NPR Presents CIA-Backed Group as Independent Expert on Snowden’s ‘Harm’

Dina Temple-Raston

NPR‘s Dina Temple-Raston

Glenn Greenwald was on Democracy Now! this morning (8/13/14) talking about his new piece in the Intercept (8/12/14) critical of an NPR report (Morning Edition, 8/1/14) describing “tangible evidence” of a “direct connection” between Edward Snowden’s revelations of unchecked National Security Agency spying and increased Al-Qaeda efforts to protect its communications via cryptography.

Greenwald called the report, by NPR reporter Dina Temple-Raston, “a pure and indisputable case of journalistic malpractice and deceit.” It’s hard to say he doesn’t have a point.

The piece is basically a summary of claims made by Recorded Future, described by Temple-Raston as a “big data firm” and “a tech firm based in Cambridge, Mass.” She didn’t describe it, as she did in a 2012 report (Morning Edition, 10/8/12), as a group with “at least two very important financial backers: the CIA’s investment arm, called In-Q-Tel, and Google Ventures. They have reportedly poured millions into the company.”

Not only is Recorded Future financially backed by the CIA,  the intelligence community is one of its chief clients (along with Wall Street), and In-Q-Tel. It’s a registered vendor for the NSA itself, though it refused to tell Greenwald whether it has any actual contracts with the agency.

This is the company that Temple-Raston brought in to substantiate claims by “US government officials” that “revelations from former NSA contract worker Edward Snowden harmed national security”–without letting listeners know that it was not an independent authority, but a entity with close financial ties to the intelligence community whose claims it was vouching for. This is indeed journalistic malpractice, and merits a correction by NPR.

But what about the substance of the claim that NPR found newsworthy enough to base a segment around? It doesn’t pass the laugh test. In essence, Recorded Future is saying that there were significant changes made to encryption software distributed by militant Islamic groups after Snowden’s revelations–and  that’s “good circumstantial evidence” that Snowden was the cause of those changes.

That is, of course, a textbook example of the logical fallacy known as post hoc ergo propter hoc–Latin for “after this, therefore because of this.” But when you actually look at Recorded Future’s reports, you see the changes weren’t even “after this.” Here’s the timeline as presented by Recorded Future:
Recorded Future timeline of Islamist encryption programs
The colored dots are activity related encryption programs associated with various Islamist groups–and the blue line is June 2013, when Snowden came out with his revelations. Note that there was a major burst of activity that started well before Snowden came forward and continued afterward–involving Asrar al-Dardashah, a program to encrypt instant messages released in February 2013 by the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Global Islamic Media Front. In its timeline, Recorded Future presents this as the first significant change in jihadist transcription techniques since 2007.

But when it comes time to analyze the timeline, this pre-Snowden release mysteriously disappears:

The timeline above tells a compelling story showing how four to five months after the Snowden disclosures both mainstream AQ, as well as the break-off group ISIS, launches three new encryption tools.

Yes, by blatant cherry-picking you can produce “a compelling story”–as in, good enough to fool NPR.

About Jim Naureckas

Extra! Magazine Editor Since 1990, Jim Naureckas has been the editor of Extra!, FAIR's monthly journal of media criticism. He is the co-author of The Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error, and co-editor of The FAIR Reader: An Extra! Review of Press and Politics in the '90s. He is also the co-manager of FAIR's website. He has worked as an investigative reporter for the newspaper In These Times, where he covered the Iran-Contra scandal, and was managing editor of the Washington Report on the Hemisphere, a newsletter on Latin America. Jim was born in Libertyville, Illinois, in 1964, and graduated from Stanford University in 1985 with a bachelor's degree in political science. Since 1997 he has been married to Janine Jackson, FAIR's program director. You can follow Jim on Twitter at @JNaureckas.