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Wednesday, February 26, 2014 

Whither press freedom?

The Guardian is guilty of treachery, and Edward Snowden's disclosures have put lives at risk. Not the opinion of politicians or the security services themselves, although the latter has all but said as much and the odd MP has stuck their pennyworth in, but that of the Daily Mail and commentators in the Telegraph. As Peter Preston wrote in the Observer (although considering his giving into the government over the Sarah Tisdall affair some would say he's one to talk), despite some initial misgivings the press united in defiance over the Thatcher government's attempt to ban Spycatcher. That Tory supporting papers are this time siding with the judges when they say the media as a whole should not publish any intelligence material as they cannot know what potential damage it may cause ought to worry us.

What though if the Graun and the rest of the mainstream media for that matter have in fact abided by pleas from the government not to publish certain material from the Snowden files, despite the threats we know to have been made? It's a question worth asking as two days on from the publication of what seems on the surface to be one of the most sensational documents yet released from the Snowden cache, not a single UK newspaper has touched it.

On Monday Glenn Greenwald at The Intercept posted a PowerPoint presentation authored by the "Head of Human Science" at GCHQ's Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group.  Following on from the reporting he carried out in partnership with NBC that revealed JTRIG had carried out DoS attacks against Anonymous "hacktivists", using the exact same tactics that some of those involved in the likes of Lulzec were jailed over, the presentation outlines exactly which "disruption" tactics could be used against the group's targets.  These include infiltration, stings and, in a term that will prick up the ears of everyone even vaguely aware of the rantings of the more out there conspiracy theorists, "false flag operations".  While the presentation itself does not outline exactly what this means, Greenwald explains it would involve posting material to the net that would then be attributed to either the target or someone associated with them.  Also acceptable would be honey traps, with the implication that once the target had succumbed they would then be smeared as either abusive or worse, with their friends and relatives informed of their supposed actions.

As Greenwald sums it up, "surveillance agencies have vested themselves with the power to deliberately ruin people’s reputations and disrupt their online political activity even though they’ve been charged with no crimes, and even though their actions have no conceivable connection to terrorism or even national security threats".  While the targets we know of so far have been the aforementioned "hacktivists", many of whom did engage in actions which were either illegal or at the very least were threatening towards those who attracted their ire, it's more than probable that those who were only involved at the margins and who did neither of these things could also have been swept up in the process.  It wouldn't be a great leap for such tactics to be used against online protesters who do operate entirely legally and peacefully, or indeed as we have seen with the exposure of the Met's Special Demonstration Squad, the insertion of agent provocateurs, with the authorisation to set up false long-term relationships.

Why then has no newspaper or even a UK-based site such as The Register covered it?  Why indeed.  The Graun's editor Alan Rusbridger retweeted a link to Greenwald's piece, quoting Edward Snowden as saying that GCHQ was in many respects worse than the NSA, yet hasn't found room in the paper itself to repeat what GCHQ has been getting up to.  While the Independent, Telegraph and Mail (no hypocrisy there then) reported on the previous NBC stories, neither has produced a follow-up on Greenwald's latest article and the presentation that accompanies it, despite it containing new detail on precisely which tactics are permissible.  Also of note is the Guardian did not directly respond to last week's High Court ruling on David Miranda in an editorial, leaving it to a comment piece from Helena Kennedy; perhaps explained by how Miranda intends to appeal, but still somewhat surprising considering what is clearly at stake.

By any measure, Greenwald's report is clearly in the public interest, such is the potential for abuse. There are also questions over whether the law as it stands allows GCHQ to carry out such actions, yet only those who have followed the story are likely to have found out.  If the silence is the result of the chilling effect of threats from the government or court rulings, then clearly we have an even bigger problem with freedom of the press in this country than was already obvious.

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