Winner: Edward Snowden, Laura Poitras, Glenn Greenwald & Barton Gellman
He saw things that greatly disturbed him. But rather than wait for someone else to act, he went public himself with support from two respected journalists and an acclaimed filmmaker.
When then-29-year-old Booz Allen Hamilton contractor Edward Snowden decided to become a whistleblower, little did anyone know, including himself, just how significant and influential a public figure he would ultimately become in the second half of 2013.
As President Obama struggled to control the narratives on controversies involving Benghazi, the IRS, Gitmo, Chelsea Manning’s court martial, deportations, spying on the press, the war on terror and drones, Snowden’s revelatory disclosures to these carefully selected journalists (who, in turn, would share them with their trusted colleagues) would undermine the President’s credibility like never before.
In early June, Snowden hosted documentarian Laura Poitras & then-Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald in his Hong Kong hotel room to discuss why he had sent them top secret documents retrieved from the National Security Agency, his former place of business.
For several months, starting in late 2012, Snowden had been trying to alternately convince them online that he was legit and that it would be worth both their time and energy to come see him personally. Before meeting him in China, Greenwald was expecting to encounter an old man. He was shocked to see someone even younger than him.
But that was only the beginning.
In Snowden’s room, Poitras set up a camera and Greenwald grilled his new source for hours making sure his claims held up to severe scrutiny. Sufficiently satisfied that he could now trust this young, technological wizard (who had previously taught him how to use encryption online), he immediately went to work.
Shortly thereafter, The Guardian posted its first blockbuster story, as did freelancer Barton Gellman’s paper, The Washington Post. (Gellman was given some documents by Poitras.) Then, another. And another. And another.
At first, Snowden’s identity was protected. But not long after the release of these game changing articles, he outed himself. (The Hong Kong interview was then posted on The Guardian’s website and also aired on CNN.) The Obama Administration scrambled to charge him in secret under the unconstitutional Espionage Act, a World War I-era law that needs to die already. Media pundits like The Washington Post’s Richard Cohen and The New Yorker’s Jeffrey Toobin condemned Snowden’s actions citing his non-existent reckless self-absorption. Meet The Press host David Gregory wondered why Greenwald himself wasn’t being charged, as well (but curiously, not Gellman or Poitras). Several NSA-lovin’ Republicans and Democrats smeared him as an outright “traitor”. Others thought he should be killed.
All would end up eating their words.
Before he even became a household name, with Chelsea Manning’s cruel confinement very much on his mind, Snowden was already on the move leaving his six-figure job, beautiful girlfriend and cozy life in Hawaii far behind. Now wanted by the Department of Justice, it was time to leave Hong Kong for good. While in the air en route to Moscow, the Obama Administration, in a typically petty move, revoked his passport before he landed. This meant that the whistleblower would end up stranded in a Russian airport for his 30th birthday during a unwanted pit stop that lasted roughly 40 straight days.
Infuriated that China would not turn over Snowden before he left, the Obama Administration urged Russian President Vladimir Putin to play ball. Remarkably, he refused, as well. In fact, Russia granted the former NSA contractor temporary political asylum for one year. Snowden’s original plan was to end up in Cuba but without a passport, he was stuck.
When Bolivian President Evo Morales was trying to land for a pre-scheduled refueling before heading home from a Russian energy conference in early July, the plane was forced to land elsewhere so it could be inspected. So desperate to find Snowden onboard, when the local Austrian authorities (at the insistence of the Obama Administration) realized their mistake, it became a very public embarrassment. President Morales was thoroughly pissed off and along with two other South American leaders, openly offered asylum to Snowden. He even filed an official complaint with the United Nations.
Meanwhile, The Guardian and The Washington Post, as well as international outlets in collaboration with the indefatigable Greenwald, kept reporting on the NSA documents. It turns out that the intelligence community aren’t just spying on supposed terrorists and not always on their own. In collusion at times with professional spies and hackers from Australia, Britain and Canada, they’re also secretly snooping on world leaders (especially allies), global charities, economic enterprises, international embassies, media organizations and ordinary citizens thanks to secretly infiltrating cell phones and websites through secret arrangements with major telephone and Internet conglomerates, and their own hacking capabilities (the latter of which, thankfully, has its limits).
For their part, a good number of freaked out libertarian Republicans and liberal Democrats in both the Senate and the House Of Representatives joined forces to propose a whole slew of bills to curb the NSA’s mass collection of metadata among other questionable activities. One early attempt to defund the metadata program was defeated by just 7 votes. Despite intense lobbying by the White House and American intelligence, privacy-minded politicians and their supporters know they have the momentum right now. It would’ve never happened without Edward Snowden.
As the damning disclosures continued to pour out of the media, Obama was forced to talk out of both sides of his ass. Claiming that he welcomed a debate on secret mass surveillance (which he had never mentioned out loud once in the four years he had been running the country), he tried to fool the public into thinking he was eager to rein in the out-of-control NSA. A closer inspection of his reform proposals revealed inconsequential cosmetic changes, at best. Put bluntly, Obama wants the status quo to be maintained, no matter what. He supports mass surveillance of the entire world.
Late in the year, he announced the formation of a five-man advisory committee that would look at the current programs and make recommendations for change. Coming on the heels of a significant court ruling in December, many were surprised that the Obama-connected investigators didn’t go entirely along with the President’s long discredited assertions. (However, regarding the metadata program, they would prefer it if telecomms held the information while the government seeks warrants on a case-by-case basis. Here’s a better idea: why not just discontinue the useless, unconstitutional program altogether?) Already rejecting one of their 46 recommendations, instead of making substantial changes to protect civil liberties, Obama is planning to make what will likely be a transparently empty announcement that won’t mean anything sometime in January.
All the while, Snowden, who had won a few whistleblower awards throughout the year, was looking more and more vindicated by his courageous actions. Richard Cohen of The Washington Post admitted he was wrong to denounce him. Even The New Yorker’s Jeffrey Toobin, sounding more like a government spokesman than an adversarial journalist these days, conceded that Judge Leon’s negative court ruling on the metadata program and the advisory board’s recommendations greatly helped the whistleblower’s cause.
As the President licks his considerable political wounds in Hawaii, he needs to accept reality and drop his draconian prosecution against Snowden. (He should also abandon his dumb war against all whistleblowers altogether.) With Gellman and Greenwald each releasing critical NSA books this Spring, Poitras working on another adversarial documentary about his administration, the promise of more reputation-damaging disclosures to come and all those intelligence reform bills pending in Washington, it’s difficult to see how a conviction would have any worldwide support. It’s also difficult to see the NSA continue to operate in its current, unrestricted form, despite his stubborn intentions to keep controversial, ineffective procedures relatively intact.
For his unfathomable courage in leaking these shocking secrets and their equally strong determination to report on them despite intense governmental pressure and interference, Snowden, Greenwald, Gellman and Poitras deserve our most appreciative thanks. Without all four of their efforts this year, the American global surveillance state would remain a powerful, dangerous secret.
Loser: Toronto Mayor Rob Ford
To citizens of the biggest municipality in the Great White North, he’s long been a hypocritical faux conservative long on awful, discredited rhetoric and short on sound policies. But to the rest of the planet, he is now the biggest joke in public office.
Even before Gawker and The Toronto Star exposed him as a drug war phony, he had already overcome an earlier scandal, this one involving a financial conflict of interest. After a judge temporarily ordered his removal from office over misappropriated taxpayer funds in December 2012, the decision was overturned on appeal a few months later. Regardless, Ford remained at City Hall the entire time.
In March, The Star reported an embarrassing incident involving the Mayor at the annual Toronto Garrison Ball the previous month. A black-tie benefit for the Canadian military, Ford reportedly showed up late completely sloshed and speaking incoherently. He was in such a bad state, he was politely asked to leave.
Also in March, former political rival Sarah Thomson claimed that Ford groped her while high on cocaine at another public event.
Meanwhile, while badgering lobbyists for contributions to his football foundation, it was publicly noted that their presence in Toronto politics had tripled in numbers. Ditto the number of complaints about them. For someone who got elected on stopping the left-wing “gray train” at City Hall, it was becoming obvious that he didn’t mean the right-wing variety.
In April, a clumsy Ford accidentally walked right into the lens of a cameraman’s camera at City Hall, a clip that became great comic fodder for ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel and Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart. More importantly, he also snubbed a visiting Prince Philip by no-showing a ceremonial event for the Royal Canadian Regiment (despite being shown the proper protocol on how to deal with the visiting Royal Family member), he once again refused to participate in the LGBT community’s annual Pride parade but did offer to teach women about politics. No one took him up on the offer.
Then came the big Gawker story. Ford had been videotaped on an iPhone smoking crack cocaine from a pipe. It was recorded by an alleged Somali-Canadian drug dealer in what police described as a crack house. And it was for sale. Gawker ended up raising $200000 on Kickstarter to purchase it but over time, the unknown person in possession of the video freaked out over all the publicity the article had already generated and rescinded the offer. The money was donated to four Canadian rehab centres instead.
The Toronto Star already knew about the video having had a couple of reporters see it a number of times themselves but for some inexplicable reason they kept hesitating to publish their account. The Gawker scoop forced their hand and we learned more damaging details, like Ford calling federal Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau a “fag” and making disparaging remarks about black people.
Ford had a glorious opportunity to set the record straight but instead decried the “allegations” as “ridiculous” and part of an ongoing smear campaign against him by The Star. Curiously, Ford and his brother Doug, a fellow councilman, refrained from doing their weekly two-hour radio show on CFRB at that time. The silence raised understandable suspicions, even from political allies and supporters.
Finally, a week after the scandal began, Ford called an impromptu press conference in his cramped media room at City Hall declaring, “I do not smoke crack cocaine, nor am I an addict of crack cocaine.” He also denied the existence of the crack video he claimed he hadn’t seen.
The public, the media and city council were not satisfied, and as a result, the story refused to die.
Reports surfaced that Ford acknowledged to staff that the video indeed existed but he knew where it was and that it was safe. His chief-of-staff, Mark Twohey, was fired for suggesting he go to rehab. That same week, more staffers departed. Deputy Mayor Doug Holyday resigned his seat on council and got a new job as a provincial MP in a perfectly timed by-election.
In an extremely rare display of agreement, all four Toronto newspapers – The Star, The Globe & Mail, The National Post and even The Sun (who defended Ford for years because of his mythologized “fiscal conservative” image) – editorially urged his resignation. They did this repeatedly but the Mayor refused to go away.
In the summer, Toronto police conducted a series of raids as part of a one-year investigation against local drug gangs. Dubbed Project Traveller, the media fought for weeks to have the official police report of their allegations unsealed so they could report the findings. Ford’s longtime friend and personal driver, Sandro Lisi, was arrested on extortion charges and for dealing with illegal drugs. Police allege that he used threats to try to retrieve the now-infamous video and sold marijuana on the street. Secret surveillance revealed numerous contacts between him and the Mayor.
More shocking revelations about Ford would surface as two additional sets of previously redacted court documents would be released on two different occasions. Among them: drunk driving, peeing on the side of the road near a school, threats of violence, sexual harassment, heroin use, marijuana smoking, cavorting with prostitutes, using staff to run personal errands, possible financial support of the crack house where he was taped and exorbitant staff raises.
Then came the biggest blow of them all. During a sadly appropriate Halloween press conference, Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair announced in very carefully worded language that a deleted video file law enforcement had successfully retrieved matched the description depicted back in those original Gawker and Toronto Star reports. Suddenly, the man who claimed it didn’t exist wanted it released. More staffers resigned.
After weeks and months of denial, out of nowhere, he finally admitted to reporters, “Yes, I’ve smoked crack cocaine,” but denied he was addicted. He ineptly blamed his actions on “one of my drunken stupors”. During a council session, when asked if he bought illegal drugs, after a comically long pause, he said, “Yes, I have.”. One late night show inserted the Final Jeopardy theme music into the clip.
In the most memorable moment of the entire scandal thus far, while wearing a Toronto Argonauts jersey (the team had a Grey Cup semi-final play-off game against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats which they lost), during a jam-packed mid-November press scrum outside his City Hall office, Ford bluntly refuted on live Television one of the police-reported sexual harassment allegations put forth against him in a manner that became a late night comedian’s wet dream:
“It says I wanted to eat her pussy [regarding staffer Olivia Gondek] and I have never said that in my life to her. I would never do that. I’m happily married and I’ve got more than enough to eat at home…”
During a memorable episode of The Daily Show, Jon Stewart urged parents to wake up their kids and get them out of bed to watch this disappointingly bleeped historical moment. After it was played, he hilariously flipped out (“What?!?”) and pleaded with Ford to “drop the mic” and call it a day.
But the Mayor refused to end on a high note.
A growing number of City Hall protesters started demanding his exit. CFRB ended the call-in radio show he co-hosted with his brother Doug. They got a new TV gig on the struggling Sun News Network not too long afterward but, despite decent ratings, it was cancelled after only one airing. Councillers voted to strip him of much of his powers which had real-life consequences just before Christmas when Ford refused to declare a state of emergency after a nasty ice storm knocked the power out of hundreds of thousands of local homes and businesses. (If he had, new Deputy Mayor Norm Kelly would be in charge.) While most of the electricity has since been restored, tens of thousands spent Christmas deeply inconvenienced and will continue to do so likely to the end of the week.
With the mayor’s antics attracting international attention, stupid moments like the incident where he inexplicably ran into fellow councillor Pam McConnell and that bizarre video of him channelling Hulk Hogan in an unexplained rage were emblematic of how incredibly embarrassing this whole situation had become. For some unknown reason, police would not lay any charges on the man responsible for their budget and who has been completely uncooperative with their investigation into Lisi and the drug gangs.
Then in December, Ford falsely insinuated that a Toronto Star reporter, who investigated a story about the Mayor buying property near his home last year, was a pedophile without actually saying the word. After foolishly delaying taking legal action against him, Daniel Dale finally filed a libel suit. It took two tries for Ford to fully retract all the lies he said about him before Dale dropped the case.
In spite all of this, His Stubbornness refuses to go quietly into the night. He has repeatedly vowed to stick around and actually run for re-election next October. (When he was losing his powers, he actually suggested a snap election this past November which was thankfully ignored.) How in the world does he expect to win when both the Sandro Lisi trial and Toronto Star reporter Robyn Doolittle’s book about him are coming in February and are each likely to have lasting impacts on his political career in 2014?
Maybe you have to be in a drunken stupor to understand.
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Thursday, December 26, 2013
CORRECTIONS: According to Glenn Greenwald’s No Place To Hide book, Barton Gellman actually didn’t go to Hong Kong to meet Edward Snowden in his hotel room, as I erroneously mentioned in paragraph four. That mistake has now been deleted. In that same paragraph, I wrongly stated that that was the moment when Snowden handed Poitras & Greenwald the top secret NSA documents. (More on this down below.) “Hand over” has been replaced with “to discuss why he had sent them”.
Paragraph five has also been revised. It originally mentioned that the NSA whistleblower had been trying to “alternately convince” Gellman and Greenwald “online that he was legit”. That’s wrong, as well. It was Poitras & Greenwald he was contacting. Gellman was given documents Snowden handed over to Poitras months later, much to Greenwald’s consternation. (To be fair, he has been laudatory of Gellman’s pieces.)
In paragraph six, I originally wrote, “Before meeting him on the street in China, Greenwald was expecting to encounter an old man.” According to No Place To Hide, they actually met in a conference room in Snowden’s hotel. I’ve now dropped “on the street”. Regarding paragraph seven, I asserted, “Sufficiently satisfied that he could now trust this young, technological wizard (who had previously taught him how to use encryption online), he graciously accepted the documents (as did his colleagues) and on the flight back to Brazil, marvelled at its contents with Poitras.”
The second half of that sentence is not quite right. Before they even met Snowden, he had sent Poitras the complete set who then gave an identical set to Greenwald. (He was actually given a few sample documents via computer in Brazil after requesting some proof that Snowden was real.) It was on the 16-hour flight to China, not the flight back home, where he first poured over as much of the full set as he could. All of that has been dropped and replaced with the more accurate “he immediately went to work”. I’ve also tweaked paragraph eight and added the important detail of Poitras giving Gellman some of the NSA documents.
My apologies for all of these mistakes.
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Tuesday, July 15, 2014