Why The Intercept Really Closed the Snowden Archive
A tale in five leaked documents
Document One: Timeline written by Laura Poitras
On Wed. March 6, Betsy Reed and Jeremy asked to meet me to: “We want to explain how we’ve assessed our priorities in the course of the budget process, and made some restructuring decisions.” The meeting began with Jeremy asking me to agree to keep the conversation confidential. I say no, I would not agree to that, and requested they speak hypothetically, and not share any names. In this 2 hour tense meeting, it becomes clear they have decided to eliminate the research department. I object to this on the grounds Field of Vision is dependent of research department, and the Snowden archive security protocols are overseen by them.
Friday March 8, I send a one-sentence email saying that the elimination of the research department would jeopardize the security of the archive, and was therefore negligent. This prompts Glenn email and reprimand me for having “substantive discussions” about the archive without cc’ing him.
On Sunday March 10, I send attached email again objecting to eliminating the research department, arguing it is only 1.5% of the total budget of the non-profit. Throughout these conversations and emails exchanges, there was no mention of shutting down the archive. That was not on the table. That decision was made on either Monday March 11 or Tuesday March 12, again without my involvement or consent.
On Tuesday March 12, on a phone call with Glenn and the CFO, I am told that Glenn and Betsy had decided to shut down the archive because it was no longer of value to The Intercept. This is the first time I am heard about the decision. On the call, Glenn says we should not make this decision public because it would look bad for him and The Intercept. I objected to the decision. I am confident the decision to shut the archive was made to pave to fire/eliminate the research team.
On Wed March 13, I send a memo to the board of directors urging them to step in and save the archive. See attached. Hours later, CEO Bloom announces the layoffs in a staff email. I reply to Bloom, expressing my disgust with the layoffs and shutting down the archive. My email was leaked the press, which is why the public knows the archive is shut down.
On Thursday March 14, I call Edward Snowden. He had not been informed by Glenn or Betsy about their decision to shut down the archive. I apologize to him.
On Thursday March 14, The Intercept’s Union invite me to attend a staff meeting. The chilling effect from the layoffs is so bad they have to write down the questions to management, rather than speak them individually. I am barred from attending the meeting by the general counsel of First Look and The Intercept.
Document Two: Poorly-composed corporate email from First Look Media CEO Michael Bloom, 3/13
I am writing to let you know about some important changes taking place today, which unfortunately results in our parting ways with some of our talented colleagues, representing 4% of our staff across FLM. We don’t take these decisions lightly, but as an important step to better align ourselves operationally for the future. Still, it impacts members of the First Look Media family, and that is hard. We all know each other, work shoulder to shoulder, and are dedicated to the same ideals. To those leaving, it is even harder. You will be greatly missed and we thank you for all your hard work and many contributions.
As part of this re-organization, we will continue to invest significantly in all key areas across the company and focus sharply on our world-class journalism, supporting creators, filmmakers, & storytellers, growing our audiences, expanding into new platforms, and producing even more premium programming. Each corner of FLM is well positioned for its next phase of growth with smart investments and strategies.
I’m incredibly proud of what we have accomplished over the last few years, but even more excited about our road ahead. We’ll be having a town hall later this month where we can talk more about our future plans.
As always, I remain grateful for your dedication to our company and our mission.
Document Three: Laura Poitras reply, 3/13
Michael, As I have communicated to you and Betsy, I am sickened by your decision to eliminate the research team, which has been the beating heart of the newsroom since First Look Media was founded, and has overseen the protection of the Snowden archive.
I am also sickened by your joint decision to shut down the Snowden archive, which I was informed of only yesterday — a decision made without consulting me or the board of directors. Your email’s attempt to paper over these ﬁrings is not appropriate when the company is presented with such devastating news.
Document Four: Poitras’ memo to board of directors
Date: March 13, 2019 Regarding: The Intercept’s Decision to Close Snowden Archive To: Board of Directors, First Look Media From: Laura Poitras
I believe the Board should be consulted about The Intercept’s decision to shut down access to the Snowden archive and eliminate the trusted research team overseeing its security. I was not consulted about this decision, and I was just told that the Board was also not consulted. I learned of this decision yesterday, March 12, 2019, and I have requested that the board be informed.
I strongly object to the decision. The cost to maintain access and the research staff who oversee security and checks and balances, is roughly $400,000, or 1.5% of FLMW’s 2019 budget. Given the ongoing historical value of the archive, and the company’s enormous investment to date, shutting down access without a meaningful review process involving all stakeholders, including the Board and myself, is staggering and violates the core principles upon which the company was founded.
While it is true the archive can no longer be reported on as “news,” it remains the most significant historical archive documenting the rise of the surveillance state in the twenty first century. How a news organization would take such care to secure this archive, and then walk away from that knowledge and its investment without a proper review involving the board and all stakeholders, defies my understanding. I have advocated for years that we transition our approach to long-form books and historical research, formats that would maximize the historical impact of the archive not driven by the news cycle. Sadly, discussions like that are not happening because we didn’t even bother to talk about the possibilities before a few stakeholders decided they want to shut it down and eliminate the key staff who have vigilantly protected it.
This decision and the way it was handled would be a disservice to our source, the risks we’ve all taken, and most importantly, to the public for whom Edward Snowden blew the whistle.
I request that the Board intervene and stop any action until a proper review with all stakeholders is convened.
Document Five: My email to First Look and Intercept staff and execs
Michael Bloom here! Excelsior!
I’m writing to let you know about some exciting and dynamic but also perhaps sad-in-a-way restructuring measures that we’ve settled on after a great deal of thought and paint huffing. Due to various mysterious circumstances that may or may not bear any degree of scrutiny, we’ll be:
- laying off 75 percent of our staff, or “family”, as I like to think of some of you
- closing down the Snowden archive in a manner so irregular that even the Daily Beast will notice
- putting Greenwald in charge of explaining this to the public, preferably over Twitter
- bringing John Cook back on as editor so that we can win a bet with Satan
Just kidding! It’s only me, Barrett Brown; I used to write that column for Intercept about comical prison stuff, and then later I got mad and quit, as is my custom.
I’ve been told about some of the things that have gone down up there in recent days, and it just so happens that I have a great deal invested in both the underlying and specific issues involved. Here’s a fun example:
1. I explicitly warned about the contracting firm Archimedes in 2011, in an article on the Romas/COIN capability for The Guardian and a more extensive report on Echelon2.org, the website on which my org Project PM compiled our research. The longer report can be found at http://wiki.project-pm.org/wiki/Romas/COIN and the HBGary emails from which this largely derives may be found at Emma Best’s site, or Wikileaks if you’re feeling nostalgic, but at any rate key portions are quoted or summarized there. Romas was a data mining, surveillance, and propaganda apparatus of rather impressive complexity, operated for an unknown U.S. government client by Northrop.
2. Between February of 2011, when a hack by some of my old acquaintances revealed Glenn had been among those targeted by the rather baroque Team Themis consortium (Palantir, HBGary, Endgame Systems, Berico), and June 2012, I occasionally discussed with Glenn other firms and technologies that had been discovered in the HBGary emails stolen by Anonymous and supplemented by tax filings, patents, recorded phone calls I made to execs at TASC, Booz Allen Hamilton, Palantir, etc. In April of 2012, I sent him a Guardian piece I’d written that provided an update of relevance to him (the Palantir employee the firm blamed as solely responsible for the firm’s role in targeting Glenn and others, Matthew Steckman, and thereafter put “on leave” or “suspension” pending an “investigation”, had been rehired; later, in prison, I would learn that he had since been promoted; a few weeks ago I learned he was now at another firm, Anduril, made up largely of ex-Palantir employees and involved mostly in building AI for drones that catch immigrants). The article also made one more pass at trying to get people interested in “persona management”, which had been discovered by a Daily Kos user on Feb 16, picked up via our various Anonymous IRC networks and Twitter accounts immediately thereafter, fleshed out a bit by Raw Story on Feb 17 (which made clear that this was a crowd-sourced discovery, along with much of what had been determined about the program thus far, and then, uh, discovered again by The Guardian on March 17 (“Revealed: US spy operation that manipulates social media”). The two reporters at Guardian made no mention of the Daily Kos fellow, or Raw Story, or any of the individuals who had been putting out material on this since, in public, with the intent of bringing it to widespread attention, and who were indeed already under investigation by FBI and various European agencies (me, Jake Davis/Topiary, and a Norwegian 16-year-old called Whitekidney). They did discover (I think) that the firm that won this contract for CENTCOM — which involves deploying fake online people with highly developed backgrounds, software that allows a single person to easily control ten such avatars (usually called personas back then) — was Ntrepid, but the two writers couldn’t figure out They couldn’t figure it out because they were two writers, and somewhat shabby ones. They weren’t a crowd-sourced research network, as Project PM now was; no single journalist is. Two journalists aren’t, either, even with an editor thrown in. I know that many in the press believe this is adequate. This would not even be true were the press a meritocracy.
I ended my last email reply to Greenwald thus:
“Glad to hear it. If you have any questions about any of these things, which
I’ve been looking into with some journalists and other assorted contacts via
my little group Project PM since last year, don’t hesitate to ask. You can
also see the wiki we’ve set up to disseminate some of what’s been learned…
Please look into persona management in particular. It’s something that needs
to be brought to general attention at some point, and I’m going to have a difficult time haranguing people about the issue from prison.”
A month prior, I’d been raided by the FBI. The search warrant was published by Michael Hastings on Buzzfeed around that time, noting what was listed as subjects of interest: the Themis firms HBGary and Endgame Systems; Project PM, the Echelon2.org website; Anonymous.
Glenn never replied.
Thereafter I discovered through yet another public email leak that HBGary had hired a woman named Jennifer Emick to find something to “get [me] picked up on” due to my role in at a time when she was also serving as a compensated informant for the FBI, and that the HBGary exec she was dealing with, Jim Butterworth, had had his ex-military buddy post pictures of my house, and my address, to the attention of the Zeta cartel at a time when outlets across North America were speculating as to whether they might successfully kill me over an Anonymous Iberoamerica operation that John Cook and Adrian Chen would routinely accuse me of somehow making up, despite knowing full well where the story was coming from (and despite Chen admitting, in the days after my raid, that he didn’t actually believe it, which I recorded and made public, apparently to no purpose:
3. I was charged in late 2011 with “Aggravated Identify Theft”, and thus faced a 22 year minimum mandatory sentence for linking to documents that had been hacked from Stratfor — hacked with the full knowledge and encouragement of FBI, who had turned Anonymous hacker Hector “Sabu” Monsegur a few months prior and gave him a monitored laptop. There was a widespread outcry, given the implications for other journalists, and indeed anyone else who deals with data. Among those who stayed silent was John Cook. Two years later, when the linking charges were dropped, and the DOJ had me plea instead to accessory after the fact for calling Stratfor’s CEO and offering to redact any sensitive info in the emails stolen by Anonymous and its silent partner the FBI, John remained silent. Wired’s Quinn Norton actually testified at my defense that she had linked to the same document I had without being prosecuted for any of it — and was threatened with prosecution right then and there at the bench conference. Still John kept quiet about that time Gawker offered Sabu money and a Gawkernet filesharing account in exchange for hacked emails stolen from another news outlet.
The incident was documented by the FBI itself through Sabu’s bureau-issued laptop and included in Jeremy Hammond’s case discovery, and made public in late 2014 via this article:
“I know nothing of this,” Cook replied upon being asked about the transcripts, which show Adrian Chen making the offer and confirming he had approval from editors. It’s certainly possible that Cook really wasn’t aware that the guy he routinely worked with on stories about Anonymous, Sabu, and the other celebrity hackers involved in this affair had been negotiating with those same people to buy emails stolen from Rupert Murdoch and News of the World, a cache that would have obviously yielded extraordinary stories had it actually existed, rather than being a ploy by which to fuck with Chen. Even if we pretend he didn’t know back then, he certainly knew after the reporters sent him the transcripts and asked him for a comment in late 2014, two months before the sentencing hearing where a judge handed down to me additional prison time and $800,000 in restitution, and which was of course covered by The Intercept, a publication Cook now edited. This was not even the worst of Cook’s sins of which I am aware; that would be allowing Chen to run the 2013 article in which he mocks a legal fundraiser for myself and Jeremy Hammond, repeats the claim that I concocted some sort of false flag drug war in Mexico to promote a book I supposedly had coming out, and attacks Project PM’s research as “inscrutable”.
Three years remained before the 2016 election, decided by small majorities in a few states, and undermined in Trump’s favor by Cambridge Analytica, Palantir, and Archimedes using the same data mining/output methods Archimedes employed in Romas/COIN, which one could read about solely on Project PM’s website, the chief subject of the March 2012 FBI raid. I’d mentioned some of these same firms in another Guardian article I’d written from prison shortly after the Snowden revelations; the DOJ sought and obtained a gag order on the grounds that the article had been “critical of the government”, and also because I’d been speaking by phone to various journalists, all of whom they listed in the gag order hearing. Among them was my old friend Michael Hastings, who died not long afterwards.
4. I’ll get to the incident in which Rodger Hodge and Betsy Reed decided that Romas/COIN couldn’t be discussed in the last column I wrote for The Intercept before my release from prison in another, more public venue, where it will make more sense to publish the entirety of the astonishing correspondence in which they explain to me that we can’t risk being sued by Booz Allen Hamilton, Apple, or Google “based on the unsubstantiated claims in the emails”. They hadn’t yet seen the emails, but then they were editors, and made all things their province: “These guys are obviously bragging and trying to hustle business.” This was less obvious to me, since the emails in question did not consist of the contractors claiming to potential business partners that they were meeting with Apple and Google and were thus fine, up-and-coming fellows who ought to be hired; rather they consisted of correspondence with Apple’s Andy Kemp and Google’s Mike Geldner, as well as meeting schedules with both. In a more perfect world, it would have been adequate for me to point this out, as I did, and to arrange for the emails in question to be sent to Hodge, as I also did. In an even more perfect world, this shit would have been addressed by Glenn in 2011, when I sent him all of this information. In this world, it makes more sense to just publish those emails in another, more public venue, attach the entirety of the contents to this message, and CC a couple of the contractors who attended those meetings, as nothing else seems to have worked.
In conclusion, neither Greenwald nor Reed are competent to decide anything at all about how these documents should be handled, or how The Intercept should be allocating its increasingly publicly-funded resources. This would have been harder to write down and send to 50 of their colleagues previously, before I learned about the specific impulses that lead to this decision, or had I not won the outlet their first National Magazine Award from a fucking segregation cell during a prison term that stemmed from my attempts to stop firms like Palantir from going after people like Glenn, or had Glenn not waited until public perception had turned back in my favor before writing a single word about what I was doing in prison to begin with, or did I not have obligations to the other activists who are still dealing with the consequences of our efforts back then, or had Aaron Swartz not spent a portion of his last months alive helping us to research and publicize the persona management capability that I would meanwhile ask Glenn to bring to wider attention lest it be forgotten in my inevitable prison term — which of course it was, to such an extent that it has now been discovered again by NYT and New Yorker in the form of Psy-Group, now reported to have used its “avatars” to influence the 2016 election for Trump, even after the campaign declined to pay for the service. It will be discovered again by some other name in four or five years. Or perhaps not.
The worst part is that I haven’t even gotten to the worst part, and won’t for a while. Perhaps this will suffice for now.
Anyone else who is inclined to talk about the circumstances surrounding the closure of the Snowden archive may send me an email at this address, or on Wire at @BarrettBrown33. If you just want to send something anonymously via means of your choice, to be relayed to someone I believe many of you have reason to trust and respect, that can also be arranged.
Good luck to the majority of you who are trying to do the correct thing in ambiguous circumstances.