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Journalistic impartiality tested in NSA leak story

Some reporters who helped break the National Security Agency surveillance story reject the impartial journalistic stance that was a fundamental principle for a previous generation of reporters.

June 17, 2013|By James Rainey, Los Angeles Times
  • Glenn Greenwald, a reporter who broke the story on National Security Agency surveillance programs.
Glenn Greenwald, a reporter who broke the story on National Security Agency… (Vincent Yu / Associated…)

Edward Snowden may represent the archetypal leaker of the Internet age — a tech savant who justifies his civil disobedience as a righteous rebuttal to the big institutions he believes have intruded too far into ordinary people's lives.

But it's not just the mole in the National Security Agency surveillance story who is operating in new channels. The reporters who brought his account forward also represent something distinct in journalism. In some cases, their profiles loom larger, particularly on the subject of security and spying, than those of their publications. And a couple offer full-throated attacks on unchecked government surveillance, as they reject the impartial journalistic stance that was a fundamental principle for a previous generation of reporters.

That combination means significant parts of official Washington have attacked not just Snowden, but some of the reporters who brought forward accounts of the NSA's vast trove of telephone and Internet data. Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.) has called for the criminal prosecution of Glenn Greenwald, the columnist, author and lawyer who first broke the story for the Guardian of London.

Some journalists had complaints about the stories as well, a few because of what they said was imprecise reporting but others because of details the stories did not disclose. They wanted to know more about the kind of individuals whom the security agency investigated and why.

"We know there is the capability for massive surveillance," said one reporter, who has covered U.S. spycraft for decades and asked not to be named so as not to alienate the NSA reporters. "The thing they needed to do was say to Snowden, 'Don't give up your career for this. You stay there and find for me where specifically they are cheating on this.'"

Greenwald has promised more stories and revelations in coming days. Over the weekend, the Guardian mostly covered the enormous response to the Snowden revelations. In a wide-ranging live chat on the newspaper's website Monday, Snowden rejected speculation by former Vice President Dick Cheney and others that he might spy for China, urged President Obama to step back from the "abyss" of excessive surveillance and argued that the need for the spying had been overblown because "bathtub falls and police kill more Americans than terrorism."

The point of bringing forward the initial stories reporting that the NSA had access to records from major phone companies and nine of the largest Internet providers was not to provide final answers but to get Washington policymakers to address domestic spying, Greenwald said.

"The question of what they have been reading, how much they have been listening to, has been unknown for a long time," the journalist said in an interview. "We should know the answers."

Greenwald, a 46-year-old American who lives in Rio de Janeiro, is not the only figure in the NSA coverage with an unusual profile.

Snowden, who worked for the NSA and then for contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, initially took his information to a documentary filmmaker, Laura Poitras, who has been an outspoken opponent of the U.S. war on terrorism.

In an interview with Salon.com last week, Poitras said Snowden "had a suspicion of mainstream media." In early contacts with her, he noted that during the George W. Bush presidency, the New York Times had held off for more than a year before publishing its story on warrantless wiretaps conducted by the NSA.

Poitras, in turn, took the tips she got from Snowden, who had not yet identified himself to her, and shared them with two friends, Greenwald and Barton Gellman. Gellman shared in a couple of Pulitzer Prizes while reporting for the Washington Post — one of those projects leading to his best-selling book on Dick Cheney, "Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency." Gellman left the paper in 2010 to become a senior editor at large with Time magazine.

Poitras' friendship with Greenwald stemmed at least in part from a profile he wrote about her last year, when he was working for Salon.com. Poitras told of being detained dozens of times as she reentered the country from reporting assignments, often in American war zones in the Middle East. Greenwald decried the government's "harassment, invasive searches, and intimidation tactics" against Poitras.

Snowden trusted her, Poitras said in the more recent Salon interview, because she had suffered the kind of unfair scrutiny that he was warning about. The filmmaker said it took her weeks to determine that Snowden was a legitimate source and not a government agent trying to entrap her.

Though there has been some disagreement over the sequence of events that followed, both of the principal reporters agreed that Greenwald had developed more prolonged contact with Snowden. For eight days before and after the initial June 4 scoop, the Guardian writer hunkered down in a Hong Kong hotel, working with Snowden and writing the stories.

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