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Barton Gellman Hits Washington Post’s “Passive Aggressive Critique” of Its Own Snowden Reporting

"It's a good thing for the Post, and for journalism, that the opinion staff has no say in what counts as news."

Gellman speaks to the Post newsroom on April 14, 2014, after the paper won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

The Washington Post‘s editorial board argued against a presidential pardon for NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden this weekend. While some of Snowden’s revelations led to what the editorial board called “necessary reforms,” Snowden also shared information about a program called PRISM, which the board calls “both clearly legal and not clearly threatening to privacy.”

PRISM is a program that allowed the NSA and FBI track foreign targets through digital communications. We know about PRISM because, as Glenn Greenwald notes, the Washington Post reported on it. The story, by Barton Gellman and Laura Poitras, is the first one the Pulitzer committee cited in awarding the Post its Public Service prize in 2014.

It’s certainly uncomfortable for the editorial board, which operates separate from the newsroom, to advocate for Snowden’s prosecution, but even if it didn’t, Snowden was the newspaper’s source, not its friend, as journalism professor Dan Kennedy correctly pointed out. That’s a distinction some journalists from the Guardian, where Greenwald published his Pulitzer-winning work based on Snowden’s revelations, could have used some help with at times.

The Post board’s assertion that PRISM was neither illegal nor a threat to privacy is a different matter.

“I disagree profoundly on both counts,” says Gellman, a former full-time Post reporter who was on contract with the newspaper when he reported on the NSA.  “There are serious, unresolved legal challenges to PRISM’s constitutionality.”

The program, he and Poitras reported in 2013, employed a remarkably imprecise method to test whether a surveillance subject was foreign, and its training materials said any information from Americans that analysts accidentally vacuumed up was “nothing to worry about.” The intelligence community, Gellman tells Washingtonian, “continues to store” that information “and search it at will without judicial oversight.” But other than that, not a privacy threat, apparently.

“This editorial is as good an example as I’ve ever seen of the firewall between news and opinion at The Post,” Gellman writes in an email. “I suppose it sets a milestone of some kind for its passive aggressive critique of the paper’s own journalism. The newsroom, as [Executive Editor] Marty Baron has said repeatedly, is immensely proud of its work on these stories. Our peers have counted it as a public service. It’s a good thing for The Post, and for journalism, that the opinion staff has no say in what counts as news.”

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Senior editor

Andrew Beaujon joined Washingtonian in late 2014. He was previously with the Poynter Institute, TBD.com, and Washington City Paper. His book A Bigger Field Awaits Us: The Scottish Soccer Team That Fought the Great War was published in 2018. He lives in Del Ray.