Be afraid, Prime Minister, very afraid. According to The Australian‘s Greg Sheridan, the Abbott government is “bracing” for another wave of damaging revelations about Australian espionage from documents leaked by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden. The details are sketchy, but this time our snooping on China, as well as Indonesia, is expected to come under scrutiny.
There were more revelations today on sharing data: the Defence Signals Directorate offered to share information about ordinary Australians with overseas spy agencies. Each new Snowden bombshell heightens debate about the rights and wrongs of reporting on the secretive world of surveillance.
In North America, the discourse is getting so fierce that Glenn Greenwald, the former Guardian reporter who has broken some of the biggest NSA stories, published a lengthy blog post yesterday responding to his critics. Greenwald argues there is a growing number of commentators who “evince zero interest” in the substance of the spying revelations, but “are instead obsessed with spending their time personally attacking the journalists, whistleblowers and other messengers who enable the world to know about what is being done”.
In Australia a bevy of conservative commentators have played this role, with former ABC director Janet Albrechtsen calling on ABC managing director Mark Scott to resign over the broadcaster’s partnership with The Guardian on Indonesian spying stories. Albrechtsen alleged the leak’s timing was “highly political”, was “designed to damage Tony Abbott” and “showed a blatant political preference” — even though this argument had been debunked a week earlier. The Guardian insists its Australian team only received the documents days before publishing their stories, as did the ABC.
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As Greenwald shows in his post, criticism of reporters and media outlets covering the Snowden leaks can be seen around the world. The latest example is the argument that Greenwald — who left The Guardian to establish a new website backed by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar — is “profiteering” from the leaks. In Canada, commentators have attacked the national broadcaster CBC for paying Greenwald for a collaboration on Snowden stories. Greenwald argues this line of thinking is especially pernicious, and not just because investigative journalists publishing classified information have always been paid for their work. In the US “buying and selling” state secrets, as opposed to reporting them, can land you in jail.
Amid all the noise about the Snowden leaks, its worth going back to basics on how they became public.
Snowden initially shared his cache of documents with four journalists: Greenwald, video journalist Laura Poitras (who will work on his new website), Guardian reporter Ewan MacAskill and The Washington Post’s Barton Gellman. Gellman was brought on board to “tie in” Washington with the leak.
Today, the only reporters with access to the complete Snowden stockpile are Greenwald and Poitras. Until their new website is launched, they are operating as freelance journalists, teaming up with media outlets around the world — including Der Spiegel and The Huffington Post — to publish their stories. But other media outlets are also ploughing their way through hundreds of thousands of documents.
The Guardian has the biggest collection of documents. They are currently being sifted and sorted by the site’s US team because of the protections offered by the US constitution’s first amendment on free speech. The Guardian estimates it has published stories on less than 1% of the documents it has in its possession. The paper has also shared 50,000 documents with The New York Times and non-profit site ProPublica to share the reporting load and create maximum impact.
With so many top-secret documents still to be analysed, there is one certainty: some of the biggest Snowden stories are yet to come.