A risky strategy on Greenwald’s part

Both Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald had long hinted that even greater bombshells were in the works and in recent days, Greenwald has indicated that this will be in the form of revealing the names of those who have been spied upon by the NSA.

If one has a big scoop, is it a good idea to give out a teaser? It is dangerous to do so for several reasons. One is that the time between the hint and the actual news may result in expectations being built up beyond reason and the news itself may be seen as a damp squib. Do you recall the build up by Dean Kamen promising a dramatic new invention that eventually turned out to be the Segway? It is a nifty little device but disappointed those who had built up their hopes for something much more spectacular.

So if you are giving a teaser, you had better be sure that it lives up to its expectations.

The other danger in the case of Greenwald’s teaser is that it gives the government time to think of a way to neutralize the effects of this revelation. They are undoubtedly hindered by the fact that nearly a year after the revelations began, they still do not seem to know exactly what documents were taken and how many. In order to scare people, they have leaked to friendly reporters that about 1.7 million documents were involved even though Greenwald has said repeatedly that the number is in the tens of thousands.

What I suspect they might do is leak to friendly reporters that ‘of course’ the names of some well-known people who are not terrorists may have inadvertently been swept up in the dragnet, so that when the news breaks they can minimize it as ‘old news’. In this they will be aided by the servile pundit class.

On the other hand, putting out a teaser increases the anticipation of the news and keeps it in the public’s eye by enabling people to speculate on who may or not make the cut. For some, it will be considered a badge of honor to be thought of as an enemy by the NSA. Older readers may recall the release of president Nixon’s infamous secret list of enemies. As I said in a comment to another post, Paul Newman said that he considered being on Nixon’s list to be his greatest accomplishment. Humorist Art Buchwald had a hilarious column where he blasted the Nixon administration for not putting him on the list. As a result he said that his social standing had plummeted and he was now considered a nobody. Head waiters would seat him at the worst tables. He stopped being invited to the fanciest parties. People would no longer return his calls. He said nobody hated the Nixon administration more than him and he fumed, “What kind of incompetent administration does not know who its real enemies are?”

Greenwald and Snowden are pretty media-savvy and likely have considered all these possibilities. But it is still a risky move.


  1. hyphenman says


    I fear a damp squib in much the same way The//Intercept has been disappointing.


  2. funknjunk says

    I’m not disappointed at all in the Intercept. I would prefer more, of course, but I would also prefer all parties involved not go to jail, put there by a vicious government. What they’re doing is difficult and time-consuming, and I think they’re going about it the right way. They are carefully precluding all of the arguments against them by making them technically and legally airtight. Nothing but kudos from me. I got lots to do in my life; I can wait patiently for the next set of revelations….. They’re getting their house in order and I am anticipating a superb modern digital news organization when all is said and done. Greenwald and Taibbi on the same team….. damn.

  3. hyphenman says


    I hope you are correct.

    However, I’ve done two magazine start ups on much tighter budgets and larger staff/infrastructure than The//Intercept appears to have and the process appears to be dragging on too long.


  4. colnago80 says

    In looking over the Intercept site, they don’t seem to update very often. A slow start it appears.

  5. says

    It might be a trifle harder than some, though, hyphenman, given that Greenwald is a hunted fugitive in most of the countries where his new organization will be working, and the world’s only superpower doing some pretty shady police-state stuff to try and do an extra-territorial snatch. I’m inclined to give him some slack in having some speedbumps in accomplishing a truly independent news org in that environment. For a start, he has to worry about a plant/mole, which by far most news orgs or magazines don’t.

    Especially not moles who could lead to him ending up in Guantanamo forever.

  6. says

    If Greenwald is as media savy as I think he is, than the only thing that can possibly live up to such a “teaser” is not that there are citizens under surveillance that are not terrorists, if anything the NSA leaks have already revealed that…. it is that the US government either assassinated of framed political dissidents through NSA intelligence. If that is the case, then there is no amount of “preparation” the government can make to neutralize it.

    I think this is possible considering what we already know about the FBI counter intelligence program and how it was used to assassinate political dissidents in the past. If anything, I am hoping this leak will link to one of the US governments more recent operations of political suppression – when the FBI assassinated Puerto Rican Nationalist Leader Filiberto Ojeda Rios not to long ago. Many indigenous activists in America and Latin American activist have long suspected that the co-intel pro type actions have continued under the NSA. If this scoop is as big as he claims, that is the only thing that I can think of that would make a bigger splash than the workings of the NSA itself.

  7. colnago80 says

    Re dezn_98 @ #6

    when the FBI assassinated Puerto Rican Nationalist Leader Filiberto Ojeda Rios

    You mean the bank robber Rios.

  8. doublereed says

    Eh, as long as the information is somewhat mindblowing then I think it’s fine. I mean people have constantly been saying “OH BUT WE ALREADY KNEW THIS” about even the craziest of programs. I’m sure they’ll say it about this too, even if Lady Gaga was on the list.

    I mean Greenwald basically already said what he was going to reveal, so the White House could definitely beat them to the punch if they wanted to.

  9. AsqJames says

    I’m not sure the comparison with Nixon’s enemies list, and the reaction to being/not being on it, will be applicable.

    I doubt GG et al have an exhaustive list of all the people the NSA, GCHQ and the rest of the five eyes have deliberately targeted for comprehensive electronic surveillance. In the highly unlikely event they have such a list, their 11 month record of selectivity suggests they wouldn’t release the whole thing anyway.

    Apart from anything else, that really would be helping terrorists or potential terrorists, or at the very least could too easily be painted as such. Any terrorist attack in the next few years will be laid right at Greenwald’s door. They’ll say (with some justification) that anyone not on the list will have felt emboldened and couldn’t be identified because they knew not to have any contact with those on it.

    Today’s Art Buchwalds will not be saying “Hey, why aren’t I on the list?”. They’ll be saying “Hey, I have something in common with that person on the list. Is that why they targeted him/her? Was I targeted too?”

    I think the level of reaction will depend on why the named individuals were targeted. A group of high profile journalists would be interesting (particularly if some on the list have labeled Snowden and/or Greenwald traitor). A few corporations (or super-rich individuals) with dodgy off-shore tax arrangements might put the government in a very awkward position: between their sugar-daddies and the taxpayers who are being screwed over.

    What’s interesting to me is that so far the revelations about rich or powerful people/organisations have been (I think?) exclusively non-US (e.g. Angela Merkel, Petrobras). This doesn’t seem to have bothered the American elite too much. Sorry dezn_98 @#6, but I suspect as long as the targets were suitably foreignish it would be no different whatever was actually being done to them. If comparable US people/companies, members of the domestic oligarchy, were the targets however….

  10. hyphenman says


    First, Greenwald is no longer in serious danger. Remember, he came to New York in May to pick up his award.

    Second, Greenwald can do everything he needs to do at this point from his veranda in Brazil.


  11. hyphenman says


    Last time I checked, the FBI is not in the business of assassinating bank robbers.


  12. Glenn says

    The list is important to establish what laws were broken and who the state recognizes as its enemies.

    If it comes out wrapped in a red ribbon or a blue ribbon, it doesn’t matter. If it comes out with scantily clad ladies lounging over copies of it, it doesn’t matter. If it comes out with chocolate or vanilla frosting on top it doesn’t matter.

    What matters is that millions of Americans don’t know that anything important has happened and when presented with the facts they will wonder what all the fuss was about while rating the presentation and then promptly forgetting the content, without ever getting to its meaning and implications.

    How many Wikileaks documents are released or even talked about anymore? These have all moved past the event horizon for practical purposes. How much does COINTELPRO factor into public understanding about current events?

    Millions of people don’t even remember how Snowden got stuck in Russia.

    Believe it or not, there are some things that are about more than their ability to titillate, even if most people will find them boring and forget them the next day.

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