Journalists Barrett Brown and Laura Poitras are both furious that the Intercept, an outlet created in 2014 to research and disseminate the Snowden global surveillance leaks, decided to shut down research into the archive on the 13th of March 2019. First Look Media laid off 4% of their staff in cancelling the research team, whom controlled security of the archive.
In a Medium post containing several leaked emails, Brown claims to have contacted Snowden the day after the announcement and broke the news to the whistleblower. He was apparently bitterly disappointed to hear it.
A tale told in five leaked documents. “Why The Intercept Really Closed the Snowden Archive” is published by Barrett Brown
Glenn Greenwald defended the decision on Twitter and revealed his plans to share the archives with ‘researchers and academics’ rather than another press outlet. Both he and Poitras own copies of the documents, having received them personally from Snowden in Hong Kong and pledged to publish them responsibly, hiding the details of innocent individuals. The Washington Post and the Guardian had access to the documents 5 years ago but have not retained them since then. With the Obama administration at the time jailing whistleblowers at an unprecedented rate it was not a comfortable asset to sit on.
Greenwald’s explanation of the incident on Twitter seems well-reasoned aside from his unconvincing claim to be searching for an ‘institution with the ample funds required’ to publish the remainder of the archive. The Intercept is bankrolled by Amazon billionaire Pierre Omidyar and Greenwald’s salary exceeds half a million dollars in an industry where almost everyone else needs to scrounge Patreon bucks to pay their rent. Financial justifications for the decision which only affected 1.5% of First Look’s coffers, full to the brim with Amazon billionaire make-believe money, are plainly lies.
Poitras highlights the flimsiness of the financial explanation in one of Brown’s leaked emails:
The cost to maintain access and the research staff who oversee security and checks and balances, is roughly $400,000, or 1.5% of FLMW’s 2019 budget. Given the ongoing historical value of the archive, and the company’s enormous investment to date, shutting down access without a meaningful review process involving all stakeholders, including the Board and myself, is staggering and violates the core principles upon which the company was founded.
The fate of quite possibly the most significant intelligence leak in history, the vast bulk of which has remained undigested by the public, now lies on the shoulders of Poitras and Greenwald. Edward Snowden was adamant from day one that the files should be curated properly and not just dumped on the public in bulk. One must wonder if he rues that decision now that only a fraction of the archive has been let out of the bag, selected by a consortium of Intercept journalists of varying competence and moral judgment.
Large news outlets other than the Intercept had access to the documents and were publishing stories on them back in 2014, justifying the costs and ire of authorities when the content was newsworthy to a fascinated public, but as time drew on newspapers stepped away and the files were effectively left monopolised by one institution. A crowd-sourced platform or a simple dump would be the obvious solution here if it wasn’t against Snowden’s wishes. A shift towards literature and other formats that exist outside the news cycle would also be an effective way to analyse the 90% of the archives which remain unreleased, and Poitras advocates this route in the leaked emails.
None of this is to say that The Intercept doesn’t excel in its journalism at times. It does, however, have the standard limitations of any large outlet: Brown accuses editor Betsy Reed of caving into pressure from Apple and Google to deny him a scoop on a project called ROMAS. They have a billionaire owner with a long list of political interests that could potentially conflict with revelations from the Snowden documents, which Omidyar essentially privatised and shelved in his personal records by forming the Intercept. Max Blumenthal and Alexander Rubeinstein write about this at length for Mint Press News
. However, Greenwald insists that Omidyar has no editorial input, and the evidence is on his side considering that Omidyar is not mentioned at all in the leaked Barrett emails.
Barrett Brown claims to have not ‘even gotten to the worst part’ of this episode, but even if the drip of emails continues it’s difficult to believe that we will ever have a complete picture of the conversations that took place at the Intercept. We’re left with the deflating conclusion that one of the most important journalistic projects of the last 100 years was allowed to peter out when it lost its clickbait appeal. It’s a real shame.