Reporting on national security in the age of Edward Snowden

b_kirtzBy Bill Kirtz

WASHINGTON — As governments throughout the world try invasive methods to penetrate newsroom secrets, top journalists use no-tech methods: meeting sources outside microphone range, avoiding phone and email messages and keeping pencil — not electronic — notes.

“We’re going back to old-time shoe leather reporting,” said New York Times national security correspondent David Sanger. “We try not to leave a trace — with no electronic footprint.”

But he told a “Journalism After Snowden” conference at the Newseum last Thursday that while journalists can protect their own data and sources, they can’t control what hackers can do to intercept their electronic communications.

The conference was the last in a series exploring issues raised by Edward Snowden’s massive leaking of National Security Agency documents.

Sanger said the Times’ greatest concern is not the NSA but with protecting communications with staffers around the world, where surveillance can potentially obtain drafts of stories.

He and other speakers noted that the U.S. government has obtained employees’ records and that that the recent Jeffrey Sterling espionage conviction shows that prosecutions could succeed without forcing a reporter to testify.

In that case Times reporter James Risen fought a seven-year battle to protect confidential sources, but the government helped make its case by producing phone calls and email contacts between Risen and Sterling.

Times executive editor Dean Baquet and his Washington Post counterpart, Marty Baron, said they decide officials’ requests to withhold national security information on a case-by-case basis.

They said they won’t surprise officials by publishing potentially dangerous information but will give them a chance to make their case against publishing.

Baquet will hear them out and push them hard for specifics about how publication can harm national security. He said they have to prove that printing risks “life and limb.”

Baron said, “We don’t publish sources and methods. We try to balance national security concerns with the public interest. It comes down to our judgment.”

Both editors said the press should do more, not less, probing of national security issues.

Baquet sees more secrecy in national security than ever, saying for example that it’s “stunning” how little we know about drone warfare. “It’s an undeclared, undiscussed and uncovered issue around the world.”

Bill Kirtz is an associate professor of journalism at Northeastern University.