“I can count on one hand the number of people whose only electronic communications with me ever have been both anonymous and encrypted,” said Gellman. “Snowden was sort of the hundred-year storm on that: if I hadn’t known how to communicate with him in very highly secure ways, then I wouldn’t have talked to him at all; that was the only choice.”
Gellman also said that what he has learned through the Snowden leaks has made him more skeptical about his ability to remain safe from the most determined encryption-crackers. Technology helps, he conceded, but it’s not enough if someone really wants to get to you and your information.
“I’ve lost confidence,” he said, “that there is any technological set of steps I can take once I become, in particular, the targeted interest of the government.” He continued, “They don’t break down the wall of encryption; they simply go around it, and they’re very, very good at it. In fact, there is zero-percent chance that I could protect myself from surveillance if a sophisticated opponent is determined to put resources into me—and if there is a leak investigation, it won’t be the NSA, it’ll be the FBI, but using substantially the same tools.”
At the end of the hour, someone in the audience who identified herself as a Wall Street analyst asked the panelists, “How do you handle the oppression and the heavy hand of the NSA, attempting to impede or thwart you people from coming out with these stories?”
No one seemed eager to answer the question, but Gellman finally did, and he gave the panel a strong endnote. He assured the questioner that accountability reporting in the US, overall, was not under threat—and that, while Edward Snowden’s contributions have been significant, the national security press certainly managed to do plenty of good work before he showed up on the scene. Without Snowden, Gellman said, the media has successfully reported and published explosive stories in the past few years, from the scoops about the NSA’s warrantless surveillance back in 2005, to the CIA’s secret prisons and torture. In addition, there are the less explosive but equally important smaller stories that regularly expose various aspects of the national security field.
“So I wouldn’t agree that, collectively, the news media haven’t done that pretty darn well, and I can say, from my own experience, that the suspicion that some people have that the government somehow intimidates us into not doing stories, that just isn’t the case,” said Gellman. “It just doesn’t happen.”