Edward Snowden, the former N.S.A. contractor who stole a trove of highly classified documents after he became disillusioned with the agency’s voraciousness. Mr. Snowden is now living in Russia, on the run from American charges of espionage and theft, and he faces the prospect of spending the rest of his life looking over his shoulder.
Considering the enormous value of the information he has revealed, and the abuses he has exposed, Mr. Snowden deserves better than a life of permanent exile, fear and flight. He may have committed a crime to do so, but he has done his country a great service. It is time for the United States to offer Mr. Snowden a plea bargain or some form of clemency that would allow him to return home, face at least substantially reduced punishment in light of his role as a whistle-blower, and have the hope of a life advocating for greater privacy and far stronger oversight of the runaway intelligence community…
When someone reveals that government officials have routinely and deliberately broken the law, that person should not face life in prison at the hands of the same government.
New York Times Editorial. Edward Snowden, Whistle-Blower.
FJP: First, good on The New York Times.
Second, as the Times points out, Snowden’s been charged with two violations of the Espionage Act “involving unauthorized communication of classified information, and a charge of theft of government property.”
While the editorial suggests Snowden should receive clemency or, at the very least, a reduced sentence compared to the decades he faces under the current charges, take a look at the Freedom of the Press Foundation’s analysis of what Snowden would be able to present in his defense should he wind up in court. Basically, nothing:
If Edward Snowden comes back to the US to face trial, he likely will not be able to tell a jury why he did what he did, and what happened because of his actions. Contrary to common sense, there is no public interest exception to the Espionage Act. Prosecutors in recent cases have convinced courts that the intent of the leaker, the value of leaks to the public, and the lack of harm caused by the leaks are irrelevant—and are therefore inadmissible in court…
…[I]n Snowden’s case, the administration will be able to exclude almost all knowledge beneficial to his case from a jury until he’s already been found guilty of felonies that will have him facing decades, if not life, in jail.
This would mean Snowden could not be able to tell the jury that his intent was to inform the American public about the government’s secret interpretations of laws used to justify spying on millions of citizens without their knowledge, as opposed to selling secrets to hostile countries for their advantage.
If the prosecution had their way, Snowden would also not be able to explain to a jury that his leaks sparked more than two dozen bills in Congress, and half a dozen lawsuits, all designed to rein in unconstitutional surveillance. He wouldn’t be allowed to explain how his leaks caught an official lying to Congress, that they’ve led to a White House review panel recommending forty-six reforms for US intelligence agencies, or that they’ve led to an unprecedented review of government secrecy.
Chilling, and worthwhile to keep in mind when people say he should return from Russia and make his case to court.
The NSA didn’t wake up and say, ‘Let’s just spy on everybody.’ They looked up and said, ‘Wow, corporations are spying on everybody. Let’s get ourselves a copy.
Point, via The Guardian: The United Nations moved a step closer to calling for an end to excessive surveillance on Tuesday in a resolution that reaffirms the “human right to privacy” and calls for the UN’s human rights commissioner to conduct an inquiry into the impact of mass digital snooping.
Counterpoint, via Foreign Policy: The United States and its key intelligence allies are quietly working behind the scenes to kneecap a mounting movement in the United Nations to promote a universal human right to online privacy, according to diplomatic sources and an internal American government document obtained by The Cable.
Meantime, via Techrunch: Sir Tim Berners-Lee Blasts “Insidious, Chilling Effects” Of Online Surveillance, Says We Should Be Protecting Whistleblowers Like Snowden.
TOR was compromised and some other items on that list are just plain and simple idiotic and impossible to the common user - information like this to people on a site where they take it to heart really quickly isn’t the best idea… — Anonymous
As this message from our inbox notes, earlier this year a compromise was discovered in the Tor browser.
This is true. But once the vulnerability was discovered an update came out that resolved it.
"We will never be able to de-anonymize all Tor users all the time” but “with manual analysis we can de-anonymize a very small fraction of Tor users.”
Of course, no system or defense mechanism is foolproof and that should always be remembered. If you really need absolute privacy, leave your tracking device (read: phone) at home and go for a walk in a very loud place with whoever you need to communicate with.
But don’t succumb to privacy nihilism. As Bruce Schneier writes in The Guardian, “The NSA has turned the fabric of the internet into a vast surveillance platform, but they are not magical. They’re limited by the same economic realities as the rest of us, and our best defense is to make surveillance of us as expensive as possible.”
One way to do that is to encrypt and anonymize, and help your friends and networks do the same.
For more information about defensive technology and steps you can take to secure your communications, visit this primer from the EFF. It covers browser, email, chat, phones and secure deletion of your files.