June 13, 2013

Does nobody read USA Today? The surprising furor over NSA spying


Leaker Edward Snowden, who passed key documents on NSA spying programs to The Guardian and Washington Post

In 2005, New York Times reporters James Risen and Eric Lichtblau published a story detailing how the Bush administration had allowed the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on phone calls between Americans and callers outside of the U.S. without warrants, despite a law that prevented the NSA from doing just this. The story was a triumph of investigative reporting, relying on “nearly a dozen current and former officials,” but it also represented a significant failure of the press: as New York magazine reported in 2006, the Times had actually bowed to pressure from the Bush administration and shelved the story for more than a year. It was only after the 2004 elections that the Times decided to run it—and in reality only after one of the reporters who worked on the piece, Risen, made plans to publish the eavesdropping story in a book, State of War. (Which, as an earlier MobyLives story noted, led the government to spy on Risen himelf, sharp criticism from the White House, and an arrest of one of his sources, as Moby also reported.)

But the timidity of the press relating to NSA stories somewhat evaporated after 2005. In May 2006, USA Today published a blockbuster story that detailed that it was not only international calls that were being spied upon: the NSA, the paper methodically reported, was also working to collect data on every single phone call made in the United States.

For those who doubted USA Today, there was AT&T whistle-blower Mark Klein, who appeared on the scene a month before the USA Today story to explain, again to the New York Times, how such a dragnet actually worked: he told of watching the NSA install the machinery required to intercept phone records near his office at AT&T in San Francisco. (In an odd twist, Dean Baquet, soon to become the Times Washington bureau chief, passed on publishing Klein’s story at the Los Angeles Times.) And always in the background: James Bamford, the master chronicler of the NSA, whose 2008 book The Shadow Factory provided even more evidence and detail on how the NSA was implementing a massive program to collect phone records.

In recent months, you might even have seen Bamford’s name on the March cover of Wired magazine. The headline reads: “Deep in the Utah desert, the National Security Agency is building the country’s biggest spy center. It’s the final piece of a secret surveillance network that will intercept and store your phone calls, emails, Google searches.” Wired, of course, has nearly a million readers.

But watching cable television for the past few nights, I wondered if anyone had actually been reading the news for the past eight years. Given all of the outrage about new disclosures about the NSA programs, it occurred to me that few people had read—or understood—what had been reported in the press. The real failure, it now seems clear, was on the part of consumers of news.

It’s not taking anything away from whistle-blower Edward Snowden or The Guardian and the Washington Post, which published his leaks, to ponder at the fact that Americans—and even the press corps—seem surprised to learn that the NSA is intercepting phone records and internet traffic. Does nobody, I wondered, read USA Today?

Snowden’s leaks, of course, add critical details and documents to the story. In a leaked court order to Verizon, for instance, we learn that the company is in fact prohibited from disclosing what data it gives to the government. And the disclosure of the Prism internet surveillance program is genuinely newsworthy.

But what is one to make of the current succession of op-eds and talking heads, most implying that Edward Snowden’s disclosures tell us something we didn’t already know? Is it possible that these people just weren’t paying attention? It seems hardly plausible that these commentators are in fact the very people that needed more press reports with additional information to finally believe all the press reports that came before.

No, it seems to be something more unresolvable: that we’ve stumbled on a moment when Americans finally seem willing to debate the mysterious government spying programs. Some of this surely has to do with a dramatic PowerPoint implicating America’s biggest internet companies. A rogue spy in Hong Kong doesn’t exactly hurt the story. But even these hooks don’t entirely explain the revelations of the last week and the public’s uncharacteristic reaction to the news.


Kelly Burdick is the executive editor of Melville House.