Greenwald’s ‘The Intercept’ Gets Intercepted on Day One

With access to Edward Snowden’s treasure-trove and four months to prepare, the new magazine got scooped by the 168-year-old Associated Press on the world’s biggest drone story Monday.

Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters

The Intercept has landed—but with a bang or a thud?

Given the four-month drumroll preceding Monday’s launch of the first in a series of digital magazines planned by First Look Media—eBay billionaire Pierre Omidyar’s $250 million journalism startup—the attendant fanfare has been predictably noisy, with scores of news outlets in the United States and abroad welcoming the new kid on the block.

But the day’s big headline concerning America’s mushrooming espionage and national security apparatus—the new mag’s stated focus—was generated not by The Intercept but by the Associated Press, the 168-year-old news cooperative. The mainstream establishment wire service revealed an internal debate among U.S. government officials about whether an American citizen living abroad, and suspected of being al Qaeda member who is plotting terrorist attacks against the U.S., can be legally targeted by a lethal CIA drone.

That is the story receiving front-page play in Tuesday’s New York Times, whose most recent mention of The Intercept is a Jan. 10 book review of an identically-titled first novel by Law & Order creator Dick Wolf.

Investigative journalist and columnist Glenn Greenwald—who, along with documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras and best-selling author Jeremy Scahill, is a founding editor of the online mag that boasts special access to the top-secret archive leaked by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden—was apparently miffed at the AP’s scoop.

During an interview Monday with the left-leaning television program Democracy Now—for which the pugnacious Greenwald appeared by satellite from his home in Rio De Janeiro—he accused the wire service of “helping the United States government continue its targeting of U.S. citizens for death…by withholding information.”

AP spokesman Paul Colford retorted that Greenwald’s accusations are “hard to follow, considering that no one would have known an American was being targeted had the AP not reported it.” The AP, however, did agree to the Obama administration’s request to withhold the name of the country where the suspected terrorist is believed to be operating, as the AP story notes, “because officials said publishing it could interrupt ongoing counterterror operations.” The Times later identified the country as Pakistan.

Not that The Intercept has lacked for attention. Italy’s La Repubblica, for instance, posted a lengthy article about the new digital magazine and its lead story about America’s reliance on untrustworthy electronic surveillance data over human intelligence to target lethal drone strikes. The influential Drudge Report linked to The Intercept’s story—which co-author Scahill also promoted on CNN, colorfully describing the situation as “death by metadata.”

Meanwhile, media organizations ranging from USA Today to The Guardian to The Huffington Post to The Daily Beast, along with countless blogs and Twitter commenters, weighed in on the debut. The Washington Post explored the ethical implications of of Greenwald & Co’s use of the word “assassination” rather than the government-approved phrase “targeted killing” to describe the elimination of suspected terrorists. And the New Yorker welcomed The Intercept as part of an encouraging trend of proliferating public-interest journalism startups.

Still, it remains to be seen whether The Intercept will match the impact of Greenwald and Poitras’s previous reporting on Snowden and the NSA in The Guardian, which along with stories in the Washington Post and New York Times, outraged some of America’s key allies and provoked a still-raging debate about the competing values of national security vs. civil liberties.

“Snowden revelations are not really the headline-makers they once were—at least not so far,” said a savvy media observer and journalist based in France, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “I think what we’re going to see over the medium term is a pattern similar to the one established when Wikileaks was in its heyday: If there’s a good scandal or a juicy slur about local officials, it makes news in a given country; if it’s just more of the same about American policy, it’s likely to move to the back pages if, indeed, it gets picked up at all.”