The Intercept, that fearless proponent of “independent” reporting and fierce foe of the surveillance state, just got played by the National Security Council (NSC) and — heavens to Betsy Reed! — the National Security Agency (NSA). The latter, I’m sure you’ll all recall, was exposed by Glenn Greenwald, The Intercept‘s chief hack and op-ed writer, and his pal Edward Snowden.
What’s even worse, in preparing its story — a bogus “scoop” under the headline “TRUMP WHITE HOUSE WEIGHING PLANS FOR PRIVATE SPIES TO COUNTER ‘DEEP STATE’ ENEMIES, which I’m about to demolish — The Intercept employed surveillance, blackmail and other sleazy and possibly illegal tactics routinely used by government security and intelligence agencies it routinely criticizes.
The story was co-written by Jeremy Scahill, who clearly harbors a huge man crush on Erik Prince, the founder of the private contractor previously known as Blackwater. His co-author was Matthew Cole, the former ABC News reporter who has the distinction of putting not one but two whistleblowers — John Kiriakou and more recently Reality Winner — behind bars. Here’s their sensational, and false, lede:
The Trump administration is considering a set of proposals developed by Blackwater founder Erik Prince and a retired CIA officer — with assistance from Oliver North, a key figure in the Iran-Contra scandal — to provide CIA Director Mike Pompeo and the White House with a global, private spy network that would circumvent official U.S. intelligence agencies, according to several current and former U.S. intelligence officials and others familiar with the proposals. The sources say the plans have been pitched to the White House as a means of countering “deep state” enemies in the intelligence community seeking to undermine Donald Trump’s presidency.
The creation of such a program raises the possibility that the effort would be used to create an intelligence apparatus to justify the Trump administration’s political agenda.
Parts of the story are true — The Intercept was hand-delivered contracts by its national security sources — but the entire premise was false, as were various of its elements. The broad proposed program they are discussing — and they conflated several separate components into one — is not illegal or “black,” it’s being reviewed through legal and authorized oversight channels, and would be an official, non-black government program run by intelligence agencies.
The Intercept may not like the proposed program, but it is not illegal. Whether it would work or not is far from clear, but it is designed to reverse 16 years of failure in Afghanistan and Iraq — of which Prince certainly has blame through Blackwater.
How did The Intercept bungle the story, beyond assigning two dishonest reporters to it? First off, sources tell me, the story was fed to The Intercept and other publications by Michael Anton, the far-right lunatic and spokesman for the NSC who I recently wrote about here.
Several sleazy NSA veterans who work on the Trump NSC, including Rob Joyce, had a hand in this media black operation as well. They all answer to National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, who runs the NSC. The grossly overrated McMaster — who was passed over twice for promotion before being given a third star during the Obama administration by discredited General David Petraeus — approved of the plan to manipulate the media.
Anton and others who were seeking to undermine the program fed their misinformation package to a number of outlets, including the Washington Post, which declined to publish the story after determining it was phony. BuzzFeed has published a number of stories on the topic, by the normally excellent Aram Roston, a rare actual reporter at that disreputable publication.
The worst part of all this is that The Intercept surveilled and surreptitiously photographed a number of private contractors involved in the program. Then Scahill and Cole contacted these individuals and told them they would publish their photographs unless they talked to them.
That’s called blackmail. It’s wrong, no matter what the “cause.”
It’s also unethical journalism. If you have information or photographs that belong in the public realm, you publish; you don’t withhold it as a reward for cooperation. It sort of reminds me of the U.S. torture program, where prisoners were rewarded — their torture stopped — if they ratted others out.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, The Intercept is using vile tactics deployed by the national security state, and in this case on behalf of the national security state, which doesn’t want to cede power to private contractors. Again, I’m not endorsing the privatization of intelligence, but let’s debate the topic honestly and not fall in love with, and be used by, the CIA, the NSA and the NSC. We’re journalists, not whores, at least some of us.
The Intercept story represents the weaponization of the state’s security instruments against private citizens. It used the tools of collection and surveillance on behalf of elements within the national security state.
I asked Scahill, Greenwald and Reed for comment. If I hear back I’ll update this story.