CBC’s response to my complaint against Greg Weston’s NSA spy story

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Below is the email I received from Jack Nagler Director of Journalistic Public Accountability and Engagement, CBC News in response to the complaint I filed Dec 4th (see here):

Dear Mr. Skoreyko:

Thank you for your e-mail of December 3 addressed to Esther Enkin, CBC Ombudsman, drawing our attention to a report on the November 27 editions of THE NATIONAL indicating that the United States spied on its allies at the G20 summit in Toronto three years ago.

The Editor-in-Chief of CBC News, Jennifer McGuire, has asked me to reply on her behalf.

While I certainly regret you are once again disappointed in CBC, I must tell you – and I do so with respect – that your views are not ones I share. You pointed to two shortcomings you find with the story and in support of your views included excerpts from Hansard and recent columns published in the Sun and the National Post newspapers.

First, you wrote that we violated CBC News policy by paying Glenn Greenwald “for the stolen NSA documents”.

We did not pay Mr. Greenwald for the documents. I see recently that a Toronto newspaper paid for a video tape of the city’s mayor, but CBC News policy prohibits such “chequebook journalism”. In other words, CBC News does not pay for information from a source for a story.

(In that regard, it is inaccurate for both Paul Calandra (the Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister) and Larry Miller (Conservative MP) to say CBC News had “paid their source” and offered “cash-for-news”. We did not.)

Mr. Greenwald is a lawyer, a journalist (who has written for Salon.com, The New York Times and The Guardian), and author (three of his books have been on The New York Times best seller list). Recently, he has worked extensively on and written about documents taken by former U.S. National Security Agency contractor, Edward Snowdon.

CBC News paid Mr. Greenwald as a freelance journalist to write and report on this story in the same way we routinely pay freelance journalists in Canada and around the world to work on stories. As with any other journalist that works for CBC News, Mr. Greenwald’s work must meet CBC’s rigorous journalistic standards. And we believe these stories fully met those standards.

Second, you wrote that the claims made in the stories were not supported by the NSA document CBC subsequently released. Although you did not say specifically why you feel that is the case, I assume you are deferring to the views expressed in the two newspaper columns re-printed in your e-mail.

So then let me briefly reply to what National Post columnist Matt Gurney wrote (“Supporting documents’ for CBC’s bombshell NSA scoop don’t support the story much at all” – December 3)

I should be clear at the outset that our journalists, including those who specialize in security and intelligence matters, studied the document for some time before we published the stories. We spoke to multiple sources in the intelligence community for help in interpreting the acronyms and language used, and especially for help in understanding the context. We shared the information with other countries and agencies involved in gathering intelligence at the summits and weighed their reaction and guidance offered publicly and especially that offered privately. And we also reviewed the documents and the information we had with an academic specialist. The point is that we went well beyond our own knowledge and sought out the advice of many experts to inform our understanding of the document’s meaning context and ramifications.

Although Mr. Gurney agrees that “clearly” an operation was being conducted, he feels there is “no proof” of the “widespread surveillance” the CBC story says took place. The CBCNews.ca story’s first sentence says the “government allowed the largest American spy agency to conduct widespread surveillance in Canada during the 2010 G8 and G20 summits”.

This was not a matter of a security agency keeping track of a suspected militant aiming to disrupt the summit or even a following a group of evil doers. That would not be surprising. We expect secret security agencies in Canada and the United States to keep track of people intent on violence or disruption of these events. That is their job.

The point here is that the document, prominently marked “secret”, suggests the NSA was planning to keep track of everyone attending the summit not just all of those that might pose a potential threat. Their interest was not targeted, but widespread. Moreover, that interest extended well beyond security and protection to forwarding the policy goals of the United States. That is clear in the secret document.

That was point made in the story’s lead sentence. Subsequent sentences and paragraphs went on to expand on that first sentence explaining why the operation could be described as “widespread”.

Mr. Gurney writes, “Further, there is nothing to back up the CBC’s claim that the ‘spying at the Toronto summit in 2010 fits a pattern of economic and political espionage by [the NSA] and its partners [in Canada]’”.

In fact, the CBCNews.ca story did not say that. What is said is “…and its partners such as Canada”.  It is a significant difference. In fact, the story indicates that this is, at least, the second summit the NSA has taken an interest in. The story explains that documents previously released by Mr. Snowdon “first exposed the spying on world leaders at the London summit”. While in this instance, the NSA was partnering with Canada (and presumably CSEC), during the London summit the American spy agency partnered with Britain’s GCHQ. That story was reported in The Guardian this spring (For those readers interested in more details, this story contained a link to an earlier CBCNews.ca story about spying at the London summit)

Mr. Gurney notes that there is nothing in the document “approximating an even semi-complete operational plan or list of objectives”. This is one document, one clearly identified as a briefing note. No doubt there are many other documents, likely including those with operational plans. The absence of such plans does not diminish the credibility of this document.

In the long run, Mr. Gurney says he has “no doubt” the United States and Canada were “working together to scoop up every last morsel of intelligence they could” at the summit. Nevertheless, he says, although the CBC story “claim[s] that there is slam-dunk proof of widespread spying that fit a pattern”, there is no “proof of that” in the document.

That would be a high standard. But the stories do not claim there is “slam-dunk proof”. In such a sensitive area of operations, it would be surprising to find a document with the kind of proof Mr. Gurney seems to be looking for. What we do have in this document are clear indications of widespread NSA surveillance, undertaken with Canadian co-operation (“closely co-ordinated with the Canadian partner” as the document puts it) supporting the broader goals of the U.S. (and presumably Canadian) governments. We know that is similar to what happened at the London summit.

Mr. Gurney says he has “no doubt” that spying went on at the summit, a conclusion based, I expect, solely on his knowledge of these agencies and how they operate and how they have operated in the past. The CBC stories bring substantiation to that belief. Our investigation and reporting, as described above, went well beyond the contents of this one document. And we stand by everything we have reported.

If you’re interested, we have also reiterated much of what I include here in a post on our editor’s blog, at http://www.cbc.ca/newsblogs/community/editorsblog/

Thank you again for your e-mail. I hope my reply has reassured you of the continuing integrity of our news service.

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3 Responses to “CBC’s response to my complaint against Greg Weston’s NSA spy story”

  1. Pissedoff Says:

    As long as Harper keeps giving them $1bil they will keep spinning.

    • Monkey Says:

      I suspect Harper would like to privatize it but doesn’t more for political reasons. In Quebec and Atlantic Canada there’s almost no support for privatizing it and that’s 1/3 of the seats. I also think it might be unpopular amongst the immigrant community (almost every taxi driver here in Toronto has CBC on if that’s any indication). As depressing as this may be, be happy that per capita our spending on CBC is amongst the lowest in the OECD. In Britain they spend 3.5 times as much on the BBC per capita as we do. I know those on the forums may not like this, but I can pretty much say for certain if the NDP or Liberals were in power we would be spending more on CBC.

  2. CBC now refuses to release NSA documents in latest Greg Weston story | BC Blue: One BC Conservative's view on it all... Says:

    […] is, Weston’s record hasn’t exactly been stellar when it comes to being truthful (see here and […]


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