former journalists discuss a profession in crisis

An NSA Buffet That Leaves Us Hungry

In Blog on December 26, 2013 at 10:00 pm

This month, the American public saw what happens when reporters do in-depth profiles of an institution or individual with whom they have a shared history.  The results often don’t serve journalism very well.

As it happens, both pieces concerned the embattled National Security Agency.  In both cases, the reporters in question got unprecedented access because their subjects trusted them and knew they would be treated well.

CBS’s 60 Minutes profiled NSA, amping up the agency’s positive profile a few megawatts. Viewers got an inside look into the secretive agency, virtually strolled through its hallways,  even heard from telegenic young staffers who work there.  The cameras also took us inside the office of the NSA head Gen. Keith Alexander. But all this access came at a price —  critical journalism that asks the difficult questions and won’t settle for the less-than-forthright answers.

To his credit reporter John Miller told his audience that he used to work at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.  He also stated that Alexander agreed to the interview because he believed “NSA has not told its story very well.”

It is entirely appropriate to give a subject of a major story the opportunity to make his case, and to make it fully.  But what was missing was the opportunity for NSA critics to challenge those assertions.  Also missing were tough questions from Miller himself asking why NSA felt obliged to lie to Congress, and whether its contracting procedures needed a little retooling.  How in the world did an IT contractor get the access that Snowden had? Did Alexander understand why Americans were so concerned about the capture of so much data?  After all, phone numbers alone can be the keys to much more information.  Had this virtually unsupervised effort  truly saved lives?

I agree with journalist critics, and there are many, that CBS failed to fully inform and instead served as a public relations vehicle for a government agency.  If  NSA wants to make its case, let it buy full-page ads, place op-eds in The New York Times, make its officials available for interviews on the Sunday talk shows.  NSA officials can do cross-country tours and field questions from local reporters.  But CBS should never have agreed to such uncritical coverage.

It will be interesting to see if journalists are as quick to critique Barton Gellman’s extremely sympathetic profile of NSA leaker Edward Snowden for The Washington Post. After all, journalists tend to take the side of people who leak information to them.

I understand that Snowden would only trust Gellman, to whom he had entrusted secret documents, so that Gellman was the right person to conduct the interview.

But Gellman wasn’t the right person to write the story, not without a lot of involvement from Post editors.  Not because Gellman isn’t a talented and experienced reporter.  But  Gellman, as the recipient of Snowden’s treasure trove of data, is part of the story.

It’s very hard for a profile written in this context to turn out to be anything more than it was – essentially the portrait of the man Snowden wants us to perceive him to be, a man of conscience who stood up for the American people.

Perhaps Snowden is a hero, and history will describe him that way. But this profile omits any information that might have tarnished that image – how he got his jobs with sparse  academic credentials,  NSA claims that he cheated on a test to qualify for his job, and the amazing salary he was earning as a government contractor, whose expertise was IT, not national security.

Gellman didn’t even ask Snowden why, if he felt that he was doing the right thing, it wouldn’t have been more honorable to have remained in U.S. and  faced the consequences of his actions.  After all, a trial would have engaged the American public in a long debate over the NSA and its proper role. (In an earlier story recounting his initial contacts with  Snowden, Gellman did ask these questions, and got some intriguing responses.  For that story, Gellman was more skeptical,  even noting that Snowden was “capable of melodrama.”  Perhaps Gellman’s more critical approach was prompted in part by Snowden’s decision to work  not only with The Post but also The Guardian, after Gellman couldn’t guarantee that his paper would accede to all his directions stipulating how and when the leaked data should be published.)

Gellman quotes Snowden as insisting he did go through government channels to raise his concerns about the extent of NSA spying.  But since Snowden was a contract worker, how would the top brass have heard from him?  Grumbling to your co-workers about NSA’s huge reach is not the same as sounding the alarm and going through channels.  To his credit, Gellman does check with national security officials to verify Snowden’s contention that he complained to his superiors about the NSA’s reach. They denied they’d heard anything from him.  But the story gives their denials a pro forma acknowledgment, as if one wouldn’t expect them to confirm.

Would Snowden’s warnings have changed NSA behavior?  Probably not, and they likely could have gotten him fired.  But whistleblowers frequently commit career suicide in order to make their case to the higher ups.

There is no doubt that Snowden’s leaks have caused a healthy debate about privacy and security in this country, and that’s a positive development.  But you don’t have to be an NSA fan to worry that some of the leaked materials may be useful to terrorists.  That acknowledgment of potential harm should have been taken more seriously in this piece.

Instead, harm was downplayed.  Indeed, at times, it appeared that Gellman was writing not only a defense of Snowden’s actions, but of his own journalism. He writes, “In the intelligence and national security establishments, Snowden is widely viewed as a reckless saboteur, and journalists abetting him little less so.”

A reporter bonding too closely with his subject?

That’s  exactly what journalists hated about  the CBS NSA story.

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