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Thursday, November 7, 2013

Snowden, Security and Spying @the Newseum

Gellman and Leen discuss Snowden and spying
No matter how you feel about NSA spying and the leaks that security worker Edward Snowden provided revealing a massive secret government surveillance program, one fact is incontrovertible says the Washington Post reporter who broke the story - Snowden's disclosures enabled a worldwide debate on the controversial issue.

"There is no probable route to the debate without the road that Edward Snowden disclosed," contends Bart Gellman, the reporter who initially reported the story in the Post and has continued to use information provided by Snowden to publish a five-month series of articles that show the huge scope of the National Security Administration's spying operations.

Gellmann was joined by his investigative section editor Jeff Leen this week at the Newseum at a forum where they discussed the ongoing story with communications students from American University.

The reporter said he was initially attracted to the story because it captures the balance of power between government and its citizens. "It is about the relationship between a government and its people," Gellman said. "This is the most complex knot of national security questions I have ever encountered . It is a very sensitive story. There is no precedent. We're making up part of the process as we go along. But we now know there was government surveillance to a far greater degree than anyone understood."

Snowden speaks out
Snowden's disclosures, verified by careful reporting, have shown that the NSA was obtaining information from "the front door and the back door," as Gellman describes it. For example, the PRISM program, in which the NSA obtained massive amounts of  data from phone records, was apparently legal under the broad guidelines established after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. However, the Post recently reported that the NSA was hacking the supposedly private overseas servers of internet giants Google and Yahoo. In between those bookend revelations, the Post also disclosed that the NSA was eavesdropping on conversations of political leaders around the world.

Gellman said he was not shocked by the NSA's actions. The agency receives a $10 billion budget for its surveillance operations, which are supposed to keep Americans safer from any type of attacks. "There was 9/11 and then you tell the agency, 'we don't want to have anything like that happen again'. It (the NSA) is a closed group and has no oppositional  force. So it's a question - where do we draw the boundaries?"

All contacts between Snowden and Gellman were accomplished electronically.  "He used encryption to keep things private. He would only convey (information) in the most private, secure channels. He was blowing the whistle on the surveillance state while not trying to be surveilled," Gellman said.

Asked what he believed was Snowden's motivation for illegally disclosing details from the highly classified program, Gellman said Snowden told him "only a few lines of (computer) code stands between the NSA and all kinds of abuses."

Currently, the comparisons between Big Brother and the NSA program are "quite imperfect," Gellman contends. "This is not a Nixonian use of surveillance. These were people trying to do their job and protect America. Intelligence can't be entirely transparent, but is hard for any body to govern itself."

Leen, who has been working with Gellman during the entire investigative  process, acknowledged that the continuing series of stories has been unique. "It has unfolded in a way none of us imagined or gamed in advanced," he said.

The editor was asked if he was concerned that the paper's revelations were endangering national security? "This is a question we think about all the time and agonize over. It is not our purpose just to wantonly throw stuff out there. There has to be a purpose. It's not our goal to harm," Leen said

"They (the NSA and many in government) would argue that they followed the law and acted responsibly. Others would argue that there needs to be more transparency in the debate. It's a balancing act between freedom and security. The debate was waiting to happen and it needed to happen," he added. "This is one of those threshold stories that leads to a paradigm shift. We'll be figuring out this issue for a long time."

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