You asked and we answered your NSA coverage questions

April 24

The Washington Post hosted a community forum titled “Behind the Headlines: NSA Surveillance and Ongoing Revelations” before an engaged audience seeking clarity on how The Post handled the Edward Snowden document leak, the extent of the NSA’s surveillance programs, and more. The discussion continues below with responses to additional questions submitted at the event.

Q: Bruno Taitson from Brazil--Is investigative journalism threatened by the financial crisis newspapers are facing all over the world? Is public journalism one of the goals of The Washington Post?

A: Martin Baron, Executive Editor, The Washington Post--Investigative journalism is expensive and time-consuming, offers no clear and direct commercial payoff, and can involve legal and commercial risks. However, it remains central to the identity and mission of The Washington Post and many other news organizations. We firmly believe that readers want and expect us to hold powerful institutions and individuals accountable, and it is one important reason why many readers continue to believe our profession is one they should support financially. Investigative journalism also sets us apart from other news organizations. So we invest substantial resources in investigative journalism. However, investigative journalism is genuinely at risk in some quarters, mostly among mid-size or small news organizations. They face severe financial pressures and are having to make tough choices about how to spend their limited funds. As a result, investigative journalism has taken a hit, and today we see that city councils, local police, local school boards, state legislatures, and state congressional delegations – not to mention powerful private interests – are largely exempt from investigative journalism and sometimes receive scant coverage of any sort.

Q: Sue from DC--Knowing what you know now about surveillance of data on Facebook, Linked-In, etc., have you or do you now limit what you post on such? Have you made any changes to your profiles, etc. to take out or limit information available on you/your families?

A: Craig Timberg, National Technology Reporter--I definitely limit what I personally put on social media and the Internet generally, especially about my family. But I suspect what I do is not terribly effective. There’s enough data on my iPhone to know pretty much everything about me, everywhere I go and everyone I associate with. There are few legal restriction in our country on how companies use this data, and intelligence services clearly have access to much of it as well. I work on the assumption that any digital trail I leave could someday get out, to someone, somehow.

Q: Milie from VA--Which government office was your key contact as you covered this story and worked with sources to report this story responsibly?

A: Barton Gellman, Contributor to The Washington Post--We did interviews on our own initiative. For official responses the government chose its own interlocutors. Most often they came from the NSA, the office of the Director of National Intelligence or the White House National Security Council staff. Occasionally they were from another agency such as CIA.

Q: Judith Post from DC--President Obama is consciously considering the transition of intelligence policies to his successor. What legislative, judicial, private sector, or electoral changes will have the greatest impact on the reach of U.S. intelligence-gathering during Obama’s remaining time in office?

A: Ellen Nakashima, National Security Reporter--Administratively, Obama has ordered that surveillance on dozens of foreign leaders be halted. And that privacy protections similar to those enjoyed by Americans be extended to foreigners whose data is “incidentally” collected. But administrative actions and executive orders can be changed by the next president. That is why advocates want reforms written into law. The Hill is considering several competing pieces of legislation.

The most far-reaching is the USA Freedom Act, which would bar all bulk collection of Americans’ data – not just the NSA’s collection of phone call detail records. That legislation has co-sponsors in the House and the Senate and has a number of other provisions that reform advocates want. But so far, USA Freedom has not advanced out of the Judiciary Committee in either the House or the Senate.

Obama himself has proposed a set of more modest reforms. He wants Congress to pass legislation that will end the NSA’s bulk collection of phone metadata or call detail records. But he is not calling for an outright ban on all forms of bulk collection. And the White House has not yet provided draft legislation to the Hill. The House Intelligence Committee’s bipartisan leadership has crafted a bill that would end NSA bulk collection of phone records, but it does not require a judge to approve in advance each number the government wants to query.

Looming over all this is a June 2015 expiration for the statute that underlies the NSA phone records program. Conventional wisdom is that Congress will have the votes to end the program then.

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