Covert Activity: the Washington Post, Edward Snowden and the National Security Agency

Abstract

CSJ-14-00056.0 This case takes a behind-the-scenes look at how a national security reporter works. In February 2013, reporter Barton Gellman first learns about a source who claims to have National Security Agency (NSA) documents. Over the next four months, he and his collaborator, Laura Poitras, try to verify whether the source is credible and the materials bona fide. The documents, if true, reveal details about an intrusive NSA program that swept up private communications on a scale unsuspected by most US citizens or Congress. Nine Internet companies gave the NSA access to the information. In late May, Gellman takes the story to the Washington Post, which agrees to work with him to publish it.

For several weeks, Gellman and the Post take the story through all the stages of writing, editing, redacting material that might harm national security, and seeking comment from the government. The White House asks the newspaper to kill the story and, when the Post refuses, asks that at least it withhold the names of the nine Internet companies. Meanwhile, competitive pressures increase when the UK Guardian newspaper publishes a different story based on the same document trove. Gellman and the Post have to weigh issues of the public’s right to know against the legitimate security interests of the US government, and decide what to publish.

Use this case to acquaint students with the daily challenges of national security reporting. Ask them what has changed about the pursuit since 9/11. Discuss the role of technology both in government surveillance techniques and in the media’s ability to uncover government activities. Ask them about the competing interests of media and government; when is it appropriate for the two to cooperate and when must they oppose one another? What role does national security coverage play in a democracy? What constitutes a verifiable source? How concerned should journalists be about encryption, and protecting sources and material?

Use this case in a course/class on national security reporting, investigative reporting, or editorial management.

Credits:

This case was written by Delia Cabe and Kirsten Lundberg, Director, Case Consortium @ Columbia. The faculty sponsor was Prof. Nicholas Lemann of the Graduate School of Journalism. (0914)

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