Journalist, Ex-NSA Chief Debate Free Press, State Secrets

Two national security experts from opposite sides of the fence explored divergent views on whether U.S. surveillance tactics should be revealed to the American public during a debate at the Sanford School of Public Policy on Monday.

“The government has secrets and we try to find them out.  We have to be free to write or we don’t have self-government,” Pulitzer-Prize-winning reporter Barton Gellman said.

Gen. Michael Hayden countered, “There are necessary secrets… (Our) job is to keep us free and safe. I fear how you do your job makes mine difficult.”

Gellman is one of the reporters with whom former NSA contractor Edward Snowden shared information, which led to his breaking the story of PRISM, the NSA domestic data-mining program. Hayden directed the National Security Agency from 1999 to 2005 and the CIA from 2006 to 2009. They shared a stage for the first time during Monday’s 2013 Robert R. Wilson Lecture, “Leakers or Whistleblowers? National Security Reporting in the Digital Age.”

Video of the event can be watched on the Sanford School’s YouTube channel:

David Schanzer, director of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security, moderated the discussion, posing questions of both men on the moral dilemma confronting potential whistleblowers and the responsibilities of both the press and intelligence agencies in the handling of secrets.

Gellman described the process he and his editors go through when working on a story involving government secrets. They contact the agency in question and after discussion, they sometimes agree to withhold certain information from the public. Gellman said he takes extraordinary measures to ensure that information in his possession that he voluntarily has not published cannot be acquired by hackers and made public.

In the Snowden case, Hayden does not consider Snowden a whistleblower, but “a hunter” who came to NSA on a mission to find things he considered wrong. Snowden did not go to his superiors to try to report his concerns or stay and face the consequences of his actions. Instead he fled to Hong Kong and eventually Russia, although “what retribution would be worse than exile in Russia… an autocracy that doesn’t have free Internet?” Hayden said.

While federal employees have some protections in case of whistleblowing, contractors have none, Gellman pointed out. “I have never heard of a whistleblower who was not crushed like a bug,” he said. “There are no happy endings.”

Hayden argued that Snowden did not report his concerns to his superiors because he knew his bosses were already aware of what was going on. The surveillance conducted by the NSA has been approved by all three branches of government, including the president, the courts and Congress, said Hayden. As an intelligence officer, his job was to understand what the limits were, in order to stay “in the box” permitted by law, and to take action right up to the brink of those limits to ensure U.S. security, he said.

Gellman’s recent story of the NSA entering “the back door” of Internet service providers such as Google and Yahoo was very damaging, a “body blow” to intelligence efforts, Hayden said.  These companies were “the Internet service providers of choice for terrorists,” he said. Their accounts were legitimate targets for surveillance, as the “only thing American about them” was that the servers were sitting in California. Now terrorists will use other providers the NSA doesn’t have access to, he said.

Gellman was not concerned with Snowden’s motive, but the truth of his belief that the NSA was collecting dangerous amounts of information and infringing on American’s right to privacy. The goal of publishing the stories was to provide information necessary for self-governance, he said.

Gellman pointed to a Supreme Court case about surveillance where it was decided the plaintiffs did not have standing to bring the suit, as they could not prove they were under surveillance. Because we now know that the NSA is monitoring huge numbers of phone calls, the next plaintiffs would have legal standing.

Gellman said the “contact chain” now allowed with three hops—a phone call made by a legitimate target to one number, then calls made from that number and all calls from those numbers— amounts to millions of accounts. The NSA is collecting email address books of accounts that have foreign connection points, which is surveillance on a massive scale.

“In the big picture, people ought to know.  Many Americans don’t like what the NSA is doing,” said Gellman.