Power shift

Journalists increasingly control decisions about what's in the public interest


In the basement of The Guardian’s London offices, under the watchful eye of British intelligence agents, the paper’s staff last year was forced to destroy the encrypted computer files that Edward Snowden had leaked to them.

It was a bizarre spectacle meant to show the power of the state over the feeble press. Or show it symbolically, anyway, since Downing Street knew at the time that The Guardian had a copy of the files safeguarded in the United States.

Would the CIA or FBI ever burst into The Washington Post or The New York Times to crack open computer drives? Not likely, though with the Obama administration hell-bent on prosecuting leakers of confidential documents, it does make you wonder. There is the case of Times reporter James Risen, who faces the possibility of prison for refusing to divulge a confidential source, and there is the fact that Obama has pursued more than twice the number of criminal leak investigations than any previous administration.

What is so odd about this government bullying is that it comes at a moment when the press is actually accruing power on matters involving national security. The amount of classified data stored on computers across spy agencies is mounting, as is the stunning ability of hackers and whistleblowers to tap into it. In the Snowden case, it was the actions of a 29-year-old government contractor that produced the biggest intelligence leak in Western history. The reporters who got the material didn’t even know Snowden. Once they had the documents, Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian and Bart Gellman of The Washington Post worked tirelessly (and separately) to blow the seal off an astonishing National Security Agency operation that spied on American citizens, suspected terrorists, and US allies worldwide. But it happened because of a whistleblower and modern-day technology, not dogged source-building.

In this new world, there is the potential for leaks of mind-boggling proportions. Before Snowden there was Wikileaks, and there have been plenty of others, inside and outside the US. In this issue, journalist Quinn Norton gives a provocative, first-person account of how she attained a cache of secret files from a source who tapped directly into the servers of Syrian embassies (page 47).

If ever there was a time to play nice with the media, it would be now. The government’s answer has instead been to essentially criminalize national security reporting. Clearly, the administration seems to have misjudged the power of its opponent. Increasingly, it will be the media that decide the public interest, while the government merely pleads its case.

With power, however, comes responsibility, and few things editors do are more important than making reasoned decisions on matters of national security. In most every case, it boils down to two crucial questions: Is the information that’s been leaked true, and is it in the public interest to disclose it?

Answering them can be painstaking. It requires experience in the hot seat, expertise in the subject, single-minded reporting, unyielding ethics, and the legal resources to defend a position. A glimmer of that process is exposed in Glenn Greenwald’s new book, reviewed in this issue by Malcolm Forbes (page 52).

It has been said before, but society is fortunate that Snowden found his way to established media organizations, with brands to protect and values to uphold. The media as a whole is fortunate, too. Had Snowden or Julian Assange picked a rogue reporter with a quick trigger as the recipient of their leaks, the potential for reckless national security decisions would be increased, and so would the government’s case for painting the media as capricious and irresponsible.

The journalists who secure the next leak have an obligation as grave as the government’s to act with the public interest in mind. They need to be responsible for their own sake, and for the sake of every journalist. After all, power is ephemeral.

Elizabeth Spayd

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Elizabeth Spayd is the editor in chief and publisher of CJR.