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Leaks, leakers and government scrutiny

Posted: June 24, 2013 | Tags: Investigative Reporters and Editors

Organizers of the Investigative Reporters and Editors’ annual national conference could not have anticipated that a whistleblower named Edward Snowden would reveal information about two secret National Security Agency (NSA) programs just before this year’s conference in San Antonio last week. But panel discussions on what journalists covering such stories would have to deal with were on the schedule: protecting sources, reporting on extensive government surveillance and keeping newsrooms safe from federal authorities seeking to sabotage coverage of questionable classified programs.

For moderator and former Washington Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr., this news was hardly a lucky strike. “The Obama administration’s war on leakers and the press has been by far the most aggressive,” he said in his opening remarks during a showcase panel titled “The Government’s War on Leaks.”

Panelist Mike Oreskes agreed. Oreskes is a senior managing editor for the Associated Press, which was targeted by the Justice Department only last month, when the AP was informed that two months’ worth of phone records had been subpoenaed in connection with an AP report on a secret CIA mission in May 2002.

“This should never be allowed,” a visibly outraged Oreskes said, adding that his team “operated with a great deal of caution on covering the story, and only published after we were told the operation was complete and nobody was in danger.” The AP reported in May that the government did not disclose why the phone records were subpoenaed, but noted that CIA director John Brennan had been questioned by the FBI on who could have leaked information to the AP.

Downie pointed to the Department of Justice’s guidelines on issuing subpoenas to reporters: “A subpoena should be the last resort,” he said. Downie also warned that the backlash of the government’s attacks on the news media could be substantial and have a chilling effect on the coverage of public affairs.

Author and journalist James Bamford is an expert on the NSA — and an expert on getting scrutinized in his research (“I love them, but they hate me”). Bamford, who has written extensively on the agency, pointed out that this year’s conference location was indicative of how widespread government surveillance has become. “The NSA has a massive facility just outside of San Antonio,” Bamford said during an earlier panel on “Surveillance, Privacy and Hackers.” He said the NSA has several surveillance bases around the nation, registering millions of phone records and online communication data. “If a connection goes through U.S. wires, it is considered to be subjected to U.S. regulation,” Bamford said. He also said that it is a wide and still under-reported field. “We need more investigative journalists looking into this," he said.

But what can reporters do to protect the privacy of their emails, phone calls, other forms of communication — and ultimately, their sources? Journalist and blogger Quinn Norton has the answer: Encryption. “It is time we all learned how the Internet works. Because we all live in it," Norton said and stressed that she only used encryption that doesn’t log, so that there’s no virtual record of it. “The Internet is a glass city, and we have to learn how to cross the roads in it,” she said.

Norton’s tips surrounding encryption can be found here.


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