Exposing the NSA: A Public Service Worthy of a Pulitzer Prize

The national-security state and its apologists don't see it that way—which is why we have the First Amendment.
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Earlier this week, journalism's most prestigious award, the Pulitzer Prize for public serice, was given to two newspapers for their exposés of mass surveillance by the U.S. government. The award citation praised the Washington Post for "its revelation of widespread secret surveillance by the National Security Agency, marked by authoritative and insightful reports that helped the public understand how the disclosures fit into the larger framework of national security.” The Guardian was recognized for "aggressive reporting" that helped "to spark a debate about the relationship between the government and the public over issues of security and privacy.”

Edward Snowden, who supplied the leaked documents that enabled the reporting, characterized the award as "a vindication for everyone who believes that the public has a role in government," and praised "the efforts of the brave reporters and their colleagues who kept working in the face of extraordinary intimidation, including the forced destruction of journalistic materials, the inappropriate use of terrorism laws, and so many other means of pressure to get them to stop."

NSA apologists spoke out too. Max Boot of Commentary absurdly compares the Pulitzer board's praise for reporting on the NSA to giving an award to articles "whitewashing the evils of Stalinist Russia." At Lawfare, Benjamin Wittes objects to the characterization of the Washington Post's reporting as authoritative. And while he acknowledges that The Guardian sparked debate, he isn't much impressed by that achievement.

Let's focus there.

"If sparking a debate is enough to earn the Pulitzer’s coveted public service medal, then sure. Congrats," Wittes writes. "I would note, however, that merely sparking a debate is an exceedingly low standard." He proceeds to recall past award-winners in the Pulitzer's public-service category, winners that he much preferred:

They passed a test much higher than the “sparked a debate” test, a test that the Westboro Baptist Church and the Church of Scientology, I might add, pass with some regularity, and they were not merely transit stops for leaks from others.

The Westboro Baptist Church is an anti-gay congregation that protests at military funerals to attract media attention. If it did not exist, Americans would be no less aware of the ongoing, transparent debate about public policy affecting gays. Wittes reveals a blind spot when he conflates the value of the debate Westboro sparks with the value of the debate sparked by Snowden and various reporters. The latter is a tremendous public service: When public policy is shrouded in secrecy, sparking debate is synonymous with enabling the practice of democracy. Without debate, representative government as we know it is extinguished.

Snowden and the Pulitzer Prize committee understand this. Unlike Wittes, they appreciate that informing citizens about public policy has inherent value and is a prerequisite for meaningful civic participation. That's especially true when what's being hidden includes repeated violations of the Constitution, national-security figures lying to Congress, woefully underinformed legislators, and mass surveillance.

The benefits of reporting on the NSA aren't just theoretical.

As a direct result of articles written by Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, Barton Gellman, and others, President Obama and multiple members of Congress have changed their positions on surveillance policy. Expert executive-branch panels have criticized the status quo. The White House and legislators have suggested multiple reforms. Article III judges have concluded the NSA's behavior is needless and illegal. That these significant actions occurred only after the Snowden leaks is evidence that prior secrecy retarded the whole civic process.

Back then, public policy lacked democratic legitimacy. Recent reform efforts are due to the fact that, when Americans learned about the status quo, they wouldn't tolerate it.

Treating the spark for a debate that informs policy as no more a public service than anti-gay protests at military funerals isn't just myopic. It's consistent with the anti-democratic, anti-transparency ideology that prevails at Lawfare. Wittes and others believe that the public has no proper role in judging the propriety of most NSA actions, because the information needed to render judgments is properly classified. And they're not troubled by the ways in which the NSA and the FISA court have twisted the law so that it hardly resembles what Congress passed.

If they had their way, we'd all be more ignorant.

Their preferences are antithetical to the role the press is supposed to play in America. When the Founders ratified the First Amendment, journalism like the stories sourced to Edward Snowden is exactly the sort of thing that they were hoping to protect: articles that give the public the truth about their government, truth that governing elites would be tempted to suppress if they were allowed to do it. Put another way, the Framers expected there to be an adversarial relationship between the government and the press. And Wittes is on the other side. No wonder he doesn't like the work journalism organizations select for awards. As long as he allies himself with people who think that they're justified in suppressing basics like what the law is, he'll hold valuable journalism in contempt.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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