Barton Gellman had a busy summer chasing down big national security stories stemming from the document trove of former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden. Late last month, Gellman and Greg Miller published a story on the government’s $52.6 billion “black budget” for intelligence operations, a “bureaucratic and operational landscape that has never been subject to public scrutiny.” Before that, Gellman revealed, again based on Snowden documents, that NSA has exceeded its statutory authority “thousands of times each year since Congress granted the agency broad new powers in 2008.” And in early June, he had a hand in breaking the story of the National Security Agency’s now-famous Prism surveillance program.
All of those stories appeared in the Washington Post. But hold on: Starting in 2010, Gellman has been a contributing editor at-large for Time magazine. Why didn’t Time get in on all of this fun?
That’s a question Gellman isn’t excited to answer. He currently has non-exclusive contracts with both the Washington Post and Time magazine, and toggling between the two doubtless requires a great deal of finesse. As for how he has dealt with Time over the NSA stories, Gellman says, “We have a mutually agreeable plan and the only thing I can add to that is, ‘Stay tuned.’” Given Gellman’s place on the Time masthead, it’s likely that he discussed the story with Time editors and lawyers, though he declines to answer questions about any discussions. He does say this: “Time has not turned down this story.”
What happened, then? The magazine isn’t talking. “TIME’s going to decline comment on this one. Appreciate you reaching out,” writes Time spokesperson Kerri Chyka. The Erik Wemple Blog isn’t offended, considering that Time magazine managers have been reluctant to share details of the goings-on with their own people. Richard Stengel, Time’s top editor at the time of the initial Snowden stories, is leaving the magazine for a position at the State Department.
One possibility is that Gellman felt comfortable going back to the Post with a complicated and challenging story. After all, he’d spent two decades at the paper, a stint that included a Pulitzer Prize-winning series, written with Jo Becker, on the vice presidency of Dick Cheney. The series led to a book written by Gellman, “Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency,” an indispensable guide to the Bush years. Of the Snowden material, Gellman says, “It’s a competitive daily story and it helps to have a daily newspaper” behind it.
Another possibility: Snowden made demands that derailed any plans Time may have had to publish the stories. The former contractor wasn’t a passive actor in his negotiations with journalists, as we learned after the Prism story: Gellman published a piece detailing his interactions with him, including this snippet: “To effect his plan, Snowden asked for a guarantee that The Washington Post would publish – within 72 hours – the full text of a PowerPoint presentation describing PRISM, a top-secret surveillance program that gathered intelligence from Microsoft, Facebook, Google and other Silicon Valley giants. He also asked that The Post publish online a cryptographic key that he could use to prove to a foreign embassy that he was the document’s source. I told him we would not make any guarantee about what we published or when.”
It’s not as if Time doesn’t publish deeply reported stories. Earlier this year, for example, it published Steven Brill’s 36-page piece on medical costs. Yet the title has seen some turmoil of late. Its publisher, Time Inc., is set to be spun off from its parent company, Time Warner, early next year. And it has seen some ups and downs on the personnel front as well.
Nearly a decade ago, Time lost some clout among hard-core journo-types when it decided to cough up documents on sourcing to a grand jury in the case involving CIA operative Valerie Plame. The move came only after the Supreme Court turned down the company’s appeal. Norman Pearlstine, then CEO of Time Inc., told the New York Times, “I found myself really coming to the conclusion that once the Supreme Court has spoken in a case involving national security and a grand jury, we are not above the law and we have to behave the way ordinary citizens do.” Time’s own reporters weren’t pleased with the outcome. “We’re very much worried about what kind of signal this sends. Confidentiality is the lubricant of journalism,” Time’s Karen Tumulty, now with the Washington Post, told a reporter.
Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian journalist at the center of the Snowden plume, told the Erik Wemple Blog he’s “never heard anyone talk about any remote benefits of going to Time” with surveillance stories. The New York Times and ProPublica have also recently published Snowden-based stories.
In addition to his ties to Time and the Washington Post, Gellman is a senior fellow at the Century Foundation (“Forward Thinking. Forward Movement.”), which is supporting his work on an upcoming book about — surprise topic — the industrial-surveillance state. As he goes about his stories on this area, his life threatens to get only more complicated. Sources tell the Erik Wemple Blog that NBC News recently talked to Gellman about teaming up on Snowden. Gellman confirms: “NBC approached me and asked me to work on a story,” he says, adding that he respectfully declined to proceed. “I just don’t have time for that and I need to focus on my three existing obligations.”