Whistleblowers Vs. Newspapers: The Bias on Disclosures

John Glaser, September 30, 2013


According to government officials speaking to the New York Times, traditional mainstream newspaper reporting of a single incident last month caused more damage to national security than everything Edward Snowden leaked.

As the nation’s spy agencies assess the fallout from disclosures about their surveillance programs, some government analysts and senior officials have made a startling finding: the impact of a leaked terrorist plot by Al Qaeda in August has caused more immediate damage to American counterterrorism efforts than the thousands of classified documents disclosed by Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor.

Since news reports in early August revealed that the United States intercepted messages between Ayman al-Zawahri, who succeeded Osama bin Laden as the head of Al Qaeda, and Nasser al-Wuhayshi, the head of the Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, discussing an imminent terrorist attack, analysts have detected a sharp drop in the terrorists’ use of a major communications channel that the authorities were monitoring. Since August, senior American officials have been scrambling to find new ways to surveil the electronic messages and conversations of Al Qaeda’s leaders and operatives.

“The switches weren’t turned off, but there has been a real decrease in quality” of communications, said one United States official, who like others quoted spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence programs.

Why is this important? While I’m not all that interested in isolated official estimates of what information hurts national security, this is notable because of how the two instances were treated. Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, Bart Gellman, the Guardian and nearly everyone who was associated with those NSA leaks were denounced as traitors, depicted as dangerous outsiders, and were targeted viciously for their disclosures.

McClatchy, the New York Times, and the Daily Beast reported heavily on this intercepted al-Qaeda communication, reporting that U.S. officials now say harmed national security to a far greater degree, and yet they weren’t universally denounced, scrutinized, and called traitors.

Why the bias? At their core, the two sets of disclosures were essentially the same. Both involved government officials of some sort with privileged access to classified information and dishing it out to established journalists at reputable publications.

Snowden did it to push for accountability and put pressure on government surveillance and overreach. And he didn’t do it anonymously. The al-Qaeda intercept, on the other hand, was arguably (although this is speculative) leaked to counter the narrative Snowden’s leaks had induced and rectify the public’s confidence in surveillance. Those are the differences, and it may make clear why they were treated so differently in the media. Snowden’s leaks were meant to undermine government and keep it accountable. The other leaks were aimed to bolster government and propagandize its worth.

4 Responses to “Whistleblowers Vs. Newspapers: The Bias on Disclosures”

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  2. I thought that the argument saying that the communications intercepted were fake was plausible because of how destructive it was to tell al-Zawahri that his communications were being monitored. What was stopping them from capturing him? They should have been able to trace where he was communicating from. It is interesting that there are completely different points of view in the government and media regarding this issue. I guess there is the royal court that is pretty much immune to criticism, introspection, reflection, and then there is everyone else.

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