Journalist Who Helped Break Snowden's Story Reflects On His High-Stakes Reporting | Connecticut Public Radio
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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.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Exactly why the State Department inspector general was fired seems to be an open question. President Trump says Secretary of State Mike Pompeo asked him to fire Steve Linick, but the secretary is now trying to brush off mounting concerns that the dismissal was retaliation for an investigation into some of Pompeo's controversial actions. NPR's Michele Kelemen has our story.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: To get a better sense of the job, here's Harold Geisel, who was acting inspector general right before the now-fired Steve Linick held the post. Geisel remembers some advice he got from a mentor that still resonates today.

HAROLD GEISEL: He used to say that the IGs sit on the barbed wire fence between the Hill and the executive. And if it doesn't hurt once in a while, he's probably not doing a very good job.

KELEMEN: Steve Linick is now caught on that fence between Congress and the president, who gave him 30 days' notice. Democrats on the Hill and a few Republicans are using this time to urge the Trump administration to explain why it fired him. Today, Pompeo refused to give any reason at all, saying the president has the, quote, "unilateral right to choose who he wants to be his inspector general" at every government agency.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIKE POMPEO: They're presidentially confirmed positions, and those persons, just like all of us, serve at the pleasure of the president of the United States. In this case, I recommended to the president that Steve Linick be terminated - frankly should've done it some time ago.

KELEMEN: The Democrat who runs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Eliot Engel, says it was disappointing that the secretary didn't use the opportunity today to clear up questions about the firing or commit to responding to his request for documents about it. Engel points out that Linick had almost finished a report on how the Trump administration bypassed opposition in Congress to greenlight a massive arms deal with Saudi Arabia. Democrats say the inspector general was also looking into complaints that the secretary and his wife had a State Department employee walk their dog and do other personal errands. Pompeo ridiculed the various accusations against him.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

POMPEO: I've seen the various stories that someone was walking my dog to sell arms to my dry cleaner. I mean, it's all just crazy. It's all crazy stuff.

KELEMEN: He says, with one exception when he responded to written questions from the inspector general earlier this year, he didn't know what that office was reviewing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

POMPEO: There are claims that this was for retaliation for some investigation that the inspector general's office here was engaged in. It's patently false. I have no sense of what investigations were taking place inside the inspector general's office.

KELEMEN: But CNN reported last year about a whistleblower complaint from staff running personal errands for the Pompeos, and members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee initiated that probe into the Saudi arms deal. The inspector general's office won't confirm or deny specific investigations, but a spokesperson there points out that the office does have a hotline that allows employees, contractors and the public to report allegations of waste, fraud, abuse or misconduct. Former inspector Ambassador Geisel says while inspectors general are political appointees - Linick was appointed by President Obama - they try to remain nonpartisan.

GEISEL: Being an IG is being a truth teller if you're doing your job. And I used to say that everyone loves to hear the truth until it's the truth that they don't love.

KELEMEN: Democrats on Capitol Hill say they will continue to look into Linick's firing, adding they still hope for Secretary Pompeo's cooperation.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.