The Pulitzer committee’s decision to give its public service award this year to the Washington Post and the Guardian for their stories on government surveillance has elicited a few predictable reactions from those who believe that the source of the National Security Agency material—former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden—is not a whistleblower, but a criminal.
US Rep. Peter King of New York told the Associated Press that the award was “rewarding illegal conduct” and tweeted, “awarding the Pulitzer to Snowden enablers is a disgrace.” Former Bush administration lawyer John Yoo told Politico that the prize shouldn’t be “a vindication for Snowden’s crimes.”
Last month, Politico wrote that giving the award to the NSA reports “would inevitably be perceived as a political act, with the Pulitzer committee invoking its prestige on behalf of one side in a bitter national argument.” Politico, like other outlets, compared the situation to the New York Times’ 1972 win for its stories on the Pentagon Papers, another whistleblower case with a large-scale leak of secret documents.
But that comparison overshadows a number of honors in the intervening time that have gone to coverage based on classified material, notably that of CIA black sites and warrantless wiretapping. Those disclosures were also controversial and fundamentally changed our understanding of US counterterrorism efforts.
In 2006, the Washington Post’s Dana Priest won a Pulitzer for reporting on the CIA’s detention and interrogation of terror suspects. At the time, “the executive branch, members of congress and many conservative TV pundits were searingly critical of my reporting and of The Post for publishing it,” said Priest in an email to CJR. “The email and message machine reaction was overwhelmingly negative.”
Eight years after Priest’s stories, senators are engaged in a pitched public battle with the CIA over the declassification of a Senate intelligence committee report on the agency’s activities during those years.
“It is stunning to me that now Congress [is] pushing the CIA to declassify information they used to say would damage national security if released,” said Priest. Top former intelligence officials have even weighed in in favor of declassification. (Ironically, US Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who heads the intelligence committee and is leading the charge to release the report, has asked the Justice Department to investigate who leaked the report’s key findings to McClatchy last week. “If someone distributed any part of this classified report, they broke the law and should be prosecuted,” Feinstein said.)
James Risen and Eric Lichtblau were also honored in 2006 for their revelation of the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping program. The reporters likewise faced critics who called their exposé treasonous (while others condemned them for holding the story for a year after administration officials urged them not to publish). Former Vice President Dick Cheney said in 2009 that “it always aggravated me” that the Times won that Pulitzer.
The debate over classified disclosures isn’t academic for Risen: He may yet have to testify in the case of Jeffrey Sterling, a CIA agent accused of leaking him information about US efforts to sabotage Iranian nuclear programs. Risen appealed to the Supreme Court in January. “It is too dangerous to allow the government to conduct national security policy completely in the dark,” he told the Times public editor at the time of the appeal.
Last year, a Pulitzer finalist was the Washington Post’s coverage of the drone war—another aspect of US national security policy that we know about only because people have spoken about what is officially secret.
“On balance, so much of what the government has classified in the name of safeguarding national security has been, in fact, improperly kept secret to avoid embarrassment, to shield activities that would not have been tolerated by the public, and/or to avoid uncomfortable public debate,” said Priest.
There’s more to come from Snowden’s documents, and the full fallout from them is still unclear. But given that President Obama himself (though still condemning Snowden’s actions) has said that a debate around surveillance issues “will make us stronger,” it doesn’t seem surprising that the Pulitzer board has again chosen to celebrate journalism that exposed what the government does under cover of classification.Cora Currier is a freelance journalist focusing on national security. Previously, she was a reporting fellow at ProPublica and on the editorial staff of The New Yorker