"The Story of Our Lives" at the Sources and Secrets Conference

The NSA, America's all seeing eye, doesn't want to know everything about everybody, Barton Gellman said today, his face hovering on a screen at the front of the New York Times' airy auditorium. "It wants to be able to know anything about anybody."

And that's a key difference, isn't it? The second is worse, because it derives is power from the paranoia of the spied-upon—all of us. It is also reality. Gellman, the esteemed national security journalist who was among the first to write stories based on Edward Snowden's leaks, was being interviewed by Times columnist Roger Cohen—via Skype—along with Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras. The Three Horsejournalists of the NSA Revelations, so to speak. The interview, which was just one part of the George Polk Awards' "Sources and Secrets" conference (hosted by the Times) today, was about what you expect, right down to when Cohen plaintively asked them, of their supposed animosity towards "establishment" journalists, "What do you have against us?"

The conference—a series of panel discussions about the relationship between journalists, sources, and the government in the era of the NSA— was worthwhile, all jokes aside. A few bullet point takeaways, for ease of Friday afternoon reading:

- All of the investigative journalists who cover national security (and the very best of the best were on the panels today) agreed that the Obama administration's unprecedented aggressive pursuit of leakers, combined with the revelations of the pervasiveness of the government's electronic eavesdropping capabilities, were having a very serious chilling effect on the willingness of sources in the national security world to come forward and speak to the press. The one thing that both the reporters trying to unearth secrets and the government lawyers on the panels trying to protect the secrets could agree on: the U.S. government is in dire need of a real, working system for internal whistleblowers— a system that would A) get results for their complaints, and B) protect them from retaliation. All agreed this system does not exist today. Until it does, people will leak to the press (more often).

- Sen. Charles Schumer talked optimistically of the prospects of passing a federal shield law for journalists. The version in question would protect professional journalists only, not the unpaid. And its protections would amount to the right to go in front of a judge. Better than the existing system, but far from a utopia. There is a much larger debate to be had on the insidious negative effects of enshrining any special legal protections for "journalists" as a class, thereby making "journalism" an activity not open to all.

- Though Bob Woodward, who moderated one panel, tried to get a discussion going on whether the Obama administration was "anti-press," the reporters onstage rightly replied, politely, that such a term is so broad as to be meaningless. The New Yorker's Jane Mayer had the best answer: "Every administration is anti-press."

- In response to questions about Edward Snowden's actions in Russia, Barton Gellman made the point that it is ridiculous for the media, whose job it is to bring important information to the public, to focus on the actions of Snowden himself, rather than on the ENORMOUSLY IMPORTANT TROVE OF SECRET INFORMATION that he released. It is sad that this point still needs to be made. The fucking media, man. Grow up.

- Likewise, both he and Greenwald noted that it is a canard to argue over whether or not the NSA is really listening to everyone's phone sex calls. The problem is that they want to reserve for themselves both the right and the ability to do so. "It is the capability to surveil that becomes so menacing," Greenwald said.

- Ken Wainstein, a former government lawyer, complained that to the extent that the right of investigative journalists to report on government secrets is protected, "You're going to have more leaks, and in the long run undermine [the security state's] effectiveness." Good. The most useful way to understand this entire debate between government national security and surveillance powers and the freedom of the press is as a struggle for institutional power. The current situation is one in which the government security state, via the NSA, wields almost unimaginable power to destroy privacy. The media as it stands today is a minor counterweight to that. It makes good sense to give the media protection and room to run until this gross imbalance of power has been brought somewhat under control. If the day ever comes when journalists accrue too much power unto themselves, then we can think about tweaking the laws in the other direction. Let's focus on the consequences of things.

Make no mistake: right now, the NSA has already won. This is a discussion about how to bring things back into some semblance of balance. "Challenges [from the security state] to the first and the fourth amendments of the U.S. Constitution," said journalist Peter Maass, is "the story of our lives."

[Pic via]