Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Blackmailing Uncle Sam


Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian journalist responsible for the NSA disclosures, may be going a bit too far into spy noir territory. In a recent interview he announced that

Snowden has enough information to cause harm to the U.S. government in a single minute than any other person has ever had. The U.S. government should be on its knees every day begging that nothing happen to Snowden, because if something does happen to him, all the information will be revealed and it could be its worst nightmare.

I am not making moral judgements. I find this rhetoric understandable, though clearly, whatever Snowden’s motives — and no one in politics has unmixed motives, nor should they be expected to have — by placing this dangerous information in the hands of persons unknown with some kind of dead-man’s trigger, he’s clearly increased the likelihood of it being released accidentally, which is quite a responsibility to take upon oneself.

But I’m thinking about Greenwald’s position. So far, despite the wish of some grandstanding congressmen to criminalise his role, Greenwald has clearly been a journalist. The Obama administration seems eager to draw some kind of line between “real journalists” and everyone else to prevent his administration’s witchhunting from completely gutting press freedom, so they might have played along. But they seem eager to prosecute national security leaks to the extent that they can find a bright line separating a given case from the bulk of journalism. Greenwald has given it to them, and I would be surprised if there were not a secret grand jury preparing charges against him for attempting to pervert the course of justice, or whatever the US federal term is for that.

However he meant it, Greenwald’s announcement sounds an awful lot like the language of blackmail, and that’s surely plenty of a hook for them to hang him on. This moves him from being a reporter to being a participant or, as I’m sure they’ll phrase it in the indictment, a co-conspirator. Blackmailing the feds is a pretty heavy game to play.

[Update 7/15: Greenwald has commented on his remarks, and it definitely looks as though Reuters has gone out of its way to frame a defence of Snowden’s motivations — he has held on to a lot of information that could be of great value to enemies of the US which he has not divulged, though he could reap significant rewards for it — in the theatrical argot of a mobster’s shakedown. That doesn’t change the fact that it’s not hard to imagine creative prosecutors twisting this story into a noose for an uncomfortable journalist; and that Snowden is playing a very dangerous game — just to make one obvious point, not everyone who might be in a position to harm him is opposed to his info bomb being detonated. Beginning with his current hosts…)

One technical comment about Snowden’s information bomb, whatever it is: A key problem with Snowden’s position is, it’s not clear what the endgame is. If the US government were to make concessions, in return for him defusing the bomb, I don’t see that there is any way for him to prove that it is defused. He could always have another copy of the data stashed somewhere. For that matter, there is no way for the US government to convincingly make concessions. In a normal criminal case they could make a grant of immunity, but clearly the way “terrorism-related” jurisprudence works these days, there would be no formal impediment to the state reneging on such a grant. Maybe a presidential pardon could stick, but who really knows? It’s a bit of a problem with the one-way process of bending the rules. You actually lose leverage when people don’t feel you can be trusted to bound by any legal commitments.

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