Now what?

With the documents in their possession, Poitras and Gellman knew they had an important story to tell the world. They decided to focus on the PRISM program because they got that document first, and had already discussed it in a hypothetical way with the source. The other documents would have to wait. First, however, they had to find the right outlet to publish the story. Then they had to contact government officials to seek 1) confirmation that the documents were authentic and 2) official comment.

ExposureAll three—Poitras, Gellman and Verax—felt an urgency about publication. By May, the parties had been in contact for some three months. Despite their precautions, it was entirely possible that Verax would be caught. Gellman was stunned to learn that Verax was reaching out to journalists while still working as an NSA contractor and continuing to extract information from classified systems. Intelligence employees and contractors signed a contract promising never to disclose classified information. “[The person] is trying to drop a dime on the surveillance state without being surveilled,” Gellman said. The stakes were high. Verax feared exposure any day.

For his part, Gellman worried that Verax would vanish. “Now I’m asking questions because I’m always afraid that each communication will be the last,” Gellman says. What if Verax were caught? What if s/he became unreachable close to publication time? At the same time, Gellman could not rush unduly. It would take time to contact a news outlet, win its confidence, complete reporting on the story and obtain government reaction.

Direct line. On May 16, 2013, Verax finally opened a direct, encrypted channel of communication with Gellman. They sometimes corresponded by email. Sometimes, using cloaking technology, they communicated at length in real time chats. Gellman became even more cautious, adding extra layers of protection when they were “conversing”—typing to each other—and when taking notes. (Voice communication, Gellman says, is “never secure enough.”) “I had to make some decisions about whether I should keep [notes] at all,” he says. Whatever he kept, he was aware that the notes could be taken from him.

As Gellman considered where to publish, he was careful to warn the Century Foundation—where he was a fellow—that he was involved in a risky enterprise. “I’m getting caught up in something that’s going to be very sticky and sort of stressful legally in terms of security,” he told the foundation president. She expressed her support and even offered him legal counsel. Gellman opted not to accept the offer, fearing legal jeopardy for the foundation.

Gellman did not have to ponder his choices long. He could have tried to go it alone and publish online. But that seemed unwise. “I knew that we were in a riskier time for sources and reporters on national security stories,” he says. “I knew that I was going to need legal representation and I knew that I didn’t want to be Bart Gellman, freelancer, on this story.” He could place the story with Time magazine, where he was affiliated.  But he felt the article, which was breaking news, would be better suited to a newspaper.

In the end, the Washington Post seemed the obvious first choice. After a 21-year association, Gellman knew the paper’s editors well, and they knew him. “I wanted experienced colleagues and a risk-taking institution behind me,” clarifies Gellman.

There was going to have to be an enormous amount of mutual trust in this journalistic relationship. I mean, I was asking people to believe that I had a confidential source whose name I did not yet know, but thought I soon would. And that I’d received these documents in the way that I described and that they meant what I said they meant.

Poitras reminded Gellman that Verax distrusted the mainstream media. So Gellman made his case to Verax. Verax asked pointedly: what if the Post balks? “I admit to you that I do not know the new editor [Martin Baron],” Gellman responded. “But his reputation is outstanding. He has already stood up to an enormous amount of pressure. If you’re going to be the editor of the paper in Boston and take on the Catholic Church, that’s pretty close to taking on God himself.” (Baron was Boston Globe editor when the newspaper broke the Boston archdiocese sexual abuse scandal, for which it won a Pulitzer Prize in 2003.)

Gellman assured Verax and Poitras that if he disagreed with the Post on its handling of the story, or if it elected to publish only a small portion and hold the rest, he would walk away. “I had very firm ideas about how this story had to be handled,” says Gellman.