Martin Baron addresses The Post’s decision-making on Snowden leaks at panel discussion

April 24

The Washington Post hosted “Behind the Headlines: NSA Surveillance and Ongoing Revelations” featuring journalists behind the 2014 Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of the National Security Agency’s surveillance system. Cecilia Kang, Barton Gellman, Ellen Nakashima, Ashkan Soltani and Craig Timberg went in-depth discussing the most compelling angles of the scandal and responding to questions from the audience. Marty Baron, executive editor of The Washington Post, gave the opening remarks seen here. (Full audio of the event is available at the end of this post.)

My name is Marty Baron. I’m the executive editor of The Washington Post. And I want to thank you all for coming.

I’m going to say just a few words before I turn this over to Cecilia Kang, who will introduce the panelists and moderate the panel.

A week ago Monday, The Post was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for public service for its revelations about surveillance by the National Security Agency. We are proud of the recognition, and especially proud of the coverage.

We also recognize, of course, that there are sharp divisions of opinion about the source of the documents that formed the basis of our coverage, Edward Snowden, and also about our role. The controversy has been intense at times, and I expect we will explore that here today.

In awarding the Pulitzer to the Post, along with the U.S. edition of the Guardian of Great Britain, the Pulitzer Board embraced the idea that it served the public interest. That provoked a reaction of its own.

The New Yorker magazine’s Amy Davidson, in enthusiastically endorsing the award, wrote:

“This was a defining case of the press doing what it is supposed to do. The President was held accountable; he had to answer questions that he would rather not have and, when his replies proved unsatisfying to the public—and, in some cases, just rang false—his Administration had to change its policies. Congress had to confront its own failures of oversight; private companies had to rethink their obligations to their customers and to law enforcement; and people had conversations at home and at school and pretty much everywhere about what they, themselves, would be willing to let the N.S.A. do to them… And journalists have had to think about their own obligations—to the law, the Constitution, their readers, and even, in the practice of reporting in the age of technical tracking, to sources they might expose or make vulnerable.”

On the other hand, Rep. Peter King declared, “Awarding the Pulitzer to Snowden enablers is a disgrace,” and he suggested we should be prosecuted under the Espionage Act. A reader of ours, in a letter we published last week wrote that he was “disturbed that the paper should be praised for publishing classified information that has resulted in a lessening of this country’s security. I don’t think The Post should be able to wrap itself in the text of the First Amendment and give itself an immunity bath at the cost of citizens’ safety.”

So, much to talk about it. And we’ll talk about how this story came to be, how and why we decided to publish, how we went about our work, and how we think about issues of national security in our coverage.

Certainly, national security is an area of intense focus for us at The Post. That should be no surprise: The government’s powers to make war, to spy, to interrogate, prosecute, incarcerate, and kill rank as the greatest powers of all.

If we are to cover the federal government, these are not activities we can ignore. And these are not activities where, in my view, we can simply defer to the government’s wishes on what we report, what we don’t report, or how we report — whenever government asserts national security or whenever the basis for our coverage is classified material.

On the grounds of national security, the government has secretly implemented sweeping government policies, with profound implications for individual rights.

We have a highly experienced national security staff. This organization relies heavily on their expertise and their history of navigating the most sensitive subjects imaginable.

We take national security concerns seriously. It is a dangerous world. We know that.

As a result, our reporters communicate regularly with the Pentagon, the White House, intelligence agencies, and private companies. On the NSA documents, we spent many hours on each story in detailed conversations with high-level officials. On many occasions, at the request of government officials, we withheld information that might disclose very specific sources and methods.

We did not, however, agree to every request of every sort made by the government. Had we done so, there would have been no stories whatsoever. The intelligence agencies were opposed to publishing anything at all.

What we saw in the documents was something that went beyond specific sources and methods that the press has traditionally guarded on grounds of national security. The documents would reveal that the National Security Agency was engaging in surveillance and data collection of breathtaking scope and intrusiveness.
What had transpired was a dramatic shift toward state power and against individual rights, including privacy – with no public knowledge and no public debate.
Now, the public knows – and the debate is well underway.
And with that, I’ll turn this over to Cecilia Kang.

Cecilia is a national technology reporter for The Washington Post focused on telecom policy, Internet privacy, and the social impact of tech on families. She joined The Post eight years ago from the San Jose Mercury News, where she was a tech reporter. Cecilia began her career at AP-Dow Jones, as the bureau chief of the Seoul, South Korea office and in New York as a financial markets reporter.

All yours, Cecilia, and thanks again to all of you for coming.

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