When National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden was working to convince journalists to cover NSA documents he taken with him to expose evidence of dragnet warrantless surveillance, he was especially frustrated with one media organization, which has actually received recognition for its work on the NSA files: The Washington Post.
The story of how the Post became involved and, in many ways, let a whistleblower down is a testament to why future whistleblowers should be cautious when approaching such establishment media outlets. What happened is detailed in journalist Glenn Greenwald’s book, No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA & the US Surveillance State.
Journalist Laura Poitras was given permission by Snowden to give “some documents” to Barton Gellman, a reporter for the Post. In particular, Snowden convinced himself there could be some value if the Post reported on the PRISM program, which is a surveillance program that involved the NSA collecting in real-time the communications from companies like Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Skype and Yahoo.
Snowden found out through Poitras that the Post had “assembled a large team of lawyers who were making all kinds of demands and issuing all sorts of dire warnings.” Instead of quickly and aggressively getting the story out, this signaled to Snowden that the Post was going to take this “unprecedented journalistic opportunity” and allow their institution to be “driven by fear rather than conviction and determination.” He was also “livid that the Post involved so many people, afraid that these discussions might jeopardize his security.” The “fear demonstrated by endlessly convening with alarmist lawyers” truly upset him.
Remarkably, enlisting the Post ultimately led to a US official leaking information on the fact that The Guardian had a story on PRISM that would soon be published.
The Guardian was finishing up its prepublication process. Janine Gibson, British editor-in-chief of the US edition of The Guardian, along with other editors, had informed the government that the media organization would be publishing a story on PRISM. A deadline was given for them to get back to them by the end of the day with any objections.
Just as The Guardian’s story on PRISM was being finalized on June 6, 2013. Gibson sent a message in a chat to Greenwald: “The Post just published their PRISM story.”
Greenwald and Poitras had known that the Post was planning to publish their PRISM story on June 9. Greenwald planned to have the story for The Guardian published before the Post.
“Why, I wanted to know had the Post suddenly changed its publishing schedule to rush their article into publication three days ahead of their plan?” Greenwald wondered.
As Poitras told Greenwald, the Post had “got word of our intentions after US officials had been contacted by the Guardian about the PRISM program that morning. One of those officials, knowing that the Post was working on a similar story, had passed on the news of our article on PRISM. The Post had then rapidly sped up their schedule to avoid being scooped.”
Already reluctant to engage in this prepublication process of informing the government about sensitive details in stories so officials could object, Greenwald found himself loathing these deliberations even more. “A US official had exploited this prepublication procedure, supposedly designed to protect national security, to ensure that his favored newspaper would run the story first,” he writes.
The situation where two media organizations were in competition would never have happened if the Post had not dragged its feet as it had done. But, as Greenwald suggests in the book, the Post is the “belly of the Beltway media beast, embodying all the worst attributes of US political media: excessive closeness to the government, reverence for the institutions of the national security state, routine exclusion of dissenting voices.”
It was not difficult for Snowden to convince Greenwald and Poitras to come to Hong Kong (although Snowden spent months trying to convince Greenwald to use privacy tools so he could communicate with him securely). On the other hand, the Post’s willingness to conform with authority led it to become overly concerned about allowing one of its reporters to travel to Hong Kong and meet with Snowden to discuss the documents.
“The Post’s lawyers had told Gellman he shouldn’t travel to Hong Kong,” Greenwald recounts. The media organization told Poitras not to travel either or it would not pay her “travel expenses.”
Greenwald contends, “This was based on an absurd fear-driven theory; that any discussions about top secret information conducted in China, itself a pervasive surveillance state, could be viewed by the US government as the Post recklessly passing secrets to the Chinese, which could result in criminal liability for the Post and Gellman under espionage laws.”
It shocked Snowden. “I’m ready to hand them this huge story at great personal risk and they won’t even get on a plane.”
The Washington Post won a Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of the NSA files. However, it would seem that individual journalists, not the institution, are responsible for making this possible.
Snowden had not wanted to give documents to The New York Times because of how the media organization handled the story on NSA warrantless wiretapping published in 2005. However, he probably thought he could trust Poitras if she recommended giving some of the documents to a two-time Pulitzer Prize winning journalist.
Remarkably, Snowden’s first encrypted chat with Greenwald arose out of how furious he was with what was happening at the Post.
“I don’t like how this is developing,” he said. “I had wanted someone else to do this one story about PRISM so you could focus on the broader archive, especially the mass domestic spying, but now I really want you to be the one to report this. I’ve been reading you a long time, and I know you’ll be aggressive and fearless in how you do this.”
Establishment media organizations are extremely reluctant to face down the reality that whistleblowers are afraid to trust in their organization, and they should do something to change culturally—and even institutionally—if they want them to come to them and provide source material for news stories.
Likewise, many of these same organizations allow themselves to be cowed into being subservient to government as they are overly-cautious, like the Post was when offered the opportunity. These same organizations also refuse to publish stories, as the new executive editor of The New York Times, Dean Baquet, did when AT&T whistleblower Mark Klein came to the Los Angeles Times with documents that exposed how AT&T and the NSA were working together and wiretapping Americans without a warrant.
What happens when these media organizations are criticized by readers or the general public for fearing what may happen if they exercise freedom of the press is incredible as well.
People like former Times executive editor Bill Keller will get this catatonic look on their face, as they struggle to come up with some word salad to justify not printing stories that were clearly in the public interest because they chose to serve the interests of the national security state instead.
This culture in journalism is not insignificant. There are numerous examples of how President Barack Obama’s administration has contributed to a climate that makes it hard for journalists to engage in watchdog journalism or investigative reporting that requires risks to produce. Management in establishment media organizations are often far too willing to engage in actions that reinforce the chilliness of this climate through their anxiety over appearing too resolute in opposing government.
Greenwald is not indoctrinated by this culture. That is why Snowden wanted him to responsibly report on the documents. But that will not convince institutions to shift what they do, even out of self-interest, so whistleblowers will feel comfortable seeking them out. They must maintain this culture to keep their access to power, and they would rather accept this as the cost of doing business and distance themselves from the candor and spirit of an adversarial journalist like Greenwald.