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Gellman '82 shares backstory of NSA documents leaked by Edward Snowden

Barton Gellman ’82 shared the timeline of his work last year to break the stories of classified National Security Agency documents provided by Edward Snowden at a Reunions lecture on Saturday morning. Gellman’s journalism regarding the NSA policies and practices contained within the documents earned him a Pulitzer Prize this year.

Gellman said he started to receive encrypted “spooky communications” from somebody he did not know at the beginning of 2013. He had been working on national security investigative reporting for most of his career, so he had learned how to decrypt messages.

“I appreciate your concern for operational security, particularly in the digital environment,” Edward Snowden, who was at the time unnamed, wrote. “Many journalists are still exceedingly weak on this topic, which leaves their interests and intentions an open book for sophisticated adversaries.”

Gellman said that during his back-and-forth communications with Snowden, the two were trying to develop a “mutual confidence,” explaining that Snowden wanted to make sure that if Gellman were to receive the documents, he would publish what he determined was newsworthy and not back down in the face of government pressure.

After Gellman, who was at the time a freelance journalist, realized that the documents would need to be published, he said that he decided that the “significant” and “risky” story could not be written without the backing of a newspaper, so he returned to The Washington Post.

Gellman said he spent a lot of time speaking with lawyers and working to verify Snowden’s identity — including his cover identity while at the NSA, which he disclosed in an interview with Brian Williams last week — as well as the documents that Snowden released.

Gellman’s account differs from the account given by Glenn Greenwald, a journalist working for The Guardian who also broke the NSA stories for that newspaper, in his book “No place to hide.” Greenwald says in the book that another journalist, Laura Poitras, approached Gellman with the documents and not Snowden himself.

The first article Gellman published concerned PRISM, a program in which the government could go to the servers of companies such as Yahoo, Google, Facebook and YouTube, among others, and collect information, he explained.

Snowden’s fundamental belief in and reason for releasing the documents, Gellman said, was that the government is responsible to the public, and there should be a distinction between secret intelligence and the United States’ intended form of democracy.

“His view is that the president and the people working for him are not allowed to draw that line entirely on their own,” Gellman said.

Gellman said that with the fundamental declaration of “we the people” in the constitution comes the justification that laws should provide for the common defense.

“The idea is that security, defense is very important. It’s among our most fundamental interests. It’s not the only one, and as in so many areas of life, it doesn’t have to be balanced,” he said.

He played a few clips of the question and answer session between Senator Ron Wyden and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper at a hearing shortly before the articles were published, in which Clapper denied that the NSA collects data on millions of Americans.

Twenty-one orders were made under the Patriot Act to collect phone records, Gellman noted, yet with 12 of those 21 orders, the government had obtained one trillion calls. Gellman said that the government has come to adopt the Churchillian principle that in order to protect its citizens, the government must lie to them.

Gellman then went on to share both sides of the debate about whether to publish leaked information. On one side, he said that people might say that any information can be useful to the enemy and should not be published. However, others might argue that the public has a right to know what the elected government is doing.

“If you’re against this, don’t just blame Snowden, blame me because I’m the one who ultimately wrote the stories,” he said.

Snowden did not want the information to be released indiscriminately but instead evaluated and weighed individually based on what the public has a right to know, Gellman said.

Gellman, who has taught a class in the Wilson School about national security, said that he always understood there was information shared with him that could not be published. When it was determined that stories about the NSA documents would be written, Gellman started meeting with government officials to determine what information could be a threat to the United States. He explained that he told the officials which parts of the documents he was not even considering publishing but maintained that he would be publishing other information.

He said that in the documents he received, there were very important security interests that would be a “scandal” if the public found out, but there were also documents that were superfluously stamped “SECRET,” such as a laundry manual for the Navy.

“It’s a reflex; it’s a habit,” he said. “Nobody ever gets punished for putting a stamp on something, and it could be a great mistake if you don’t.”

He ended his lecture by sharing the picture of a fortune cookie his wife opened and gave to him last year: “Put the data you have uncovered to beneficial use.”

The Wilson School Reunions talk, entitled “From the Frontline of the Snowden NSA Story,” took place Saturday at 9 a.m. in Dodds Auditorium.

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