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Reporter Had To Decide If Snowden Leaks Were 'The Real Thing'

Before whistle-blower Edward Snowden became a household name, he was an anonymous source. The Washington Post's Barton Gellman recounts how he began corresponding with Snowden and the process of reporting on the government's Internet data mining program.



September 11, 2013

Guest: Bart Gellman

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Barton Gellman, has reported on classified intelligence documents given him by Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor. After leaking classified documents to several journalists, Snowden is now living in Russia, where he's been granted asylum. Gellman is a reporter for the Washington Post.

As a result of Snowden leaks, Gellman and reporter Laura Poitras broke the story of the PRISM program, which mines data from nine U.S. Internet companies, including Microsoft, Yahoo, Google and Facebook. Gellman reported that the NSA has broken privacy rules or overstepped its legal authority thousands of times each year since Congress expanded the agency's powers in 2008.

Gellman revealed that the U.S. has conducted offensive cyber-operations against computer networks in foreign countries, including Iran, Russia, China and North Korea. Gellman also reported on the black budget he received from Snowden, the secret budget funding secret programs in America's 16 spy agencies.

Gellman is in the process of writing a book on the expansion of government surveillance since the September 11th attacks exactly 12 years ago. He shared a Pulitzer Prize for the Washington Post's reporting after the 9/11 attacks, and he shared a Pulitzer with Joe Becker for their series of articles on Vice President Dick Cheney, which became the basis of Gellman's best-seller "Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency." Gellman is a senior fellow at the Century Foundation.

Bart Gellman, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Bart, how did you become one of the journalists approached by Edward Snowden?

BARTON GELLMAN: Well, the particular path that this took was through a filmmaker named Laura Poitras, who's done some very interesting and important documentary film work since 9/11 about the wars overseas and about the government's national security responses at home.

Snowden approached her, and he had been interested in her because of her films and because he had read that the U.S. government was stopping her every time she came into the country and searching her and sometimes taking her electronics to search them. And he thought she would understand at a sort of personal, visceral level what this kind of surveillance meant.

Now, Laura and I had been colleagues. We had been fellows together at NYU, at the Center on Law and Security. And after she started being searched, she came to me for advice, because she knew that I'm on the careful side with digital data, that I understood - as a layman understands - the uses of encryption and anonymity to protect confidential sources and notes.

And so I got her started with a set of tools and procedures that would give her more protection. She's since become quite expert at it, and consulted experts who know a lot more than I do.

The combination of knowing her, of having a background on surveillance issues and of knowing how to communicate securely, all of those were required. She had been approached by Snowden late last year, and honestly lots of journalists get approached by lots of people who purport to know a lot about secret worlds and to have important secrets to disclose, and quite often, they can be dismissed quickly as cranks.

This one couldn't. Laura did not know who she was talking to. He was willing to talk only through the use of these very secret, very secure channels. And she came to me one day and said, you know, can I talk to you in confidence? And she showed me some of her notes of these conversations. She said, look, does this look it's for real to you? I said, so far, it does. But you're going to need a lot more verification and a lot more back-and-forth.

And so I started suggesting questions to ask this mystery correspondent. She started showing me answers. After a while, she started passing those messages verbatim between us. And finally, I opened a direct channel to Snowden, and, working alongside Laura, we finally convinced ourselves that if and when he revealed his identity, and if and when he actually transferred a document - we were talking about one document at the time - we were convinced that it was going to be the real thing.

GROSS: Can I ask what that one document was?

GELLMAN: That first document was the disclosure of the PRISM program, under which the government obtains information from nine large U.S. Internet companies that resides on their servers. So the NSA does, I guess you could say, two major kinds of signals intelligence collection. One is data in motion, where somewhere along the path from one person to another, they intercept it.

The other is data at rest. They go to places where there's stored communications, where they're conveniently sort of packaged up and sitting there, and they get it that way. So PRISM was the latter. It was going to Google, Microsoft, AOL, Yahoo, Facebook and others and saying we're interested in stuff that matches these search terms. They call them selectors.

And those companies, by one means or another, usually with government equipment installed on their premises, would transfer the information back to the NSA.

GROSS: When you got access to this classified document about these Internet companies and the government's ability to get information from them, were you shocked? Or did you already assume something like that was happening, even though you didn't have the evidence?

GELLMAN: Look, I think in broad terms, lots of people supposed that the NSA was getting information from private companies by one means or another. And, in fact, there was a law on it that permitted that. In 2008, Congress passed the FISA Amendments Act. Now, FISA stands for the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, as previously amended. And in 2008, Congress greatly expanded the scope of the NSA's power here.

This was in response to the disclosure of the Bush-era warrantless surveillance programs, and Congress essentially said you can do a very large fraction of what you were doing before under the president's say-so alone.

Now, the thing is the legislation is - as often happens with Congress - fairly vague. So we didn't know exactly what it meant. We didn't know how NSA interpreted that legislation, which also includes amendments to the Patriot Act. And it was shocking to discover how very, very broad the NSA interpreted its authority to be, and backed by two administrations, both under Bush and Obama.

It was shocking to find out what the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court was prepared to accept. And so, yeah, I mean, I was shocked by the PRISM program. I was shocked by the degree of intrusion. And, you know, Laura and I recognized right away that, you know, lots of Americans who use these systems would be, I don't know, creeped out by the idea that the NSA could reach right inside them.

GROSS: What have the ripple effects been of this revelation that you reported? Let's start with the ripple effects for the Internet companies like Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Yahoo, AOL, Skype.

GELLMAN: Well, there's a long history of private company cooperation with the NSA that dates back at least to the 1970s, and sort of the big legacy systems - the old telecommunications companies like AT&T and Verizon and their predecessors did this sort of routinely and without legal compulsion, and out of some kind of combination of patriotism and business as usual and fairly lucrative contracts.

The new Silicon Valley-based, largely Internet companies did not have the same traditions, but to one degree or another, they went along, and they were under legal compulsion to do so. I mean, some volunteered more than they needed to under the specific terms. But it was very important to them and to the government to keep their identities secret.

Just because you know the NSA gets information about communications, it changes the equation when you know it's Facebook. It's Microsoft. As you'll probably want to talk about, we consult with the government and tell them what we have and what we intend to publish before every story. And the thing that the intelligence community most wanted to protect in that first story, they most asked us to hold back, was the names of the companies.

And we cooperate to a considerable degree with security requests, but my argument back to them was that if the damage that you're worried about consists of the companies being less willing to cooperate or suffering a blow to their businesses because the public or their customers don't like what they're doing, don't approve of the program, that's exactly why we have to publish it. That's the core duty we have in terms of accountability reporting, and...

GROSS: What was the government response to that?

GELLMAN: Unhappy. But I'll say that that conversation did not go over my head. And when the U.S. government is very, very concerned about a disclosure and is not getting a satisfactory answer from the lowly reporter, it tends to go higher, and sometimes quite high. I mean, there have been several occasions I know about over the years I worked at the Post in which a president talked to the editor or the publisher. This didn't go anywhere near that.

So the impact on the companies has been substantial and is ongoing. There are a lot of people who are reconsidering whether they want to host their company email accounts or their cloud services at a company that hands over data to the government, even if it is under legal compulsion to do so. And the companies, for the first time ever, have pushed back very hard and demanded that the government permit them to disclose more about the nature of their cooperation, the extent of it, the number of occasions, sort of the quantity of data that they hand over.

They think that they'll be able to tell an encouraging story in which the assumptions that some people have that this is a very broad-scale program, that the NSA goes in and grabs whatever it wants, that these companies can prove those assumptions false. And the government is not permitting them to make those disclosures. It is holding the line on the secrecy of the program. And you now see that Microsoft, Facebook, Google and Yahoo are all fighting the government in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, but they're not allowed to say what exactly the legal issues are. You're not allowed to see their briefs. You're not allowed to attend the hearings, because this is a secret process in a secret court, and this is one of the things now under public debate.

Should the entirety of this process - from the interpretation of the law, to the execution of it, to the broad terms of the surveillance - should that all take place behind closed doors, unavailable not only to the public, but to, in practical purposes, unavailable to nearly anyone in Congress?

GROSS: Do you know what the criteria are for the NSA to search data in an individual's email or to, you know, access their Facebook account?

GELLMAN: There are, I don't know, two dozen pages of targeting rules and what they call minimization rules that have been disclosed by Snowden and published in the Washington Post and in The Guardian. They - it is very complicated. I mean, the surveillance law itself is very complicated. There's a fair amount of wiggle room.

But we do know that under ordinary circumstances and in this kind of program, they are not allowed to, quote-unquote, "target" Americans. But targeting has a somewhat narrower meaning for the NSA than it might to the general public, and it does not stop them from obtaining a lot of information to, from or about Americans in ways that they consider to be inadvertent or incidental. And although they have to, by default, mask the identities of the Americans in the data they collect, they can also unmask those identities - unminimize them is the term they use - and under a number of circumstances, they're allowed to search the information, analyze it and report the information to other intelligence agencies.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Bart Gellman. He's one of the reporters who has been given classified documents by Edward Snowden. He's reported on those documents for the Washington Post. He's a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and the author of a bestseller about Vice President Dick Cheney called "Angler." Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Bart Gellman. He's one of the reporters who has been given classified documents by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. Gellman is a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner. He's now a senior fellow at the Century Foundation. And he's also the author of a bestselling book about - an investigative book about Vice President Dick Cheney.

Did Edward Snowden, who gave you the black budget, share your concerns about protecting national security? Would he have preferred that you just publish everything and make all these secrets public?

GELLMAN: Well, I'll tell you what he said, and I'll tell you what he did. Let me start with what he did. He gave these documents, ultimately, only to three journalists. What he said he wanted was for us to use our own judgment and to make sure that his bias was kept out of it so that we would make our own judgment about what was newsworthy and important for the public to know.

And he said we should also consider how to avoid harm. Now, in case anyone doubts his intentions, let's consider what he could have done. If Chelsea Manning was able to exfiltrate and send to WikiLeaks and publish, in whole, half a million U.S. government documents - Edward Snowden, who is far, far more capable, had far greater access, certainly knows how to transmit documents. He could have sent them to WikiLeaks. He could have set up and mirrored around the Internet, in a way that could not be taken down, all the documents. They could all be public right now. And they're not, because that's not what he wanted to do. He didn't - he told us not to do it, and he didn't do it himself.

GROSS: Did you, at any point, feel compelled to talk to Snowden about what journalistic standards are for making government secrets public?

GELLMAN: Oh, yeah. We had those conversations. The world of journalism was foreign to him. He had been, essentially, a spy all of his professional life. He was not accustomed to talking to journalists. He didn't understand all the rules under which we operated. And once he released the documents to us, his greatest fear was that he would be caught and that the documents would not be published, that we would somehow be restrained or we would lose our access to them, and he would have taken all these risks for nothing, without achieving the larger public debate he was looking for.

And so he was impatient for the stories to begin. And I told him what I tell every source, that we can only publish when we're ready. We have to authenticate this stuff. It looks quite valid to us, but we have to know for sure that these documents are real. We have to consider the security harms. We have to consider the newsworthiness. We have to set them in context. We're going to consult with the government. And, you know, hold your horses. And he understood that. There were times when he didn't like it, but he understood it.

GROSS: Was he worried that when you approached the government to tell them some of the things you were going to publish to get their reaction and see what their concerns were, that that would out him and that he would be at risk, that they'd figure out it was him?

GELLMAN: He was not so much concerned that we would out him. In fact, he's unique among sources I've known over the years, and he's also unique among people who want to blow the whistle, in that he intended all along and actually did unmask himself quite quickly. He did not want to be caught and preempted. But once the information began to flow, and once he came to believe that it would be very difficult for the government to stop that, he wanted to come out, tell the public who he was and why he was doing what he was doing.

I mean, even Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers in the 1970s, did not do that. He did not voluntarily unmask himself. He was caught, and then he openly professed his beliefs and his reasons for doing so, and he didn't try to deny it, but he also didn't initiate the self-disclosure.

GROSS: He told you that the U.S. intelligence community, quote, "will most certainly kill you if they think you're the single point of failure that could stop this disclosure." So were you ever concerned that you were going to be assassinated because you were publishing this?

GELLMAN: Honestly, I did not think that likely. He was also concerned that he could be. And if you look at it logically, he has this great big pile of some of the most sensitive secrets in the U.S. government and in the intelligence community. He thought if the only way that the government could stop that, that if the government had a plausible chance of preempting the release of these things by tracking him down and killing him, that it would do so.

I don't know that to be true. I am, frankly, a little bit skeptical. I don't think that that's ordinarily the way the U.S. government operates. But I certainly wasn't qualified to say for sure, and frankly, there are a number of things that have been disclosed in the documents - either publicly or that I have seen myself - that surprised me, that I would have said a year ago, having spent all this time covering post-9/11 national security establishment, I would have said, nah, the government wouldn't do that, and it does.

It doesn't rise anywhere near the level of going out and committing a sort of an assassination to preempt disclosure, but he pointed out, in fact, look, you know, the U.S. government does now openly target Americans overseas for killing. And I guess I couldn't rule it out.

GROSS: For yourself, or for him?

GELLMAN: For him. I never thought that I was at personal risk.

GROSS: Bart Gellman will be back in the second half of the show. His articles based on documents leaked to him by Edward Snowden have been published in the Washington Post. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Barton Gellman. He's one of the few reporters who were given classified documents by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. Among the stories Gellman has broken in The Washington Post as a result of Snowden's leaked documents are the PRISM program, which mines data from nine Internet companies, including Facebook and Google, and offensive cyber-operations the U.S. has conducted against foreign computer networks in Iran, Russia, China and North Korea.

Snowden has also leaked to Gellman the black budget, the secret budget funding secret intelligence operations. Edward Snowden is now living in Russia, where he's been granted temporary asylum. When we left off, Bart Gellman was talking about his working relationship with Snowden.

You asked him - you've written this, that you asked him how he could justify exposing espionage intelligence methods that might benefit U.S. adversaries. And I'm wondering why you thought it was important to ask him that.

GELLMAN: Well, I think it is going to be natural and one of the first questions that many, many readers will ask, to wonder why are you doing this? And aren't you worried about damage to our security? There are real enemies out there. There are real foreign intelligence concerns that are of vital interest to the United States, and to the extent that disclosures would sort of damage the ability of U.S. intelligence to find out things it needs to find out, readers are going to wonder, you know, how could you do that? Who appointed you? Who elected you? Why is this OK? So I wanted him to have a chance to answer that in advance and in the very first stories.

GROSS: And were you satisfied with his answer?

GELLMAN: Look, he is a source of mine. He is a source of information that he provided to me. I thought he had a very well-thought-through answer. I wanted to put that answer before the public and anyone can judge for himself or herself how much, how much they agree or how much they disagree with it. If The Washington Post didn't think it was important to publish some substantial fraction of this stuff, we wouldn't be doing it. So we certainly agree that there are balances to be struck between perfect security and the ability for the public to make fundamental decisions about what its government is doing and what the rules should be. And we're looking for that balance and to the extent that Snowden says we've pushed the needle way too far in the direction of security - and, in fact, some of this stuff isn't especially important for security and it is damaging to civil liberties, and it is risky for the government to have this much power - I mean, I think it's clear that I and The Washington Post agree that those are questions at least worthy of debating, and you can't have that debate without information.

GROSS: Snowden broke the law by giving you and other reporters these classified documents. Are you concerned that you could be prosecuted for publishing them and reporting on them?

GELLMAN: There is, I think, a remote risk that I or The Washington Post could be exposed to criminal charges for disclosing this information. There are statutes which on their face could be read to say that what we're doing is a crime. In the community of lawyers who study this most closely, I wouldn't say there's a consensus but there is, I think, a strong majority view that if you read the statutes that way, there would be significant constitutional problems - for example, with the First Amendment - and that the statutes would fail, even if the government could make the case that the words themselves are open to that interpretation.

I mean I guess I'd say if the government interprets the Espionage Act to cover acts of journalism in which we're informing the American public, rather than slipping secrets to some foreign government, then I think it's likely that that won't withstand constitutional scrutiny. I also think it's highly unlikely that the U.S. government, even under considerable provocation, is going to try to make that case. And, in fact, the Justice Department has said recently in response to disclosures about its intrusion into journalism elsewhere, at Fox News and at the Associated Press, that it will not attempt to criminalize ordinary acts of journalism. And for me to receive information about big vital public questions and to publish some of those after having consulted with the government about damage and removed things that would be damaging, for the government to say that that is espionage, I think it's unlikely they'll try and unlikely they'd succeed.

GROSS: My guest is Washington Post reporter Bart Gellman, who's broken several stories based on classified documents leaked to him by Edward Snowden. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Bart Gellman. We're talking about breaking stories based on documents leaked to him by Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor now living in Russia, where he's been granted temporary asylum.

You've been publishing in The Washington Post. There was a Washington Post editorial, July 1st, that expressed editorial concern that Snowden is going to pass on some of these documents to the WikiLeaks people, who would then just make it public without the kind of journalistic checks that you apply at The Washington Post. It also expressed concern that in exchange for asylum in Russia, Snowden would hand over secret American documents to Russia, thus exposing our secrets to, you know, to a country that is sometimes, you know, very much opposed to what we're doing. So are you concerned about that? And is that something that you've talked to Snowden about?

GELLMAN: Well, I actually love it when the editorial page expresses fairly profound disagreement with what the news side of the newspaper is doing. And I think it could fairly be read that they were saying, among other things, you know, stop him before he tells us anything more. There are a lot of readers who are puzzled or amused by that, and I think it's fairly clear proof that when we say that there is a wall between opinion and news at this newspaper that we mean it.

Honestly, writing an editorial about the risk that Snowden - or that implies that Snowden is about to or may already have handed over all his information to WikiLeaks or to the Russians is entirely without evidence. It is pure speculation. There is strong evidence, now three months after his first disclosures, and more than three months after he started giving the information to journalists, that he does not intend to make the whole pile public. He could have done it on the first day. He could have done it months before I ever heard of him.

As for as the speculation that the Chinese or Russian governments have obtained access to this information, that they have the whole pile so all this alleged judiciousness by the journalists is pointless, that is not only speculative, but I think I have very strong evidence that it's not the case. I know how Snowden operates. I've disclosed some of it. I've not disclosed all of it. Just because he has unmasked himself doesn't mean that there are no confidences left in the relationship. He is exceptionally skilled at digital self-defense. In fact, one of his jobs while he was at the NSA, and while he was employed by the CIA, was to teach courses to U.S. national security officials about how to operate in a high-threat digital environment, even on untrusted hardware. Essentially, how you do secret business overseas without being surveilled by the other side.

And I believe that he has rendered himself incapable of opening the archive while he is in Russia. That is to say, it's not only that he doesn't have the key anymore, it's that there's nothing for the key to open anymore. That he has rendered the encrypted information literally impossible to open with what he has in his possession. He has told a former senator in a letter that even under torture he couldn't give the information to the Russians. And that's not a boast about his alleged ability to withstand torture. That is a statement of fact about his capabilities. He simply can't open it, and that means that the Russians can't get it.

GROSS: You know, nevertheless, some people think it's really hypocritical that Snowden, who's fighting for like openness in the United States' fight against terrorism, openness and not secrecy, and that we know who is being spied on in America - so he takes refuge in Russia, which, you know, is known for its surveillance, for its lack of freedom, now for its crackdown on gay people. So it's like he's, it's like he's giving his approval to Russia while, you know, exposing documents from the United States.

GELLMAN: I'm not a spokesman for Snowden or an advocate or - and I'm not going to participate in a legitimate debate I think is out there about his conduct. I will say that I have not heard any statement from Snowden that says, that talks about Russia as some bastion of freedom. He has very practical reasons for being there. I mean if he flies to sort of some Western democracy he's going to be extradited. He doesn't want to be. And it's not, I think, purely a question of self-preservation, although everyone has those motives. He said early on that he would like not only to expose behavior that he thinks is wrong and dangerous to American democracy, but he also wanted to set a new kind of model for whistle-blowing.

There has never been someone who came out and said, raised his hand and said I did it. And there has for practical purposes never been someone who did this without having his life pretty much destroyed for either a period of time or a very long time. And he wanted to say it is possible and here's how to make public disclosures that you're not authorized to make and live a full and normal life afterward. Not necessarily in the United States, but that you can start a debate that many, many people regard as a legitimate debate, that you can find refuge somewhere.

He obviously did not hope to go to Russia. He told me his first choice, if he'd had a choice, was Iceland, which is a very protective, freedom-protective society. He's in Russia because he got stuck there. In fact, you know, Russian President Putin said the United States made sort of an elementary error of tradecraft in withdrawing his passport at the moment he was in transit in Russia. The United States actually trapped him there. He did not intend to stay.

GROSS: You probably can't answer this: Are you still in touch with him?

GELLMAN: I won't answer any questions about my contacts with Snowden, when I've had them, when I haven't, when I've received documents, when I haven't. I have a considerable number of confidential obligations in this source relationship, and Snowden is under pending criminal charges for conduct that includes his interaction with me and I am not going to violate my journalistic obligation to protect that.

GROSS: I get that. Do you feel like you're living in the middle of a spy thriller?

GELLMAN: There are times when I wake up and say to myself, wow, this is crazy. I've never imagined a situation like this. Look, I've done national security investigative reporting for most of two decades. It was most of what I did at The Washington Post even before 9/11. It was all of what I did at The Post after 9/11. I continued to do it for Time magazine after I left The Post. I'm back now on a temporary contract. And look, I've taught a course at Princeton on national security secrecy. I've given lectures on it. I thought I was pretty well prepared on this subject and I never imagined anything like this. It is sui generis. And it's not just I've never had a story like this; I mean really, no one has.

GROSS: And how is it changing your life?

GELLMAN: I was already accused by friends and colleagues of being on the paranoid side about source protection and notes protection. It has been a very long time since my notes were not encrypted and I have learned to communicate with less and less of a digital trail over the years. And one of the distressing things that I've discovered is that there is no full refuge in technology. I can be as disciplined as possible. I can use every tool available to a layperson, and if a significant and well-resourced effort is made to penetrate that, I can't do a thing about it.

I am now taking every precaution I know, even more than I ever have before, to protect the information I have that I don't intend to publish - from hackers, from foreign governments. I mean, it resides on computers that never touch the Internet and all kinds of other precautions that I won't describe in detail. And even so, it's now clear to me, having read through these files, that if the NSA wanted in, they'd find a way.

GROSS: So among the revelations that you've published based on documents leaked to you by Edward Snowden is that we spy a lot on Pakistan, that Iran, Russia, China and North Korea, we're using offensive cyber-operations against them. We've installed malware on tens of thousands computers around the world and we're looking to do that in the millions. Are you concerned that any of this information is going to have negative impacts on our foreign policy?

GELLMAN: Well, I think there clearly are potential harms in disclosing, certainly, details about ongoing intelligence operations. And the Post, in consultation with the U.S. government, has chosen to withhold those kinds of details. But let's look back at the big picture. It is not, in general, a secret that U.S. government is concerned about and trying to find out about, say, the North Korean or Iranian nuclear programs; or even, from public testimony, that it's concerned about the security of Pakistani nuclear components.

There are big foreign policy decisions that are being made - for example, to transfer many billions of dollars of aid to Pakistan - and how to treat this very complex relationship in which Pakistan's interests overlap with U.S. interests in some cases, but it also wants to make - wants to keep good relations with the Taliban, which supported al-Qaida and that there's very complex relationships between different parts of the Pakistani government and the armed services with those entities, that it has been a major proliferation risk of nuclear technology.

And when Americans want to judge the policies of the U.S. government, the effectiveness of those policies, the big choices that the U.S. government makes, that needs to be part of a public debate. We do not elect a president and say go do whatever you want, keep it all secret from us. Do your best. That's not the way checks and balances work. That's not the way public accountability works.

And so when people ask me how can the Washington Post purport to judge - purport to be the judge of what harms national security, I acknowledge we're not elected to do that. We are not, on our own, competent to judge all the risks. And we don't try to do it all on our own.

But the government is also not competent to, or, I would say, not qualified or should not be permitted to decide all on its own what the public needs to know in order to hold it accountable, in order to judge its conduct, among other things, for the next election, but also in terms of ongoing interest in the public to influence government policy. So there's a balance to be struck and there is no one person, no one entity, that ought to be given all the power in that balance.

GROSS: My guest is Washington Post reporter Bart Gellman. He's broken several stories based on classified documents leaked to him by Edward Snowden. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Bart Gellman. He's one of the reporters that Edward Snowden has given classified documents. Gellman has reported on those documents for the Washington Post. He's a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner. He's the author of a best-seller about Vice President Dick Cheney called "Angler."

The Guardian published information based on classified documents given to reporters by Edward Snowden, information about how the U.S. has spied on the U.N. and on our European allies. And our European allies have been publicly expressing a lot of anger about this. Would the Washington Post, would you have published that information?

GELLMAN: We focused our reporting on the places where we thought the public interest was best served. Other news organizations are doing that for themselves. And I think I'm the last person who should play press critic about the competition. I think we're going to let our own work speak for itself. The fact is there's a lot of information here and a lot of potential stories to chase. And it's not all obvious.

I mean, we're not talking about materials that in very many cases are sort of one document, one story - it's all laid out there. There are clues and leads and issues raised that require the standard kinds of journalistic issue-spotting and reporting to fill them out. We're making our choice - our choices, and other organizations are making theirs, and I don't think I want to comment on those.

GROSS: Have all the journalists involved in the story been given the same documents? Or has Snowden given different documents to different journalists?

GELLMAN: Well, for one thing, I can't know that answer with any confidence. And to the extent I think I know, I'm not discussing it.

GROSS: All right. OK. In part because of the revelations that you've published based on classified documents given to you by Edward Snowden, a lot of Americans are totally paranoid now that the government wants to read, you know, our emails and know about who we're calling and look at, you know, our photos that we've put online.

I'm interested in hearing your reflections on, you know, are we living in a Big Brother society where we're all being monitored?

GELLMAN: You know, Big Brother is a very imperfect analogy. On the one hand, I see no evidence that there's anything but sort of good intent to protect U.S. interests. I see no evidence that the government is assembling these tools in order to spy on political opponents or corruptly to serve some private interest, or all the things that you worry about with the Big Brother analogy.

On the other hand, it has accumulated powers that were beyond all imagination of George Orwell, that dwarfed the surveillance capabilities of Orwell. And as it has done so, as it has made the whole world and the U.S. population more and more transparent, it has become more and more opaque about what it's doing. And so increasingly, we are living behind one-way mirrors in which the government knows more and more about us; we know less and less about what the government is doing.

That's the core reason why I believe these stories are important to tell. It is not the case that the government is collecting giant dossiers on every American, that it's browsing through those for any purposes other than what it considers to be national security purposes. But it is actually collecting records of every single phone call we make. It has given itself the means to collect, comprehensively, all the content of all communications in the United States.

It is not doing all that it could do, but it has created a machine that is governed either by a slice of code or an internal regulation, either of which could change over time and could at some point put in the hands of a future president, a future NSA director, powers that J. Edgar Hoover could not have dreamed of when he was abusing his powers at the FBI.

GROSS: So that's one of your concerns, that someday somebody might come along who will abuse the powers and use this information inappropriately.

GELLMAN: Look, anytime you accumulate vast powers in secret without effective checks outside the government itself, that should cause students of history some concern.

GROSS: So on this anniversary of September 11th, I'd like to ask you, since you've been covering the surveillance system and its growth since September 11th, do you think that the growth of the surveillance system has helped make us safer?

GELLMAN: I have no doubt from reading through some of these files, that the surveillance has achieved very important goals, has found very important facts that served American security. And it's not all - it might not even be primarily in the field of counterterrorism but we care a lot about the spread of nuclear weapons. We care a lot about certain activities that are undertaken by foreign governments.

So I am absolutely not making the claim that this stuff does not serve American security. But, you know, in the preamble to the Constitution there are six major purposes that are set out for the design of our government. One of them, which is listed fourth, is to secure the national defense. It's not the only interest we have and there has to be a balance, and the balance has not been debated publicly - has not been debated by an informed public because there was an absolute dearth of information.

And what we're seeing now, what a lot of Americans say they appreciate, is enough transparency to enable Congress and the American public to decide where they want to draw the lines.

GROSS: Barton Gellman, thank you so much for talking with us. And, you know, be well, be safe.

GELLMAN: Thank you very kindly for having me on again.

GROSS: Barton Gellman is a reporter for the Washington Post and a senior fellow at the Century Foundation. He's working on a book about the expansion of surveillance since the 9/11 attacks 12 years ago today.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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