As Oliver Stone’s Snowden struggles at the box office—moviegoers, apparently, prefer the unambiguous heroism of Captain “Sully” Sullenberger—the fate of the real Edward Snowden, and the meaning of his actions, is once again the subject of heated debate.
To bring you up to speed: Last week, the United States’ three largest human rights organizations—the American Civil Liberties Union, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International—launched a campaign to pressure the Obama administration to pardon Snowden. A few days later, in a rather ham-fisted effort to counter the flattering portrait in the Stone film, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence released three pages of a classified report denouncing Snowden as a “serial exaggerator and fabricator,” who did “tremendous damage to national security.” As my colleague Barton Gellman, who received and reported on the Snowden leaks for the Washington Post, put it, the House’s report was “one-sided,” “incurious,” “contemptuous of fact,” and “trifling.” (Bart, you’ll notice, has misplaced his word-mincer. In fact, he may never have owned one.)
The intelligence committee’s incuriosity and contempt for fact, however, did not dissuade the Washington Post’s editorial board from citing the “unanimous, bipartisan report” as evidence that Snowden does not deserve a pardon. “His revelations about the agency’s international operations disrupted lawful intelligence-gathering, causing possibly ‘tremendous damage’ to national security…,” the Post opinion editors wrote, “What higher cause did that serve?”
Particularly misguided was the editorial’s assertion that the “NSA internet-monitoring program, PRISM,” the subject of the Post’s first major scoop from Snowden, was “both clearly legal and not clearly threatening to privacy.” This statement betrays a deep misunderstanding of the Post’s own reporting on PRISM. Subsequent stories—and two presidentially appointed panels—made clear that PRISM is not the narrowly targeted program that the executive branch portrayed. It siphons up considerable volumes of U.S. citizens’ data “incidentally,” which is the term of art for collection that is foreseeable but not specifically intended. That data is stored and shared with other agencies with neither judicial nor Congressional oversight. Similar issues surround the National Security Agency’s (NSA) operations to break into the overseas cloud networks of Google and Yahoo, and its indiscriminate collection of Internet address books. “I am not going to claim there is no room for debate about the merits of these surveillance operations,” Gellman told me. “Debate was the whole purpose of our stories. The editorial does not acknowledge even the possibility of legitimate privacy concerns on most of the programs we exposed. You can’t wave those concerns away by describing the programs as ‘clearly’ legal and proper.”
It is remarkable enough that the editorial writers of a great newspaper would call for imprisoning a journalistic source of historic importance to their own newsroom. It is all the more peculiar that they should condemn the stories that ran on the paper’s own front page—stories that launched a broad debate on NSA surveillance and earned journalism’s highest honor for the Post.
Gellman, who has done some digging around, told me:
What bothers me is that, for understandable reasons, people read something like this as a repudiation by the Washington Post as an institution of its signature work on a pretty big subject. In theory the editorial writers speak for the publisher. In practice the publisher does not routinely tell them what to say or even see their copy in advance. In this case I have on good authority that neither the publisher, Fred Ryan, nor the owner, Jeff Bezos, had any idea that this editorial was coming. I would be very surprised to learn that either of them agrees with the proposition that our principal stories on the NSA should not have been published. For sure I can tell you that this is not the position of the newsroom’s leadership or any reporter I know. Marty Baron, the executive editor, has said again and again how proud he is of the paper’s coverage of Ed Snowden and the NSA.
Snowden bears responsibility for providing classified documents to reporters. The reporters and their editors bear responsibility for making them public. Snowden left the choice of what to disclose to editors at the Guardian, the Post, and later other news organizations. This was by design. Snowden could have handed over his cache of files to WikiLeaks; instead he deliberately left it to experienced journalists to choose which documents were newsworthy and in the public interest. As Post media columnist and former Times public editor Margaret Sullivan said in her pro-pardon take, Snowden wanted the stories to be “carefully handled and responsibly vetted.”
The other key to understanding this kerfuffle is what people in the news business call the “firewall.” Asked what he thought of the editorial published by his former employer, Gellman told the Washingtonian yesterday, “It’s a good thing for the Post, and for journalism, that the opinion staff has no say in what counts as news.”
The firewall separating opinion staff from the newsroom is, in Gellman’s words, a “relic of traditional U.S. newspaper structure that even sophisticated readers do not always understand.” He elaborated when we spoke today:
The Washington Post is comprised of 700 reporters and editors who put out scores of broadsheet pages of original reporting on any given Sunday and roughly a dozen editorial writers—in a completely separate operation—who produce three pages of opinion. The latter don’t speak for the newsroom. They don’t work for or direct or represent the people who do the journalism. They don’t have any influence over the stories or the way we handle confidential sources.
There’s perhaps a debate to be had about whether this arrangement still makes sense in today’s news environment. As Fortune’s Mathew Ingram wrote, “It’s fair to ask what purpose it serves in this day and age to have a separate group of unnamed individuals arguing the exact opposite of what the paper appears to stand for in its news operations.”
For the time being, it’s worth noting that the opinion staff’s repudiation of Snowden was not without precedent. Indeed, the editorial board first endorsed criminal charges for Edward Snowden way back in July 1, 2013.
In an editorial headlined “How to keep Edward Snowden from leaking more NSA secrets,” they wrote, “The best solution for both Mr. Snowden and the Obama administration would be his surrender to U.S. authorities, followed by a plea negotiation.” At the time, stories sourced to Snowden were still appearing—almost daily—on the front page of the paper. As reporter Owen Davis quipped, “you can’t knock ‘em for consistency.”
Cover Photo: Flickr, Edward Snowden Illustration.