On Friday I posted a short piece in which I said that (1) Benjamin Wittes, co-director of the Harvard Law School–Brookings Project on Law and Security, has been blogging at his website Lawfare “on the report on the abuses of the National Security Agency just out from the President’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communication Technologies, in terms highly favorable to the super-secretive and media-shy agency”; (2) that The New Republic’s website republishes his posts and others from the Lawfare group blog in a project titled “Security States” that is sponsored by Northrop Grumman, a major NSA contractor; and (3) that Wittes and his colleagues enjoy extraordinary access to the NSA, as suggested by a series of interviews they’ve published on the site with top NSA officials. I drew a connection between all of these things. Then I sent the post to TNR’s editor Franklin Foer and to Wittes, promising to publish their responses. What I learned was that the problem isn’t as bad as I originally described. In fact, it’s worse.
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Here is what Franklin Foer, who is an old friend (I hired him for his first journalism internship) wrote back to me:
We’ve been running pieces from Lawfare for many months—and we’ve been running pieces by Ben and Jack for many years. They are valued contributors, sharp minds, genuine experts, and ideologically unpredictable. (Jeff Rosen, another treasured contributor and our legal affairs editor, has long been one of the most important critics of the surveillance state.) When our collaboration with Lawfare was sponsored by Northrop—which was just the month of October—it was clearly disclosed on each article page.
I spent Monday researching Foer’s claim of full disclosure of Northrop Grumman’s sponsorship. Let’s not bury the lede here: what Foer said does not seem to be true.
An announcement of the new collaboration between TNR and Lawfare on September 30, 2013, at Lawfareblog.com (“Coming Tomorrow: Teaming Up With The New Republic”) stated, “We are calling the project, which is being sponsored by the Northrop Grumman Corp, ‘Security States.’ ” An announcement under Wittes’s byline at NewRepublic.com on October 1 says nothing about any sponsorship, and a third announcement, a press release on the same day at NewRepublic.com, concluded, “This partnership is made possible by Northrop Grumman, a leading global security company.” That is the only mention of Northrop Grumman sponsorship of TNR content I can find on its website—ever. Going through each online page with posts tagged as part of the “Security States” series in October, I find that the sponsorship was not “clearly disclosed on each article page.” As this forlorn little Googlewhack reveals, it was in fact revealed on none of them.
I sought clarification from Foer: Did I misinterpret his response? He wrote back, “Northrop doesn’t advertise with us on our site now. That was a month-long deal that ended.” I took him to be saying, perhaps, that the posts published under the “Security States” tag during the period of sponsorship mentioned the sponsorship, but only while that sponsorship was ongoing. However, using the Internet Wayback Machine, I checked for how a post made on October 17 showed up the next day, on October 18—and could find no indication of sponsorship there, either. I followed up by asking Foer about that, too. He replied, “”Northrop was an advertiser. They were promised nothing, other than prominent placement on Security States pages.”