WaPo panel discusses NSA surveillance program and ongoing revelations

May 13, 2014

All articles are written by YJDP Student Correspondents and edited by mentors from The Washington Post prior to publishing.

The NSA surveillance program has made headlines, sparked global debate, and changed how Americans view their government since it was exposed by Edward Snowden and reporters last June. At a Washington Post Behind the Headlines event on April 23, a week after receiving a Pulitzer prize for public service, a panel of journalists who have worked intensively on the stories revealed how they approached their reporting and how America has reacted to it.

The event took place in the Auditorium at the Post, which was packed with nearly 200 attendees. The panel was made up of Barton Gellman, the Pulitzer-prize winning journalist who has spearheaded the NSA surveillance reporting, national security reporter Ellen Nakashima, Ashkan Soltani, an independent security researcher and consultant to the Post, and national technology reporter Craig Timberg. The panel was moderated by technology reporter, Cecilia Kang.

How The Post got involved

Gellman brought information about the NSA surveillance program to the Post last spring after receiving a large volume of documents from whistleblower Edward Snowden. Gellman felt that he needed an authority figure that could make difficult editorial decisions, and he soon found that in Executive Editor Martin Baron. Gellman and Baron had never met before, so the Post taking on the story represented a significant act of trust on both sides.

“This is the most highly classified information in the U.S. government, so we had to think very hard about whether it was worth disclosing,” said Baron in an interview. Ultimately, they concluded that “what we had here was a sweeping national policy that deemphasized the Constitutional rights of American citizens,” a policy that the Post believed needed to be disclosed.

Snowden also provided documents to Glenn Greenwald, formerly of The Guardian U.S. “It’s a competitive relationship,” said Gellman of Greenwald.

Key revelations

Since the first NSA surveillance disclosure on June 5 of last year, the Post’s revelations about the program have sparked outrage and controversy around the world. Among these key revelations were exposures of phone metadata collection, NSA spying on foreign heads of state, the agency’s success at hacking into Google and other Internet providers to access communications and address books, and the ability to surveil an entire country’s phone calls.

Snowden’s documents revealed that these surveillance efforts glean information from ordinary Americans, not just suspected terrorists. Gellman said in the panel that he had learned the NSA is incidentally collecting all of America’s Internet content, even though Americans are not technically targets. Timberg explained that there is not much of a distinction between what information private companies like Google and Yahoo have and what the government knows, since the NSA was able to get access to this private consumer information.

“The documents would reveal that the National Security Agency was engaging in surveillance and data collection of breathtaking scope and intrusiveness,” said Baron. “What had transpired was a dramatic shift toward state power, and against individual rights, including privacy, with no public knowledge, and no public debate.”

Gellman said, “The issue here is not that we have a Big Brother in that abusive sense...and yet it is a set of powers that exceeded what Orwell could have imagined, and so you worry about what might become of that.”

Snowden’s role

The panelists talked about the importance of Snowden’s role in exposing the surveillance program. Many high-level officials were surprised at the revelations, including lawmakers. Gellman said this was no accident; there were “very deliberate efforts to mislead” by the NSA.

“It just makes you wonder how it is possible in a democracy such as ours...that a surveillance system so sweeping and powerful could grow to become as robust as it clearly has become, without all sorts of important people knowing it or having some sort of say about whether it is a good thing or a bad thing,” said Timberg.

            Officials who did know about the program were bound by classification rules from disclosing the “secret law” in the Patriot Act establishing aspects of the program. Nakashima, an experienced national security reporter, had tried to get information about this secret law for years from government officials, but got nowhere. Nakashima said Snowden’s leaks “forced a degree of transparency from the government.”

Snowden gave a large trove of documents late last spring all at once to Gellman after Gellman agreed to look through the material and weigh it carefully, rather than releasing high volumes of it to the public. Snowden has not tried to control the reporting process.

Behind the Post’s editorial decisions

Reporting on the scandal has been a huge and highly sensitive undertaking, so the Post had to ramp up its security measures to protect the information from Snowden. Gellman does not fear for his personal safety, but has worried about cybersecurity, since he has encountered signs of attempted hacks into his computer and communications.

The risks extend beyond the risk of the material being compromised. “This story is risky journalistically and legally and in terms of national security,” said Gellman in an interview. “These are the least rushed stories I’ve ever been involved in. The stakes are so high.”

“It’s an especially challenging subject for us to cover,” Baron said in an interview. The Post worked intensively with lawyers to anticipate and prepare for legal threats, but have not faced any such threats thus far.  The ethical and national security dilemmas were even less straightforward.

“The question is what we are willing to publish under what circumstances, and what are the implications for national security,” Baron said.

Both Baron and Gellman stressed that they spent hours with government, military, and intelligence agency officials to ensure that their revelations would not jeopardize national security, sometimes withholding information upon request. They did not disclose any information that specifically indicated the NSA’s targets or techniques, which often meant that they could not disclose the NSA’s success stories. “We did not, however, agree to every request of every sort by the government,” Baron emphasized. “Had we done so, there would have been no stories whatsoever.”

Gellman led the team of 28 Post journalists behind the reporting, and chose when to focus on what based on what would have the broadest implications. Baron decided whether to go ahead and publish the stories.

Throughout the panel, Gellman answered questions straightforwardly and matter-of-factly, in a manner indicative of his journalistic style. However, , Gellman emphasized , “I don’t have a view from nowhere...that’s not at all what we’re doing when it comes to facts. We’re trying to find out and say what it is. I’m not trying to say what you should think of it.”

Reporting Challenges

Discerning facts from the mass of documents Snowden provided to Gellman has been challenging. The documents were filled with jargon, code words, and tech lingo that have required a lot of deciphering. The Post hired Ashkan Soltani to help interpret the documents, such as the cartoon drawing that he and Gellman ultimately deciphered to reveal the NSA’s hacking of Google’s Cloud. Soltani was able to understand the documents because he could recognize the “geek jokes” the NSA’s computer scientists employed to describe tech operations.

“It’s been an incredibly fun adventure,” Soltani said of deciphering the documents. He compared the reporting of the scandal to Wheel of Fortune, since it required so much piecing together of clues.

“You have to dive all the way into the complexity of the subject then come back out to talk to the general public,” said Gellman in an interview.

Impact of the Revelations

“What we’re trying to do is enable a debate, not cause a result,” said Gellman. “Is it okay for us, to say that the NSA will collect at will all of our communications? That’s a big public policy question that needs to be debated.” The Post’s revelations have certainly stirred quite a debate. People around the nation and world began to seriously discuss the limits of government surveillance and power in the United States, and whether the NSA’s program is necessary, beneficial, and Constitutional.

Soltani said the public and Congress have often had misconceptions about what “collection” of data means. In fact, collection means the data is actually listened to or looked at and analyzed, a process more intrusive than some lawmakers had previously thought. Soltani said many did not realize they were approving that sort of surveillance when they initially supported the program.

In July, Congress narrowly missed defeating the program by 12 votes. In the fall, a D.C. federal judge ruled the program probably unconstitutional. And in December, President Obama’s surveillance review board said that the program was not essential to preventing terrorism. Gellman said all the checks and balances put in place to oversee the NSA are now operating.

“What transparency has done is it has enabled people to do something about it,” he said.

Obama first defended the surveillance program, but after debate took off and public opinion changed, Obama began to change his position. Nakashima said that by January, Obama was ordering his administration to come up with way of ending the current program. Efforts by the administration to reign in the NSA include a proposal to add public advocates to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and the mandate that collection of information on foreign heads of states be halted.

“That is a concrete example of the disclosures leading to debate, leading to a policy change,” Nakashima said.

The revelations also provoked a response from Silicon Valley. “Industry gradually realized that they had been had. They really felt betrayed...It’s clear the defenses in the corporate world are stronger now,” said Timberg. After the revelations, Yahoo immediately began encrypting email. Other companies have taken steps to secure their products as well. Soltani says the tech community has gained a new level of importance and awareness in the public eye.

Some responses, however, could be damaging to the ideas of debate and transparency. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper ordered a new restriction in March that bars intelligence agency employees from speaking to reporters about matters relating to intelligence, even if the information is not classified, under penalty of losing their jobs and security clearances. Gellman described the loss of a security clearance for a government employee as a “death penalty to your career,” and said “that may end up being a pretty significant deterrent.” Off-the-record conversations are often crucial in providing journalists with information that can help guide their reporting, so this new restriction may prove to be a hurdle for journalists.

Did Snowden and the Post do the right thing?

Another aspect of the debate revolves around whether Snowden and the Post did the right thing by exposing the NSA program. Some call Snowden a whistleblower or a hero. Others call him a traitor, and see the Post as enabling his subversion. This debate was evident even in the questions asked of journalists by audience members at the Behind the Headlines event, which ranged in tone from congratulatory to accusatory.

“A lot of people had a visceral reaction,” said Gellman of the public’s response, but he said the public has to understand the implications of not revealing the information. “We are vaguely aware as a society that there is a lot of information about us out there, that we just leave this digital exhaust,” he said. “But we think of ourselves as normal and uninteresting...and I think the more you learn about how much is known about us, how closely we are tracked, the more most people I talk to start to feel a little bit squeamish.”

Gellman said there is massive over-classification in the government, so it is impossible to conceal information just because it is classified. His intention, however, was not simply to expose government secrets. “What we want to do is describe big public policy decisions,” he explained.

Reactions to the Pulitzer

The Washington Post was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for public service on April 14, as was The Guardian U.S.

“We are proud about the recognition, and proud about the coverage,” said Baron. “We also recognize, of course, that there are sharp divisions of opinion about the source of the documents that form the basis of our coverage, Edward Snowden, and also about our role. The Pulitzer embraced the idea that it served the public interest, and that provoked a reaction of its own.”

Critics, including Representative Peter King (R-N.Y.), condemned the Pulitzer Board for rewarding what they view as traitorous behavior. “There are serious criticisms to be made, and we’re not immune from that,” said Baron. “And there are a number of people [who] have said that this was undeserved. But there are others who are very happy, primarily for the validation of the idea of debate.”

Role of Press

Many see the Post as having fulfilled the purpose of the press by disclosing the NSA program. “I do feel like it is the inherent function of the press in a democracy to place these issues in the public sphere so that we can wrestle with them and come to somewhat more enlightened decisions about what the limits are,” Timberg said.

“I had lots of doubts, and I have lots of doubts every day,” said Gellman. “I worry all the time about where to draw the line, but I don’t worry at all that I have made a mistake or the Post has made a mistake by putting resources and time and space into this subject. I thought from the beginning that it was going to be very significant and important, and also really, really hard.”

And the revelations are still not over. Gellman and his team are still working on deciphering more of Snowden’s documents. “The Snowden leaks are so generous there has never been anything like it,” said Gellman. “This was a kind of once in a lifetime story.”

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