Note: This letter, printed in The Nation on November 24, 2010, is a response to Glenn Greenwald of the libertarian Cato Institute‘s attack on an article we published, titled “TSAstroturf: The Washington Lobbyists and Koch-Funded Libertarians Behind the TSA Scandal.”
Normally both of us, no strangers to controversy, view attacks on our articles like today’s by Glenn Greenwald’s as a badge of honor. But we’re frankly puzzled—and disappointed, if that’s the right word—that the source of this attack is Glenn Greenwald, whom we’ve followed fairly regularly over the past couple of years and whom we both respect.
Greenwald’s column raises one potentially valid criticism of our article—our treatment of John Tyner, the self-described libertarian and “don’t touch my junk” hero of the anti-TSA protests. Based on reporting from the San Diego Union-Tribune, we speculated that Tyner may have set up his taped encounter with TSA agents—a claim that we also quote Tyner denying. We did not, however, claim that Tyner was affiliated with the Astroturf and/or Koch-funded groups mentioned later in the piece, and indeed we noted directly that Tyner denied any such associations in an interview with The Nation. In retrospect, our article was less than clear about Tyner’s lack of Astroturf affiliations, and we regret in particular including extraneous details from the Union-Tribunearticle about Tyner’s past—that he went to a private Christian school and lived in a Republican community near a Marine base—because it distracted readers like Greenwald from the article’s main findings.
We believe that Tyner is in all likelihood innocent in his motives, but our larger point is that his discourse and the movement that has embraced it is far from innocent. In focusing entirely on our characterization of Tyner, Greenwald ignores the larger thrust of our argument and the vast majority of the evidence assembled in the piece, leaving a distorted impression of it.
Here is what the article really said: Like many Americans, we found the TSA’s intrusive procedures offensive and we are against the invasive pat-downs and attack on our civil liberties. This was a given in our article, and we stated as much. What our article did was look beyond the obvious surface, into possible reasons why this particular issue suddenly rose to forefront of the national debate, when dozens of other, more pressing issues are getting so little attention–people being kicked out of their homes and living on the street because of fraudulent foreclosures, a massive wealth transfer from struggling Americans to the financial sector, ongoing wars that are bankrupting the country and killing thousands, the attack on public education and so on.
Our investigation called into question the official version of events as a “spontaneous” grassroots anti-TSA outbreak. Instead, we discovered some very disturbing motives—business and political—pushing this issue forward. Our evidence, well-documented in our article, shows that the anti-TSA campaign was not a “spontaneous” “people’s uprising.” Instead, we documented numerous examples of anti-TSA campaigners with ties to the billionaire Koch brothers’ network, and we exposed the National Opt-Out Day campaign as being led by a Washington lobbyist who specializes in fake-grassroots campaigns.
We also documented the story of the first “victim” of the TSA—a libertarian named Meg McLain—who was found to have lied about being sexually molested by TSA agents. Before Tyner, McLain was being heralded by the same right-wing PR network, particularly Matt Drudge and Koch-funded libertarians, who later promoted Tyner to fame and who last year led the PR drive promoting the Tea Party movement. McLain’s ties to the Koch brothers are well-documented in our piece—and Greenwald, for reasons unclear, studiously avoids rebutting any of our evidence.
One disturbing part of Greenwald’s attack is when he accuses us of being some kind of Democratic Party centro-fascist goon duo patrolling the public, out to repress any citizen who doesn’t declare fealty to the two-party system:
the most odious premise in this smear piece: anyone who doesn’t quietly, meekly and immediately submit to Government orders and invasions–or anyone who stands up to government power and challenges it–is inherently suspect…That’s how you prove that you’re a normal, responsible, upstanding good citizen: by not making waves, doing what you’re told, declaring yourself a loyal Republican or Democrat and then cheering for your team, and–most of all–accepting in the name of Fear that you must suffer indignities, humiliations and always-increasing loss of liberties at the hands of unchallengeable functionaries of the state.
How did Greenwald get to this conclusion? We’re stumped—he never tried contacting either one of us before publishing his story. That’s one big reason why we’re both so disappointed—because that’s what journalists do: we call our subjects to confirm, or not confirm, evidence and suspicions that we have compiled. Even Democratic Party centro-fascists us were professional enough to call John Tyner—and we printed his denial of any involvement in a Koch-network-funded PR campaign.
If Greenwald had engaged the remainder of our article, he might have noted the swelling number of anti-TSA critics pushing to replace body scans and pat-downs with “Israeli-style” racial profiling. For example, here is a recent interview with the founder of Tea Party Nation, Judson Phillips:
I am reasonably certain a 2 year old child is not a terrorist and a 90 year old grandmother in a wheel chair probably isn’t either. Yet they are treated the same in the eyes of the government as some 25 year old man who just arrived from Yemen.
Other powerful TSA critics have made similar statements, none of which were criticized in Greenwald’s piece, or in any of his pieces since Tyner’s “don’t touch my junk” episode. These include:
Rick Santorum who said:
There’s a profile of people who are conducting these activities… And it is not profiling to give them enhanced searching. It’s not. It’s reasonable. Because that’s where the threat is coming from. If the threat was coming from 92 year old women, I would expect my mother to go through enhanced search.
And Charles Krauthammer, whose only remedy is racial profiling:
The only reason we continue to do this is that people are too cowed to even question the absurd taboo against profiling – when the profile of the airline attacker is narrow, concrete, uniquely definable and universally known. So instead of seeking out terrorists, we seek out tubes of gel in stroller pouches.
And Robert Poole, founder of the Koch-funded Reason Foundation, who worked with the Bush Administration on transportation issues and has appeared in the media with Rep. John Mica, the author of the TSA bill and the focus of the last section of our article (which Greenwald fails to address):
The only feasible way to remove body-scanning (or the intrusive pat-down alternative) as standard procedure is to change TSA’s screening model to one that is risk-based. In practice, that would mean separating air travelers (other than those on the No-Fly list, who are automatically denied passage) into three basic groups:
1. Trusted Travelers, who have passed a background check and are issued a biometric ID card that proves (when they arrive at the security checkpoint) that they are the person who was cleared. This group would include cockpit crews, anyone holding a government security clearance, anyone already a member of the Department of Homeland Security’s Global Entry, Sentri, and Nexus, and anyone who applied and was accepted into a new Trusted Traveler program. These people would get to bypass regular security lanes upon having their biometric card checked at the airport, subject only to random screening of a small fraction.
2. High-risk travelers, either those about whom no information is known or who are flagged by the various Department of Homeland Security (DHS) intelligence lists as warranting “Selectee” status. They would be the only ones facing body-scanners or pat-downs as mandatory, routine screening.
3. Ordinary travelers—basically everyone else, who would go through metal detector and put carry-ons through 2-D X-ray machines. They would not have to remove shoes or jackets, and could travel with liquids. A small fraction of this group would be subject to random “Selectee”-type screening. This type of risk-based screening would focus TSA resources on the travelers that should receive the most scrutiny by reducing the use of resources on low-risk travelers.
The list of high-profile charlatans pushing racial profiling as the alternative to TSA pat-downs and body scans is far too long to list here, but you get the point.
And we aren’t the only skeptical journalists. Mother Jones’ Kevin Drum published a piece this past Monday also expressing the similar doubts as we have about the timing and purpose of the anti-TSA campaign. Drum writes:
this is GOP catnip. For seven years, Republicans insisted that every security procedure ever conceived was absolutely essential to keeping the American public safe, and anyone who disagreed was practically rooting for an al-Qaeda victory. Now a Democrat is in office and suddenly they’re outraged over some new scanners. Helluva coincidence, no?
By Greenwald’s logic, this makes Kevin Drum and Mother Jones goonsquad enforcers of Democratic Party centro-fascism and the two-party system. Which is, of course, ridiculous.
One last thing, and this is from Mark Ames, one of the co-authors attacked by name in Greenwald’s piece: In my 15 years in journalism, I’ve been called all sorts of ugly names: both “communist” and “fascist” by Clinton’s neoliberal shills in Russia, where I was in a years-long public war of words with Michael McFaul, currently President Obama’s top man on Russia. As the founding editor of the Moscow-based newspaper The eXile, I was accused of being a “Putin apologist” by neocons and an “anti-Russian extremist” by Kremlin goons, who finally succeeded in shutting down our newspaper after subjecting it to an “unplanned urgent audit” of our editorial content. After a Duma parliamentarian and top leader in the Putin youth group Nashi accused me on radio of “extremism” for publishing articles by an opposition leader, I was advised to leave Russia in a hurry; my newspaper collapsed, and I lost everything I’d invested into it.
I’m not sure if Greenwald has ever been subjected to an “urgent unplanned audit” of his articles by a government notorious for overseeing the murder of several journalists and opposition figures (some of whom I’ve known personally), or been forced to flee a country because of his journalism, but he sure comes off as an expert on the subject, accusing me, incredibly enough, of somehow enforcing the very oppression that I have witnessed and been a victim of first-hand. My co-author, Yasha Levine—whose grandfather survived Stalin’s GULAGs– fled the Soviet Union to America to escape anti-Semitism. So we believe that even Greenwald can understand what a gigantic bummer, for lack of a better word, it’s been for us to come back to America, and to find ourselves attacked and frankly slandered for being alleged government oppressors.
We said above that we regret adding those extraneous Union-Tribune details into the article—and we hope that Greenwald takes another look at what we wrote, and what he wrote about us, and reconsiders.
–Mark Ames and Yasha Levine
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