In Their Own Words: Journalists Talk About NSA Surveillance Harming Journalism

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The American government’s broad and clandestine national security surveillance programs are having a serious effect on the work of U.S.-based journalists tasked with holding politicians and operatives to account, according to a new report issued by two advocacy groups.

On Monday, Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union jointly called on the U.S. government to end “overly broad (and) unnecessary surveillance practices,” many of which were disclosed last year by former National Security Agency contractor-turned-public whistleblower Edward Snowden.

Those programs, almost all of which operate under the guise of defending the United States from foreign terrorist threats, are causing government sources to stay silent out of fear that a heavy-handed administration will use secret surveillance methods to discover them — even if the information sought by reporters is unclassified or otherwise benign.

HRW and the ACLU reached this conclusion after conducting interviews with nearly four dozen journalists at large news operations, including the Associated Press, Thomson Reuters, The Washington Post, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Theses interviews were chronicled in a 160-page report published by HRW and the ACLU titled “With Liberty to Monitor All: How Large-Scale US Surveillance is Harming Journalism, Law and American Democracy.”

Here, in their own words, are how journalists describe their news-gathering practices, protection of sources and relationship with the U.S. government post-Snowden, as reviewed from the report and collected by TheBlot Magazine:

On Secrecy in Government

“A year ago, in our line of business, we were more worried about the Chinese government snooping to get an edge by collecting what we weren’t reporting. Now, it’s a distant second to our own government.” — Unnamed reporter

“We say this every time there’s a new occupant in the White House and it’s true every time: Each is more secretive than the last.” — Kathleen Carroll, editor, The Associated Press

“This is the worst I’ve seen in terms of the government’s efforts to control information.” — Jonathan Landay, reporter, McClatchy Newspapers

“It’s a terrible time to be covering government.” — Tom Gjelten, veteran reporter, National Public Radio

On Journalism’s Role as a Check Against Big Government

“National security journalism is especially important for a functioning, democratically accountable system.” — Charlie Savage, reporter, The New York Times

“This is not a bunch of bratty journalists trying to undermine legitimate government operations.” — Kathleen Carroll, editor, The Associated Press

“The government is getting the balance between guarding information and making it public wrong. They think anything classified should stay secret…the question for me is, what really needs to stay secret? The rules for that were set for the nuclear era. We have a new era now with old rules. The government should reverse it, and start by asking, what needs to be secret?” — Dana Priest, reporter, The Washington Post

“Informing Americans about the national security programs that they pay for and are carried out in their name is impossible without government officials who are willing to speak with reporters about them, within limits. The hard part, of course, is judging the proper limits.” — Scott Shane, reporter, The New York Times

“What makes government better is our work exposing information…[secrecy] makes the country less safe, institutions work less well, and it increases the risk of corruption. Secrecy works against all of us.” — Dana Priest, reporter, The Washington Post

On Adopting Security Measures and Protecting Sources

“[We] have to think about how to contact someone without leaving electronic cookies behind.” — Steve Engelberg, editor-in-chief, ProPublica

“Any form of electronic communication just can’t be used for sensitive matters.” — Unnamed reporter

“It’s difficult, if you’re using any electronic communications, to do something that [the Department of Justice] with a subpoena or the NSA couldn’t figure out. But you want to make the initial leak investigation more difficult to preclude a more sweeping inquiry.” — Unnamed reporter

“You’re operating like somebody in the mafia, gotta go around with a bag full of quarters and, if you can find a pay phone, use it, or use…throwaway burner phones. These are all the steps we have to take to get rid of electronic trail. To have to take those kinds of steps makes journalists feel like criminals, like we’re doing something wrong.” — Brian Ross, reporter, ABC News

“I don’t want the government to force me to act like a spy. I’m not a spy, I’m a journalist…what are we supposed to do? Use multiple burners? No e-mail? Dead drops? I don’t want to do my job that way. You can’t be a journalist and do your job that way.” — Adam Goldman, reporter, The Washington Post

“It’s a tax on my time. I could do double the work if I weren’t spending so much effort on encryption and a secure workflow between network and air-gapped machines.” — Barton Gellman, reporter, The Washington Post

“Will it save you in the end? Isn’t the NSA going to crack it, or get someone to give up the code?” — Unnamed reporter

“I don’t think there’s anything ironclad you can do except [arrange to meet] face-to-face.” — Jonathan Landay, reporter, McClatchy Newspapers

“It’s really hard to leave zero trail and do your job.” — Unnamed reporter

On Losing Sources Post-Snowden

“[Before] you’d start pulling the curtain back [on state secrets], and more people would come forward. Many fewer people are coming forward now.” — James Asher, editor, McClatchy Newspapers

“How do you even get going [with a source]? By the time you’re both ready to talk about more delicate subjects, you’ve left such a trail that even if you start using burner phones or anonymous e-mail accounts you’re already linked.” — Barton Gellman, reporter, The Washington Post

“[The landscape] got worse significantly after the Snowden documents came into circulation. If you suspected the government had the capability to do mass surveillance, you found out [after the leaks] it was certainly true.” — Peter Maass, reporter, The Intercept

“It used to be that leak investigations didn’t get far because it was too hard to uncover the source. But with digital tools, it’s just much easier, and sources know that.” — Barton Gellman, reporter, The Washington Post

“The government doesn’t need to know what people are talking about — just that they’re talking. That can go a long way in supporting the prosecution’s case in a leak investigation.” — Peter Maass, reporter, The Intercept

“Reveal details about government activity and you may lose everything — your clearance, your position and your pension. You may have to hire an attorney, and you may have your reputation destroyed in the press by [the government’s] own counter-leaks, making it impossible to get a new job.” — Scott Horton, reporter, Harper’s Magazine

“It is not lost on us, or on our sources, that there have been eight criminal cases against sources [under the Obama administration] versus three before [under all previous administrations combined].” — Charlie Savage, reporter, The New York Times

“Leak investigations are a lot easier because you leave a data trail calling, swiping in and out of buildings, [and] walking down a street with cameras. It’s a lot easier for people to know where you’re going and how long you’re there.” — Peter Maass, reporter, The Intercept

“The government’s ability to find the source [of a leak] will only get better.” — Peter Finn, reporter, The Washington Post

“If first-rate intelligence agencies decides to target you specifically and invest serious resources, there’s nothing you can do.” — Barton Gellman, reporter, The Washington Post

“If the government wants to get you, they will.” — Adam Goldman, reporter, The Washington Post

To read the complete report published by HRW and the ACLU, click here.

Matthew Keys is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine

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