Washington Post wins Pulitzer Prize for NSA spying revelations; Guardian also honored

Update: This article has been updated to include the work of several beat reporters who contributed to the NSA reporting.

The Washington Post won two Pulitzer Prizes on Monday, including the prestigious public service medal for a series of stories that exposed the National Security Agency’s massive global surveillance programs.

A team of 28 Post journalists, led by reporter Barton Gellman, won the public service award, as did Guardian US, which also reported extensively about the NSA’s secret programs. Gellman and Glenn Greenwald, then the Guardian’s lead reporter on the NSA pieces, based their articles on classified documents leaked by Edward Snowden, the former government contractor who has fled to exile in Russia, lending a controversial edge to this year’s awards.

The Post’s Eli Saslow also won a Pulitzer — newspaper journalism’s highest award — for a series of stories about the challenges of people living on food stamps. Saslow, 31, was cited in the explanatory-journalism category by the 19-member Pulitzer board in an announcement at Columbia University in New York, which administers the prizes.

The Boston Globe won in the breaking-news category for its extensive coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings last April.


Washington Post is awarded two Pulitzers

The New York Times swept the two photography categories. The award in breaking photography went to Tyler Hicks for his photos of a terrorist attack on a shopping mall in Nairobi, and the feature-photography prize went to Josh Haner for his photos of a Boston Marathon bombing victim who lost most of both legs.

The prize for investigative reporting went to Chris Hamby of the nonprofit Center for Public Integrity in Washington for articles about lawyers and doctors who rigged a system to deny benefits to coal miners stricken with black-lung disease.

NSA reporting

The awards to The Post and the U.S. arm of the British-based Guardian newspaper for their NSA reporting are likely to generate debate, much like the Pulitzer board’s decision to award its public service medal to the New York Times in 1972 for its disclosures of the Pentagon Papers, a secret government history of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.

In both the NSA and Pentagon Papers stories, the reporting was based on leaks of secret documents by government contractors. Both Snowden and Daniel Ellsberg — who leaked the Pentagon Papers to Times reporter Neil Sheehan — were called traitors for their actions. And both the leakers and the news organizations that published the stories were accused by critics, including members of Congress, of enabling espionage and harming national security.

But Post Executive Editor Martin Baron said Monday that the reporting exposed a national policy “with profound implications for American citizens’ constitutional rights” and the rights of individuals around the world.

“Disclosing the massive expansion of the NSA’s surveillance network absolutely was a public service,” Baron said. “In constructing a surveillance system of breathtaking scope and intrusiveness, our government also sharply eroded individual privacy. All of this was done in secret, without public debate, and with clear weaknesses in oversight.”

Baron added that without Snowden’s disclosures, “we never would have known how far this country had shifted away from the rights of the individual in favor of state power. There would have been no public debate about the proper balance between privacy and national security. As even the president has acknowledged, this is a conversation we need to have.”

As The Washington Post celebrates winning two Pulitzer Prizes, recipients Eli Saslow and Barton Gellman and Executive Editor Martin Baron gather in the newsroom for speeches and toasts. (Zoeann Murphy, Gabe Silverman and Tom LeGro/The Washington Post)

Gellman, 53, said: “This has been a hard, consequential story, which could have gone wrong in all kinds of ways. I’m thrilled at the recognition for The Post, and honestly I’m relieved that we didn’t screw it up.”

On the issues surrounding the story, he said: “We have been as careful as we could be to balance the public interests in self-
government and self-defense. We consulted with the responsible officials on every story and held back operational details. But we were not prepared to withhold the secret policy decisions the government is making for us and the surveillance it’s directing against us. The public gets to have a say on those things. Enabling that debate is exactly what a great news organization should be doing.”

Snowden said in a statement: “Today’s decision is a vindication for everyone who believes that the public has a role in government. We owe it to the efforts of the brave reporters and their colleagues who kept working in the face of extraordinary intimidation, including the forced destruction of journalistic materials, the inappropriate use of terrorism laws, and so many other means of pressure to get them to stop what the world now recognizes was work of vital public importance. . . . My efforts would have been meaningless without the dedication, passion, and skill of these newspapers, and they have my gratitude and respect for their extraordinary service to our society.”

In their newsroom remarks, Gellman and Post editors highlighted the work of several beat reporters — including Greg Miller, Carol Leonnig, Ellen Nakashima and Julie Tate, as well as outside consultant Ashkan Soltani — whose analysis and reporting went well beyond the documents themselves. Included in the winning submission were stories by Miller on the NSA’s role in the US drone program overseas, and stories by Leonnig and others on the legal system that was intended to keep the NSA in check.  "This wasn't just a case of being handed some documents to post online," deputy national editor Anne Kornblut, who helped run the project, said.

The Pulitzer was the third in which Gellman played a key role. He was part of a Post team that won for national reporting in 2002 for coverage of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and he and then-Post reporter Jo Becker won in 2008 for a series about Vice President Richard B. Cheney. Gellman formally left The Post in 2010 to focus on book projects and other long-form writing but returned last year on a contract basis to spearhead the newspaper’s NSA reporting.

Greenwald, who joined a new journalism venture called First Look Media, did not respond to requests for comment Monday.

Gellman and Greenwald, 47, received the documents from Snowden early last year after an initial introduction to the former contractor by the writers’ mutual friend and colleague, Laura Poitras, 52, whom Snowden initially contacted anonymously. Since Poitras’s byline appeared on articles about the NSA in both The Post and the Guardian, she earned a share of two Pulitzers at two different publications, an unprecedented feat, according to Roy J. Harris, the author of “Pulitzer’s Gold: Behind the Prize for Public Service Journalism.”

As a British-based publication, the Guardian would not typically be eligible for the Pulitzers, which are awarded only to U.S. newspapers, wire services and news organizations. Because its NSA stories were published by its U.S. Web site, however, the Pulitzer board deemed the stories eligible.

While journalists generally saw the dual award to The Post and Guardian US as a vindication, some critics saw it as the culmination of a betrayal by the press. 

“I think it’s disgraceful,” Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.), a member of the House Homeland Security Committee and chairman of the panel’s subcommittee on counterterrorism and intelligence, said in an interview. “To be rewarding the dissemination of classified information that [jeopardizes] national security and enabling a traitor like Snowden is indefensible. . . . The information that [Snowden] released has been extremely damaging. It enabled our enemies to know what we are capable of doing and have been doing.” 

King suggested that rather than receiving prizes, the two news organizations should be prosecuted for violations of the Espionage Act, which makes it illegal to disclose classified material that aids a foreign enemy.

Food stamp series

The Post’s Saslow said the genesis of his stories about food stamps came from news reports about the quadrupling of the federal program over the past 10 years. At first, he said, he wanted to write just one article — about the food stamp “economy” on the first of each month, when millions of Americans receive their benefits. But the story grew from there, into pieces about a Florida recruiter for the program, a bread truck in rural Tennessee, and the health of South Texans on food stamp diets.

“It felt [as if] most people were talking about the economy getting better and the stock market rising, and both of those things were true,” he said. “But the food stamp program was the lasting scar of the economic collapse, and in some ways it was going a little unnoticed that one in seven people depend on the government for their food. It felt important to tell those stories in a year when Congress was debating historic food stamp cuts.”

In addition to its winning entries, The Post had two finalists in this year’s competition, the 98th: Michael Williamson for feature photography, for work that accompanied Saslow’s food stamp articles, and the newspaper’s breaking-news coverage of the Washington Navy Yard shootings in September.

Pulitzer winners receive $10,000, except for public service recipients. The award in that category is a gold medal.

The public service award was The Post’s fifth, tied for the second most after the Los Angeles Times, which has won six, according to Harris. The Post also won public service medals for its coverage of the Watergate scandal (1973); for an investigation of police shootings in the District (1999); for Katherine Boo’s reporting on wretched conditions in District group homes for the mentally disabled (2000); and for the work of Dana Priest, Anne Hull and Michel du Cille in exposing mistreatment of wounded veterans at Walter Reed Army Medical Center (2008).

The Washington Post will host “Behind the Headlines: NSA Surveillance and Ongoing Revelations” on Wednesday, April 23, at 6:30 p.m. at 1150 15th St. NW in Washington.

Paul Farhi is The Washington Post's media reporter.
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