Journalistic impartiality tested in NSA leak story

Glenn Greenwald, a reporter who broke the story on National Security Agency surveillance programs.
(Vincent Yu / Associated Press)

Edward Snowden may represent the archetypal leaker of the Internet age — a tech savant who justifies his civil disobedience as a righteous rebuttal to the big institutions he believes have intruded too far into ordinary people’s lives.

But it’s not just the mole in the National Security Agency surveillance story who is operating in new channels. The reporters who brought his account forward also represent something distinct in journalism. In some cases, their profiles loom larger, particularly on the subject of security and spying, than those of their publications. And a couple offer full-throated attacks on unchecked government surveillance, as they reject the impartial journalistic stance that was a fundamental principle for a previous generation of reporters.

That combination means significant parts of official Washington have attacked not just Snowden, but some of the reporters who brought forward accounts of the NSA’s vast trove of telephone and Internet data. Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.) has called for the criminal prosecution of Glenn Greenwald, the columnist, author and lawyer who first broke the story for the Guardian of London.


Some journalists had complaints about the stories as well, a few because of what they said was imprecise reporting but others because of details the stories did not disclose. They wanted to know more about the kind of individuals whom the security agency investigated and why.

“We know there is the capability for massive surveillance,” said one reporter, who has covered U.S. spycraft for decades and asked not to be named so as not to alienate the NSA reporters. “The thing they needed to do was say to Snowden, ‘Don’t give up your career for this. You stay there and find for me where specifically they are cheating on this.’”

Greenwald has promised more stories and revelations in coming days. Over the weekend, the Guardian mostly covered the enormous response to the Snowden revelations. In a wide-ranging live chat on the newspaper’s website Monday, Snowden rejected speculation by former Vice President Dick Cheney and others that he might spy for China, urged President Obama to step back from the “abyss” of excessive surveillance and argued that the need for the spying had been overblown because “bathtub falls and police kill more Americans than terrorism.”

The point of bringing forward the initial stories reporting that the NSA had access to records from major phone companies and nine of the largest Internet providers was not to provide final answers but to get Washington policymakers to address domestic spying, Greenwald said.

“The question of what they have been reading, how much they have been listening to, has been unknown for a long time,” the journalist said in an interview. “We should know the answers.”

Greenwald, a 46-year-old American who lives in Rio de Janeiro, is not the only figure in the NSA coverage with an unusual profile.


Snowden, who worked for the NSA and then for contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, initially took his information to a documentary filmmaker, Laura Poitras, who has been an outspoken opponent of the U.S. war on terrorism.

In an interview with last week, Poitras said Snowden “had a suspicion of mainstream media.” In early contacts with her, he noted that during the George W. Bush presidency, the New York Times had held off for more than a year before publishing its story on warrantless wiretaps conducted by the NSA.

Poitras, in turn, took the tips she got from Snowden, who had not yet identified himself to her, and shared them with two friends, Greenwald and Barton Gellman. Gellman shared in a couple of Pulitzer Prizes while reporting for the Washington Post — one of those projects leading to his best-selling book on Dick Cheney, “Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency.” Gellman left the paper in 2010 to become a senior editor at large with Time magazine.

Poitras’ friendship with Greenwald stemmed at least in part from a profile he wrote about her last year, when he was working for Poitras told of being detained dozens of times as she reentered the country from reporting assignments, often in American war zones in the Middle East. Greenwald decried the government’s “harassment, invasive searches, and intimidation tactics” against Poitras.

Snowden trusted her, Poitras said in the more recent Salon interview, because she had suffered the kind of unfair scrutiny that he was warning about. The filmmaker said it took her weeks to determine that Snowden was a legitimate source and not a government agent trying to entrap her.

Though there has been some disagreement over the sequence of events that followed, both of the principal reporters agreed that Greenwald had developed more prolonged contact with Snowden. For eight days before and after the initial June 4 scoop, the Guardian writer hunkered down in a Hong Kong hotel, working with Snowden and writing the stories.


The initial Guardian piece described how a top-secret order from the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court had forced telecom giant Verizon to turn over millions of records on its U.S. customers.

Days later, Gellman broke a story in the Post about the so-called PRISM program, which allows the NSA to access a variety of communications funneled through nine giant Internet providers, including Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and AOL. Gellman shared a byline with Poitras. (Within minutes, Greenwald posted his own PRISM story on the Guardian’s website.)

The journalistic fraternity in Washington was a bit surprised to see Gellman’s story in the Post three years after he had left the paper. It’s unclear why Time did not get Gellman’s surveillance scoop. Editors at the magazine declined to comment and Gellman didn’t answer directly. He said only that “this felt more like a newspaper story to me.”

A few days after the initial stories ran, Snowden revealed himself via a video posted on the Guardian’s website. Poitras filmed the interview. Greenwald asked the questions. And the two shared a byline on the British paper’s website. Within a few days, Poitras had landed prominent bylines in two major papers, while holding a regular job with neither.

Snowden said he wanted a mainstream American publication involved in the disclosures, along with the Guardian, to increase the chances officials in Washington would pay attention to the story, Greenwald said.

Besides the unusual reporting alliances, the story featured two unabashed polemicists in Greenwald and Poitras. Greenwald had spent years laying out his reservations about America’s surveillance practices in books, TV appearances and on, before jumping to the Guardian in August.


“What I think I am writing about is all connected to one bigger story,” Greenwald said. “That story is about exposing the overall unaccountability of this massive spying apparatus and the way it is done in total secrecy.”

In his zest for advocacy journalism, Greenwald looks more like the activist reporters of the early 20th century, said Josh Meyer, a security correspondent for the website Quartz. The biggest revelation of the 2012 presidential campaign — the video showing candidate Mitt Romney belittling the 47% of Americans he called dependent — was made public by another advocacy publication, Mother Jones magazine, he noted.

“The muckrakers all were very opinionated and had attitude, and I think with the way journalism is changing, we’re headed more and more in that direction,” said Meyer, who is also director of education and outreach for the Medill National Security Journalism Initiative.

Said Greenwald: “Being up front about your opinions makes one, in some sense, more credible than someone who pretends they don’t have opinions.”

The reports by the Guardian and Post that the NSA had essentially unfettered, direct access to the computer systems at Google, Facebook, Apple and other Web giants were hotly disputed not only by the companies and the government but by other reporters. Stories in the New York Times and CNET suggested that access to the Internet cache was less direct and came only in response to specific court orders.

Greenwald and Gellman said their description was based on a slide from an NSA presentation that described “collection directly from the servers of these U.S. service providers.” Though some critics said the words were ambiguous or perhaps just marketing hype by the spy agency, Gellman responded, “How often do you get evidence like that on a secret program?”


He did not dispute that the Post later described a less direct link between the tech companies and the spy agency. “We did not back off our story,” the reporter said via email. “We updated it to add details and reconcile what we had with new evidence as it came in. That’s what we’re supposed to do.”

Greenwald said a new round of stories would buttress the notion that NSA spying was more widespread even than many of its purported legislative overseers had imagined. Explaining a brief lull in the publication, he said: “We felt like we needed to let these first stories seep in a bit before we started our next round. We didn’t want to just suffocate people.”