All articles are written by YJDP Student Correspondents and edited by mentors from The Washington Post prior to publishing.
Just a week after Barton Gellman and his colleagues won a Pulitzer Prize in Public Service for their coverage of the questionable intelligence-gathering practices of the National Security Agency, Gellman concluded, “there are more stories to do.”
Some of those stories, Gellman said, are just too difficult, or the information isn’t all there. Many stories are too risky. For nearly a year, he and other journalists at The Washington Post have been sifting through a trove of government documents provided by Edward Snowden, a former governor contractor who wanted to expose the agency’s secret practices.
Gellman was a part of a “Washington Post Behind the Headlines” forum on April 23 that discussed the NSA revelations. Panelists included reporters who write about national security and technology, speaking in front of a public audience and taking questions.
“You don’t want to do something that’s going to put [the country] in danger,” Gellman said during the forum. “There’s a lot of stuff in the Snowden archive that we didn’t even consider publishing because it’s specific and operational, and it reveals targets, successes, specific techniques.”
Gellman left the Post in 2010 after working there for 21 years. Last year, Gellman developed a “correspondence” with a source who disclosed confidential NSA documents to him – a man he later learned to be Snowden. Gellman knew disclosing NSA practices would not be a one-man-job, and he contacted the Post, believing they would provide the “strong institutional backing” and the trust required to take on risky national security revelations of its magnitude.
But first, Gellman needed the trust and approval of Executive Editor Marty Baron, who was new to the Post. For his first meeting with Baron, Gellman recalls walking into a room full of lawyers and using a process of elimination to figure out who Baron was.
“I was asking [Baron] to take on risks and to put his trust in someone he literally had never laid eyes on,” Gellman said.
Baron went ahead with the story, and Gellman was contracted to lead the coverage. “Marty understood exactly what he was getting into, and he was very thoughtful of what the big decisions were going to be and the subsequent steps, and he embraced it,” Gellman said.
Then began the long, arduous process of publishing the stories.
“First of all, it’s selecting a subject: What do we want to write about? And then deciding which ones we can actually do,” Gellman said in an interview. “Then it’s sort of gathering documents and trying to make sense of them.”
The leaked documents are complicated to someone not in-the-know and packed with tech jargon. And even when specific parts of a document are decoded, there are gaps. The team then had to find people to interview and confirm facts.
“You got a piece of paper, and it says it’s an NSA document, and it says x, y, and z are happening, [but] how do you know any of that is true?” Gellman said. “How do you know the document is authentic? How do you know that even if it is authentic, it’s accurate?”
Gellman explained that one specific PowerPoint slide Snowden provided took six weeks for Gellman and Ashkan Soltani, an independent security researcher and consultant who worked with the team, to decode. “When you look at that slide and spend five minutes with it, you say there’s a story there,” said Gellman.
A prominent – and off-putting – part of the slide was a smiley face in the middle, auspiciously drawn by British intelligence officials who were working with the U.S. government to signal they finally cracked a method to secretly infiltrate Yahoo and Google data centers worldwide.
“The smiley face was the declaration of victory,” Gellman said. “It was a football spike in the face of the company, saying, ‘We beat you. We found a way around your security.’”
The Post shared the Pulitzer Prize in Public Service with the Guardian US, which also published NSA stories. Both newspapers worked separately, serving as competition to each other.
Before the Post published any stories, the reporters and editors involved spent hours with attorneys for the paper, Baron said. There were also negotiations with government officials.
“On many occasions, with the request of government officials, we withheld information that might disclose very specific sources and methods,” Baron said during the forum. “We did not, however, agree to every request of every sort made by the government. Had we done so, there wouldn’t have been any stories whatsoever. The intelligence agencies were against publishing anything.”
Craig Timberg, the Post’s national technology reporter, explained at the forum the tech industry was initially angry at the Post for revealing the secret intelligence-gathering program in June, fearful that the disclosures would harm the industry’s public image. But when the Post reported in October that the NSA secretly infiltrated data centers worldwide, the industry was more angry with the government. Tech industry giants, such as Yahoo and Google, felt betrayed by the government.
“I was the recipient of some very unhappy phone calls the day after the first PRISM story ran. The companies were really, really mad,” Timberg said. But “over the course of [many] months, the industry actually realized they had been hacked. Suddenly everybody in the tech industry at once said ‘Uh-oh’ – they didn’t know that intelligence services had basically wired into their brains.”
Although unclear if revelations of such magnitude are still left to disclose, more stories are on their way, and Gellman is also writing a book on surveillance.
“These are the least-rushed stories I’ve ever been involved with,” said Gellman. “The stakes are so high in terms of getting it right and not doing damage, and being on the right side of a very unclear legal boundary, that we’ve taken our time.”