The National Security Agency has been the source of major controversy, thanks to the journalists writing critical stories based on files shared by whistleblower Edward Snowden. But the agency got a very different media reception from CBS correspondent John Miller, whose lengthy December 15 60 Minutes report looked more like PR than journalism.
Miller explained at the top of the segment: “Full disclosure, I once worked in the office of the Director of National Intelligence, where I saw firsthand how secretly the NSA operates.” (As with most “full disclosures,” this is hardly full; Miller has spent much of his career inside government, with roles ranging from serving as a spokesperson for the NYPD to directing public relations for the FBI.)
The first part of the segment was based heavily on interviews with NSA director Keith Alexander–beginning with Alexander saying that the NSA is “not collecting everybody’s email, we’re not collecting everybody’s phone things.” This is at best questionable; the New York Times (8/8/13) reported that the NSA copies and sifts through most emails sent into or out of the country.
Miller followed up by noting that “there is a perception out there that the NSA is widely collecting the content of the phone calls of Americans.” But that is not what anyone has been reporting about the NSA; what critics are actually criticizing is the collection of metadata on phone calls, information on who people called and when (Guardian, 6/5/13). As posed, Miller’s question only gave Alexander a chance to look like he’s debunking an important myth about the agency.
Miller reported that Alexander “agreed to talk to us because he believes the NSA has not told its story well.” That feeling seemed to be shared by CBS as well–that the NSA’s real problem is ineffective public relations. In a Web-only video interview with Miller and the show’s producers, he says: “We’ve heard plenty from the critics. We’ve heard a lot from Edward Snowden.” Miller explained there was a “distinctive shortage” in getting the NSA’s side. So the need to hear the NSA director and to profile young NSA geniuses was more pressing than interviewing any of the agency’s many critics on camera.
It’s odd to suggest that the NSA hasn’t been given opportunities to rebut its critics. In fact, current and former NSA officials have been interviewed widely in the press and have testified before Congress. In Alexander’s case, he used to claim that NSA bulk phone records collection thwarted 50 terrorist plots; then he shifted that answer, and admitted that perhaps it was “one or possibly two” (FAIR Blog, 10/4/13).
That record of misleading the public means that Alexander should face tough questions. But on 60 Minutes, Alexander was given time to allege that other people have gotten things wrong. Some of the earliest reports (Guardian, 6/6/13; Washington Post, 6/6/13) based on the Snowden documents concerned PRISM, a program to tap into data centers of major private companies like Google and Facebook. On CBS, those reports were presented as false:
MILLER: One of the Snowden leaks involved the concept that NSA had tunneled into the foreign data centers of major US Internet providers. Did the leak describe it the right way?
ALEXANDER: No, that’s not correct. We do target terrorist communications. And terrorists use communications from Google, from Yahoo, and from other service providers. So our objective is to collect those communications no matter where they are. But we’re not going into a facility or targeting Google as an entity, or Yahoo as an entity. But we will collect those communications of terrorists that flow on that network.
What Alexander offered here was a classic non-denial denial, suggesting the stories are incorrect but, as reporter Barton Gellman noted on Twitter (12/15/13), essentially confirming them. (To say that the NSA is not “targeting Google as an entity” does not mean that the agency is not collecting information on Google users.)
It was clear throughout that the 60 Minutes segment was intended to bolster the image of the agency. Miller told viewers that one agency meeting “is called the stand-up because no one sits down, which is almost a metaphor for the pace of daily life in the NSA operations center.” Miller went on to explain that “while Edward Snowden’s leaks have been a disaster for the agency, the rest of the NSA’s mission has not slowed down.”
The agency was eager to share success stories–like a sketchy story about a supposedly devastating computer virus plot (likely from China) that the NSA claims to have thwarted before it wreaked havoc on the American economy. But computer security expert Robert Graham (Errata Security, 12/15/13) derided the CBS report as “gibberish.”.
If the CBS segment seemed like PR, maybe it’s because that’s how it started out. In that Web-only video, CBS explained that NSA chief Alexander “made the call to invite us in. He’s fighting for his programs right now.” And the video went on to note that a team of minders followed the CBS team throughout, and that Alexander asked to take “time outs” if he wasn’t sure how to answer a given question.
In the video, Miller said that he wanted to give the agency “a chance to make their case.” He has a habit of doing this; just weeks ago, he got exclusive access to outgoing CIA deputy director Mike Morell, and his report was more boosterism than journalism (FAIR Blog, 10/29/13). Perhaps unsurprisingly, Miller is reportedly planning on going back through the revolving door and resuming government work, being eyed for a top intelligence or counterterrorism job with the NYPD (Huffington Post, 12/12/13).
Of the NSA report, Miller said he didn’t “want this to be a puff piece.” But by conducting softball interviews with agency officials and excluding the responses of their critics, that is exactly what CBS gave its viewers.
ACTION: Please let 60 Minutes know that their December 15 report, based on exclusive access to National Security Agency officials and excluding critics of the agency, was more PR than journalism.