Monday, February 10, 2014

First Look Launches "The Intercept"

Kinda low-key launch, it seems to me, for the Big Reveal of the Greenwald/Poitras/Scahill venture under "Pierre's" wing at First Look Media.

There are two stories and a "welcome" post in this initial effort.

One story consists of nightime pictures of some of the NatSec facilities in the DC area, apparently taken from a rented helicopter by Trevor Paglen. They're kind of pretty, though they primarily show parking lots. Well, yes. That would be right. Even the daytime pictures of NatSec facilities primarily show parking lots. And (believe it or not) you have to have a permit/pass to get into them. The parking lots themselves, which tend to surround the facilities, serve as barriers to access (by those who are unauthorized, dontchaknow). But Paglen doesn't get in to any of that, he just wants to show the pretty pictures, and the pictures are nice, make no mistake. It's good to be able to visualize these places. One place he doesn't show, however, is the CIA headquarters in Langley, VA. Apparently, CIA refused him permission to photograph the facility from his rented helicopter. Luckily, there is no lack of imagery available on the Google.

The other story is about the NSA's provision of targeting information to JSOC and drone operators in various "war" theaters used for liquidating terrorist suspects. Though bylined Greenwald and Scahill, it's obviously mostly Scahill's writing. A bit of it may be Greenwald's, but I doubt very much of it is.

The story is interesting on its merits, but it's got some problems, a major one in my view being its failure to question JSOC's mission -- and the policies of assassination and murder, only the tactics and the reliance on sometimes erroneous intelligence from the NSA. In addition to failing to question JSOC's mission, the story uses terminology which declares targets "terrorists" without questioning that designation. There are some uses of scare quotes from time to time in this very long and detailed article (something like Jeremy might have written for the Nation when time was and which is certainly reminiscent of "Dirty Wars"), which may present the appearance of questioning the standard, official terminology, but in fact, there is never a question about the terminology, only the expression of regret that "mistakes are sometimes made." OK, then.

Finally, I was initially struck by the near absence of any mention of the CIA in this story. They are referred to, but only in passing, early on in the story, as if the CIA is a branch of the military, when in fact, of course, the NSA is the branch of the military which is charged with supplying military intelligence. 

It's long been my understanding that many of the targeted killing/Death From Above program(s) involve the CIA, and more than a few are run independently by the Company itself, but what I got from the initial paragraphs othat CIA involvement in these things is peripheral, and that's just not right.

I have little doubt Jeremy is aware of that fact. But in "Dirty Wars," he claimed that even after being in Iraq for three years, he'd never heard of JSOC, and didn't learn of it until he got to Afghanistan, even though JSOC was carrying out a vicious campaign of terror and murder in Iraq right in front of his disbelieving eyes while he was there. It seemed to me that he was being deliberately disingenuous or deceptive about what he knew and didn't know, as there was no lack of reportage regarding the Death Squads in Iraq (I think some of that reporting came from Jeremy himself) nor was there any lack of reporting naming JSOC as the Valiant American Lead in establishing and carrying out the campaigns of terror and murder that wracked Iraq for years during the American Occupation.

As I got further into the article, however, suddenly the CIA appears (deus ex machina-like) out of nowhere taking over the hunt for al-Awlaki in the Yemen when JSOC fails to find and liquidate him. OK. Prior to that, it seems that the CIA is merely along for the ride provided by the NSA and JSOC. Interestingly, one of the sources for the story, Brandon Bryant, a former drone operator, criticizes the CIA for its "indiscriminate" targeting for liquidation, and he frets that CIA practices are afflicting the NSA and JSOC operations. Good doG in heaven...

There are also a number of stand-alone graphics in the piece which are for the most part not identified as to source or provenance. They appear to be selected quotes from Snowden-trove documents, but who knows...

In the "welcome" article -- rather obviously written by Greenwald, though bylined Greenwald, Poitras and Scahill -- we are treated to a recapitulation of most of the tropes about "accountability and transparency" we've been hearing from Greenwald for years. The initial focus on the NSA is excused as the "short-term" focus; eventually, "The Intercept" will be getting into other matters. Patience, grasshopper.

The article strongly suggests that "The Intercept" is an independent project of Greenwald, Poitras (the Invisible One) and Scahill that is merely being published by First Look Media. The implication is that "The Intercept" pre-dates First Look/Omidyar involvement, and if so, that's interesting, since apparently First Look Media's incorporation pre-dates Snowden's Booz Allen sojourn. (Which led me to speculate that -- perhaps -- Snowden and Omidyar had some connection in Hawaii -- where Omidyar lives and Snowden used to live before the Big HooHah -- prior to Snowden's contact with Poitras and Greenwald. Oh, what tangled webs, wheels within wheels, etc...)

Interesting too is Greenwald's nearly obsessive focus on the "threats" made against him and "journalism" by so many officials.

 Over the past seven months the journalists who have reported on these documents from the National Security Agency have been repeatedly threatened by a wide range of government officials. Sometimes, the intimidation campaign has gone beyond mere threats. These attempted intimidation tactics have intensified in recent weeks and have become clearly more concerted and coordinated.

This is one of his tropes, and it has always struck me as... well, crap. Though "Show Business" is probably more like it. These constantly hyped "threats" have never had any substance behind them. So Mike Rogers is running his mouth. Big. Fucking. Deal. Unlike HUAC and other governmental operations -- both current and historical -- Rogers and Feinstein and so on have no direct power to harm him or "journalism" as a trade and craft. They run their mouths -- it's part of their job.

Just as Greenwald sees it as his crusade to be the modern embodiment of Old Testament Prophets and thunder against them. It's Show Business.

Greenwald also asserts that the principals of "The Intercept" will engage with readers in the comment section, but among the more than 150 comments to the "welcome" post, Greenwald is the only one who does so, and it is only to acknowledge two "long-time" commenters and readers who have arrived to hail the new venture.

Many of the other commenters are clearly writing English as a second language, which is also interesting.

All in all, "The Intercept" strikes me as a surprisingly modest undertaking which may turn into something substantial over time -- or may fizzle out once the thrill of the NSA revelations is gone.

We shall see.
UPDATE: 02/12/14
Froomkin now has a post up at "The Intercept" basically rehashing Jeremy's post and pretty much everything else that's been reported about the Snowden Trove to date. In it, Froomkin, like Scahill, does not question the policies only the tactics involved. Clearly the failure to question the policies of the drone wars and so much else in these initial posts at the "Intercept" is a conscious editorial decision, not a temporary lapse -- as some have tried to claim. On the other hand, given that everything "The Intercept" has so far published is "old news" (or in the case of the nighttime pictures of NatSec facilities, somewhat of a distraction) and there are no documents yet posted at all -- though unlabeled excerpts (from somewhere) are included in Jeremy's post -- it's little wonder some people suspect "The Intercept" is a bad joke. I wouldn't go that far, simply because the startup is as slow as it is, and there is much still to sort out (including clashing egos, I have no doubt.) There's still the question, too, of what kind of influence, if any, "Pierre" has on the venture. To say he has none would be, I think, criminally naive. But how much he may have is an open question. Meanwhile, I had my doubts this thing would launch at all, in part due to those inevitable ego-clashes. So I was wrong about that. Nevertheless, the launch is so low-key as to be practically mute. The "news" is old, the documents are not there, and the feel overall is pretty amateur and clunky.

Given all that, it may be strange to see me say, "It would be nice if it worked." But that's how I feel. I'd rather it didn't fail, but unless something happens to goose it up, I suspect it's not going to amount to very much. A digital hang-out, perhaps, and a blog-home for some writers...
UPDATE: 02/11/14
Now having looked over the story again -- it is awfully long and in places quite dense -- and after having seen Jeremy's performance on Democracy Now! yesterday, I may be seeing a rationale for Jeremy's reluctance to question (in the "Intercept" story) the policies or the terminologies involved. In fact, as he has many times before, in his Democracy Now! appearance, he did question the policies -- and terminology -- and did so quite forcefully, as has previously been his way. It was rather striking to me that he didn't do so in his inaugural effort for "The Intercept,"  though. Why didn't he? Perhaps because of the function of the site? Is it to attack policies? Or is it to attack players on behalf of opposing factions?

Quite a few people are convinced that the Snowden Leak is a two fold matter: 1) a limited hangout to demonstrate to the public that they are "being watched" by some nefarious agency/agents of government, and they better not get out of line or "the man come and take them away"; 2) a hit by the CIA on the NSA for fucking up and fucking them over.  There is nothing at all in Jeremy's story to refute either notion; in fact, it reinforces both. The message is that your cell phone is a tracking and locating device which the surveillance services can use to locate you and -- if  so ordered -- liquidate you by any means necessary, and that the security services (ie: police, CIA, military, death squads, who knows who else?) will cheerfully carry out your liquidation, even if they are wrong.

Have a nice day.


Also too: the comment count on Jeremy's drone story went from 37 or something this morning to well over 200 in the space of a couple of hours, after Greenwald's commentariat (and their numerous sock-puppets) arrived en masse. In fact, it was pretty easy to spot the bot-comments and the socks because they all said approximately the same thing (essentially nothing except "Congrats!"). Adding: Later, they got into brawls and arguments with one another, as they tended to do at the Guardian and Salon.

Over at the Guardian they could get the comment count up into the thousands in a day's time.

We'll see whether they are able to do that here.


Further on the comments: the numbers are quickly rising, but the caliber of  commentary has declined precipitously, mostly into the weeds of conspiracy, insults, and complete bullshit. Inevitable, I suppose...

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