Intercepting, disseminating, researching

NATIONAL SECURITY AGENCY (NSA) Source: Trevor Paglen
NATIONAL SECURITY AGENCY (NSA)
Source: Trevor Paglen

A week ago, First Look Media – FLM – went live with its first publication, The Intercept. If you haven’t already checked it out, you must. FLM is founded and funded by Pierre Omidyar, the founder of ebay, but names much more recognizable to this blog founded Intercept : Glen Greenwald (formerly at the Guardian); Jeremy Scahill (formerly at the Nation) and Laura Poitras (the documentary film-maker). Their initial focus will be on covering the NSA story so this will be the new space to watch for future revelations from the Snowden files:

“Our focus in this very initial stage will be overwhelmingly on the NSA story. We will use all forms of digital media for our reporting. We will publish original source documents on which our reporting is based. We will have reporters in Washington covering reactions to these revelations and the ongoing reform efforts.”Screen Shot 2014-02-17 at 11.51.42 AM

The first stories do not disappoint. Scahill and Greenwald published a story that finally links the NSA files to the U.S. global “kill/capture” program, but their principal source is actually two former drone pilots who flew JSOC missions and who spoke out against the way that the NSA/CIA/JSOC is using geo-location  data – so called “SIGINT” (signals intelligence) as opposed to HUMINT (human intelligence) – to track and kill the ‘enemy’ in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen. Except they’re actually tracking cell phone sim cards and while NSA intelligence has become vital in this regard it is not clear at all whether it is helping the agencies actually kill the ‘right’ people and as they report, quoting the anonymous drone pilot:

“Some top Taliban leaders, knowing of the NSA’s targeting method, have purposely and randomly distributed SIM cards among their units in order to elude their trackers. “They would do things like go to meetings, take all their SIM cards out, put them in a bag, mix them up, and everybody gets a different SIM card when they leave,” the former drone operator says. “That’s how they confuse us.””

Derek Gregory has much more on all of this and puts the recent revelations in context of what we already knew (see here), and I have little to add to his analysis save for one point about what this kind of  journalism and what these revelations mean for scholars like me working on these issues. My own work focuses on the role of military lawyers – ‘Judge Advocates’ – in these operations, and although there has been very little so far by way of leaks specifically related to the military lawyer, the wider revelations about US targeted killing (and these go back to Wikileaks) are vital to understanding the targeting apparatus and how it works. For example and in fact unrelated to the NSA revelations is the transcript of a US drone strike in Afghanistan on February 21 2010 that was released under FOIA to the L.A. Times in 2011. In that conversation between the drone pilots, intelligence and ground crews, no lawyer is present. We don’t know if the strike was given prior legal approval or whether there is another transcript that includes the opinion of the legal adviser. We also don’t know whether it is standard operating procedure for the lawyer not to have ‘live’ direct contact with pilots at the time of a strike, or whether the situation has changed since 2011. Nonetheless, such transcripts raise obvious legal questions – the trigger happy pilots end up firing at civilians despite the fact that there was no clear indication that they were ‘combatants’ – and cast doubt on the fact that targeting follows water-tight legal procedures. We wonder what a lawyer would have said: would s/he have approved the strike or would s/he have advised against it, in which case further questions follow: what happens when commanders and pilots go against the legal advice they are given? Such transcripts show us that, as the drone pilot in Scahill and Greenwald’s story reported:

This isn’t a science. This is an art.’”

The point is that transcripts like these – and leaks like those being reported by Intercept – fill in important parts of the picture; they confirm and provide evidence for things we think we thought we knew but could not prove (what would scholarship be without such evidence?) and often tell us things that we simply did not know. In the process we are able to learn how this thing that I have called the ‘targeting machine‘ works. (Incidentally, I’m working on a paper by that name where I’m trying to work my way through theories of the apparatus and the assemblage to understand the role that law plays in the targeting machine). Another classic example is Jeremy Scahill’s most recent book Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield. It’s a book rich in empirical detail, informed by interviews with a variety of sources that most scholars could never dream to get their hands on, whether because we lack the contacts, the skills or (and?) the resources to do so.  Journalists can go to places that I (we) cannot, and I mean this literally . Unfortunately some of these journalists – and I’m thinking here especially of Greenwald – cannot go to places we may go to: the UK and US governments have both indicated that he would likely be arrested if he flew to either of those places, and others have made calls that he should face punishment. If we need any convincing of the importance of new ventures like Intercept we should re-watch the now infamous video of the day that the UK Government forced the Guardian to destroy the Snowden hard drives.  I have come to rely on critical journalism for my research and it may turn out that critical journalism needs us as scholars, and not only to speak in favour of what they do (assuming, of course that ‘we’ do), but to demonstrate via our own work the importance of their work.

One person successfully straddling that artful line between the academy and journalism is geographer and artist Trevor Paglen who provides the second story at Intercept. His question: ‘What does a surveillance state look like?’ is answered in his classic visual aesthetic, and for his latest project he has taken to the skies of Maryland and Virginia in a helicopter to photograph key sites of the U.S. security state. See the video and seductive-yet-somehow-troubling images far above and below.

NATIONAL SECURITY AGENCY (NSA). Source: Trevor Paglen
NATIONAL SECURITY AGENCY (NSA). Source: Trevor Paglen

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