Glenn Greenwald’s Sick Brew of NSA Leaks and Anti-Israel Hysteria

Blogger’s bizarre ideology sees America and Israel in active cahoots to destroy the freedoms of the entire world

In the summer of 2010, long before he made headlines worldwide for reporting Edward Snowden’s leaks about the National Security Agency’s domestic surveillance program, Glenn Greenwald appeared on TV to deliver a strange condemnation of Israel, relying on its own holey logic. In doing so, he offered an instructive glimpse into a mindset that he shares with many others, on the left and the right alike – which, despite its prevailing tone of outrage, is oddly apolitical, as it offers no real solutions to real world problems, and defines itself by what it hates.

The occasion was the Israeli navy’s routing of a Turkish ship attempting to break through the blockade on the Gaza Strip, and Greenwald wasted no time in voicing his outrage. Speaking over a tinny Internet connection, he started off strong, barely allowing the host, Eliot Spitzer, to interject while using bold adjectives like “brutal” and “inhumane.” But then Spitzer turned it around; he asked Greenwald whether or not he considered Hamas a terrorist organization.

“Hamas,” replied the blogger, “is the democratically elected leadership of the people in Gaza.” Then, by way of historical context, he continued: “Have they engaged in terrorism? Yes. Have the Israelis who founded the Israeli state engaged in terrorism? Yes they have. Turkey says that what Israel just did is an act of terrorism itself. But Hamas is the democratically elected government of the Gaza Strip.”

What did Greenwald mean by his statement? A straight reading is likely to confound. Asked if Hamas was a terrorist group, he replied it was democratically elected; but then so was the government of Israel, whose actions he was so fiercely denouncing. Are we, then, to surmise that terrorism is permissible so long as it is practiced by democratically-elected governments? Or is terrorism universally forbidden, especially when attempted by democratically elected governments? Greenwald never bothered to clarify. Instead, he relied on a historical comparison, implying that Hamas is no different than the Israeli paramilitary groups that operated in favor of Israeli independence.

Here, too, it is worth pausing to consider the sophistry of this comparison. Even the Lehi, the most hardcore of all Jewish resistance movements, wanted nothing more than an end to the British mandate in Palestine — while Hamas is nowhere as rational. In article eight of its covenant, it states its mission crisply: “Allah is its goal, the Prophet its model, the Qur’an its Constitution, Jihad its path and death for the case of Allah its most sublime belief.”

But Greenwald is much more than an inattentive student of history. As he ended his discussion, he once again brought up the argument about Hamas’s democratic legitimacy, and once again returned to the same poorly defined terms and elusive syllogisms. No matter how closely you read his comments, they offer but one logical interpretation: any use of force is forbidden and criminal when applied by Israel but understandable and even commendable when undertaken by its enemies. The same point of view popped up later in the interview, as Spitzer attempted in vain to coax Greenwald to comment on whether he believed Israel had the right to defend itself. Greenwald evaded the question because, for him, it hardly matters. The good guys are good and the bad are bad, and so it doesn’t really matter what they believe, say or do.

A subtler variation of Greenwald’s cartoonish approach is on display in the work of James Bamford. Heralded as our finest investigative journalist covering the NSA—he is the author of three books about the agency—Bamford has spent the last five years repeating his favorite cautionary tale, the one about how America’s spymasters are secretly powered by Israeli cunning. Last year, for example, Bamford wrote a story in Wired titled “Shady Companies with Ties to Israel Wiretap the U.S. for the NSA,” revealing the role two Israeli technology firms play in making the agency’s surveillance infrastructure possible.

“In a rare and candid admission to Forbes,” Bamford wrote, “Retired Brig. Gen. Hanan Gefen, a former commander of the highly secret Unit 8200, Israel’s NSA, noted his former organization’s influence on Comverse, which owns Verint, as well as other Israeli companies that dominate the U.S. eavesdropping and surveillance market.”

It sounds like pretty damning stuff, unless one realizes two key facts. The first is that Bamford’s “rare and candid admission”—a term crucial to creating an aura of mystery and intrigue around what would have otherwise been just another one of the myriad commercial transactions that occur daily in a globalized economy—was anything but: the Israeli army’s contribution to that country’s technology scene in general, and Unit 8200’s involvement in particular, is widely discussed, including by members of the unit itself, and formed much of the thesis of Start-Up Nation, the 2009 bestseller by Dan Senor and Saul Singer.

But even those forest-dwellers who may be honestly surprised to learn that Western armies develop and use advanced technologies—such as, to name but one prominent example, the Internet, which owes its existence to the US Department of Defense—would surely not be surprised to learn that nations also sell each other stuff. Last month, for example, a reportnoted that the U.S. Army will pay $77 million to replace old M4 rifles with shiny, new m4A1s. The latter are produced by FN Herstal, a subsidiary of the Herstal Group, a corporation which is entirely owned by the Walloon Region of Belgium, which is to say, by a foreign government. But don’t expect Bamford et al to evoke the same ominous hum about the infiltration of the Walloons; foreign military contracts, apparently, are only a terrifying evil that threatens to undermine American democracy when the foreign companies are Israeli.

It would be crass, and largely inaccurate, to chalk up Bamford’s and Greenwald’s obsessive focus on Israel’s supposed role in evil global conspiracies to simple anti-Semitism. Instead, the ideology that drives their tendency to see the NSA and Israel as two heads of the same Satanic beast is more complex and ideologically-driven—an attack on the doctrines of exceptionalism that fueled the rise of both America and Israel. Beginning in the 1960s, this idea that America and Israel were virtuous nations apart began to drive a certain segment of the global left nuts, and so they set off on a search for new heroes. “The native,” Jean Paul Sartre wrote in the introduction to Frantz Fanon’s explosive The Wretched of the Earth, “has only one choice, between servitude or sovereignty. … Violence, like Achiles’ lance, can heal the wounds that it has inflicted.” Men of the left saw no problem with lending their reputations to terrorist organizations with nationalist aspirations that shared nothing of their humanistic and universalist ideologies, as long as these groups also hated America and Israel. In order for history to progress as it should, the New Chosen People had to displace the old, even if it meant a bizarre redrawing of political coalitions. We see remnants of this ideology still, in the philosopher Judith Butler’s argument that Hamas and Hezbollah are somehow part of the global left, or in the recent movements against “homonationalism,” dedicated to condemning gay Israelis for being proud of their nation’s generally progressive policies regarding gay rights.

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