Journalist Who Helped Break Snowden's Story Reflects On His High-Stakes Reporting
In 2013, Edward Snowden, a contractor with the National Security Agency, rocked the world when he leaked thousands of classified documents about U.S. surveillance programs.
Barton Gellman, formerly of The Washington Post, was one of three journalists — including filmmaker Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian —with whom Snowden chose to share the documents. Gellman says initially Snowden was skeptical of him.
"He thought that The Washington Post would be afraid to publish or would bow down to government pressure," Gellman says. "It took a lot of convincing for him, just as it took a lot of convincing for me that he was for real."
Snowden shared information about surveillance programs previously unknown to the American public, including the fact that the government was keeping records of private citizens' phone calls and that the NSA was harvesting data from big internet companies, including Google, Facebook and Microsoft.
Gellman reached out to The Washington Post,the paper he had left three years earlier, which went on to publish a series of articles based on Snowden's classified information.
In a new book, Dark Mirror,Gellman writes about his relationship with Snowden and the high-stakes reporting that ultimately garnered him, Poitras and Greenwald a Pulitzer Prize.
The U.S. government charged Snowden with espionage, but Snowden, who is living in exile in Russia, maintains that he acted as a whistleblower in sharing the classified documents.
Gellman says that no matter what your opinion about Snowden is, one thing is clear: "Ed Snowden succeeded beyond the wildest ambitions that he could plausibly have had. ... Even the biggest critics of Snowden — not all of them, but some of them ... all say he started a debate that the public needed to have about the limits of surveillance in a democratic society."
"At the same time," Gellman adds, "most of the programs that he exposed continue."
On the terms Snowden agreed upon with Gellman, Poitras and Greenwald
I told Snowden that ... I would make my own judgment about the news value and that I would give the government an opportunity to tell me about damage they foresaw, if the story was published. And so I had that conversation with the government every time. Snowden at first seemed a little skeptical about this and worried that it simply meant I was going to give the government veto power over an article. And in fact, he saw it as potential evidence of a cowardly approach by The Washington Post. Later, he came to see the value and the importance of trying to avoid avoidable harm in the publication of these stories. And he began to insist that that was what he wanted all along. ...
Snowden absolutely wanted us to make our own judgments about newsworthiness. He absolutely did not want us to dump the entire archive online. If he wanted that, he could have done it himself. I mean, the guy knows how to work the Internet. He wanted the credibility of journalists behind the disclosures. He wanted us to check the facts and set the context. And he wanted us to decide what was newsworthy and what was harmful. So he essentially relinquished all the close judgment calls to me and my fellow journalists.
On the importance of checks and balances on the government's surveillance power
There were people in 2013 and '14 and '15 who told me they didn't worry about the enormous power of this surveillance machinery because they trusted the people who were running it. They trusted themselves. They trusted the inspector general to call out and prevent bad behavior. They trusted supervisors. They trusted, fundamentally, the president and the presidency. And they trusted Democrats and Republicans. They trusted George W. Bush and Barack Obama equally to use this stuff with the right motives and with the right kinds of limits.
But so much of what is done under authority of the NSA is done based on norms and traditional understandings of what terms mean and on legal interpretations. When [Donald] Trump came to power — a guy who is allergic to norms, a guy who is at war with every institution of accountability, whether it's the press, whether it's inspectors general, whether it's courts — when that kind of person has his hands on the enormous power that is granted by the ability to look into [and] see into anything that travels across the Internet, then they're worried.
So people who surprise me — people like Jim Comey, and people like Gen. [James] Clapper, who had been the director of national intelligence, these were people who had ardently defended the surveillance powers and the checks and balances held on them — they were no longer so confident about those checks and balances.
On his tense relationship with Snowden
Snowden wanted advocates on his side. He wanted a pure and clear message of dissent against the way the NSA was behaving. And he wanted nothing that would raise any doubts or questions about him or get into his personal life or anything like that. I continued to ask questions the way a journalist should ask questions. And so we would have these tense exchanges in which he would say, for example, "Are you purposely asking me things you know I won't answer just to piss me off?"
The first time [Snowden] got angry at me he was right to be angry. In an early profile of him, I inadvertently exposed an online handle — an anonymous handle — that he was still using for communications. And that caused him some trouble as he tried to change handles and encryption keys on the fly.
The first time he got angry at me he was right to be angry. In an early profile of him, I inadvertently exposed an online handle — an anonymous handle — that he was still using for communications. And that caused him some trouble as he tried to change handles and encryption keys on the fly. ...
He quit talking to me for several months after that. And we started up again because he believed I was handling these stories seriously, that I was diving into the subject in a way that was exposing truths that weren't being exposed anywhere else, because this wasn't just a question of opening the documents, reading and writing your story. The documents were incomplete, pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, very hard to understand. They required external reporting with sources in the government and out of the government. They required interpretation and discovery. And I was putting things together in a way that he thought was important. And so he got over his personal anger at the way I behaved.
On the cybersecurity precautions he took when he visited Snowden in Moscow in December 2013
I don't like to be dramatic or self-important, but I thought, "Yeah, there's a pretty good chance that if an American journalist who is writing about secret American intelligence programs comes over to interview a former intelligence officer, Ed Snowden, that that would probably be worth their diversion of a little bit of surveillance to themselves."
I assumed that my devices and my telephone calls would be monitored, and so to begin with, I didn't bring any data over with me. I wasn't gonna bring classified U.S. documents to a country where they could possibly read them and directly expose American secrets to a foreign power.
So I didn't log onto any of my accounts, I didn't bring my actual computer or my usual telephone, I brought empty ones. But I still had the puzzle of how I was going to interview Snowden, take notes, take photographs, make recordings, and then bring those back to the United States while crossing an international border and not hand over those documents, those recordings and so on to either government. I didn't want the U.S. government to hear everything I'd said with Snowden. I didn't want the Russian government to have access to all that information either.
On the House Intelligence Committee report, which was very critical of Snowden
If there were particular harms done by particular disclosures, that fact itself would be classified. ... And so I can't argue with an assertion that's made in the dark, and there may be legitimate reasons to keep that classified. On the other hand, I would have to say that, not to put a fine point on it, that House Intelligence Committee report was garbage. It was a political document. It was basically a long screed about Ed Snowden, and it was filled with facts or assertions of fact that were plainly rebuttable, that they were simply wrong.
Just the simple question of calling Ed Snowden "a high school dropout." He had earned his GED at the same time that his class graduated, with top, top scores. They knew that he had advanced computer security and computer science credentials. Or, for example, they said there's no evidence that Ed Snowden actually was injured in the Army. And so he was lying about the reasons for the end of his Army service. Well, Army records made it very clear. I've seen the records. He broke both legs in training, and for the House Intelligence Committee, which had privileged access to government records, to say things like that gives you a decent flavor of the more complicated untruths in the report.
On being a target for international hackers
It's not paranoid if people are really trying to get you. I knew from the first time I saw the documents before I published a story that this was going to paint a big target on my back. It's advertising that you have something special and secret and advertising pretty quickly that I was not going to publish all of it. So I knew that I would be a subject of interest to hackers, to the U.S. government and to foreign intelligence agencies. And I gradually accumulated considerable evidence that this was true.
Someone tried to break into my Gmail accounts, where I did not store sensitive documents. But nevertheless, Google warned me, a big flashing pink bar on my screen said, "Warning! We believe that state-sponsored attackers are trying to break into your device or your account." I found out later that that was the government of Turkey. Turkey was unexpected and bad news for me, because I thought there were a substantial number of likely candidates and more capable candidates coming after me. So if Turkey also was joining the party, that suggested the threat landscape was broader than I would have liked to think.
My iPad was hacked right in front of my eyes as I was holding it.
My iPad was hacked right in front of my eyes as I was holding it. The screen gutted out of the static and then white letters started marching across the screen with technical commands in a language called Unix. If that had worked as expected, as intended, it would have happened while I slept or wasn't looking at the machine. And after a couple of minutes of fooling around like that, the hacker would have complete control of the device. And what worried me about that was that remotely hacking an iPad is not a beginners' hack. It's quite difficult and quite expensive to break through Apple's considerable security remotely without physically connecting to the device. It's a million-dollar hack, that is, say that data brokers or surveillance brokers pay million-dollar bounties for what's called an untethered hack of the iPad operating system. I did not want to be worth that kind of effort. I did not want to be worth that kind of expense. But I was.
Sam Briger and Joel Wolfram produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the Web.
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