Stewart Baker: Journalists Are To Blame For Making The NSA Look Like It’s Doing All The Things It’s Actually Doing

Stewart Baker, former NSA General Counsel and unofficial apologist for the DHS, CIA and NSA, is still trying to pin the blame for everything on everyone that isn’t a member of these fine American agencies. Privacy activists are to blame for TSA groping. Civil libertarians are to blame for the 9/11 attacks. FISA minimization procedures are also to blame for the 9/11 attacks. Encryption is to blame for the Blackberry’s disappearance from the cellphone market. And so on.

Now, in an interview with Wired where he supposedly dispels “cyber-security myths,” it’s journalists who are to blame for people’s distrust of government surveillance. But, you know, not in the flattering sort of way where uncomfortable truths are told and transparency is forced on reluctant, shadowy agencies. No, it’s in the bad way where journalists didn’t present a “fair” picture of domestic surveillance.

He leads off by saying there’s no possible way to hold a “conversation” about surveillance programs because to do so compromises security. We’re supposed to just trust the government on this, apparently.

This assertion is challenged by Wired’s Caleb Garling, who asks Baker whether Snowden’s leaks have served any positive purpose. Baker says there’s nothing to be gained because it’s journalists — not the Executive Branch and the intelligence community — that have been secretive and dishonest.

It was a scam from the start. Greenwald, Poitras, Snowden, and Bart Gellman did exactly what people like them have been accusing the intelligence community of doing for 40 years. They used the classification to tell a partial story in the hopes of shaping the debate, and they succeeded.

They released that order saying the government is scarfing up metadata about all your calls and they withheld, for roughly two weeks,* the [documentation] which they all had which showed all the limitations on that access. Why? Because they didn’t want a debate on the limitations—they wanted to leave the impression that everybody’s phone calls are looked at by NSA and they have succeeded in leaving that impression because of their manipulation of the classified information. That’s a shame.

*OMG ALMOST TWO WHOLE WEEKS

Left unmentioned by Baker is the fact that the government could have stepped in at any time and countered this mis-impression. But it never did. It still doesn’t, at least not to any significant extent. When documents are served up by news agencies with access to them, they’re routinely greeted with denials, refusals to comment or cliches about “lawful authority” and “oversight.” Only very belatedly has the government experimented with transparency, and even in this, there’s routinely more redaction than insight.

While it’s true that the debate over security vs. privacy will always be somewhat hampered by security concerns, the US government spent years hiding its expanding surveillance programs from everybody, including oversight committees and the FISA Court. It made no effort over the next decade-plus to welcome the public to the debate — mostly because it had already held this debate in the public’s absence shortly after the 9/11 attacks. Now, government apologists like Baker want to blame the press for “skewing” the perception of these agencies and their tactics. But what other view could possibly have been presented? The government — until June of 2013 — held (almost) all the cards. Snowden gave journalists a deck of these own and Baker wants to criticize how the press played its limited hand.

Someone who spent years keeping information out of the public’s hands (and applauds further efforts to do the same) is in no position to criticize the transparency efforts of others, no matter how subjectively much it looks like activists pitching skewed narratives.

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