What Bezos got when he bought the Washington Post
The new purchaser of the Washington Post, Jeffrey Bezos of Amazon, has stated publicly that when he takes the Post private the newspaper will be a stand-alone business, separate from the company of which Bezos is CEO. Bezos has also assured Post employees that he is committed to quality journalism, even suggesting a new golden era at the Post. There is no reason to doubt the statements, but independence from Amazon is hardly the sole concern raised by this remarkable purchase.
Consider the concerns raised by the equally remarkable material leaked by former NSA employee and Booz Allen Hamilton contractor Edward Snowden. While Snowden may not have carried “four laptops” laden with documents, as first reported, he left Booz Allen loaded with information, and what he turned over to the Washington Post, the Post now owns.
Not that you can accuse the Post of bragging about it. The exact extent of material provided by Snowden to the Post has not been fully reported. The material may not even be catalogued, although there have been hints in print that it is secure.
Still, according to the Post’s own reporting, the NSA material includes information on the U.S. intelligence budget; extrajudicial killings in Pakistan; CIA investigation of applicants seeking jobs in the U.S. intelligence community; an estimated 4,000 recent NSA internal probes of staff activity; information about the investigation of the 2009 Detroit ‘underwear bomber’; “231 offensive cyber-operations” by U.S. intelligence in 2011; the GENIE program, where “U.S. computer specialists break into foreign networks so they can be put under surreptitious U.S. control”; major expansion of the CIA’s Information Operations Center (IOC); information on NSA bulk collection of hundreds of millions of Americans’ phone records under a program started in 2006; construction and expansion of NSA data storage facilities in Ft. Meade and Utah; the official “178-page budget summary for the National Intelligence Program,” which “details the successes, failures and objectives” of the intelligence community with its (reported) “107,035 employees”; and “cutting-edge technologies, agent recruiting and ongoing operations.” This in just a quick overview, with presumably more revelations to come.
And all of this invaluable material will now be owned by one man, Jeffrey Bezos. Or looking at it another way, the trove of material will no longer be owned by Post Company shareholders including the Graham family, and will be owned instead by the private company Bezos sets up, whose management will have corporate authority to call the shots on the foregoing. In short, Mr. Bezos now owns documents concerning NSA metadata.
Not to be accused of being anti-business, and in the interest of full disclosure, I should clarify that I am an Amazon customer myself. I am generally a fan of delivery in commerce, saving time, travel, traffic and the nation’s energy resources–UPS, eBay, Amazon, FedEx, etc. As such, I deplore Texas Governor Rick Perry’s slapping an 8.25 percent sales tax on online sales to Texas customers. So much for that anti-tax, anti-Big Brother, pro-‘growth’ Red State policy we hear so much about. EBay sellers have to stick on an extra eight-and-a-quarter-per-cent for customers in Texas.
Amazon’s service has been generally okay, if nothing to write home (to Texas) about. Amazon makes millions from selling books, and the process seems to be getting smoother. However, the company has been no help whatsoever for individual authors trying to track the sales of their books, when publishers fail to pay royalties owed under contract to their authors. Perhaps that will improve over time, but I have found what a company does in one direction to be a pretty accurate gauge of its quality in another. It is a reasonable working hypothesis, for example, that federal contractor Booz Allen’s faulty vetting of Snowden was not the company’s only lapse.* (For what it’s worth, Amazon Web Services partners with Booz Allen on ‘data science’ and ‘cloud infrastructure’, and Booz Allen has rolled out a cloud computing service using Amazon SQS elements.)
Speaking of intellectual property, Bezos is now also the proud owner of information about data encrypting by competitors Apple, Facebook, Google, Hotmail, Microsoft, and Yahoo. In other words, the CEO of Amazon now owns a trove of NSA information about Amazon’s top competitors.
The Washington Post is not Amazon, of course. But it is ironic that Bezos’ Amazon cut off services for Wikileaks in 2010 after Wikileaks’ famous document dump, mostly from recent years, and now Amazon’s CEO owns copious information on “data from American technology companies, including Google,” collected by PRISM. The Post reported September 6 that the NSA “has made great strides in foiling encryption techniques used to protect Internet communications, and has established back doors to some companies’ encryption software,” according to Snowden documents.
By the way, we now also know via Snowden and the Post that under the Corporate Partner Access Project, NSA has paid “hundreds of millions of dollars a year to U.S. companies for clandestine access to their communications networks.” Not all of the companies compensated are Amazon competitors, although some are. Presumably Amazon was not among those compensated.
One final note. It is intriguing that the above story has been so little reported, i.e. not at all. No one pointed out the Snowden acquisition when Bezos purchased the Washington Post. No one has pointed it out since, either, until this writing. Arguably the two biggest names in the Post’s orbit this year were, one, Snowden, and two, Bezos, and until now, no one has connected the two.
This lacuna may be the power of narrative–the arc of the story dominates its content. Two flamboyant stories, one about Snowden and the NSA, and the other about the sale of the Washington Post to the CEO of Amazon, have been completely two different and separate stories.
The stories were separate for me also, as a reader; reading about them separately, I was slow putting them together, although presumably the lawyers doing due diligence for the sale took them into account. Exact dates for the chronology of the newspaper sale have not been reported. Edward Snowden’s first releases came the first week of June; the Post went quietly on the market, or put out feelers, reportedly early this year. I for one cannot help wondering whether Snowden would have given his information to the Post if he had known the newspaper was going to be sold. He was not in a position to hire due diligence attorneys.
*We now know that the same contractor who vetted Snowden, USIS, also vetted Washington Navy Yard shooter Aaron Alexis.