The Prize

Published: April 16, 2014

By Jim Lichtman
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On Monday April 14, it was announced that the Washington Post and Britain’s Guardian newspapers shared the 2014 Pulitzer Prize, journalism’s highest award, in the area of public service for their reporting on the National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance program.

However, the documents supplied to both the Post and Guardian were leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. Last June, the United States formally charged Snowden with espionage and theft of government property.

While I’m happy that the Pulitzer committee continues to acknowledge good, solid, vital reporting, I had some questions about this particular award.

Should any award be given to journalists whose work is based on documents leaked by Snowden? Isn’t this an oblique way of validating or even rewarding Snowden, and would it not encourage more like him?

“I find it difficult to congratulate the Post,” a reader to the web site wrote, “or any news outlet that knowingly is party to the release of highly classified material that has done significant damage to the nation.”

Have the Snowden leaks done significant damage to the nation?

“What Snowden has stolen and exposed has gone way, way beyond his professed concerns with so-called domestic surveillance programs,” Director of National Intelligence JamesClapper said at a Senate hearing. “As a result, we’ve lost critical foreign intelligence collection sources, including some shared with us by valued partners.”

Clapper’s intelligence career goes as far back as President George H.W. Bush and extends through Presidents Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama. While I have questions about some of the statements Clapper has made to committee members in the past, his record is pretty solid.

Snowden clearly has participated in criminal behavior. He not only violated the NSA’s oath of secrecy in leaking the documents, he deliberately avoided other levels where he could have reported questionable programs to release stolen, classified documents directly to the public by way of the press.

However, this was no ordinary crime. In releasing thousands of documents, Snowden gave the American public a glimpse into the underworld of the spy agency’s activities on Americans themselves. At the very least, Snowden has begun a debate in this country surrounding the important constitutional issues regarding how far the NSA should go in spying on American citizens.

Further, there is ample precedent for questionable material used by journalists in the past.

In 2006, The New York Times won a Pulitzer for its reporting on the Bush Administration’s warrantless wiretapping program. That same year, the Post’s Dana Priest was awarded the prize for her reports on the CIA’s secret “black site” prisons.

In 1972, the Associated Press wrote, “After unprecedented debate, trustees of Columbia University awarded… The New York Times [a Pulitzer in public service] for its publication of the Pentagon Papers” – a study prepared by the Department of Defense about America’s involvement in Viet Name that demonstrated, among other things, that the Johnson Administration “systematically lied, not only to the public but also to Congress.”

In receiving the 2014 prize, the Post addresses this comparison.

“In both the NSA and Pentagon Papers stories, the reporting was based on leaks of secret documents by government contractors. Both Snowden and Daniel Ellsberg — who leaked the Pentagon Papers to Times reporter Neil Sheehan — were called traitors for their actions. And both the leakers and the news organizations that published the stories were accused by critics, including members of Congress, of enabling espionage and harming national security.”

In 2010, when The New York Times found itself in possession of hundreds of thousands of sensitive U.S. State Department diplomatic cables brought to them by WikiLeaks leaked by Bradley Manning, the news organization spent considerable time vetting the material in an effort to protect foreign diplomats and others who may be in harm’s way as a result of a public release. The Times also wrote a separate article that discussed the intense decision-making that took place in determining what they would make public and what they would not make public.

Did the Post conduct a similar intense decision-making protocol before releasing their stories based on the Snowden leaks?

“Post Executive Editor Martin Baron said Monday the reporting exposed a national policy ‘with profound implications for American citizens’ constitutional rights’ and the rights of individuals around the world.

” ‘Disclosing the massive expansion of the NSA’s surveillance network absolutely was a public service,’ Baron said. ‘In constructing a surveillance system of breathtaking scope and intrusiveness, our government also sharply eroded individual privacy. All of this was done in secret, without public debate, and with clear weaknesses in oversight.’

“Baron added,” the Post writes, “that without Snowden’s disclosures, ‘we never would have known how far this country had shifted away from the rights of the individual in favor of state power. There would have been no public debate about the proper balance between privacy and national security. As even the president has acknowledged, this is a conversation we need to have.’ ”

Does a Pulitzer Prize somehow reward Snowden?

No. While Snowden may have provided the documents, both news organizations took the time to carefully examine the material and vet much of it with a variety of security consultants.

The distinction here is that rather than just dumping thousands of secret documents onto the press as Snowden did with both the Post and Guardian, an editorial mechanism was in place to take the responsible steps necessary to carefully examine and release only that information necessary to their stories absent information that could prove directly damaging to specific interests.

While I remain disturbed by the manner in which Edward Snowden leaked classified documents – he could have turned his material directly over to the independent oversight of the inspector general’s office – I do acknowledge the reporters who acted as responsible agents of the information.

Moving forward, however, journalists should continually seek to expand the knowledge, skills and judgment necessary in the performance of their duties. While acting as a public watchdog, they need to balance the need for the public’s right to know with the release of potential national secrets and, when necessary, not be afraid to practice a little self-restraint.

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