Blogger's specialized expertise makes her a sought-after commentator

By Cynthia Price
Legal News

At the intersection of national security and civil liberties, an influential blogger who works from her home in Grand Rapids knows the devil is in the details.

Moreover, Marcy Wheeler, who writes at emptywheel.net, is amply qualified to be the person who uncovers those details.

Wheeler’s supremacy in analyzing the surveillance community and its actions, potential government infringement on the privacy of U.S. citizens, and a number of other subjects, stems in part from her expertise in closely reading government documents, including court opinions and memoranda.

“I look at stuff that other people aren’t going to look closely at. It’s often something that doesn’t otherwise get done,” Wheeler explains. “Like with the Snowden leaks — starting in 2013 a lot of people read the documents that he leaked, but I’m fairly confident there are only maybe one or two other people who have read the documents the government has released.”

Another component of Wheeler’s success is her ability to connect the dots, particularly with past events, for which her great memory is very helpful. A related talent is an impressive ability to trace the clues she finds as she combs through these documents.

Journalists she critiques often seem to have amnesia about even recent events. In a Sept. 4 piece Wheeler wrote, “In Attempted Hit Piece, NYT Makes Putin Hero of Defeating TPP [the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement],” she discusses the New York Times authors’ assertion that WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange is motivated by a desire to benefit Russia. She emphasizes that even the Times writers give substantial evidence that another more valid driver of Assange’s leaks might be the desire for vengeance against Hillary Clinton, who prosecuted him when she was Secretary of State. Though Wheeler ascribes darker motives to the article’s authors, it is also clear that even a charitable reading could cause questions about whether the authors remember recent WikiLeaks history.

Wheeler’s commentary, which has already been picked up by other alternative news sources, is rich in detail and nuance, but it expresses her disapproval, often bluntly.

“I definitely have a viewpoint,” Wheeler says. “You know, I’m definitely more in support of civil liberties than I am of surveillance.”

That is no indication, however, that her influence extends only to advocates. She comments publicly on both television and radio, and her analyses form the backbone for other journalists’ and bloggers’ writing on related topics — both with and without acknowledgment.

“After I wrote on the USA Freedom Act, a bill that wasn’t great, I had staffers in Congress call me and ask, ‘Can you tell me whether my boss should vote for this?’ Not a ton, but several,” she says.

Wheeler is serving as one of the advisors to Congress’s Fourth Amendment Caucus.

At the same time, Wheeler credits her remoteness from the D.C. journalism crowd as helpful in several ways. First, she works on her own terms. “I don’t have to rush and see what this new court filing says, and have it done by 6 p.m.,” she says. “Given the proliferation of large documents, it’s useful to have someone like me who can take my time.”

Second, she does not have to rely on sources, and is therefore free to publish what she finds out without fear of offending powerful people. While this is inherent in what she does, it is also facilitated by her physical and social distance from the Washington scene.

There was a time when it looked like Wheeler would pursue a political career that was more partisan. She campaigned for Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean in 2004, and vice-chaired the Washtenaw County Democratic Party when she lived in Ann Arbor.

Before pursuing graduate work at University of Michigan, resulting in a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature, Wheeler lived both on the East Coast, in a variety of New York locations based on her parents’ careers at IBM, and on the West Coast. She attended Amherst College, receiving her BA in 1990.

After her career as a consultant to the auto industry, including in Asia, fell victim to the recession, Wheeler turned to writing full-time, which she had started doing concurrently with consulting.

Wheeler was drawn to the Scooter Libby trial on charges that he had deliberately outed CIA agent Valerie Plame, and had breakout success for her live blogging and video coverage of the trial and events surrounding it for TV and for the news site FireDogLake. She remained associated with the now-defunct FireDogLake until she started her own blog in 2011, and she also was a senior policy analyst at First Look Media's The Intercept until 2014.

She wrote a book, inspired by her participation in the Libby trial, called Anatomy of Deceit: How the Bush Administration Used the Media to Sell the Iraq War and Out a Spy, and in 2007 turned to blogging full-time.
Valerie Plame’s husband Joseph C. Wilson praised the book.

Though there were a number of factors drawing her to the career choice, she says it was her Ph.D. exploration of the newspaper format called the feuilleton that gave her insight into the power of such alternative journalism.

She felt that the feuilleton, whose French origins refer to the “leaf” of paper in a newspaper, was a non-inflammatory medium for expressing controversial opinions. The online “Prologue” to Anatomy of Deceit says:

“The feuilleton is a kind of conversational essay that appears in a newspaper in its own section. Feuilletons first appeared in response to Napoleonic censorship, and in the 200 years since, they have often become important at moments when political polarization or government censorship has degraded traditional news reporting into nothing more than the parroting of ideological talking points...”

With articles now picked up in The Guardian, and on progressive news sites like Daily Kos, The Huffington Post, Reader Support News, and Michigan Liberal, Wheeler’s reputation is firmly established. She has been the subject of a number of national articles including one in Newsweek called “The Woman Who Knows The NSA's Secrets” in 2013.

She has been a guest on National Public Radio’s Talk of the Nation, and won a Sidney Hillman Foundation Journalism Award in 2009, primarily for her coverage of the auto industry crisis/bailout and the government justification of, and lack of honesty about, the practice of torture.

Among her well-known successes was determination, from a close reading of a publicly available document, of the number of times the U.S. government waterboarded Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in one month, an astounding 183 times.

In fact, Wheeler says, “The single most interesting thing I’ve done was investigating the Senate Torture Report and look into the FBI justification for torture that I did for Al Jazeera America.”

Wheeler says that she will continue her current pursuits despite the fact that  “both our lobbying structure and our journalism structure don’t necessarily reward the type of work I do.

“It would be nice to be in a position where I can be in a regular job and make a more financially consistent living, but I keep feeling as if no one else is really going to pick this up – I do something that others just don’t do,” she says.

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