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NSA hack compromises Al-Jazeera sources, US credibility

The building of the National Security Agency in Maryland. (AFP/Paul J. Richards)

The German magazine Der Spiegel reported this week that the U.S. National Security Agency hacked into the internal communication system of Al-Jazeera. If the report is accurate, the targeted hacking of a news organization represents an assault on press freedom qualitatively different from -- and in many ways more disquieting than -- the perils posed by pervasive, but unfocused, surveillance.

Details of the NSA's alleged attack on Al-Jazeera are sparse. Der Spiegel's report relies on documents reportedly provided by former NSA contractor and whistleblower Edward Snowden. The weekly magazine said they do "not reveal to what extent the intelligence agency spied on journalists or managers of the media company, or whether the surveillance is ongoing." The documents have not been made public.

However, what the available details do suggest is that the NSA successfully targeted the communications of a number of Al-Jazeera's sources -- sources the news organization took pains to protect. This is not the first time it has been alleged that the NSA spied on a news organization: NSA whistleblower Russell Tice claimed in 2009 that the agency makes it a point to target journalists and news agencies. Al-Jazeera News Director Ibrahim Hilal alleged in 2001 that the U.S. routinely monitored its communications between Kabul and Qatar, a charge U.S. officials denied.

The alarm about spying on journalists' sources has been sounding for some time. We have also consistently shared best practices designed to militate against such threats via our own security guide, as well as through guides prepared by others.

With that said, if the NSA wants into your computer, it's probably going to get in.

The New York Times, quoting newly disclosed documents, reported Friday the NSA is "winning its long-running secret war on encryption, using supercomputers, technical trickery, court orders and behind-the-scenes persuasion to undermine the major tools protecting the privacy of everyday communications in the Internet age."

The newspaper said the documents show the NSA "has circumvented or cracked much of the encryption, or digital scrambling, that guards global commerce and banking systems, protects sensitive data like trade secrets and medical records, and automatically secures the e-mails, Web searches, Internet chats and phone calls of Americans and others around the world."

Embedded in this reality, however, is an important principle: because the U.S. commands such tremendous intelligence capabilities, it must take all the more seriously its obligation not to turn the machinery of government on those who gather and report the news. (This principle is one with which the U.S. government would seemingly be familiar, as it has previously condemned hacking attempts by other countries, such as China, whose attacks on media companies are well-documented.)

It is this disconnect that makes the NSA's attack on Al-Jazeera so disturbing, and so terribly disheartening. Whatever arguments may be made about the expediency of such exploits in the short term, the decision to compromise a news organization does enormous damage not only to the freedom of the press, but also to the integrity of the U.S. in the eyes of people at home and abroad.

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Comments

"It is this disconnect that makes the NSA's attack on Al-Jazeera so disturbing, and so terribly disheartening. Whatever arguments may be made about the expediency of such exploits in the short term, the decision to compromise a news organization does enormous damage not only to the freedom of the press, but also to the integrity of the U.S. in the eyes of people at home and abroad."//

This assertion is ludicrous. America doesn't have any integrity. Indeed, the supposed Land of the Free has always cynically manipulated the issue of press freedom as a propaganda weapon against its "foreign enemies" while spying on, infiltrating, or manipulating the media both in the USA and around the world. See the USA's infamous Operation Mockingbird project in which many "respectable" media mouthpieces like the New York Times, CBS, and Newsweek were in bed with the CIA.

Today, America has the "embedded" corporate media that voluntarily acts as propaganda outlets for the US regime and war machine. Examples include the shameless lies about Iraqi WMDs that the American "free press" peddled in the 1990s and early 2000s to justify America's bombing and criminal invasion of Iraq. And more recently, the hype about alleged Syrian chemical weapons usage to justify America's war threats against Syria and the USA’s not-so-covert arming of the Syrian "rebels," which include Al-Queda groups like Jabhat Al-Nusra no less!

You have to wonder if CPJ's "criticism" of the NSA is really motivated by a principled defense of privacy rights or press freedom-- as opposed to, say, a fear that this scandal has ripped off America's mask of freedom for all the world see. The last sentence of the article seems that to imply this.

It should be noted that the Board of the Campaign to Protect Journalists is filled to the gills with big wigs from the very same American corporate media that has proven itself to be expert peddlers of disinformation disguised as "journalism"--from the Associated Press to the New York Times. And CPJ is funded by the American establishment and its various corporate "philanthropies" and foundation front groups.

As they say, who pays the piper, calls the (political) tune.