Journalist Who Helped Break Snowden's Story Reflects On His High-Stakes Reporting

May 20, 2020
Originally published on May 20, 2020 4:06 pm

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."


Interview Highlights

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

In 2014, Washington Post reporter Barton Gellman shared a Pulitizer Prize with fellow journalists Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald for their reporting on Edward Snowden and the NSA's surveillance programs.
The Washington Post via Getty Images

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. - Barton Gellman

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. - Barton Gellman

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.

Copyright 2020 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in today for Terry Gross. Six years ago, the American intelligence community was rocked by the leak of thousands of classified documents on U.S. surveillance programs by National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden. Our guest, Barton Gellman, was one of three journalists Snowden chose to provide those documents to and he has a new book about the experience of reporting on the massive archive and about the meaning of the Snowden revelations in the debate over national security and privacy. Gellman says he believes Snowden did more good than harm. But their relationship wasn't simple or easy - at times, Snowden stopped communicating with him.

Gellman's book is a gripping account of high-stakes investigative reporting, and in it, he reveals new information about U.S. surveillance of American citizens. Barton Gellman has covered national security and intelligence issues for decades. He spent 21 years at The Washington Post, where he's earned three Pulitzer Prizes - one of them for quarterbacking the team that worked on the Snowden revelations. He's also held positions as senior fellow at The Century Foundation, lecturer at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School and visiting research collaborator at Princeton Center for Information Technology Policy. He's currently a staff writer for The Atlantic. I spoke to him about his new book titled "Dark Mirror: Edward Snowden And The American Surveillance State." Well, Barton Gellman, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

BARTON GELLMAN: Well, pleasure to be here, Dave.

DAVIES: You were one of three journalists that he provided this material and really the only one from a - with a background as a mainstream journalist. How did Snowden regard you as opposed to the other - Laura Poitras, the documentary filmmaker, and Glenn Greenwald, than with The Guardian?

GELLMAN: Snowden chose Glenn Greenwald first because he was a commentator - an opinion leader - someone who was a powerful voice of skepticism against the establishment. And Snowden wanted that sort of loud and clear and all-in kind of defense. He chose Laura Poitras because she was a filmmaker who had, herself, been subject to the scrutiny of the surveillance state. After she made a film about Iraq, she found herself stopped every time she crossed a border into the United States and had her belongings searched, her videotape copied, her files copied and so on.

Snowden came late to me. Laura Poitras convinced him that having a mainstream journalist along and having someone who knew the subject as I did would be good for him. Snowden was deeply skeptical. He thought that The Washington Post would be afraid to publish or would bow down to government pressure. I had many conversations with him before he agreed to include me, in which I said you don't understand my world at all. We don't stand down because the government doesn't want to see a story. It took a lot of convincing for him just as it took a lot of convincing for me that he was for real.

DAVIES: And just review for us what the terms were of him providing this information to you and the other two reporters.

GELLMAN: Well, I told Snowden that I was not undertaking in advance to publish everything he gave me or anything in particular, 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.

DAVIES: Snowden has always said publicly that he wanted the journalists to evaluate this material and handle it responsibly. He didn't want to dump it on the Internet or give it to WikiLeaks. But he wanted journalists to make judgments, and I think he says he wanted them to confer with the government so harm could be avoided. Was that your understanding all along?

GELLMAN: 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.

DAVIES: And eventually, he left himself without even access to all this material, right?

GELLMAN: That's right. That's one of the most fascinating things here. Once he gave the documents to me and the other two, he removed his own ability to access them. He destroyed the encryption key. And he did that because he didn't want to lose the documents, he didn't want them to be stolen, and he didn't want to be compelled to open them when he crossed a border. He foresaw that he would be under the authority of one or another foreign government. He didn't want to be carrying around a suitcase that he could open that would expose all those U.S. secrets directly to a foreign government. So he made it literally impossible for him to do so.

DAVIES: Now, over the next several months, you wrote several detailed stories based on these documents and additional reporting by you and Laura Poitras and a whole team of reporters at The Washington Post. You actually weren't at The Post at the time, and there's a whole interesting story about how you went back to rejoin them and tap their expertise in legal protection. These stories dealt with all many different ways in which the National Security Agency was gathering information on Americans. There's a lot of subtlety to this, but can you just share with us some of the most important revelations that came from those stories?

GELLMAN: So one of the most important is the one that came first, and that is that the United States government was collecting records of every single phone call made by Americans - whether it was a local call, a national call, an international call - and it was saving what were known as the call detail records. And it sounds like mumbo jumbo, but all it really means is they were saving a record of who you called, who called you, how long you talked and, in some cases, information that would identify where you were. And information like this in large quantities is extraordinarily sensitive. It is possible to reconstruct someone's whole life by taking a record of five years of their phone calls, for example.

And this was an example of what I meant earlier about government doing things not only that the public didn't know but that government had done its very best to obscure. So, for example, the authority that it was using for this call records program came under the Patriot Act. It was called Section 215 of the act and it allowed the government to collect business records. The Justice Department and the FBI put out fact sheets every year saying we're making limited, nuanced, careful use of this authority. Last year, they said - I want to say this was in 2004 - they reported that they had used the Patriot Act authority to get business records only 21 times. And it turned out that 12 of those 21 were sufficient to produce 1 trillion call records. If that's not an outright lie, it is a deliberate attempt to deceive the public what it's doing with its authority. And that's the kind of story I wanted to write. So that's the first story. The second was a program called PRISM, under which the NSA obtained information from big Internet companies like Google and Yahoo and Microsoft and Facebook. And it did so in - again, in numbers and quantities that had never been dreamed of in public debate.

It used to be that the government had to get an individual warrant for every account that it surveilled. Under the authority of the FISA Amendments Act of 2008, the government could finally do what it had wanted for a long time, which was to tap into any account it felt like in large numbers. And so there were now suddenly tens of thousands of account - actually, over 100,000 - that the government was monitoring at any one time. This became the most prolific collection program in terms of its impact on the president's daily brief. That is to say, the NSA was getting more information from big American Internet companies than from any other source.

DAVIES: Right. And this was - included audio and video chats, photographs, emails, documents from big Internet companies that we all know - right? - Google and Facebook and others, right?

GELLMAN: All of that. Now, it's important to note that Americans were not the targets of these surveillance programs. The NSA did not deliberately aim to collect information from an American account. Nevertheless, because of the way the program worked, it collected far more bystanders than targets. And enormous numbers of those bystanders were Americans.

I actually went through a large dump of actual FISA intercepts. That is to say, I actually saw the content of what they were collecting from accounts - and in that, found that there were tens of thousands of American accounts that were sucked into the vortex of this program.

DAVIES: Barton Gellman is the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, now a staff writer with The Atlantic. His new book about reporting on the Edward Snowden revelations for The Washington Post is called "Dark Mirror." This is FRESH AIR.

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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with Barton Gellman. He's a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who's covered national security issues for decades and is one of three journalists who reported on the documents leaked by Edward Snowden in 2013. His new book about the experience is "Dark Mirror: Edward Snowden And The American Surveillance State."

You've had a lot of experience with publishing government secrets and dealing with the reactions of government officials. And a lot of these are people that you've known for years. How did the reactions to this set of disclosures compare with your past interactions?

GELLMAN: The reactions ranged the gamut this time. There were times when we had sort of adult, mature, calm conversations about the equities in any given disclosure, about the stakes, as the government saw them, for national security. There were times when they were just very angry and dismissive and said, we're not going to have a word to say. This is all in your head, whatever happens. They were certainly very angry at Edward Snowden throughout. And I found myself ostracized from sources who I had known for years.

DAVIES: There was one particularly memorable moment where you were going to do a story on the black budget that is to say money, you know, targeted towards a lot of these programs, which wasn't open to the public. And you were - you and your fellow reporter, Greg Miller, were taken into a big room. Do you want to describe this?

GELLMAN: Yeah. Well, the black budget is - what we had were 7,000 pages of classified expenditures and naming the programs that they were being spent on. And we never seriously considered publishing anything like the whole thing or any large chunk of it. It revealed all kinds of details that shouldn't be revealed about specific places and targets and vulnerabilities of legitimate foreign targets. But understanding the thing as a whole, how are we spending our money big picture? What's the one-page bar chart of where our tens of billions of intelligence dollars are spent? That seemed, to us, to be fundamental to a basic public debate.

Well, the intelligence community asked me to come in with my colleague, Greg Miller, who was co-author of that story. And Greg's a longtime intelligence correspondent - very cool nerves, very sort of Zen-like. We went into an auditorium filled with people from the 17 U.S. intelligence agencies and offices. And they just stared daggers at us. They were seething with rage at the idea that we had this information, that we were considering publishing it, that they couldn't do anything to stop it.

We thought that they would raise questions, issues, tell us, this thing here would be especially sensitive or ask us what we were intending to publish. But it was basically a long series of complaints and angry outbursts at the whole idea that we were going to do this. Greg and I left without understanding why they had called the meeting in the first place since nothing of substance happened.

DAVIES: Right. There were plenty of times that you did have detailed conversations and withheld material at the request of the government because they might endanger operations, right?

GELLMAN: Right. The fact is that most of what we withheld, I never brought to the government. It was just obvious. There were photographs of operational personnel in the field who were clandestine personnel. I'm not going to publish photographs of secret agents of the U.S. government. There were names of specific targets in ongoing collection activity - I'm not going to do that.

DAVIES: When the government responded to you on a lot of these stories, they said, look; everything we are doing is legal. Was it?

GELLMAN: Well, first of all, that wasn't true. Some of what they were doing was not lawful or had never been tested in court. And in fact, in many of the cases, judges had no idea this was even happening. For one program, for example, the disclosures for the first time allowed the litigation about that program in open court, that was the spying on American telephone calls. And the courts split on whether it was constitutional. And the only thing that prevented this from getting a Supreme Court hearing, I think, was that the NSA agreed to stop doing it.

But the larger point is that, sometimes, the scandal is what's legal. Sometimes the public debate needs to be about what the government is doing under legal authority that no one knew about. Sometimes you want to know that they think this legal authority entitles them to collect millions of American data points around the world. Maybe you want to know what boundaries they draw and how they handle information about Americans. These were things that you couldn't debate because you weren't - they weren't known. And Snowden and the stories about Snowden's disclosures brought them to light.

DAVIES: Right. In a lot of cases, the legal authority rested on secret interpretations of laws and court decisions and executive orders - right? - so that you couldn't really even know the legal rationale even if you knew about the program, right?

GELLMAN: Right. So Congress will pass a law that has one phrase in it. And there will then be lengthy memos written inside government interpreting that law in the way most favorable to what the government wants to do, sometimes stretching the boundaries of words to points at which they're sort of unrecognizable. And then the government operates under that legal authority, which has been challenged by no one because it's been seen by no one outside of government. And this is behind, you know, a lot of things that the public found shocking in the Snowden disclosures.

DAVIES: A lot of the government officials argued to you that, yes, a lot of information is collected in these programs. But we have policies and procedures which ensure that they are used responsibly, right? I mean, there's a lot of detail to that. But I'm wondering, as you've talked to these people over time, whether you - they have come to see things differently with President Trump in power, where you have a president who, you know, fires inspectors general that criticize him and his supporters and sometimes suggests his political opponents should be investigated. I mean, do policies themselves ensure responsible behavior, I guess, is the question?

GELLMAN: Well, Dave, I think you've put your finger on something really critical right there. And it was something that surprised me in the course of reporting for this book, because 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. And when 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 the 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, see into anything that travels across the Internet, then they're worried.

And so people who surprised me, people like Jim Comey and people like General 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.

DAVIES: Barton Gellman is a staff writer for The Atlantic. He wrote his stories about the revelations of Edward Snowden with a team for The Washington Post. His new book is "Dark Mirror: Edward Snowden And The American Surveillance State." He'll be back. And we'll talk more after a break. I'm Dave Davies. And this is FRESH AIR.

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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in today for Terry Gross. My guest is Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Barton Gellman. He was one of three journalists who former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden chose to receive tens of thousands of leaked documents about U.S. surveillance of American citizens. Gellman has a new book about reporting those stories and about the meaning of the revelations in the debate over national security and privacy. His book is "Dark Mirror: Edward Snowden And The American Surveillance State."

I want to talk a bit about your relationship with Snowden. He said at one point, I think, that he vetted you more than anybody else among the three journalists and that in the end, you screwed him. What did he mean?

GELLMAN: 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 continue 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? He was angry at me one - 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.

DAVIES: Right. And that's when he quit talking to you for a while, right?

GELLMAN: 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 making - 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 you a 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.

DAVIES: Right. I think it was December of 2013. You went over to visit him in Moscow, right? I don't know much you can talk about this. But I'm curious about your security precautions in making that trip. I mean, you were careful. You're careful to protect your digital data. Did you figure that the Russians would be following you or surveilling you while you were there?

GELLMAN: You know, 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's writing about secret American intelligence programs, comes over to interview a former intelligence officer - that's Snowden - that that would probably be worth their devotion of a little bit of surveillance 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 going to bring classified U.S. documents to a country where they could possibly read them and directly expose American secrets to a foreign power.

So - and 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 had said with Snowden. I didn't want the Russian government to have access to all that information either.

DAVIES: So how did you get the material safely back without carrying it over the border?

GELLMAN: So there are one or two tricks (laughter) that I won't mention, but here's something I can. I tape-recorded the interviews with Snowden on a digital recorder that recorded the audio onto a little memory card, an SD card. And so what I did was as soon as the interview ended, I would copy the data from the SD card, which was unencrypted, into an encrypted archive on my computer. And it was encrypted with a key that I didn't carry with me.

It is possible - using something called GPG - to encrypt a file in a way that you, yourself, cannot decrypt it until you go pick up the key that you've left back in New York, for example. So I encrypted it that way. I uploaded it onto some cloud servers in that encrypted form. And I was - also did not carry the key that enabled me to download from those same servers. And then, I took the SD card out of my computer. And I cut it into pieces. So I was no longer to be in possession of the audio file at all. It was sitting in the cloud, waiting for me. And I just hoped to God that I didn't screw it up and that I could decrypt it when I got home.

DAVIES: You spent a lot of time talking with him. Did you end up with a different impression of him than you had before?

GELLMAN: I did. I was expecting to find a guy who was very serious, and I did find that. I was expecting to find a guy in Moscow who was shellshocked and lonely and very conscious of the sacrifices that he had made and maybe even having second thoughts. It's one thing to anticipate that you're going to be alone in a foreign country. But he had not actually even planned to be in Russia.

He got stuck there. And what I found instead was a guy who was very much at peace with his choices, who is, as he described himself, an indoor cat who doesn't usually go out into the world very much anyway. His socializing and his intellectual and his productive work is almost all done online. I asked him at one point, how many hours a day do you think you're online? And he said the hours that I'm awake.

DAVIES: (Laughter) There was a House Intelligence Committee report about Snowden which was harshly critical. And there's been reporting that the classified version of that report listed several instances in which national security was harmed. I'm wondering if you have any insight into what those instances were.

GELLMAN: If there were particular harms done by particular disclosures, that fact itself, would be classified as you mentioned. 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 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 his - the end to 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, it gives you a decent flavor of the more complicated untruths in the report.

DAVIES: All right. We're going to need to take a short break here. Barton Gellman is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist - currently a staff writer for The Atlantic. His new book about reporting on the Edward Snowden revelations for The Washington Post is called "Dark Mirror." This is FRESH AIR.

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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Barton Gellman. He's a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who's covered national security issues for decades and he was one of three journalists tapped by NSA contractor Edward Snowden to receive leaked documents in 2013. Gellman's new book is "Dark Mirror: Edward Snowden And The American Surveillance State."

It's interesting, the effect breaking the story had on your life. I mean, apart from dealing with the government and dealing with Snowden, you were now publicly in possession of a lot of secrets and you're pretty careful about, you know, protecting your digital information. But did you become aware that you were either being followed or surveilled or people were trying to hack your stuff?

GELLMAN: Yeah, you know, it's not paranoid if people are really trying to get you. And 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 in 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 likelier 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. The screen gutted (ph) out into 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 beginner's hack - it's quite difficult and quite expensive. To break through Apple's considerable security remotely without physically connecting to the device is a million-dollar hack. That is to 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.

DAVIES: When you were reviewing the Snowden documents, you found about this - about a program called Firstfruit, which I - if I have this right, was sort of an effort to accumulate information about journalists. You filed a Freedom of Information Act request, which you had to go to court to get it enforced, and got some information about what the government had on you. What did you learn?

GELLMAN: Well, I learned, first of all, that the CIA and some other agencies gave what's known as a Glomar response to my Freedom of Information request. And the Glomar response says it is classified whether or not we have any classified information about you. So we refuse to confirm or deny the existence of any data which would be responsive to this request. That's never a good sign. I - there - the most interesting things that I got from this lawsuit were - which is ongoing, by the way - were the list of things that the government was asking the judge not to release to me. So the FBI FBI said, for example, that it could not release the contents of the ELSUR database - which stands for electronic surveillance - that mentioned my name because it would reveal previously unknown surveillance techniques to the public. What you don't want when you're a reporter is to be told that they were using unknown surveillance techniques on you. And that's, in effect, what the disclosure said.

DAVIES: So when you broke stories about classified material, who knows whose phone they may have tapped - who they may have followed? You just don't know.

GELLMAN: I really don't know. I know from U.S. government sources that Russia and China did their best to get at the materials that I had. And I talked to a - I - there's a scene in the book in which I have a very frank conversation with Rick Ledgett, who was the deputy director of the NSA, who told me matter-of-factly that he assumes that Russia and China both got access to anything they wanted in my possession because, basically, he said we could have done it, so we think they could.

DAVIES: That doesn't mean they got the Snowden file though, right?

GELLMAN: He thinks that they did. I have no way of confirming that. I know that I took every precaution that I possibly could as a civilian non-government employee. I kept the Snowden documents on a computer that had been stripped of its communications hardware so that it couldn't touch the Internet even if I tried. The disk was encrypted. The key to the disk was on a separate piece of hardware that was never in the same room as the Snowden files which were, themselves, encrypted, stored inside a big, heavy, 400-pound safe in a locked room with a video camera and so on. That doesn't mean that the best intelligence agencies in the world couldn't get to it. I just can't give that kind of guarantee. And all I could do was my best.

DAVIES: We need to take one more short break here, then we'll talk some more. Barton Gellman is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and now a staff writer with The Atlantic. His new book about reporting on the Edward Snowden revelations for The Washington Post is called "Dark Mirror." This is FRESH AIR.

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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Barton Gellman. He's a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who's covered national security issues for a long time and he's one of three journalists who reported in the documents leaked by Edward Snowden in 2013. His new book is "Dark Mirror: Edward Snowden And The American Surveillance State."

You know, Edward Snowden says what he wanted to do with this leak of documents was to start a debate about how much authority a democracy wants to give its government to acquire information about us as it pursues its national interests. Seven years have passed now, almost. What have been the results of that debate?

GELLMAN: It's such an interesting question because the answers tend in opposite directions. If you want to start a debate, Ed Snowden succeeded beyond the wildest ambitions that he could plausibly have had. The public debate about surveillance was national and international and lasted for well over a year and continues to this day, periodically. Even the biggest critics of Snowden - not all of them, but some of them - inside government, including a former FBI director, former NSA deputy director, former director of national intelligence, 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, most of the programs that he exposed continue. The administration of Barack Obama was very good at deflecting conversations about what I thought were the most important issues and keeping things focused on small things that they were prepared to change. The biggest one, just to state this clearly, is that NSA operations overseas which collect information in bulk - sometimes the entire fruits of gigantic pipes of information that are travelling across the Internet in someplace that's outside the United States - these operations are scooping in tens and possibly over 100 million Americans in the course of those operations. And much of that information is retained - some of it is used. And so foreign operations have a huge impact on domestic privacy interests of U.S. citizens protected by the Constitution of the United States. And nobody has really addressed that in terms of policy change.

DAVIES: So have there been any changes in law or executive orders that would affect these programs?

GELLMAN: There are changes in law. There have been limits and there are some proposals for new limits on the collection of the telephone records under the Patriot Act authority which, at the moment we're talking, has lapsed. Congress had sunset provisions in several of the surveillance authorities so that they have to be renewed every several years. Congress failed to renew these provisions when they expired in, I believe, February. And they're now debating, between the House and the Senate, the circumstances under which they'll be renewed. And there are some interesting reform amendments that are going to be part of that conversation. And there was the U.S.A. Freedom Act, which changed the way the telephone records were collected and the NSA's own decision, about a year ago, that it was going to stop collecting them. And it was going to stop the program on its own because it wasn't worth anything. It wasn't valuable.

So it was a gigantic intrusion on privacy for very little intelligence gained. So yeah, there have been changes. But the biggest changes have not been changes in law. They've been marketplace changes. They have been demand for privacy by consumers, which led to changes of behavior by technology companies. It used to be that most of our emails traveled around the Internet as an open book. Anyone who was physically at any of the junction points of the Internet could read it because it was in plain language, like a postcard with the words showing.

Today, most websites and most email is encrypted. And that makes it much, much harder for the NSA to collect information in bulk. It can still break into just about anything it wants to. I mean, we have some of the best hackers and most expensive hacking infrastructure in the world. So if they've set their minds on a target, they say they want this one or that one, they're going to get it. But if they want to collect information in bulk from just about everyone who passes across this or that channel, they're now thwarted by what Silicon Valley has done.

DAVIES: One more thing. Snowden is in Moscow. His girlfriend, Lindsay Mills, is there. They're now married. Any chance that he will be back in the United States any time?

GELLMAN: My crystal ball is never any good. I don't see the conditions right now or in the near future that get him back to the United States. The American government and the people in it are still very, very angry at Snowden. They would not agree to take him back without subjecting him to a trial under the Espionage Act, for which there would be no defense. There's no public interest defense in a leak case. If you tell information to a reporter that was classified information, that counts as espionage, which is, really, a very different thing. But in law, it's the same.

Snowden would be subject to - potentially, up to a lifetime in jail if he came back. He won't come back voluntarily under those conditions. He has said he would like to come back if there were a fair trial, by which he means if he could argue that the things he exposed were unlawful or against public interest. But that's not one of his choices at the moment. I don't see any reason for Vladimir Putin to send it back either. It is politically convenient for Putin to be in the posture of protecting a freedom fighter, a human rights fighter, someone who had exposed wrongdoing in his own government. And he gets a kick out of that. He doesn't, seem to me, have any good reason to expel Snowden.

DAVIES: Well, Barton Gellman, thanks so much for speaking with us again.

GELLMAN: Thank you for allowing me. I love this show.

DAVIES: Barton Gellman is a staff writer at The Atlantic. His book about his Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting on the Edward Snowden revelations, which were published in The Washington Post, is "Dark Mirror: Edward Snowden And The American Surveillance State."

On tomorrow's show - for couples working at home during the pandemic, home is also the office. And for those with kids, it's the school, too. For many families, the experience is highlighting gender inequities in housework and parenting. We'll talk with Brenda Schulte (ph), director of the Better Life Lab, a work-life gender equity and social policy program at the think tank New America. I hope you can join us.

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DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. We had additional engineering help from Charlie Kaier. Our interviews and reviews are produced an edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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