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.

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On Greenwald, Kinsley is both right and wrong

Michael Kinsley
Michael Kinsley

A few thoughts about Michael Kinsley’s much-criticized New York Times review of Glenn Greenwald’s book “No Place to Hide,” an account of his role in the Edward Snowden leaks.

Kinsley is technically correct in asserting that the government has — and should have — the final word when it comes to deciding whether secret information should be made public. Thus I part company with the likes of Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan, who, in a post headlined “Michael Kinsley Comes Out Against Journalism,” fulminates: “Michael Kinsley does not believe that a free press should be allowed to [expose official secrets]. He believes that the decision to tell government secrets ‘must ultimately be made by the government.'”

It’s Nolan’s “should be allowed” that bears scrutiny. In fact, the Supreme Court has made it clear that the government may act to prevent secrets from being revealed if those revelations would cause a serious breach of national security. Here is how the Court put it in the 1931 case of Near v. Minnesota:

No one would question but that a government might prevent actual obstruction to its recruiting service or the publication of the sailing dates of transports or the number and location of troops.

The government may also prosecute both leakers and journalists post-publication, as a majority of the Court all but invited the Nixon administration to do in the Pentagon Papers case — and as Harvey Silverglate explains in this 2006 Boston Phoenix essay.

If you think about it, how could it be otherwise? It’s so easy to conjure up scenarios involving nuclear weapons, terrorism and the like under which censorship and prosecution would be justified that it’s not even worth the effort to spell them out (although Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes tried to do just that in Near).

But I emphatically part company with Kinsley over his sneering, dismissive tone, and his shocking failure to understand the role of a free press (or even a press that’s not quite as free as Hamilton Nolan imagines) in a democratic society. Because if the ultimate authority rests with the government, there are nevertheless times when leakers, individual journalists and the institutional press must stand up to the government and risk its wrath in order to serve the public interest. That’s what The New York Times and The Washington Post did in publishing the Pentagon Papers, the government’s own secret history of the Vietnam War.

And I would argue that that’s what Snowden, Greenwald, Barton Gellman (curiously absent from Special Agent Kinsley’s arrest warrant), The Guardian and The Washington Post did in exposing the NSA’s practices.

I wrote more about the legal background for The Huffington Post last June.

Photo (cc) by the Aspen Institute and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Globe wins Pulitzer for ‘story none of us wanted to cover’

Brian McGrory during the Pulitzer announcement.
Brian McGrory during the Pulitzer announcement. (Photo courtesy of The Boston Globe.)

This article was published earlier at WGBH News.

Within moments of the announcement that The Boston Globe had won the Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Reporting, Martine Powers tweeted from the newsroom. “This was a story none of us wanted to cover,” she quoted editor Brian McGrory as saying. The staff, she said, then observed a moment of silence at McGrory’s request for the victims of the Boston Marathon bombings.

The Globe easily could have won two or three Pulitzers for its coverage of the bombings and their aftermath. The breaking-news award, of course, was well-deserved, and frankly it was unimaginable that it would go to anyone else. But the paper also had worthy marathon-related finalists in Breaking News Photography (John Tlumacki and David L. Ryan) as well as Commentary (Kevin Cullen, who emerged as the voice and conscience of the city after the attack).

McGrory’s classy response to winning underscores the sad reality that the Globe’s excellent coverage was driven by a terrible tragedy — the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil since Sept. 11, 2001. (The Globe was also a finalist in Editorial Writing, as Dante Ramos was honored for a non-marathon-related topic: improving the city’s night life.)

The Pulitzer also caps what has been a remarkable year for the Globe. On Marathon Monday 2013, McGrory was relatively untested as editor and the paper’s prospects were uncertain, as the New York Times Co. was trying to unload it for the second time in four years.

The Globe’s marathon coverage — widely praised long before today’s Pulitzers were announced — have defined McGrory’s brief term as editor as surely as the paper’s pedophile-priest coverage (which earned a Pulitzer for Public Service) defined Marty Baron’s. Moreover, the Globe now has a local, deep-pockets owner in John Henry who’s willing to invest in journalism.

But the focus should be on Martin Richard, Krystle Campbell, Lingzi Lu and Sean Collier, as well as their families and all the other survivors. Good for McGrory for reminding everyone of that.

A couple of other Pulitzer notes:

• A lot of observers were waiting to see whether the judges would honor the stories based on the Edward Snowden leaks. They did, as the Pulitzer for Public Service went to The Guardian and The Washington Post.

Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, then affiliated with The Guardian and now with the start-up First Look Media, as well as Barton Gellman of the Post, were the recipients of the Snowden leaks, which revealed a vast U.S. spying apparatus keeping track of ordinary citizens and world leaders both in the United States and abroad.

The choice is bound to be controversial in some circles. U.S. Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., has already called the award “a disgrace.” But it was the ultimate example of journalism speaking truth to power, and thus was a worthy choice.

• The oddest move was the Pulitzer judges’ decision not to award a prize in Feature Writing. I thought it might go to the New York Times’ series “Invisible Child: Dasani’s Homeless Life,” or possibly to the Globe’s “The Fall of the House of Tsarnaev.” (I should note that neither of those stories was listed as a finalist.)

The Pulitzer process can be mysterious. But it would be interesting to see if someone can pry some information out of the judges to find out why they believed there wasn’t a single feature story in 2013 worthy of journalism’s highest honor.

Swartz case leads Media Nation’s top 10 of 2013

Aaron Swartz speaking in 2012
Aaron Swartz speaking in 2012

Last January, not long after the young Internet genius Aaron Swartz committed suicide, civil-liberties lawyer Harvey Silverglate wrote powerfully about the abusive prosecutorial tactics that may have led to his death.

Swartz faced a lengthy federal prison sentence for downloading academic articles at MIT without authorization. Even though the publisher, JSTOR, declined to press charges, U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz brought a case agains Swartz under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. As Silverglate put it, the law is “a notoriously broad statute enacted by Congress seemingly to criminalize any use of a computer to do something that could be deemed bad.”

Silverglate’s article was republished in Media Nation with the permission of Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly, where it originally appeared. And it was far and away the most viewed article in Media Nation in 2013.

Today we present Media Nation’s top 10 posts for 2013, based on statistics compiled by WordPress.com. They represent a range of topics — from the vicissitudes of talk radio to a media conflict of interest, from Rolling Stone’s controversial cover image of accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to the sad, sudden death of The Boston Phoenix.

The top 10 is by no means representative of the year in media. Certainly the biggest story about journalism in 2013 involved the National Security Agency secrets revealed by Edward Snowden to The Guardian and The Washington Post — a story that did not make the cut at Media Nation.

Here, then, is our unrepresentative sample for the past 12 months.

1. Harvey Silverglate on the Aaron Swartz case (Jan. 24). Few people were more qualified to weigh in on U.S. Attorney Ortiz’s abusive tactics than Silverglate, my friend and occasional collaborator, who several years ago wrote “Three Felonies a Day,” a book on how the federal justice system has spun out of control. But Silverglate’s take wasn’t the only article about Swartz to generate interest in Media Nation. The aftermath of Swartz’s suicide also came in at No. 11 (“The Globe turns up the heat on Carmen Ortiz,” Jan. 11) and No. 13 (“Aaron Swartz, Carmen Ortiz and the meaning of justice,” Jan. 14). In a bit of poetic justice, a project Swartz was working on at the time of his death — software that allows whistleblowers to submit documents without being identified — was unveiled by The New Yorker just several months after his suicide.

2. The New Republic’s new owner crosses a line (Jan. 28). A little more than a year ago, the venerable New Republic was saved by Chris Hughes, a co-founder of Facebook who is using some of his fortune to restore the magazine to relevance and fiscal health. But he crossed an ethical line last January when he took part in an interview with President Obama, whose campaign he had worked on, and tossed a series of softball questions his way. At the time I wrote that Hughes was guilty of “no more than a minor misstep.” So how did it rise to No. 2? It turns out that a number of right-leaning websites picked up on it, bringing a considerable amount of traffic to Media Nation that I normally don’t receive.

3. Dailies go wild over sports controversies (Aug. 30). Four months after publishing this item, I find it hard to make heads or tails of what was going on. But essentially Globe-turned-Herald sportswriter Ron Borges contributed to a Rolling Stone article on the Aaron Hernandez murder case, which generated some tough criticism from both the Globe and the well-known blog Boston Sports Media Watch. That was followed almost immediately by a Globe article on the ratings collapse of sports radio station WEEI (AM 850), which brought yet more tough talk from, among others, ’EEI morning co-host Gerry Callahan, who also happens to write a column for the Herald. Yes, Boston is a small town.

4. Rolling Stone’s controversial cover (July 17). I thought it was brilliant. I still do. The accusion that Rolling Stone was trying to turn Dzhokhar Tsarnaev into some sort of pop-culture hero is absurd and offensive — and not borne out by the well-reported article that the cover was designed to illustrate.

5. Glenn Ordway walks the ratings plank (Feb. 14). Ordway built sports talker WEEI into a ratings monster only to see its numbers crater in the face of competition from the Sports Hub (WBZ-FM, 98.5). Ordway was by no means the problem with WEEI. But station management decided it could no longer afford his $500,000 contract, and so that was it for the Big O.

6. A big moment for The Boston Globe (Dec. 17). It was actually a big year for the Globe, from its riveting coverage of the marathon bombing and the standoff that led to the arrest of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to the paper’s acquisition by Red Sox principal owner John Henry. But two days in mid-December were emblematic of the paper’s continuing excellence and relevance — a long, detailed exposé of the Tsarnaev family that revealed Dzhokhar, rather than his older brother, Tamerlan, may have been the driving force behind the bombing; an investigation into a case of alleged “medical child abuse” that pitted a Connecticut family against Children’s Hospital; and a nationally celebrated series of tweets by staff reporter Billy Baker about a Boston teenager from a poor family who had been admitted to Yale.

7. The Boston Phoenix reaches the end of the road (March 14). A stalwart of the alternative-weekly scene and my professional home from 1991 to 2005, the Phoenix was a voice of incalculable importance. But with even the legendary Village Voice struggling to survive, the alt-weekly moment may have passed. At the time of its death, the Phoenix had more than 100,000 readers — but little revenue, as advertising had dried up and both the print edition and the website were free. I scribbled a few preliminary thoughts in this post, and later wrote something more coherent for PBS MediaShift.

8. The return of Jim Braude and Margery Eagan (Feb. 6). Eagan and Braude’s morning show was the one bright spot on WTKK Radio, an otherwise run-of-the-mill right-wing talk station that had been taken off the air a month earlier. So it was good news indeed when the pair was hired to host “Boston Public Radio” from noon to 2 p.m. on public station WGBH (89.7 FM). (Note: (I am a paid contributor to WGBH-TV’s “Beat the Press,” where Eagan is a frequent panelist.)

9. Joe Scarborough grapples with history — and loses (Feb. 17). Asking cable blowhard Scarborough to write a review for The New York Times Book Review about the relationship between Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon could have been a smart, counterintuitive move. But it only works if the writer in question is, you know, smart.

10. The bell tolls for WTKK Radio (Jan. 3). As I already mentioned, Jim Braude and Margery Eagan were able to walk away from the rubble of WTKK, which was shut down by corporate owner Greater Media and turned into an urban music station. Just a few years earlier the station had been a ratings success with trash-talking hosts like Jay Severin and Michael Graham. But tastes change — sometimes for the better.

Photo (cc) by Maria Jesus V and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

We have a pope

time-person-of-the-year-cover-pope-francis

Well, of course it was marketing. That’s my response to the complaints that burst forth on Wednesday when we learned that Pope Francis had been chosen as Time magazine’s “Person of the Year” rather than NSA leaker Edward Snowden.

But I think Time made the right call journalistically, too. The Snowden revelations have had an enormous effect on the way we think about government secrecy. But Francis is a larger, more forward-looking choice. His early papacy has been fascinating, even if his pronouncements on matters such as abortion and homosexuality have been more about atmospherics than substance.

As a non-Catholic and non-Christian, I find myself wanting to know more about Francis — and where he intends to lead the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics. For all his progressive-sounding rhetoric (my favorite: “How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?”), it’s his recently announced initiative on the church’s child-rape crisis that will determine the fate of his papacy — and perhaps of the institution that he heads.

What happened at The Guardian could happen here

Chief_Justice_Charles_Evans_Hughes
Charles Evans Hughes

This commentary was first published at The Huffington Post.

As you have no doubt already heard, Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian, wrote on Monday that British security agents recently visited the newspaper’s headquarters and insisted that hard drives containing leaked documents from Edward Snowden be smashed and destroyed in their presence. The incident, Rusbridger said, took place after a “very senior government official” demanded that the materials either be returned or disposed of.

Rusbridger’s report followed the nearly nine-hour detention of Glenn Greenwald’s partner, David Miranda, at London’s Heathrow Airport. Greenwald has written the bulk of The Guardian’s articles about the Snowden documents, and Miranda had been visiting filmmaker Laura Poitras, who has worked extensively with Snowden and Greenwald, in Berlin.

We are already being told that such thuggery couldn’t happen in the United States because of our constitutional protections for freedom of the press. For instance, Ryan Chittum of the Columbia Journalism Review writes, “Prior restraint is the nuclear option in government relations with the press and unfortunately, the British don’t have a First Amendment.”

But in fact, there is nothing to stop the U.S. government from censoring the media with regard to revelations such as those contained in the Snowden files — nothing, that is, except longstanding tradition. And respect for that tradition is melting away, as I argued recently in this space.

The case for censorship, ironically, was made in a U.S. Supreme Court decision that severely limited the circumstances under which the government could censor. The decision, Near v. Minnesota (1931), was a great victory for the press, as the ruling held that Jay Near could not be prohibited from resuming publication of his scandal sheet, which had been shut down by state authorities (of course, he could be sued for libel after the fact).

What’s relevant here is how Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes described the limited circumstances under which the government could engage in prior restraint:

No one would question but that a government might prevent actual obstruction to its recruiting service or the publication of the sailing dates of transports or the number and location of troops. On similar grounds, the primary requirements of decency may be enforced against obscene publications. The security of the community life may be protected against incitements to acts of violence and the overthrow by force of orderly government.

The text I’ve bolded means that the government may, in fact, engage in censorship if by so doing it would prevent a breach of national security so grave that it could be likened to the examples cited by Hughes. That’s what the Nixon administration relied on in seeking to stop The New York Times and The Washington Post from publishing the Pentagon Papers in 1971.

The Supreme Court, in allowing publication of the Pentagon Papers to resume (New York Times Co. v. United States), wrestled extensively with Near v. Minnesota, and ultimately decided that revealing the government’s secret history of the Vietnam War did not amount to the sort of immediate, serious breach of national security that Hughes envisioned.

But who knows what the court would say if the Obama administration took similar action against The Washington Post, which has published several important reports based on the Snowden documents — including last week’s Barton Gellman bombshell that the National Security Agency had violated privacy protections thousands of times?

Unlike the Pentagon Papers, the Snowden documents pertain to ongoing operations, which cuts in favor of censorship. Cutting against it, of course, is that there’s a strong public-interest case to be made in favor of publication, given the long-overdue national debate that Snowden’s revelations have ignited.

The bottom line, though, is that there is no constitutional ban that would prevent the White House from seeking to stop publication of the Snowden documents — even if U.S. officials are unlike to engage in the sort of theatrics that reportedly took place in The Guardian’s basement.

(Disclosure: I wrote a weekly online column for The Guardian from 2007 to 2011.)

A chilling act of intimidation and harassment

Glenn Greenwald
Glenn Greenwald

This is pretty shocking. On Sunday, David Miranda, the partner of lawyer/activist/journalist Glenn Greenwald, was detained at Heathrow Airport in London for nearly nine hours and questioned under Britain’s anti-terrorism laws. His computer and other electronics gear were confiscated. Greenwald, who writes for The Guardian, describes what happened here, writing:

This is obviously a rather profound escalation of their attacks on the news-gathering process and journalism. It’s bad enough to prosecute and imprison sources. It’s worse still to imprison journalists who report the truth. But to start detaining the family members and loved ones of journalists is simply despotic.

Greenwald, along with filmmaker Laura Poitras, has been the principal media conduit for Edward Snowden’s revelations about the National Security Agency’s mass surveillance programs. Miranda had been visiting Poitras in Berlin and was on his way home to Rio de Janeiro. (If you haven’t read it yet, here is Peter Maass’ New York Times Magazine story on how Poitras, Snowden and Greenwald came together.)

What were the British security agents up to? Who knows? Maybe they genuinely believed Miranda might be carrying data they wanted to seize. Maybe they were trying to send a message to Greenwald and any other journalists about the consequences of working with a leaker such as Snowden.

Regardless of what you think of Snowden’s actions, there is an enormous difference between leaking and journalism. A generation ago, Daniel Ellsberg was put on trial for providing the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times and The Washington Post; the Times and the Post weren’t prosecuted for publishing them.

The British enjoy fewer press rights than we do in the United States. But Britain is our closest ally, and the U.S. and British security services may be presumed to be working together on the Snowden matter.

The danger is that the U.S. is moving ever closer to criminalizing certain types of high-stakes, leak-based journalism. As I argued several months ago, there is nothing to stop the government from prosecuting journalists for publishing such information other than custom and the fear of a public backlash.

And consider what Snowden has accomplished. In just a few months, public awareness of and debate over government surveillance that came into place after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 have finally reached critical mass. New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen calls it “The Snowden Effect”:

Direct and indirect gains in public knowledge from the cascade of events and further reporting that followed Edward Snowden’s leaks of classified information about the surveillance state in the U.S.

Given President Obama’s oft-proven contempt for the role of a free press in a democratic society, we may be moving closer to the time that such constraints melt away.

Update: My outrage has not diminished, but my understanding of what happened has shifted. As this New York Times story makes clear, Miranda’s trip to Berlin was paid for by The Guardian. It appears that he was facilitating Greenwald’s and Poitras’ journalism, even if he’s not a journalist himself. So this was not harassment of a journalist’s family member. It was harassment of a journalist, or at least of someone engaged in journalistic activities.

Photo (cc) via Wikimedia Commons and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.