Edward Snowden: Pics Or It Didn’t Happen

Last Saturday, Delo daily ran a front-page story by its Moscow correspondent Polona Frelih about NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden‘s meet-up with Russian human rights organisations. The catch: she took part in the meet, snapping some pictures in the process. Almost immediately, all hell broke loose here in Slovenia, mostly on account of her taking pics of the USA‘s most wanted fugitive despite his explicit request not to do so, but also on account of going into the meet under false pretext (she was assumed to be a member of a human rights NGO and did not disclose she was a journo) as well as some shameless self-promotion over her getting the scoop. To be blunt, she was accused of making the story about her and not about Snowden. While understandable, in pengovsky’s opinion most of these arguments are flawed, so let us work our way out of this conundrum.

20130715_snowden
Edward Snowden days ago at Moscow Å eremetjevo (photo by Polona Frelih/Delo)

Me, myself and I.

This is probably the point where Frelih made quite a few blunders. Pengovsky never met her, let alone knows her personally, but her responses (mostly via Twitter) after being second-guessed by many, came across curt and sometimes arrogant. Also, the fact that Delo went from a story about the meet to a background story within a day or so shows, that there was either fairly little additional content available and they were milking it for what it was worth and beyond, or everybody was pleased with themselves as punch and saw little need to do any follow-up and spin-off stories.

My guess is that we’re talking about combination of both. Frelih has turned up some good pieces over the past few years, presenting the side of Russia we don’t usually read about. Including youth boot camps, neo-nazi raids against migrant workers and homophobia. On the other hand, a correspondent is more or less on his/her own while on assignment and has few resources at disposal. And when three thousand journalists hang around Moscow Å eremetjevo airport, hoping to catch a glimpse of Edward Snowden was last seen three weeks ago in Hong Kong and you’re the only one who gets to see him, I think a little pride is justifiable, no? But then again: there’s pride and then there’s gloating.

Apparently, she said that she wanted to help him one way or another and that too was seen as pretentious. Maybe, but here’s the thing: Snowden was meeting Russian human rights NGOs, which in turn were about to become his only mouthpiece save for Wikileaks. Newsmedia would be forced to take whatever they say for granted without any possibility to corroborate. Therefore, in some curious way it was both in Snowden’s as well as in public’s best interest for a journo to be present, because she was the check-and-balance to whatever the NGOs were about to say.

Because that’s what journos (supposedly) do. Act in the public interest. To many, Snowden is a hero. The whistleblower who told the world what most of us suspected all along. This cuts him some serious slack with a lot of people who are keen to take whatever he says (or is said in his name) without even a pinch of salt. But it is one thing to hear and see him say things in person, quite another to read a Wikileaks press release. He or the people around him cannot be the only ones who decide the agenda on this issue. This is what Julian Assange learned the hard way. When individual Wikileaks Cables were being investigated and corroborated by The Guardian, NYT and the rest of the newspapers, Assange lost patience and just uploaded it all. But the public interest is not served best with raw data. These need to be checked for relevance, contextualised and presented in a digestible manner. In this day and age, this includes pictures.

Pics or it didn’t happen!

Frelih said she needed to show the world that Snowden was indeed alive and well and at the airport, which is why she took the pics, despite being told not to. But what she really needed was to prove to the world she was really there. This is where she took most flak: why take pictures when there was a no-photo edict out? Well, if they really wanted to prevent photos to be taken, the organisers of the meet would confiscate smartphones upon entry. Then there was the “facial recognition” argument, postulated by Snowden himself saying that “the more he is photographed, the less secure he is”. Call me silly, but that’s kinda weird coming from a NSA contractor. I’d imagine they’ve every possible detail of Edward Snowden recorded and stored somewhere, including a DNA sample. If they don’t then the US intelligence community really are a bunch of fuckwits.

But let’s assume they’re not. Let’s assume they were taken by surprise and are now committing every resource to make this guy stop what he’s doing. The only thing that protects Snowden right now is continuous media exposure. The moment the media lose interest, he becomes damaged goods and finds himself on the first plane either to the US or to Hong Kong, back from where he came. You see, Russia ain’t exactly a democratic place. Not by Central European standards, anyhow. And the very fact that Snowden was allowed to remain in Å eremetjevo transit zone shows that Russkies are playing a game of their own. They are, in fact, using him. Transit zone is still Russian territory and authorities there need exactly five minutes to drum-up a charge and have him deported (travelling without documents, health hazard, loitering, take your pick). That they don’t means they’ve got more to gain from him being there than gone. Yes, democracy needs Edward Snowden. But Edward Snowden needs the media. And media are pictures, too.

False flag

Then there’s a case of her working under cover. A risky move, to be sure. If pengovsky’s understanding is correct, she didn’t exactly fake her identity, but was rather mistaken for a proper NGO member and she did nothing to change the perception. In fact, there’s a journalistic code of ethics in Slovenia which prohibits exactly these kinds of tricks. But in my opinion, this case falls outside normal scope of journalistic work. This was not faking an identity to find out the state of the royal pregnancy. This is arguably the single most important leak of the decade and usual rules do not apply. This was demonstrated by the US when they force-landed-by-proxy the presidential plane of Bolivian leader Evo Morales thinking Snowden was on board. This was also demonstrated by Russia, intently looking the other way while a person without a valid passport is walking around one of its airports. And it was demonstrated by Snowden himself, when he threw everything he had to the wind and did what he felt was right.

While not nearly as dramatic or pivotal, Frelih did something along those lines. She did what she believed was right and risked burning her contacts to achieve that. Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised if as a result she finds out Russian NGOs unwilling to talk to her. Since she also gained both notoriety and fame, she will have a hard(er) time passing as a lowly reporter just doing her job. But that is what Polona Frelih was doing. Her job. There are limits to what a correspondent can do. Frelih probably has neither the resources nor in-depth knowledge to write-up a piece on e-surveillance. Delo’s IT desk should be doing that, despite the fact that the US probably thinks Slovenian secret service is a joke ever since Janez JanÅ¡a blew the cover off a joint SOVA/BND operation and that the Americans get more info on Slovenia directly from their sources then they get by wire-tapping. The fact Delo didn’t write-up anything remotely similar speaks volumes.

But what Frelih can do, is to report about what Edward Snowden is doing in Moscow. Which is exactly what she did. Which is why pengovsky still believes congratulations are in order (yes, there was a typo in there). Just don’t let it get into your head 😉

 

Enhanced by Zemanta

WikiLeaks Slovenia: Make Me An Offer I Can’t Refuse

Diplomatic incontinence strikes Slovenia too. Once again this sorry excuse for a country is front-and-centre on the international stage, courtesy of Julian Assange and his Wikileaks. OK, so we’re still just a comical sidekick, but there you go. Slovenia was put forward as prime example of US diplomacy bullying other countries into doing what Washington wanted. The story made the timing of my yesterday’s letter to PM Borut Pahor a bit unfortunate, as a plethora of issues was overshadowed by Cablegate – The Slovenian Edition. Well, there’s little use crying over spilled milk.. eerr… cables.


Obama: “Yo B., wassup?!” Pahor: “Make me an offer I can’t refuse” (source)

So, what’s the story (morning glory)? The esteemed New York Times (one of only a handful of media to have been granted advance access to 250k+ US State Department cables) reported that Slovenia was pressured by the current US administration to take in at least one Gitmo prisoner and that Slovenian leadership could look forward to some quality time with Barack Obama in return. The story was picked up by The Beeb and (naturally) every Slovene media. Big bad America picking on someone not even a tenth of it’s size. Not nice.

But then came the twist. Spanish El Pais, another paper with advance access to Cablegate material, posted the “problematic” cable (one of about 900 pertaining to Slovenia). Assuming that he cable is genuine, it was Slovenian PM Borut Pahor who floated the idea of Slovenia accepting a prisoner from Guantanamo in exchange for 20 minutes with President Obama.

And then, another twist. According to Der Spiegel, it was actually foreign minister Samuel Žbogar who was asking around what would the US give in return if Slovenia were to take over a Gitmo detainee. (link kindly provided by alcessa)

Wait. What!?

Yeah, I know. Embarrassing, to say the least. Naturally, all hell broke loose. Spineless begging. Sellout. Corruption. Ass-kissing. Those were prevailing reactions in Slovenia yesterday. However, there’s more to this than meets the eye. We’ll deal with differing versions of the story a bit later on, but for the sake of the argument let’s assume that the cable as published by El Pais is genuine.

The said cable was sent from US Embassy in Ljubljana on 5 January 2010 and detailed a visit by PM Pahor to the embassy on 30 December 2009, where he was hosted by Charge d’Affairs Bradley Freden, at the time the top-ranking US diplomat to Slovenia. The cable summarised the meeting (requested by Pahor) as follows:

CDA [charge d’affairs] and Pahor discussed political and economic priorities for 2010, including the relocation of Guantanamo detainees, stability and integration of the Western Balkans into the EU and NATO, and Westinghouse involvement in the planned second nuclear plant at Krsko.

At this point it should be noted that this was apparently the second such visit Pahor made to the US embassy which (obviously) did not go unnoticed by Freden and was interpreted as “the U.S.-Slovenian relationship [being] one he [Pahor] seeks to cultivate.“.

I won’t bother you with the actual cable, as you can read it here. Let us focus on analysis instead.

Borut Pahor goes shopping

In pengovsky’s opinion this cable shows (if anything) that Prime Minister Pahor, rather than spinelessly licking American ass, actually knows how to play the foreign policy game. Bear in mind that the meeting took place a little less than two months after Slovenia and Croatia signed the Arbitration Agreement on the border dispute, where apparently it was the US who manhandled Croatia into signing the paper which was decried as “high treason” on both sides of the border. Also bear in mind that Slovenia was in 2004 indeed bullied into the “Coalition of the Willing” by the Bush administration just prior to the illegal invasion of Iraq and there was plenty of (needless) embarrassment over a leaked Slovenian cable from Washington on how to handle the imminent declaration of independence of Kosovo. In short, Slovenia-US relations have not been entirely rosy, courtesy of both sides, and PM Pahor saw it fit to keep the current good streak going.

So what Pahor did, apart from going above and beyond the call of duty to show how important the US is (by visiting the embassy in person rather than having the charge d’affairs – then the top ranking US diplomat – come to see Pahor), was actually outlining how he saw US interests in Slovenia and the region. Broadly, these interests include security in the Balkans, a Westinghouse investment into KrÅ¡ko nuclear power plant and relocation of Guantanamo prisoners.

But things don’t just happen by themselves. To make these the above possible, Slovenia obviously wanted something in return. And rather than saying outright what Slovenia wanted, Pahor basically said: “Make me an offer I can’t refuse“. He was, in fact, shopping. With some strings attached. Case in point being Gitmo prisoner(s) where Pahor made it plain that his government was willing to consider the relocation “as long as ‘political’ and ‘financial’ obligations were considered separately“. Translation: show me the money.

The main problem, according to Slovene media was the fact that “PM gently – but unambiguously – linked success on detainee resettlement to a meeting with President Obama. He said that “a 20-minute meeting” with POTUS would allow him to frame the detainee question as an act of support for Slovenia’s most important ally and evidence of a newly-reinvigorated bilateral relationship.

Shit. Fan. Aim. Fire

This is where the shit hit the fan. Outrage was almost unanimous, especially in the media. One of my favourites was the conclusion that for the PM and – by extension – his government “a life of a (possibly illegaly) detained Arab prisoner is worth 20 minutes with Barack Obama” (Delo, yesterday, in Slovene only)

It was as if everyone was oblivious to the fact that the cable says in no unclear terms that Pahor linked Gitmo and meeting with Obama “in a one-on-one pull-aside with CDA“. In other words, he did this after the meeting, unofficially. This was neither his not his government’s official position. He floated an idea. Hinted. Tested the waters, if you will. But he never made it a precondition.

Did Pahor make a mistake?

Yes and no. Foreign policy is a dirty business (and yes, someone’s got to do it). Most of it is trade, tit-for-tat. Taking in Gitmo prisoners is not peanuts. Not just because there is no legal grounds for Slovenia to do it (a law would have to be passed to do it), but also because a) it is a security risk and b) means a country (in this case Slovenia) is really going above and beyond the call of duty to help the US solve a human-rights disaster of their own making.

So Pahor felt he could play the table a bit against the Americans. Maybe he miscalculated. But the point is that he was trading. The trade, however, was not just “Gitmo prisoner for quality time with Obama”, but rather “Westinghouse deal, help in the Balkans and Gitmo prisoner in return for more US investments into Slovenia, (officially) recognising Slovenia as an important player in the Balkans, some plain old cash plus 20 minutes with the Big. O (the last one would help, but is optional).

However, the problem with these 20 minutes of Obama’s time is not that the idea had been floated, but how it was floated. As @DC43 said on Twitter, the other day, this is not something a PM does personally, but has someone from his cabinet talk to someone from the embassy. That way neither side loses face in case the idea is nixed, plus the whole thing is absolutely deniable in case of a leak such as this one.

More mistakes

The mistake Pahor did – and subsequent damage control he and foreign minister Žbogar are engaging in today – is more of an embarrassment than anything else. On the other hand the media, both Slovenian and international, made some serious errors.

As already noted, Slovene media were over the “Gitmo-for-time-with-Obama” thing faster than you can say WikiLeaks. But only 24 hours earlier, they were all over the “US-is-blackmailing-Slovenia” story with virtually the same gusto. While right now no-one disputes authenticity of the cable as published by El Pais, we have yet to see anyone retract their statements about “big bad US diplomacy treating everyone else like shit”. Right now it is as if the original version of the story (published by NY Times) never happened.

Three newspapers with advance access to 250k+ cables. All three of them saw it fit to point out a specific Slovenia-US cable. And every one of them came up with a significantly different interpretation of the cable. How is this possible? The cable is about as unambiguous as they come. This is what makes it interesting. And yet we have three totally different stories. Are interpretations of other cables subject to this “variation” as well? And – last but not least – are most of the cables so uninteresting that a relatively unproblematic Slovenia with its globally unimportant issues is the best they can do?

If any of the above is the case, are we to take Cablegate seriously in the first place?

Enhanced by Zemanta