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Reporter Had To Decide If Snowden Leaks Were 'The Real Thing'

According to Barton Gellman, Edward Snowden (above) specifically asked journalists not to make all the documents he leaked available to the public.
Getty Images
According to Barton Gellman, Edward Snowden (above) specifically asked journalists not to make all the documents he leaked available to the public.

Since the beginning of June, Barton Gellman has been reporting on classified intelligence documents given to him by Edward Snowden, a former National Security Agency contractor. As a result of the Snowden leaks, Gellman and reporter Laura Poitras broke the story of the PRISM program, which mines data from nine U.S. Internet companies, including Microsoft, Yahoo, Google and Facebook.

Gellman, who has been writing for The Washington Post, also found that the NSA has broken privacy rules or overstepped its legal authority thousands of times each year since Congress expanded the agency's powers in 2008. He revealed that the U.S. has conducted cyber-operations against computer networks in foreign countries — including Iran, Russia, China and North Korea — and reported on the "black budget" used to fund secret programs in America's 16 spy agencies.

Gellman is in the process of writing a book on the expansion of government surveillance since the Sept. 11 attacks 12 years ago. He shared a Pulitzer Prize with the rest of The Washington Post's staff in 2002 for reporting after Sept. 11, and won another Pulitzer with Jo Becker in 2008 for their series of articles on Vice President Dick Cheney. That series became the basis of Gellman's best-selling book, Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency. Gellman is also a senior fellow at the Century Foundation.

He joins Fresh Air's Terry Gross to discuss working with Edward Snowden and the effectiveness of post-Sept. 11 surveillance systems.

Interview Highlights

On how he began corresponding with and trusting Snowden

"The combination of knowing [investigative filmmaker Laura Poitras], of having a background on surveillance issues and of knowing how to communicate securely, all of those were required. She had been approached by Snowden late last year, and honestly lots of journalists get approached by lots of people who purport to know a lot about secret worlds and to have important secrets to disclose. And quite often they can be dismissed quickly as cranks. This one couldn't.

"Laura did not know who she was talking to. He was only willing to talk through the use of these very secret, very secure channels, and she came to me one day and said, 'Can I talk to you in confidence?' And she showed me some of her notes of these conversations. She said, 'Does this look like it's for real to you?' I said, 'So far, it does. But you're going to need a lot more verification, a lot more back-and-forth.'

Barton Gellman is also a contributing editor at large for <em>Time</em>.
David Burnett / Contact Press Images
Contact Press Images
Barton Gellman is also a contributing editor at large for Time.

"I started suggesting questions to ask this mystery correspondent. She started showing me answers. ... And finally I opened a direct channel to Snowden and, working alongside Laura, we finally convinced ourselves that if and when he revealed his identity and if and when he actually transferred a document ... we were convinced it was going to be the real thing."

On Snowden's intentions

"[Snowden] gave these documents, ultimately, to only three journalists. What he said he wanted was for us to use our own judgment and to make sure that his bias was kept out of it so that we could make our own judgment about what was newsworthy and important for the public to know. And he said we should also consider how to avoid harm.

"Now, in case anyone doubts his intentions, let's consider what he could've done. If Chelsea [aka Bradley] Manning was able to exfiltrate and send to WikiLeaks and publish in whole half a million U.S. government documents, Edward Snowden — who is far, far more capable [and] had far greater access, certainly knows how to transmit documents — he could've sent them to WikiLeaks. He could've set up and mirrored around the Internet in a way that could not have been taken down. All of the documents could be public right now and they're not. ... He told us not to do it."

On revealing the names of private companies that cooperated with the PRISM program

"There's a long history of private-company cooperation with the NSA that dates back to at least the 1970s. The old telecommunication systems — like AT&T and Verizon and their predecessors — did this sort of routinely and without legal compulsion and out of some combination of patriotism and business-as-usual and fairly lucrative contracts.

"The new Silicon Valley-based Internet companies did not have the same traditions, but to one degree or another they went along and they were under legal compulsion to do so. ... But it was very important to them and to the government to keep their identities a secret. ...

"The thing the intelligence community most wanted to protect in that first story [we wrote] — the most they asked us to hold back was the names of the companies. And we cooperated to a considerable degree with security requests, but my argument back to them was if the damage that you're worried about consists of the companies being less willing to cooperate or suffering a blow to their businesses because the public or their customers don't like what they're doing or don't approve of the program, that's exactly why we have to publish it. That's the core duty we have in terms of accountability reporting."

On whether we're living in a Big Brother society

"Big Brother is a very imperfect analogy. On the one hand ... I see no evidence that the government is assembling these tools in order to spy on political opponents or corruptly to serve some private interest, or things that you worry about with the Big Brother analogy.

"On the other hand, it has accumulated powers that were beyond all imagination of George Orwell — that dwarfed the surveillance capabilities of Orwell — and as it has done so — as it has made the whole world and the U.S. population more and more transparent — it has become more and more opaque about what it's doing. So, increasingly we are living behind one-way mirrors in which the government knows more and more about us and we know less and less about what the government is doing."

On the effectiveness of post-Sept. 11 surveillance

"I have no doubt from reading through some of these files that the surveillance has achieved very important goals, has found very important facts that have served American security. It's not all ... in the field of counterterrorism, but we care a lot about the spread of nuclear weapons; we care a lot about certain activities that are undertaken by foreign governments. So I am absolutely not making the claim that this stuff does not serve American security.

"But you know, in the preamble to the Constitution there are six major purposes that are set out for the design of our government. One of them ... is to secure the national defense. It's not the only interest we have and there has to be a balance, and the balance has not been debated by an informed public because there was an absolute dearth of information. And what we're seeing now, what a lot of Americans say they appreciate, is enough transparency to enable Congress and the American public to decide where they want to draw the lines."

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