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Washington Post sat on NSA whistleblower info, went to gov’t with it

The Washington Post has revealed that it sat on the revelations of Edward Snowden, the whistleblower who sparked allegations that tech giants such as Google and Facebook were supplying the NSA with personal information, for two weeks.

It also revealed that it went to US government officials with the information and characterises Snowden as “capable of melodrama”.

The US newspaper, whose reporters famously uncovered the Watergate Scandal in the 1970s, says that Snowden approached it with information about the PRISM surveillance network, which reportedly gathered intelligence from tech giants including Microsoft, Facebook, Google and others.

When Snowden, a 29-year-old defence contractor with experience working for the CIA, came forward, he asked that the paper publish his report in full 72 hours after his first meeting with a Post reporter.

Post reporter Barton Gellman says he told Snowden the paper could not make those kind of guarantees and held onto the information for two weeks before publishing it. He also says that it “sought the views of government officials about the potential harm to national security prior to publication and decided to reproduce only four of the 41 slides” in Snowden’s presentation.

It was after this that Snowden went to British newspaper The Guardian, apparently in the hopes that it would be more sympathetic to his cause. “I regret that we weren’t able to keep this project unilateral,” he said in an email to Gellman.

The reporter says however that his correspondence with Snowden continued and that the security contractor “wrote with some eloquence about his beliefs”. He quotes one tract in particular in backing this statement up:

“The internet is on principle a system that you reveal yourself to in order to fully enjoy, which differentiates it from, say, a music player,” he wrote. “It is a TV that watches you. The majority of people in developed countries spend at least some time interacting with the Internet, and Governments are abusing that necessity in secret to extend their powers beyond what is necessary and appropriate.”

Despite this, Gellman describes Snowden as being “capable of melodrama” and describes some of the lengths he had to go to in order to stay in contact with the whistleblower.

The reporter used a different digital channel to contact Snowden, something which apparently caused serious alarm:

I sent him a note on another channel to verify my digital “fingerprint,” a precaution we had been using for some time. Tired, I sent the wrong one. “That is not at all the right fingerprint,” he wrote, preparing to sign off. “You’re getting MITM’d.” He was talking about a “man in the middle” attack, a standard NSA technique to bypass encryption. I hastily corrected my error.

“The police already visited my house [in Hawaii] this morning” with questions on his whereabouts, he wrote, explaining his jitters. “It obviously has a profound and intimidating impact on my family.”

In its profile of Snowden shortly after he revealed himself to be the world, The Guardian wrote that the whistleblower was holed up in a hotel in Hong Kong. He was afraid to leave his room, and typed with a large red hood over his head and laptop so that hidden security cameras could not see what he was typing.

Despite the apparent threats to his wellbeing, Snowden stands by his decision to unveil the information he did.

“It is not that I do not value intelligence, but that I oppose . . . omniscient, automatic, mass surveillance,” he told the Post. “That seems to me a greater threat to the institutions of free society than missed intelligence reports, and unworthy of the costs.”

Speaking to The Guardian, he added that it was never his intent to bring harm to anyone.

“I carefully evaluated every single document I disclosed to ensure that each was legitimately in the public interest,” he said. “There are all sorts of documents that would have made a big impact that I didn’t turn over, because harming people isn’t my goal. Transparency is.”

“I feel satisfied that this was all worth it. I have no regrets,” he added.

Author | Stuart Thomas

Stuart Thomas
Stuart is the editor-in-chief of Engage Me Online. After pursuing an MA in South African literature, he spent five years reporting on the global technology scene. Intrigued by the intersection of technology and work, he joined Engage Me as the editor-in-chief. He is a passionate runner, and recently ran... More

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