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

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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):

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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.”

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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.”

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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.

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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:

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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

21 Responses to “When journalists attack: Glenn Greenwald takes on Kurt Eichenwald over the NSA story”

  1. Hello Matthew,

    Kudos to you for quoting this Twitter exchange.

    As a retired journalist, I’m appalled by the mainstream journalists’ at the attacks on Greenwald.

    It is my understanding that journalists’ first imperative is to be watchdog of the government, it’s excesses and abuses.

    When did that change?

    • unclefishbits

      Odd that, as a retired journalist, the name doesn’t come up anywhere in relation to journalism… but maybe it’s an alternate name. Whatever.

      The reason you don’t need to be “appalled” and the reason GG deserves being taken to task is that he has absolutely no idea what he is talking about, just as all his fans, or all the people freaking out about this in social media. Privacy is over, and people don’t understand what the term means. What’s more, no one can define it, because it is a relatively new concept from the 20th century that was a lark. People mean civil liberties, but argue about the red herring of privacy because they are ignorant.

      David Simon, a proper investigative journalist from Baltimore (also penned the Wire) wrote it best:

      Read that.


      You haven’t needed a warrant to sit on a dump of data since 1979. More importantly, the 4th amendment doesn’t apply to 3rd party contracts…. it simply doesn’t apply.

      Any cell contract, any social site, any app…. that stuff isn’t yours, it’s theirs. You are the product, and completely irrelevent.

      If anyone reporting on this, like “REAL” journalists, actually had any idea what they were talking about, they would be ashamed. But Glenn doesn’t have time to be ashamed while building “brand muckraker”. It would be yellow journalism if he hadn’t drunk his own kool-aid. Until then, history is going to judge all of these people as ignorant, and that’s that.

  2. N.A. Mednick

    If the NSA program has been going on for 10 years, and if Obama says the program is transparent, then what’s the problem with Snowden revealing that the program exists? Where is the controversy and what damage has Snowden caused. The answers, of course, nowhere and none, respectively. Talk about a tempest in a teapot.

    • My understanding is that he stole documents. He also allegedly took an oath not to talk publically about the security system he was was working on. He broke confidentiality. It’s like an FBI agent discussing an operation with friends and family. .

  3. Morgan

    To my mind as a general reader, the essence is one of a tolerable imbalance between security and privacy. We will never reach a balanced state and my quandary is that as we cede freedoms for security they are never given back. Yet with the fear of domestic terriorism, we are not free of fear. Maybe debate on a more mature level is needed and not rants and name calling.

  4. nimbustree

    The NSA surveillance and monitoring of all US phone calls has been in effect for far longer than 10 years. It actually was in effect before the Bush administration (Clinton). What is being missed here is not the significance that this has on the present but rather on the past. I am referring to the days and months preceding 9/11. It is one more indication that the US government had foreknowledge of the plans of the planning of 9/11 including all conversations via phone that the alleged hijackers may have had.
    Not too long after the 9/11 there was a piece of news on the internet of how ALL US phone calls were being routed through a switching station in Israel. What was inferred in the piece was the risk of National security and that possible foreknowledge of the 9/11 based on the monitoring of phone conversations of certain foreigners in the US (ie. hijackers)
    I think that this is the bigger story that needs to be investigated. Now that we, the public know that this has been going on, it should be well within congressional demand that all information gleaned regarding conversations beyond the scope of the hijackers. Mr. Silverstein’s conversations over the phone are not protected by the guise of National Security, nor those by the then mayor! These should all be public. If not, let the leaks begin now!

  5. I give the decision to Greenwald. Anyone who’s dealt with the classification rules knows they’re arbitrary and overly broad. They may be necessary but Eichenwald treats them like the bible. Ugh.

  6. I think Greenwald is too emotionally invested in this story and has lost all objectivity. And his source (all one of him) is offering up a lot of rhetoric but no evidence to back up his claims that NSA has gone beyond data-mining. . If he had anything substantive, he’d have provided it by now. So I think what you interpret as peer jealousy is more professionals’ disgust at shoddy reporting. It reflects badly..

  7. Eichenwald asks what is often never knowable: what evidence do critics like Greenwald have that NSA snooping has harmed U.S. citizens? The fall from grace of former Governor Eliott Spitzer is very likely just such a case.

    The academic, Peter Dale Scott, tells a tale that should serve as a reminder about the vile uses to which Stasi-style domestic spying may be put.


    ” … Back in February (2008, BEFORE the financial collapse) Eliot Spitzer, in one of his last acts as governor of New York, warned about the impending crisis created by predatory lending, and reveled that the Bush Administration was blocking state efforts to deal with it. His extraordinary warning, in the Washington Post, is worth quoting at some length:

    Several years ago, state attorneys general and others involved in consumer protection began to notice a marked increase in a range of predatory lending practices by mortgage lenders. …

    Even though predatory lending was becoming a national problem, the Bush administration looked the other way and did nothing to protect American homeowners. In fact, the government chose instead to align itself with the banks that were victimizing consumers. . . . Several state legislatures, including New York’s, enacted laws aimed at curbing such practices. . . .Not only did the Bush administration do nothing to protect consumers, it embarked on an aggressive and unprecedented campaign to prevent states from protecting their residents from the very problems to which the federal government was turning a blind eye.

    Let me explain: The administration accomplished this feat through an obscure federal [Treasury] agency called the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC). The OCC has been in existence since the Civil War. Its mission is to ensure the fiscal soundness of national banks. For 140 years, the OCC examined the books of national banks to make sure they were balanced, an important but uncontroversial function. But a few years ago, for the first time in its history, the OCC was used as a tool against consumers.

    In 2003, during the height of the predatory lending crisis, the OCC invoked a clause from the 1863 National Bank Act to issue formal opinions preempting all state predatory lending laws, thereby rendering them inoperative. The OCC also promulgated new rules that prevented states from enforcing any of their own consumer protection laws against national banks. The federal government’s actions were so egregious and so unprecedented that all 50 state attorneys general, and all 50 state banking superintendents, actively fought the new rules.

    But the unanimous opposition of the 50 states did not deter, or even slow, the Bush administration in its goal of protecting the banks. In fact, when my office opened an investigation of possible discrimination in mortgage lending by a number of banks, the OCC filed a federal lawsuit to stop the investigation.21

    Eliot Spitzer submitted his Op Ed to the Washington Post on February 13. If it had an impact, it was not the one Spitzer had hoped for. On March 10 the New York Times broke the story of Spitzer’s encounter with a prostitute. According to a later Times story, “on Feb. 13 [the day Spitzer’s Op Ed went up on the Washington Post website] federal agents staked out his hotel in Washington.”22

    It is remarkable that the Mainstream Media found Spitzer’s private life to be big news, but not his charges that Paulson’s Treasury was prolonging the financial crisis, or the relation of these charges to Spitzer’s exposure. As a weblog commented,

    The US news media failed to draw the obvious connection between the bizarre federal law enforcement investigation and leak campaign about the private life of New York Governor Spitzer and Spitzer’s all out attack on the Bush administration for its collusion with predatory lenders.

    While the international credit system grinds to a halt because of a superabundance of bad mortgage loans made in the US, the news media failed to cover the details of Spitzer’s public charges against the White House.

    Yet when salacious details were leaked about alleged details of Spitzer’s private life, they took that information and made it the front page news for days.23

    After Spitzer’s Op Ed was published, according to Greg Palast, the Federal Reserve, “for the first time in its history, loaned a selected coterie of banks one-fifth of a trillion dollars to guarantee these banks’ mortgage-backed junk bonds. The deluge of public loot was an eye-popping windfall to the very banking predators who have brought two million families to the brink of foreclosure.”24

    End of quote. See Scott’s article for more:

    Citations: 21 Eliot Spitzer, “Predatory Lenders’ Partner in Crime: How the Bush Administration Stopped the States From Stepping In to Help Consumers,” Washington Post, February 14, 2008; A25, . Three months earlier, on November 8, 2007, Governor Spitzer and New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo had published a joint letter to Congress, “calling for continued federal action to combat subprime lending practices” (

    22 David Johnston and Philip Shenon, “U.S. Defends Tough Tactics on Spitzer,” New York Times, March 21, 2008.

    23 “Why Eliot Spitzer was assassinated: The predatory lending industry had a partner in the White House,” Brasscheck TV, March 2008,

    24 Greg Palast, “Eliot’s Mess: The $200 billion bail-out for predator banks and Spitzer charges are intimately linked,” Air America Radio’s Clout, March 14, 2008,

    The easiest explanation for this is that “they” knew what Spitzer was up to all along. The timing of his exposure – the very night his blistering piece hit the Wash Po’s website federal agents were dispatched to his hotel room – suggests the call came from “on high” to take the meddlesome governor down. [Had we heeded Spitzer, reigning in predatory lenders when his article appeared, which was before the crash, there might NOT have been a crash.]

    If even the Governor of New York can be destroyed by what appears to have been a Stasi-style, privacy-breeching operation, is anyone safe?