When journalists attack: Glenn Greenwald takes on Kurt Eichenwald over the NSA story

Glenn Greenwald, a lawyer and author who writes for The Guardian, has come under fire for his reporting about the National Security Agency’s secret PRISM surveillance program, including criticism that the story was reported in haste and missed (or mis-stated) some crucial details.

On Tuesday, some of this behind-the-scenes drama broke out into the open, during a Twitter battle between Greenwald and Vanity Fair writer Kurt Eichenwald — a debate that throws into sharp relief some important differences between the Guardian writer and some of the others writing about the NSA story.

The argument started when Eichenwald, who has written a number of books about political and social issues, said the NSA program had been around for 10 years and asked when “the fearful” thought it had been used against them (these are excerpts from a Storify collection, which is here, but embedding the Storify widget here doesn’t seem to be working at the moment):

Greenwald - Eichenwald tweet0

Eichenwald’s tweet got a response from Julian Sanchez of the Cato Institute — who tweets under the handle @normative — and then Greenwald responded to them both (in a comment clearly aimed at Eichenwald), questioning the fact that some writers call themselves “journalists” and then demand secrecy:

Greenwald - Eichenwald tweet1

The Vanity Fair writer responded with a series of tweets that mimicked the phrase Greenwald used in his comment — suggesting that the Guardian writer knows nothing about national security, that “having a single source constitutes having knowledge” and that government secrecy is necessary:

Greenwald - Eichenwald tweet3

Greenwald - Eichenwald tweet5

Greenwald then suggested that Eichenwald’s comments made it sound like “you work for the Pentagon,” and that this was clearly the point of the Vanity Fair writer’s approach to national security issues — and questioned his use of NSA officials as sources:

Greenwald - Eichenwald tweet4

Greenwald - Eichenwald tweet7

To this, Eichenwald suggested that just because someone has additional information on a story, it doesn’t mean that they have been “compromised,” and Greenwald accused the Vanity Fair writer of “parroting what gov’t officials tell you and calling it journalism.”

Greenwald - Eichenwald tweet8

Greenwald - Eichenwald tweet9

The Guardian writer said Eichenwald should “go be a spokesman for the Pentagon” and that this would be more honest than his current approach to the topic, and Eichenwald said that Greenwald didn’t understand the reasons for classification rules and that based on his personal attack, “the gloves are off.”

Greenwald - Eichenwald tweet10

Greenwald - Eichenwald tweet11

Greenwald responded that he knew plenty about the NSA, having written about it for seven years, and that he had also written a book about the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

Greenwald - Eichenwald tweet12

At this point, Eichenwald said the Guardian writer was “arrogant” for arguing that anyone who disagreed with him was beholden to the government, and Greenwald responded in kind:

Greenwald - Eichenwald tweet19

Greenwald - Eichenwald tweet20

While this might seem like just a lot of carping and bickering between two journalists, the issue at the core of this Twitter tiff is clearly Greenwald’s status as an outsider on national security issues — something that I (and others, including journalism professor Jay Rosen) have argued made it possible for him to move to the forefront of the reporting on the Edward Snowden leaks.

That outsider status has also made him a target for those within the traditional national-security establishment, however — a group that Eichenwald would likely fall into — because they perceive him as overstating the Snowden documents or not fully understanding them, and of attacking the government for a program that they believe has a valid purpose.

And perhaps they are also more than a little jealous that Greenwald is getting attention for a story they knew about but didn’t report much on, until the Snowden leaks threw the doors open and let all that sunlight in.

Disclosure: Guardian News & Media is an investor in the parent company of GigaOM/paidContent.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Abysim