There gets to be a point when the question is, whose side are you on? Now, I’m Secretary of State of the United States and I’m on our side.
—Secretary of State Dean Rusk
What follows is based on sixty years of experience in public life and journalism. It arises from deepening concern about the people’s limited appreciation of the First Amendment and disgust with media waffling behind timidity’s breastworks. It also arises from urgent unease about government overreach in the name of “homeland security,” an overreach based on post-9/11 fear, political opportunism and an all but explicit assertion that a free people do not need to know and should not demand to know how they are being protected. There is no pretense here of carefully allocated balance, that brieﬂy treasured convention of American journalism. Instead, this is an attempt to explain the evolution of today’s media-government confrontations and to suggest answers to the hard questions that currently face the press when national security clashes with the Bill of Rights.
Unless informed consent is to be treated as a dangerous relic of more tranquil times, these questions should be answered on behalf of the American people as often as they arise. That means applying general principles to speciﬁc cases. Knowing the evolution of press freedom can be useful. Having an accurate picture of the chaotic realities of the murky present is crucial. Hard cases are inevitable; hard-and-fast rules are rarely available and too often inapplicable to current conditions. In the end, as always, it is up to each journalist and news organization to be willing to stand alone, to ask, and to answer individually:
“Whose side are you on?”
When Edward Snowden’s breathtaking leap off the high board made its ﬁrst splash, most public and media reactions featured shock and outrage, even among those appalled by the scope of the government’s electronic eavesdropping that he revealed. A minority applauded. A smaller minority yawned. But public ambivalence all but vanished within a month. Consecutive polls showed growing numbers giving emphatic thumbs-down. “You weren’t acting on my behalf,” they seemed to roar.
Not much surprise there. It wasn’t Pearl Harbor and it wasn’t 9/11, but selective media use of Snowden’s huge cache of stolen NSA ﬁles seemed to give obvious aid and comfort to America’s enemies and a black eye to the nation. The images of the collapsing Twin Towers were still vivid. No surprise to friends and family, either, when my snap reaction was rage. The ex-Marine, “Gunboats Carter” persona was in full swing. Hang ﬁrst, try later. It was self-evident that Snowden was a traitor.
Having worked for and with government officials from federal marshals to Presidents for over ﬁve decades, I knew that they and I were in lockstep solidarity. Contempt and consternation were near universal, both about Snowden’s betrayal of the public trust and about media publication. They—we—saw both as ﬂaunting a cavalier disregard of legal and moral obligations to safeguard vital national security secrets. As then-National Security Administration Director General Keith B. Alexander claimed, Snowden’s revelations were causing “the greatest damage to our combined nations’ intelligence systems that we have ever suffered.”
The critics did not wear jackboots. Among them were former college classmates who had spent considerable time in the national intelligence enterprise, children of the mid-century who knew where their duty lay. They were vehemently certain that the electronic excavation of private as well as public records was as constitutional as it was vital. They were proud of their response in younger days to the call of duty, knowing the fragility of freedom and the ferocity of its enemies. The new world disorder seemed conﬁrmation enough that questions about their mission were for academic seminars only.
And then I changed my mind, though God knows the generally uninspiring media reaction was not responsible. It is hard even now to fully appreciate how many press commentaries either saluted the official line or fell back on patronizing, snide dismissals of Snowden’s character and intelligence. Those who supported him were few and far between, though vigorous in their support. Among them were The New Yorker, The Guardian, The Washington Post, Vanity Fair, McClatchy newspapers, and Knight Ridder. To others overlooked in that summary listing, my apologies. Those who decided to go forward with their coverage deserve sustained public applause. They took signiﬁcant chances when they pressed the print button and revealed the NSA’s dirty linen. Of no less importance, they sounded the alarm, warning the American people anew of how much further down the road to an all-intrusive garrison state Washington had ventured.
The number of major media organizations and ﬁgures who twitched at every government accusation was appalling. For the more pompous, Snowden and his media shepherds were unworthy intruders in the grand game of serious journalism and commentary. Planted in a self-referential clique, it was all but unnecessary for them to grapple with the meaning of a government that conceived, created, and operated a secret high-tech vacuum cleaner to suck the meaning out of the Fourth Amendment.
According to what the conventionalists wrote or said, Snowden was an immature, self-aggrandizing exhibitionist. He was no one with whom you might wish to have a conversation while supping in intimate dinners with Washington’s powerful. Not of Le Carré’s world, he was the distasteful new man of the onrushing technological dystopia, doing what he did because he could. Why he said he did it was secondary if not irrelevant; it was an irritating sideshow. Don’t look at that man behind the curtain, they all but shouted. Look at the boogeyman.
As for the three reporters he entrusted with portions of the material, were they chosen because he trusted them to use it wisely? They were enablers of the unthinkable or traitors themselves. It was a hard position to maintain, since they were varied in background and outlook. Snowden apparently picked each because of what he saw as their unsparing coverage of government’s rogue activities. They include Laura Poitras, a left-wing freelance television producer whose previous work had stirred waters, and Barton Gellman, a mainline journalist who had won two Pulitzer Prizes while working for The Washington Post. The most proliﬁc was Snowden’s tireless Boswell, Glenn Greenwald, a columnist for the British newspaper, The Guardian. He was, and is, unrestrained in his free-swinging indictment of what he considers to be mainstream media’s absence without leave from the fray. Major press heavies returned the compliment, labeling him a radical nouveau whose rants outran reason. To reread their snide fulminations is to realize that the best antidotes to arrogance are looped replay or a long memory.
The great bulk of the print press ran wire service accounts, as usual, along with Washington-based and Washington-inﬂuenced commentary purchased on the cheap. Attention must be paid to the exceptional precursors to Snowden whose stories sparked threats of prosecution, smears from the far right, and outright denials from the President. Among them, New York Times reporters Eric Lichtblau and James Risen shared the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting for exposing President Bush’s approval of warrantless domestic wiretaps. In the same year, Dana Priest of The Washington Post won the Pulitzer for stories revealing that the CIA ran foreign prisons where terrorists and those suspected of terrorism were tortured. It should also be noted that many secondhand accounts leaned heavily on Gellman, Greenwald, and Poitras.
The new world of the Internet was more diverse and more extensive, but of mixed quality. Politico and the Center for Public Integrity offered ﬁrst-rate if sporadic work. To reread most of the blogs, our outliers of an inevitable future, is to weep for their strident ignorance. The networks and cable news at ﬁrst ran all-out with the startling revelations, but then, as though exhausted by their close encounter with meaningful news, pulled over to concentrate on missing airliners and celebrity journalism. Public TV and radio did a more consistent job, "Frontline" most particularly, but some major ﬁgures admitted that Washington inﬂuenced the tone of their coverage as well.
The horde of talk show reactionaries came baying from their ideological kennels to snap and snarl across the land. Snowden’s sympathizers were “useful idiots,” to use the former Soviet phrase, just as Fox’s propagandists had been saying all along. The terrorists had a ﬁfth column within America. Debate over; gong-show commentary, interminable.
It is easy to understand their overwhelming nastiness. Whether they knew better or not, they knew their employers and they knew their audience. It is a defense unavailable to those segments of the establishment press who ducked when the hard balls came in high and close. Perhaps it was too much to expect that they would suddenly fall off their asses on the road to Damascus.
The relatively pallid media reaction stung. While government service and politics have consumed decades of my life, journalism, my ﬁrst and last great love, has consumed even more. Short form, long form, television or print, and now the world of the Internet, I have seen them as the great bedrock and protector of American liberty and freedom. Small town and big city, reporter, anchor, editor, publisher, or columnist, all taught the same lesson. The Bill of Rights gave the press, like every citizen, previously unthinkable freedom to speak truth to power. As the Founders saw it, without the media, the public would be forever blinkered. Without it, government could do as it invariably prefers: conceive, organize, and implement policy decisions untrammeled by the opinions of those it is supposed to serve.
Excerpted from "After Snowden: Privacy, Secrecy and Security in the Information Age." Edited by Ronald Goldfarb. Published by Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin's Press. Copyright © 2015 by Hodding Carter III. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.