OpinionOpinion L.A.

Edward Snowden: A whistle-blowing outlaw, now with a Pulitzer Prize to his name

NewspapersEdward SnowdenNewspaper and MagazinePoliticsJournalismNational Security AgencyU.S. Congress

A few months ago, I wrote that it was wrong to try to classify Edward Snowden as either a whistle-blower or a traitor, because he’s a bit of each.

Only now he’s a whistle-blowing outlaw with a Pulitzer Prize to his name.

Formally, of course, the prize went to the newspapers that published articles based on Snowden’s massive data leak, the Washington Post and the Guardian. They don’t give the Pulitzer Prize to sources.

But the Pulitzer board members, a gilt-edged group drawn from such institutions as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and Columbia University, knew they were giving Snowden a signal honor too.

Were they right?

If it’s a question of impact, that’s easy: Snowden’s revelations forced the Obama administration and Congress to launch significant reforms of NSA’s practices, reforms that weren’t happening before. These were the most important newspaper investigations of the year.

If it’s a question of journalistic quality, that’s pretty easy too. The two newspapers didn’t just summarize the digital mountain of documents Snowden gave them; they assembled teams of reporters — the Post listed 33 contributors — to turn data into intelligible reports.

Were the newspapers’ judgments infallible? I still have some of the qualms I expressed back in January. I’m not sure I would have published every detail in those stories. Some of the programs they revealed included legitimate espionage against China and Russia. Not all of them posed major threats to the privacy rights of American citizens. (Non-Americans like German Chancellor Angela Merkel? That’s another story.)

But Barton Gellman of the Post eventually convinced me that it was impossible to explain the NSA’s “back door” collection of data on Americans — information scooped up overseas that would have been illegal to collect inside the United States — without describing where it came from.

Besides, the NSA’s record of obfuscation and rule-stretching didn’t earn the agency the benefit of many doubts. The Snowden revelations wouldn’t have had half the impact if the agency had kept a tighter rein on its actions. Yes, Congress and the White House should have been the ones to exercise oversight, but they didn’t.

History has taught journalists, over and over, that disclosure is almost always better than concealment. When in doubt, our job is to publish and let the public and Congress sort it out. It’s an imperfect process, but so is democracy.


Has GM pulled a Pinto?

Beyond the Heartbleed threat  

Want to honor the Kansas shooting victims? Let's ignore the gunman

Follow Doyle McManus on Twitter @DoyleMcManus

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
Related Content
NewspapersEdward SnowdenNewspaper and MagazinePoliticsJournalismNational Security AgencyU.S. Congress
  • Edward Snowden: Neither a hero nor a traitor
    Edward Snowden: Neither a hero nor a traitor

    The debate over whether Edward Snowden should receive leniency from the federal government -- revived by a New Year's Day editorial in The New York Times --  tracks the larger debate over Snowden encapsulated in the question: "Hero or traitor?" In other words, it's...

  • More reasons to rein in the NSA
    More reasons to rein in the NSA

    In addition to collecting phone data on Americans, other areas ripe for reform are uncontrolled national security letters and the use of information about Americans acquired 'incidentally.'

  • Beyond the Heartbleed threat
    Beyond the Heartbleed threat

    The widespread bug illustrates the importance of companies responding to security breaches as they are discovered.

  • Jerry Brown for governor
    Jerry Brown for governor

    Forty years have passed since Californians first elected as their governor a very young and quirkily charismatic Jerry Brown. Back then, voters made a conscious break from the past, choosing a 36-year-old Democrat with floppy collars and a philosophical bent to succeed two-term Republican...

  • The good news about offshore oil rigs
    The good news about offshore oil rigs

    Never let it be said that Mother Nature doesn't appreciate irony. A new study led by researchers at Occidental College and UC Santa Barbara has found that the oil platforms dotting the California coast are fantastic for sea life.

  • There's a better way to do immigration reform
    There's a better way to do immigration reform

    Immigration is the definitive wedge issue in American politics, but it doesn't have to be. When the Senate's Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act failed to pass the House this year, it was the third such failure of comprehensive reform in a decade....