Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
Keep CounterPunch ad free. Support our annual fund drive today!

Greenwald Botches NSA Leak


Edward Snowden’s leak of NSA material was not well executed. One of several mistakes was that he sought refuge in Hong Kong, which, as the Times argues, “is likely to extradite leaker if U.S. asks”. And it’s not as though there weren’t alternatives: Snowden could’ve fled to Latin America, which is exactly where Julian Assange “strongly advise[s] him to go”.  As Assange put it, “Latin America has shown in the past 10 years that it is really pushing forward in human rights. There’s a long tradition of asylum.” Assange is presently being given political asylum in Ecuador’s embassy in London.

It’s also puzzling that one of the journalists whom Snowden contacted about the leak, Glenn Greenwald, did not advise Snowden to forgo Hong Kong in favor of Latin America. Greenwald is a former civil rights litigator turned journalist who writes helpfully and knowledgeably about civil liberties: he can’t plausibly claim ignorance about the fact that Hong Kong typically cooperates with U.S. extradition requests. Having by his own account corresponded with Snowden “since February”, this would’ve given Greenwald plenty of time to research the likelihood that Hong Kong would grant Snowden political asylum. Greenwald even notes that he was “working with” Snowden “long before anyone spoke to Bart Gellman,” the only other journalist with whom Snowden corresponded. So Greenwald was not short on time to research potential safe havens for Snowden.

Snowden even informed Greenwald of his intentions to flee the country: as Greenwald recalled, “He sort of said, ‘My plan is, at some point, go somewhere far away, and I want you to come there and interview me.’” Then would’ve been a good time to exercise some journalistic ethics and see to it that his source would be going to a safe place. Having failed that, he complied with Snowden’s request to publish his name. Now Snowden is in a country that’s likely to extradite him, and he can’t fly somewhere else because the world knows who and where he is.

When Snowden first contacted Greenwald, Snowden reasonably requested that they communicate using encryption. Greenwald replied that he didn’t have encryption software. Snowden graciously sent him a homemade video with instructions on how to install such software, which Greenwald never completed. Irritated, Snowden then moved on to a filmmaker, Laura Poitras, who, when asked if she gets a lot of requests to communicate via encrypted methods, said “No, I don’t.” Presumably neither does Greenwald, which makes it all the more baffling that he didn’t bother to install encryption software per the directions he was so helpfully given.

To be fair, The Guardian is hardly unique in its failure to equip its journalists with encryption software or even knowledge about such tools. As Forbes columnist Andy Greenberg helpfully explains in his recent book, “This Machine Kills Secrets”, most if not all of the mainstream media fail to have adequate encryption software with which to communicate with potential sources. In most cases, either encryption software is installed lazily—riddled with security holes—or it isn’t installed at all. In contrast, Wikileaks features excellent encryption software along with protocols that very meaningfully protect leakers’ anonymity. As perplexing as Snowden’s choice of refuge is, so too was his choice to submit his leak to The Guardian instead of Wikileaks. It’s worth noting that Bradley Manning was caught because of human rather than technological failure. Manning confided his leak in a friend who would later give him the Judas treatment. Wikileaks’ software, based in large part on the Tor anonymity engine, succeeded in concealing Manning’s identity.

Barton Gellman, who scooped Greenwald by about twenty minutes, had an interesting explanation for why he decided to publish the story when he did. Though he “would have been happier to have had a day or two” on the story, he “started to hear some footsteps, so I had to move.” The cynicism is astonishing. God forbid The Guardian should beat Gellman to the story by 30 minutes or so. If only Gellman’s concern over being the first to break the story was matched by his concern for the source’s safety; Snowden then might not be facing likely extradition, as he is now. When sources are regarded as merely opportunities for career advancement, it’s no wonder there aren’t more people leaking to the press.

It’s unclear to me which is the greater threat to freedom of the press: cyber surveillance or journalists’ vainglory.

Ken Klippenstein lives in Madison, Wisconsin, USA, where he edits the left issues journal, He can be reached at

Ken Klippenstein is an American journalist who can be reached on Twitter @kenklippenstein or by email:

More articles by:

2016 Fund Drive
Smart. Fierce. Uncompromised. Support CounterPunch Now!

  • cp-store
  • donate paypal

CounterPunch Magazine


Weekend Edition
October 28, 2016
Friday - Sunday
John Pilger
Inside the Invisible Government; War, Propaganda, Clinton & Trump
Andrew Levine
The Hillary Era is Coming: Worry!
Gary Leupp
Seven World-Historical Achievements of the Iraq Invasion of 2003
Paul Street
Standing Rock Water-Protectors Waterboarded While the Cleveland Indians Romped
Stanley L. Cohen
Israel: 1984 Everlasting
Michael Brenner
American Foreign Policy in the Post-Trump Era
Luciana Bohne
Crossing the Acheron: Back to Vietnam
Robert Hunziker
The Political Era of Climate Refugees
Stephen Cooper
Alabama’s Last Execution was an Atrocity
Pete Dolack
Work Harder So Speculators Can Get More
Joyce Nelson
Canadians Launch Constitutional Challenge Against CETA
John Laforge
US Uranium Weapons Have Been Used in Syria
Paul Edwards
The Vision Thing ’16
Arshad Khan
Hillary, Trump and Sartre: How Existentialism Disrobes the Major Presidential Candidates
Peter Lee
It’s ON! Between Duterte and America
Joseph Grosso
Starchitects in the City: Vanity Fair and Gentrification
Patrick Carr
Economic Racial Disparity in North Carolina
David Swanson
Public vs. Media on War
Chris Gilbert
Demo Derby in Venezuela: The Left’s New Freewheeling Politics
Binoy Kampmark
Nobel Confusion: Ramos-Horta, Trump and World Disorder
Stephen Cooper
Alabama’s Last Execution Was an Atrocity
Binoy Kampmark
Nobel Confusion: Ramos-Horta, Trump and World Disorder
Russell Mokhiber
Lucifer’s Banker: Bradley Birkenfeld on Corporate Crime in America
Ron Jacobs
Death to the Fascist Insect! The SLA and the Cops
Cesar Chelala
Embargo on Cuba is an Embarrassment for the United States
Jack Smith
And the Winner Is….
Ken Knabb
Beyond Voting: the Limits of Electoral Politics
Matt Peppe
An Alternate Narrative on Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump
James Rothenberg
Water Under the Bridge
Louis Yako
Remembering Rasul Gamzatov: The Poet of the People
Brian Cloughley
The US, NATO and the Pope
Louis Proyect
The Outsider-Insider: Isaac Babel’s Big Mistake
Martin Billheimer
Now and Then, Ancient Sorceries
October 27, 2016
Paul Street
An Identity-Politicized Election and World Series Lakefront Liberals Can Love
Matthew Stevenson
Sex and the Presidential City
Jim Kavanagh
Tom Hayden’s Haunting
CJ Hopkins
The Pathologization of Dissent
Mike Merryman-Lotze
The Inherent Violence of Israel’s Gaza Blockade
Robert Fisk
Is Yemen Too Much for the World to Take?
Shamus Cooke
Stopping Hillary’s Coming War on Syria
Jan Oberg
Security Politics and the Closing of the Open Society
Ramzy Baroud
The War on UNESCO: Al-Aqsa Mosque is Palestinian and East Jerusalem is Illegally Occupied
Colin Todhunter
Lower Yields and Agropoisons: What is the Point of GM Mustard in India?
Norman Pollack
The Election: Does It Matter Who Wins?
Nyla Ali Khan
The Political and Cultural Richness of Kashmiriyat