News companies are pioneering a new brand of vigilante reporting, partnering with spy agencies they once oversaw
What a difference a decade makes.
Just over ten years ago, on July 25, 2010, Wikileaks released 75,000 secret U.S. military reports involving the war in Afghanistan. The New York Times, The Guardian, and Der Spiegel helped release the documents, which were devastating to America’s intelligence community and military, revealing systemic abuses that included civilian massacres and an assassination squad, TF 373, whose existence the United States kept “protected” even from its allies.
The Afghan War logs came out at the beginning of a historic stretch of true oppositional journalism, when outlets like Le Monde, El Pais, Der Spiegel, The Guardian, The New York Times, and others partnered with sites like Wikileaks. Official secrets were exposed on a scale not seen since the Church Committee hearings of the seventies, as reporters pored through 250,000 American diplomatic cables, secret files about every detainee at Guantanamo Bay, and hundreds of thousands of additional documents about everything from the Iraq war to coverups of environmental catastrophes, among other things helping trigger the “Arab Spring.”
There was an attempt at a response — companies like Amazon, Master Card, Visa, and Paypal shut Wikileaks off, and the Pentagon flooded the site with a “denial of service” attack — but leaks continued. One person inspired by the revelations was former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, who came forward to unveil an illegal domestic surveillance program, a story that won an Oscar and a Pulitzer Prize for documentarian Laura Poitras and reporters Glenn Greenwald and Jeremy Scahill. By 2014, members of Congress in both parties were calling for the resignations of CIA chief John Brennan and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, both of whom had been caught lying to congress.
The culmination of this period came when billionaire eBay founder Pierre Omidyar launched The Intercept in February 2014. The outlet was devoted to sifting through Snowden’s archive of leaked secrets, and its first story described how the NSA and CIA frequently made errors using geolocation to identify and assassinate drone targets. A few months later, former CIA and NSA director Michael Hayden admitted, “We kill people based on metadata.”
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