Earlier this week, the Intercept revealed another bombshell from Edward Snowden's cache of government secrets: The NSA soaks up all the mobile phone calls from the Bahamas and another country. When they didn't name that country, Wikileaks did. The question now is: why the secrecy?
The initial report from Intercept reporters Ryan Deveraux, Glenn Greenwald, and Laura Poitras offered details about a U.S. electronic spying program known as SOMALGET, which is capable of capturing and "storing an entire nation's phone traffic for 30 days." The program was currently being used on two nations, and the Intercept was up front about one of those—the Bahamas—where calls, including those of Americans, were being captured en masse without the nation's knowledge.
That surveillance was part of MYSTIC, a larger, previously reported-on program that yanks metadata from calls in the Bahamas and four other countries. But Greenwald and his coauthors, whose work is not exactly known for its government-friendly restraint, noted that the NSA used its all-calls recording capability on another country along with the Bahamas—but declined to identify that nation:
Documents show that the NSA has been generating intelligence reports from MYSTIC surveillance in the Bahamas, Mexico, Kenya, the Philippines, and one other country, which The Intercept is not naming in response to specific, credible concerns that doing so could lead to increased violence. The more expansive full-take recording capability has been deployed in both the Bahamas and the unnamed country.
Wikileaks took umbrage at that omission and early this morning identified the so-called "Country X" in a post and a tweet:
Wikileaks' argument, essentially, was that the U.S. could use its phone-record data to deliver drone strikes against Afghans, and the people of Afghanistan deserved to know that:
Both the Washington Post and The Intercept stated that they had censored the name of the victim country at the request of the US government. Such censorship strips a nation of its right to self-determination on a matter which affects its whole population. An ongoing crime of mass espionage is being committed against the victim state and its population. By denying an entire population the knowledge of its own victimisation, this act of censorship denies each individual in that country the opportunity to seek an effective remedy, whether in international courts, or elsewhere.
This raises a host of questions, both about the Intercept's choice to omit the Afghanistan identification and Wikileaks' choice to expose it.
Is it really surprising that the U.S. uses its tapping capabilities to soak up phone communications in Afghanistan, a country where American troops are fighting a war? Despite overwhelming public opinion against the war—and public criticism of NSA spying—that sort of intelligence-gathering might actually be reassuring to many Americans, particularly those with loved ones working there.
Wikileaks points out, fairly, that they're concerned not about U.S. troops but about Afghans. Yet is this Afghanistan revelation really that surprising or helpful to Afghans, considering the state of the fractured, violent nation they've lived in under a decade and a half of foreign invasion—not just by the U.S.-led coalition, but by bin Laden's "Arab Afghans" and Pakistan-based insurgents?
Greenwald et al said they had "specific, credible concerns that" identifying Afghanistan in their report "could lead to increased violence" there. But what violence, and against whom? The vagueness of both their report and Wikileaks' wouldn't seem to bring any opprobrium down on a particular person, company, or organization that couldn't already have been branded as collaborators by warring groups in Afghanistan.
The Intercept passage seems to imply that there was more of a concern that this news would simply arouse anti-U.S. anger and result in violence in Afghanistan. But that wouldn't be anything new, either—certainly no newer than earlier revelations about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, out of the Wikileaks document troves leaked by Chelsea Manning, that Greenwald championed in recent years.
About the only thing that makes sense here is why Wikileaks would want the information out, even when the Intercept doesn't. There's the group's ethical performance, a sort of information absolutism that asserts all government secrets should be public knowledge.
But there's also a practical concern: If Greenwald, Poitras et al, who've shown little to no fear in their previous publishing, found a line they couldn't cross when it came to releasing Snowden's secrets, it's a tacit but pointed condemnation of the relatively indiscriminate way Assange and Team Wikileaks have gone about releasing the Chelsea Manning files. It would suggest that there is a way to be radically for government transparency and still respect government's fundamental right to having privileged information—and Wikileaks recklessly spurns that way.
In any case, we're reaching out to Intercept Editor in Chief (and our former Gawker boss) John Cook to see if he can add anything to our understanding of this flap, and the stakes involved.
[Illustration by Josh Begley courtesy of the Intercept]