by Mike Masnick
Mon, Dec 16th 2013 1:54pm
CBS Airs NSA Propaganda Informercial Masquerading As 'Hard Hitting' 60 Minutes Journalism By Reporter With Massive Conflict Of Interest
from the journalism! dept
Last night I started seeing a bunch of folks on Twitter absolutely trashing 60 Minutes. We had mentioned last week that 60 Minutes would be doing something about the NSA, including the revelation that some NSA officials favored granting Snowden asylum, and that Keith Alexander ridiculously stated that people should be held accountable for their actions -- without recognizing the irony of that statement when pointed at himself. What we didn't realize was that the episode of 60 Minutes would be a complete propaganda infomercial for the NSA. Among the many, many, many issues with the program:
- The reporting was conducted by John Miller, a former intelligence community official (who worked for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which oversees the NSA) in a spokesperson role and a variety of historical roles in the intelligence community. While he does "disclose" the ODNI role upfront (but not the others), he left out that he's about to be hired in an intelligence role for the NYPD, a deal that has been described as "a 99.44 percent done deal." Also, in the past, when he also worked for the NYPD, he had a bit of a problem with telling the truth. Miller is, clearly, an intelligence industry spokesperson at heart, pretending to be a journalist here.
- There was not a single hard hitting question asked throughout. It was all softballs. Seriously. Many of the setup questions were the same bogus strawmen we've seen the NSA focus on in the past -- concerning things like "is the NSA listening to everyone's calls." But that isn't what people are actually concerned about. At no point did they appear to even attempt to ask followup questions when the NSA people made clearly misleading statements, such as those concerning the surveillance of "US persons."
- Not a single critic of the NSA was shown during the entire episode. Seriously. Not a single claim by the NSA was refuted or pushed back on. At all. Basically, Miller served up softballs, the NSA hit 'em back, and the "investigative journalists" at 60 Minutes said, "Wow, isn't that amazing!"
- They admit that they did this piece because the NSA "invited them in." In other words, this was purely a propaganda piece from the very outset. The most hysterical thing to watch is the "overtime" bit that they have on the website in which they explain how 60 Minutes got to do this story on the NSA, which reveals that basically the NSA asked them to do this puff piece and then controlled every second of the process. There are even a few outtakes where the NSA "handlers" cut off parts of interviews to tell people what to say.
- Miller claims he spoke to NSA critics and asked them what they would ask, but that's not reflected in the questioning at all. He then defends the piece saying that his goal was to let the NSA explain its side of the story, which he argues wasn't getting enough attention. Seriously. Because this is really the side of the story that has been mined only in the most superficial ways. We’ve heard plenty from the critics. We’ve heard a lot from Edward Snowden. Where there’s been a distinctive shortage is, putting the NSA to the test and saying not just ‘We called for comment today’ but to get into the conversation and say that sounds a lot like spying on Americans, and then say, ‘Well, explain that.’”
Try not to laugh at that. He even claims that he didn't want it to be a puff piece -- which is exactly what it was.
- The one big "revelation" in the piece involves NSA people implying, but never actually saying, how they stopped some sort of plot to turn everyone's computers into bricks by infecting the BIOS. But, as lots of people who actually understand this stuff are noting, that segment was pure gibberish: There are no technical details. Yes, they talk about "BIOS", but it's redundant, unrelated to their primary claim. Any virus/malware can destroy the BIOS, making a computer unbootable, "bricking" it. There's no special detail here. All they are doing is repeating what Wikipedia says about BIOS, acting as techie talk layered onto the discussion to make it believable, much like how Star Trek episodes talk about warp cores and Jeffries Tubes.
- Stripped of techie talk, this passage simply says "The NSA foiled a major plot, trust us." But of course, there is no reason we should trust them. It's like how the number of terrorist plots foiled by telephone eavesdropping started at 50 then was reduced to 12 then to 2 and then to 0, as the NSA was forced to justify their claims under oath instead of in front of news cameras. The NSA has proven itself an unreliable source for such information -- we can only trust them if they come out with more details -- under oath.
- Moreover, they don't even say what they imply. It's all weasel-words. Nowhere in the above passage does a person from the NSA say "we foiled a major cyber terror plot". Instead, it's something you piece together by the name "BIOS plot", cataclysmic attacks on our economy (from the previous segment), and phrases like "would it have worked".
- Part of the piece, bizarrely, focused on smearing Ed Snowden based on a completely out of context statement about how he would work at home with a sheet over his head to keep work secret. Given the realities of what the NSA is doing, and what Snowden was up to, that doesn't sound so strange. Yet, Miller (not the NSA), made it out like Snowden was a wack job for this: John Miller: At home, they discovered Snowden had some strange habits.
- Rick Ledgett: He would work on the computer with a hood that covered the computer screen and covered his head and shoulders, so that he could work and his girlfriend couldn’t see what he was doing.
- John Miller: That’s pretty strange, sitting at your computer kind of covered by a sheet over your head and the screen?
- Rick Ledgett: Agreed.
There was more, but it's more of the same. You have the producers of the episode oohing and ahhing about how the NSA's headquarters looked like something out of Star Trek, and how they had to fight hard to get the NSA to open a door for the NSA's "black chamber" -- showing a couple of cubicles.
Coming so soon on the heels after 60 Minutes totally bungled a report on Benghazi, you would think that the once respected news program might try a little harder not to post something so obviously ridiculous. But, apparently not. While many have suggested that the NSA communications people should get a raise for pulling off such pure propaganda, some are pointing out that the whole thing was so obviously a bogus puff piece that no one's buying it. Anthony DeRosa has put together a series of tweets about the episode and hasn't yet been able to find a single person who reacted positively to it. Not a single one.
It's no secret that the NSA isn't very good at PR but, in this case, not only may they have harmed their case, they helped CBS News shoot themselves in the foot, yet again, over whatever shreds of journalistic credibility they may have had.