The Washington Post has received a Pulitzer public service medal for its role in revealing secrets of the National Security Agency (NSA).
It’s natural that journalists and those associated with them wish to celebrate this sort of disclosure. Their interest is in selling newspapers, conferring status on their profession, and influencing public policy (not necessarily in that order). Even assuming that they are also interested in promoting national security, any such general interest typically will take a backseat to more personally fulfilling motives.
But viewed from outside the self-congratulatory bubble of mainstream journalism, it seems outrageous for honors to be bestowed on those who, in Max Boot’s words, “served as the mouthpiece for one of the most destructive traitors in U.S. history.”
Liam Fox, a British MP and former secretary of state for defense, does nothing more than recite a truism when he states that “for our intelligence services to operate effectively, and to protect us from [national security] threats, they need to be able to do things in secret.” It follows that journalists tend to undermine the effectiveness of our intelligence services when they reveal what these services do in secret.
This has been the case with the revelations of Snowden and his journalist collaborators. According to Fox, “We have actually seen chatter among specific terrorist groups, at home and abroad, discussing how to avoid what they now perceive to be vulnerable communications methods and, consequently, how to select communications that they perceive not to be exploitable.”
Not to worry, though. Barton Gellman, who led the Post’s Pulitzer Prize winning team of reporters, is satisfied that he and his crew have “been as careful as we could be to balance the public interests in self-government and self-defense.”
At the risk of sounding churlish, I would ask, who elected Gellman to make decisions that profoundly affect America’s self-defense?
I would also note that Gellman has a huge personal stake in erring on the side of making disclosures that are harmful to America’s security. After all, no disclosure, no Pulitzer Prize. So even if it were a good idea for unelected people to be making these calls, Bart Gellman and his fellow journalists would be the wrong unelected people to make them.
But is it the case, as Gellman suggests, that our interest in “self-government” requires that the public know “the secret policy decisions the government is making for us”? Of course not.
Our interest in self-government is vindicated in cases like spying that require secrecy as long as the political process determines who makes the secret decisions and provides for checks against abuse. The work of NSA meets this test. It is conducted by the executive branch under the direction of our elected president and it is subject to review by the legislative branch, which is also elected.
As I argued in my review of Jack Goldsmith’s book Power and Constraint:
Our elected representatives have broad powers with which to ascertain what [surveillance] methods the executive is employing and with what efficacy. Thus, the executive can be held accountable without its secrets being splashed onto the front page of the newspaper.
Indeed, Gellman’s formulation of the issue is nonsensical. If the public learns “the secret policy decisions the government is making for us” regarding spying, then the government isn’t making secret policy decisions about spying. And if the government isn’t making its decisions about spying in secret, then it isn’t really spying.
Max Boot says that with its award to the Post, “the Pulitzer Prize board has. . .awarded a prize that deserves to be spoken of in the same conversation with its risible 1932 award to the New York Times correspondent Walter Duranty for articles whitewashing the evils of Stalinist Russia.”
I don’t think I would go that far. But I agree that this is “a pitiful Pulitzer pick.” Not a surprising one, though.
UPDATE: I wrote here about the harm Edward Snowden’s disclosures have caused, and how Congress has come to understand the extent of that harm.