To Washington Post columnist Walter Pincus (7/9/13), something about NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden just doesn't smell right. Lucky for him he gets space in a prestigious newspaper to work out his hunch–apparently without any editors or factcheckers to get in his way.
Right from the start, Pincus lays out where he's coming from:
Did Edward Snowden decide on his own to seek out journalists and then a job at Booz Allen Hamilton’s Hawaii facility as an IT systems administrator to gather classified documents about the National Security Agency's worldwide surveillance activities?
He's just asking questions, right? Not really–the whole point of the column is to insinuate that Snowden's being controlled, on some level, by WikiLeaks, in cahoots with Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald.
Pincus finds it odd that he "worked less than three months at Booz Allen, but by the time he reached Hong Kong in mid-May, Snowden had four computers with NSA documents."
Then Pincus wonders: "Was he encouraged or directed by WikiLeaks personnel or others to take the job as part of a broader plan to expose NSA operations to selected journalists?"
That could be, since he seems to think it's happened before:
In the case of Pfc. Bradley Manning, the U.S. soldier on trial for disclosing thousands of classified documents to WikiLeaks, it was Julian Assange and his organization who directed the collection of documents, U.S. prosecutors have alleged.
Of course, what the government is alleging about Manning isn't necessarily reality; Manning himself has taken credit for the decision to share the information with WikiLeaks.
But Pincus is on his trail to… somewhere. How did Snowden choose which journalists to talk to? Pincus draws a line between Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald and WikiLeaks. You see, Greenwald and filmmaker Laura Poitras "have had close connections with [WikiLeaks' Julian] Assange and WikiLeaks." How close? Pincus writes:
On April 10, 2012, Greenwald wrote for the WikiLeaks Press's blog about Poitras and WikiLeaks being targeted by U.S. government officials.
So that tight connection could explain how it is that Julian Assange knew about Greenwald's NSA scoops before they were published. He was interviewed by Democracy Now! on May 29, writes Pincus:
Assange previewed the first Greenwald Guardian story based on Snowden documents that landed a week later. Speaking from Ecuador's embassy in London, Assange described how NSA had been collecting "all the calling records of the United States, every record of everyone calling everyone over years…. Those calling records already [are] entered into the national security complex."
Did he know ahead of time of that Guardian story describing the U.S. court order permitting NSA's collection of the telephone toll records of millions of American Verizon customers and storing them for years?
Pincus closes by noting that WikiLeaks continues to assist Snowden, and writing somewhat ominously, "What other roles the group played in getting Snowden to this point remain a mystery."
Unfortunately for Pincus, Glenn Greenwald reads the Washington Post. And he wrote a devastating rebuttal, taking on all of the inaccuracies that Pincus floated in his piece.
Did Greenwald writing for WikiLeaks' blog? No. "I have no idea what you're talking about here, and neither do you," Greenwald writes, noting that the piece in question was one of his columns for Salon.com (4/8/12).
But never mind that–didn't Greenwald's WikiLeaks connection mean that Julian Assange "previewed" his NSA scoops? That claim, Greenwald writes, is "deeply embarrassing for someone who claims even a passing familiarity with surveillance issues." Why? Because what Assange was talking about were the well-documented Bush-era NSA scandals that had been widely discussed years earlier.
But still it's odd that Snowden could amass all those NSA documents in three months, right? No, Greenwald explains, because Snowden had worked for various NSA contractors for four years.
OK, but isn't it fair to wonder whether someone instructed Snowden to take this job to leak information? Well, Greenwald explains, this has all been pretty thoroughly reported, albeit in obscure outlets like the New York Times (6/11/13) and…the Washington Post (6/24/13).
Greenwald writes that "making up facts… should still be deemed unacceptable. At the very least, they merit a prominent correction." He's right. But how did the Washington Post not factcheck any of this before they ran Pincus' tendentious piece?
I would say it'd be a good issue for the Post's ombud to take up, but they got rid of that position earlier this year. They do have a readers' representative, though–Doug Feaver. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org. Maybe he could look into it?
UPDATE: After what seemed to Greenwald like a rather long delay, the Post added a lengthy correction to the top of the Pincus column.
It's thorough, which is good; the shorter version of the correction might simply read, "Never mind about this whole thing."