Attacks on the Press: Journalism on the Front Lines

May 13, 2014

TV Show


Journalists have always faced attacks on their freedom to report stories and often on their physical safety as well. Now they face a new threat: digital surveillance. Electronic spying means that journalists cannot protect their sources, and undermines the public's confidence in the media's ability to operate without government interference.


JOANNE MYERS: Good afternoon. I'm Joanne Myers, director of Public Affairs Programs, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council I would like to express my appreciation to the Committee to Protect Journalists [CPJ], especially Magnus Ag, for their assistance in arranging this program and for providing each of us with a complimentary copy of the CPJ's comprehensive annual assessment, entitled Attacks on the Press: Journalism on the World's Front Lines. If you don't have a copy, please take one when you leave.

This year, in addition to the chapters on the increasing risks to the personal safety of journalists, there is a focus on digital surveillance. It has been said that information is the oxygen of democracy. If you agree, then it would seem to follow that we, the public, have a right to know about the actions and decisions of our leaders at all levels of government, and we should be able to rely on the press to be that essential element of the equation to enlighten us on what we should and need to know.

But in the past year the Snowden affair has cast doubt on this premise, placing a new spotlight on the adversarial relationship between government and the press. This tension has revealed that the government's capacity to store transactional data, including the content of communications, undermines journalists and their ability to protect sources. In turn, it places journalists under a cloud of suspicion, threatening press freedom.

Moreover, the scope of the NSA's [National Security Agency] digital spying raises doubts about the U.S. commitment to freedom of expression and strengthens the hand of China as well as other restrictive nations, such as Turkey, Iran, and Russia, and their own calls for more government control over the Internet.

Three pieces in this year's report analyze the damaging effects to press freedom caused by the U.S. mass surveillance programs, raising such issues as: How has the dragnet of electronic surveillance affected journalists, their integrity, and their ability to tell the truth; and, going forward, what strategies are needed to safeguard the free flow of information around the world?

Please join me in welcoming two of the most knowledgeable journalists on this issue, our guests today, Joel Simon and Jacob Weisberg. Thank you for joining us.


JACOB WEISBERG: Thank you, Joanne, and thanks everybody for coming out on a dismal evening. I am here in my capacity as a member of the board of the Committee to Protect Journalists.

For those of you who don't know, this is an organization that does incredibly important work, not just intervening and working on behalf of journalists who are in physical jeopardy and trying to look out both for American and international journalists in every country in the world in which they are in serious physical danger, but also in being an advocate for the rights of the press, for freedom of reporting, and for the expanding world of what can be considered journalism. Joel has been not only a friend of mine, but a director for many years, and has presided over a real growth in what the organization takes on.

But it's interesting this year. We do this book every year, Attacks on the Press, which I think a lot of you picked up on the way in. This is an extremely valuable survey every year that is usually very focused on physical jeopardy, places where journalists are threatened, killed, imprisoned, tortured for doing their jobs, and also we have been very focused on the issue of impunity—that is, whether the people who threaten and harm journalists are subjected to any possible risk of prosecution.

But this year we led with a series of essays, one that Joel Simon wrote, an introduction I wrote, and a longer piece by Geoff King, not about physical threats to journalists, but about a more abstract threat of surveillance.

I wanted to ask you, Joel, to start out by giving your thoughts on doing that, to elevating that issue to prominence alongside people in Pakistan, Egypt, Vietnam, India, Iran—all the countries where to be a journalist can involve taking your life in your hands.

JOEL SIMON: I think there has been an evolution in what we understand as the meaning of "press freedom." Press freedom traditionally has meant the physical integrity of the people involved in gathering and disseminating this information, their ability to carry out this critical work, and the legal and regulatory environment in which they operate.

But technology has completely transformed this process in a way that makes the actual medium, the communication infrastructure, the global communication infrastructure, critically important to the exercise of this function. So any threat to that infrastructure is an issue for us. In the last year—or more than that really, but certainly it has come to a head in the last year—surveillance has emerged as a threat to this new global information order. There are several ways in which this has occurred.

One is that, obviously, journalists cannot do their work if they cannot protect their sources, if they cannot communicate with the people they need to communicate with in order to gather and disseminate this information. The awareness now of the pervasiveness of surveillance has changed the equation for many journalists. We can get into that a little bit more. This directly affects journalists themselves and the work that they do.

The second is more abstract. It is just a confidence in the medium itself and its independence, its ability to function independent of government intrusion and involvement. I think that has fundamentally shifted in the last year as well.

Those are the two issues that we are focusing on.

JACOB WEISBERG: So you see the issue of whether journalists can do their job and how they have to do their job as a censorship issue; or would you keep it distinct?

JOEL SIMON: It's not necessarily a censorship issue. It can become one. But surveillance doesn't necessarily produce direct censorship, in that the information can still be gathered and disseminated. Often what come are the consequences of that. The consequences could accrue to the journalists themselves or to their sources. So what you often see is self-censorship, an unwillingness to undertake certain kinds of reporting or difficulties in undertaking that kind of reporting because of the perception that the communication itself is monitored, that surveillance is essentially smothering.

JACOB WEISBERG: Let me play devil's advocate a little bit and say that national security reporting is always a bit of a cat-and-mouse game. Often, long before we were talking about any of these surveillance issues, sources are breaking the law, taking grave risk to their own careers, and possibly their freedom, by talking to journalists. Journalists still have the same protections we have always had—

JOEL SIMON: In this country.

JACOB WEISBERG: In this country. We're talking about in this country.

So maybe the cat has gotten a little better and the mouse has got to be a little mousier to do this kind of reporting. But, given where the technology has gone, isn't that just the inevitable evolution?

JOEL SIMON: Well, I think there is a fundamental shift. I think that the perception of how the technology is utilized, many people think about it very differently. If you talk about journalists and the way they communicate, they think about the risk in different ways.

I think that the key is also to internationalize this phenomenon. To my mind, what has happened in this country, with the Snowden revelations and the increasing awareness about the NSA's ability to track communication—keep in mind that there is a big uproar in this country, but most of the risk is actually outside the United States when you were talking about NSA surveillance.

And the risk from national governments is even greater, because this technology to my mind is a bit like drone technology. Right now the United States and the NSA have this tremendous technological advantage. But what you need in order to carry out this kind of surveillance is cheap data storage, and the price of data storage is coming down, is coming down, is coming down. So I think more and more governments are going to undertake this kind of surveillance operations, and that is going to have a tremendous impact on journalists at the national level.

JACOB WEISBERG: We should talk about this data storage question in a minute. But first, I want to go a little deeper into that distinction between the rights and threats to U.S.-based journalists working for American organizations and international journalists reporting on national security.

If you are an American journalist covering national security, practically your work is very different than it was several years ago. You've got to become an expert on encryption; there are questions about whether you can have any way to offer a source a genuine guarantee of anonymity.

JOEL SIMON: The whole notion of issuing a subpoena to journalists to get them to reveal their sources may be obsolete. There have actually been reported exchanges of law enforcement basically saying, "We are not going to need subpoenas. We are not going to need to subpoena journalists because we can subpoena the people you have communicated with, get their emails, find out who they have been talking to." We are seeing that process already.

JACOB WEISBERG: How big a concern is the targeting of American journalists themselves with surveillance, or is the government able to, as you say, get what it needs just by going after the sources?

JOEL SIMON: I think that if you talk to U.S. journalists, the threat is more abstract. They're like, "Well, I communicate in different ways, I think about this a little more, I worry about my sources." Certainly I hear that a lot.

But if you talk to journalists outside the United States, there have been a couple of incidents, particularly that have been revealed by some of the Snowden documents, particularly an NSA operation, to essentially hack into the communications in the structure of Al Jazeera. Now, we don't know if there are other examples of this, but there is no legal prohibition. There is nothing preventing the NSA essentially from getting this information. So if you are working outside the United States and you are talking to people that U.S. intelligence might be interested in, you'd better be worried.

JACOB WEISBERG: Because you're not protected by the First Amendment and there are no limits on the surveillance.

JOEL SIMON: There are no limits. In fact, you can argue, from the perspective of the NSA and their role of protecting national security, that they almost have an obligation to try and get this information if they believe that it enhances U.S. national security. There are no legal restrictions. There is nothing preventing them from trying to get it.

JACOB WEISBERG: Since the first Snowden revelations, which were almost exactly a year ago, when The Guardian first published them, there have been two concurrent reactions. One has been outrage at Snowden himself for creating what people in the government say is very severe harm to national security, and the argument about what should happen to him, whether he should be prosecuted, whether he's a villain, whether he's a hero. But concurrent with that has been a surprising consensus that there have been excesses and that the surveillance programs have gone too far.

It is possible to believe both of these things. In fact, the president clearly believes both of these things and is simultaneously maintaining that Snowden should be subject to prosecution and that, now that we know, we should be reining in and scaling back.

JOEL SIMON: Yeah. That's all weird.

Actually, if I can turn the tables a little bit, this is something that you dealt with in the foreword that you did to the book Attacks on the Press, which is: What is the role of the press in covering this issue and what is the responsibility of government?

Your focus, your concern, is on accountability and oversight more than the activities that were carried out, correct?

JACOB WEISBERG: Yes. Well, I think it's a legitimate issue what the limits on surveillance should be. I certainly would not take the position that the NSA should be doing nothing and should not try to have access to encryption systems and gathering some data. The question is what those limits are.

And, if there is no public knowledge, there cannot be any democratic discussion or deliberation about where the limits should be. So essentially, pre-Snowden the public knew more or less nothing, and in fact much of the government, Congress knew nothing, and so you had no practical democratic oversight and no real Congressional oversight.

I think Snowden has gone a pretty long way toward correcting that problem. We don't know everything about the program, but we have a pretty good idea. We know much more than anybody could have imagined about the details of what the NSA was doing. Congress has woken up and it has permitted a more open discussion there about what the limits should be. There is reform. The president has proposed a series of reforms. He appointed a five-member commission, which made a series of recommendations, some of which he took. There is legislation that passed the House Judiciary Committee yesterday.

So from my point of view, this crime that Snowden committed—and it pretty clearly was a crime—has produced a largely positive outcome, which is that we now have the makings of some accountability around this program.

JOEL SIMON: So are you as conflicted as the president or slightly less conflicted? In this equation you obviously think there has been a benefit, but you also think there is a crime that has been committed. So how do you reconcile those two things or, maybe, what advice do you give to the president about how he should reconcile them?

JACOB WEISBERG: It's not up to me. I certainly would be in the pardon Snowden camp, because I think the consequences of what he did have been very positive, even though I wouldn't defend his actions, partly because I don't think he exhausted the available alternatives for creating internal review.

JOEL SIMON: I think the worst thing he did was end up in Russia. Let's agree to that. We have seen him, hopefully inadvertently, be a useful tool for Putin, which in my mind is really unforgivable, given his role.

JACOB WEISBERG: Yes. But I'm not sure there was a good way to do it. There were a variety of possible bad ways.

What I have been very impressed with is the way the responsible establishment press has handled his story, starting with The Guardian and The Washington Post and The New York Times and some of the other international outlets that have had access to some of the material.

I think they have done—as far as it is possible to know—a very credible job of reviewing what they should release and subjecting it to a kind of standard around is there a threat of physical harm to people from the information; would some of this information be helpful to terrorists and not relevant to public decision-making?

JOEL SIMON: So is the Snowden/Greenwald nexus the anti-Manning/Assange, the counterweight? The argument in that case was you had someone leaking information essentially willy-nilly, wholesale, to someone who didn't share the ethical framework of journalists. So some people think a lot of damage was done as a result and it was less positive.

Where in this case you have someone who, I think—regardless of what framework you put Snowden in, you have to recognize that he was very deliberate and considered about what information he released, and he went through, as far as we know, established journalists who operated within—I think there is some debate about Glenn Greenwald, but he is certainly a journalist who operates within the ethical framework of the profession.

So is that a better vehicle for this kind of—is this an argument in favor of journalists?

JACOB WEISBERG: Well, there is a progression here definitely. I think with Assange and Manning you were going with someone who is actively very hostile to the United States' interests in the world, does not recognize any legitimate concerns here, would have gone far beyond what even people in his own organization thought was legitimate to publish; and was, arguably, taking advantage of a very confused preoperative transsexual who is probably going to spend the rest of his life in jail.

I think moving from that to Snowden/Greenwald, Snowden is someone who thinks of himself, or says he thinks of himself, as an American patriot, no matter how misguided some people might think he is.

But, interestingly, Greenwald presses an issue I think we should discuss, which is Greenwald considers himself a responsible journalist, he does not consider himself identified with the United States.

In the world of globalized media we live with, what is the responsibility of a journalist who happens to be American? Is subjecting things to the considerations around American national security even relevant, and how do you deal with that?

JOEL SIMON: I think that's a key question when you are talking about national security reporting: Does the journalist operate within the strategic framework of the country of which they are a citizen?

In other words, if you are an American journalist and you are covering national security issues that affect Russian interests, do you treat that information very differently than if you had information that might affect the national security of the United States?

And then switch that around. If you are a Pakistani journalist and you are reporting on, say, military activities of the United States in Pakistan, and reporting that information could be damaging to U.S. strategic interests but might benefit Pakistani interests, do you shift your framework?

We have sort of looped back to the surveillance issue because I think they are related. But I think that the challenge here when we talk about surveillance and when we talk about national security reporting is that the information is increasingly de‑nationalized. Not all journalists, but many journalists, operate in this kind of international de‑nationalized framework.

But surveillance almost entirely operates in the realm of nations. They are the ones who have the capacity to carry out these kinds of operations.

When you look at what has happened in the United States and the scope of the NSA's surveillance, one of the points that I made is look at China and look at the surveillance activities they carry out, including surveillance of journalists, including surveillance of U.S. journalists.

Now, remember this whole push the administration made to challenge China in its overwhelming surveillance, including its hacking of The New York Times that looked to be state-sponsored in reprisal for their reporting on wealth accrued by senior officials in China. That stopped in the aftermath of the Snowden revelations. They lost their ability to pursue that approach.

JACOB WEISBERG: And I think that is a very real issue here, is the loss of moral standing, not just in relation to cyber-warfare, issues like that, but also in terms of governance of the Internet, which is a key issue right now. I mean the Internet has generally been under a kind of benign, largely Americanized control.

JOEL SIMON: But not if you're China. From China's vantage point—this is the argument that they make—it is not benign at all and it is not internationalized at all; their argument is the United States has exploited the advantage that it has had. The advantage stems from a number of things.

One is the institutions that oversee the Internet are predominantly in the United States, and the Chinese believe that this gives the United States access to some of the key architecture/infrastructure of the Internet. We now know this to be true. A lot of people were somewhat skeptical of this.

And the companies that are the backbone of the Internet are largely in the United States. We now know that that was exploited as well.

Ironically, the Chinese are really the only country in the world to have a full-fledged online infrastructure that is nationalized. For that reason, if you look at global traffic, most of it passes through the United States; it goes through Google at some point or it goes through some U.S. server. But not Chinese traffic. So they were probably the least affected, actually, by the NSA surveillance.

JACOB WEISBERG: Yes, and the risk of further fragmentation of Russia, Japan, and other countries building these national Internets is something that people who think about Internet governance are especially concerned about.

Let's go to the question of the national responsibility of journalists. You run an organization of journalists—not all American, mostly American, but with international representation.

In the 1980s, when I started out as a journalist, this was pretty easy—you wrote for an American audience. The issue didn't come up very much where your responsibilities lay. Now it does. You can be a journalist in any country writing for an audience in other countries, including your own country.

Interestingly, on both sides of this episode the U.S./UK boundary has proved crucial, in that the NSA teamed up with the GHCQ [Government Communications Headquarters] to get around restrictions, and The Guardian teamed up with The New York Times to take advantage of protection. As Alan Rusbridger of The Guardian said, "We had the thumb drive and The New York Times had the First Amendment."

If you are a journalist, how do you think about your moral responsibility and how do you think about your national responsibility?

JOEL SIMON: I think it's a muddle. The moral responsibility, ironically, is somewhat easier to parse. I think that most journalists operate within a framework in which any information that can be made public should be made public, and that has to be done in a way that takes into account different perspectives, and it has to be worked on to ensure the accuracy of the information. But you kind of have this "let the chips fall where they may" approach.

But determining when you go to a national government with this information—"We have information that is potentially damaging to your national interests or your national security interests"—and giving the government the opportunity to argue that the information should not be revealed—we know this happens in the United States.

Well, what do you do if it is Pakistan or Mexico or Russia or China or some other country making that argument and you are not a citizen of those countries? How do you determine what the right thing to do is?

JACOB WEISBERG: I guess what I would say maybe is to be a journalist is to have a commitment to certain core liberal values around freedom of expression, around protection for human rights, probably around representative government. So long as your country is in accord with those basic values and operates according to the rule of law, you owe them an obligation. But if you are practicing journalism in a country where none of that obtains, or you are dealing with a government that is committed to them in principle but not in practice, then I think your national obligations—

JOEL SIMON: So General Sisi met today with journalists in Egypt. He had a big meeting with 30 editors; he summoned them all. He basically said, "You guys are obsessed with freedom of speech. You should be focused on the national interest. You should not be whipping up scandals and agitating people and creating skepticism among the public. It is your moral responsibility to ensure the national interest of Egypt."

Now, some journalists in Egypt, I think, probably agree with that, because of their own perspective on this other threat represented by the Muslim Brotherhood. But, of course, others are just intimidated.

You see government leaders around the world make this argument to journalists all the time. Turkish journalists are another example. It puts them in a very tough position.

I'm not sure, at least from CPJ's perspective—maybe I would argue that the best journalists share this outlook, but there are many, many journalists who do not share this outlook at all, this liberal outlook if you will.

JACOB WEISBERG: Right. Well, I think there are journalists everywhere in the world who would like to have the rights and protections that we do in the West, and there is some group of journalists who are also quite happy being propagandists for their regime, and there are probably quite a lot in the middle who don't feel they have any choice or latitude in the matter and would probably support the development of freer expression. But in a place like Egypt they are so far from it that it is an unimaginable luxury to them.

JOEL SIMON: Yes. But I think it puts journalists in a very complicated position, because if you are an Egyptian journalist having been warned now, if you have a story that is a national security story, how do you treat that both from an ethical perspective and in terms of your own survival? I think they are really in a tough position.

JACOB WEISBERG: The available space to do any critical reporting on the government in Egypt right now is virtually nil, let alone revealing—

JOEL SIMON: It's nil. The other reality is that journalists in Egypt are not pushing very hard to create this space.

JACOB WEISBERG: But again, to come back to the point we started on in the beginning, the consequences for disobeying the government in this country are one thing; the consequences in Egypt are another thing.

JOEL SIMON: That's true.

JACOB WEISBERG: I just want to touch on the issue of the reform agenda and what an organization like CPJ would like to see happen in terms of what sort of data is collected and what the limitations are around it.

Maybe the biggest issue at the core of this is what data gets held by whom for so long. Probably the core revelation of all the Snowden disclosures, the biggest thing, is that the NSA was taking everything and keeping it forever.

That's what Obama has said is unacceptable. He has proposed this idea that the government wouldn't hold data; it would be held by the phone companies, communications companies, and carriers, and actually held for a limited period of time, and the government could access it with a legitimate subpoena.

Is that the right answer on data collection, and do you think there is a good chance that that will become the law?

JOEL SIMON: I can't say whether that will become law. But is it the right answer? It is certainly improved. But I think what even private companies can do with this data is staggering.

Google Traffic, for example—how does Google Traffic work? How do they know whether roads are crowded? They basically are tracking Android phones moving down the road and they know the speed they are moving at, so they are basically using your phone, tracking your movements, anonymized, but your movements to determine traffic.

I think there is another question, about how much information do the companies have and how comfortable are we with that, knowing that the government could potentially get their hands on it at some point—and who knows what they could do with it?

Now, just as an organization focused on protection of journalists and ensuring that the legal framework facilitates the work of the media, I think there has to be some recognition of the special threat that smothering surveillance, overwhelming surveillance, poses to the press and the work that journalists do, and some sort of recognition that seeking information from journalists, or spying on journalists, including journalists outside the United States, is something that should require, I think, some sort of higher-level authorization. I don't know at what level, and I don't know the specifics of how this should be done. But there should be some regulatory framework that recognizes the critical role that journalists play, not just in this country but globally, and limits the ability of government to access the communications of journalists.


Well, one parallel is when it comes to criminal investigations in general.

JOEL SIMON: Absolutely.

JACOB WEISBERG: The Justice Department has guidelines that say it has to exhaust every other alternative before subpoenaing a journalist, which strikes me as a good place to start.

JOEL SIMON: Yes, that's an interesting place to start. Of course, that has to do with the investigatory process, and this is an espionage function. So it's a slightly different framework.

But another comparison is the CIA has said—and they make very few public commitments—that they will not recruit U.S. journalists as intelligence assets, in order to ensure that journalists who are working in some pretty dicey places have that deniability, that the CIA does not recruit journalists, does not use U.S. journalists as agents. I actually think they should say journalists in general, but they have never made that commitment.

But I think that, even within the framework of an organization that carries out espionage, is an important public recognition of the role that journalists play, and the fact that in many parts of the world what people say about journalists when they take you hostage is that you're a spy. So any distance that can be created between espionage and—because what you are doing as a journalist, going around and asking nosy questions in parts of the world where the press is not free and independent, sounds a lot like what a spy does.

JACOB WEISBERG: I don't get from the James Clappers of the world much sense of recognition about that critical role that journalists play in free expression.

JOEL SIMON: Keith Alexander, the NSA Director, his reaction to the Snowden revelations and the publication in The Guardian—I think you wrote about this—was one of "something's got to be done."

JACOB WEISBERG: "We have to stop them. They're stealing secrets."

JOEL SIMON: And they're selling them.

JACOB WEISBERG: You sent me something today I hadn't seen, which was a national director of intelligence directive from James Clapper, which I guess went out in March, that was essentially about contacts between anybody in the intelligence community and the press. What it said was, if you had to boil it down to one sentence, there shouldn't be any. It was amusingly Orwellian, because it started sort of "to serve the purpose of transparency and government openness, no one can ever talk to the press."

JOEL SIMON: It made no distinction between classified and unclassified information either.

JACOB WEISBERG: Right. And it also said that if you were in this vast intelligence apparatus, which now numbers hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people, and more than a million if you're talking about top-secret security clearance, you had to report to your superiors accidental contacts with the press—i.e., if you were at a cocktail party and you found yourself in conversation with a reporter about the weather.

JOEL SIMON: So I wonder if there is anyone I have had over for dinner or something who had to report to their superiors, "I didn't know I was invited to dinner at a journalist's house."

JACOB WEISBERG: Bureaucracy at work.


QUESTION: Susan Gitelson.

Thank you for analyzing everything so well. Will you go more deeply into the risks of attacks on the press for journalists in Russia and China, and you mentioned Egypt, and Turkey, and so forth, where they have governments that can be very hostile?

JOEL SIMON: Yes. This conversation is a bit of a departure for CPJ, which is what we thought would make it interesting. The work day-in and day-out is exactly as you describe, it's defending journalists in places around the world where the threat is much more imminent and much more direct. So the countries you mentioned, China and Egypt and Russia, are places where our work is carried out day-in and day-out.

We are very concerned, just to give an example, about the situation in Russia. There has been a series of new laws passed in the context in which the media space is increasingly restricted and the government is inserting itself into that space in a very aggressive way. Russia has had some independent media, but that space is shrinking.

A new law essentially requires blogs or any sort of online content that has more than 3,000 views to register with the government, to give their names to the government—they don't even have to surveil; you have to actually just hand it over to them—and then these same kinds of regulations that apply to the traditional media would then apply to you, including laws against extremism.

So Putin is really moving in a very aggressive way against independent online speech and bringing it under state control and creating a national environment in which essentially propaganda is the dominant voice.

JACOB WEISBERG: In Russia it does seem particularly cruel at the moment. If you are in China or Iran, you know you can't really practice independent journalism. In Russia there has been enough space for it that the constricting of the space is particularly upsetting.

A big sign to me was a little less than a year ago, when Masha Gessen, who was one of the bravest journalists operating there and had defied all sorts of threats, finally said, "I have children. It's just too dangerous. I can face threats and risks for myself, but I am not going to take this chance for my children." She left and came back to America. To me that was a sign—if it's too dangerous for her, it's too dangerous to do journalism.

QUESTION: Jim Traub with

If I can combine this last question about bad governments with what you guys were talking about with technology, my sense is that, even three or four years ago, the young guys on the street in Tahrir Square and elsewhere had a serious technological advantage over the slow-footed bureaucrats in Cairo and elsewhere, and that that technological gap has shrunk, and that it's not only the legal instruments that you were talking about in Russia. Their ability to surveil, their ability to hack—the Syrians are now hacking The New York Times website—so that now it feels like those social media instruments, on balance, are just about as much of a force for bad as they are as a force for good.

JOEL SIMON: That's a really interesting observation. I think the framework that Jacob started with, the cat and the mouse—I think the cat has just caught the mouse is basically what has happened here. That's a nice metaphor, but eventually the cat usually gets the mouse and eats it.

JACOB WEISBERG: Except for Tom and Jerry.

JOEL SIMON: Except for Tom and Jerry cartoons.

I think a couple of things have happened. One, there is definitely a shift in the technology. I would actually go back to the Green Revolution in Iran. That was the first example where government really used social networks to dismantle the protest movement. They would bring people in. The first thing they did was torture you, get your password, get your Facebook page, figure out who your friends were, figure out who you were communicating with, bring those people in—you know, reverse engineer the social networks. They used that very effectively. If you talk to journalists and other people who were detained, the first thing they wanted was the password, and they wanted to get that out of you very quickly before somebody could deactivate your account.

But the other thing that has changed is an awareness on the part of repressive governments of the power of these tools and their ability to destabilize and challenge their authority.

So that lesson has been learned in a series of revolts. But governments now recognize that in order to retain power you need to retain control over the public space and you need to retain control over the information space.

The example I gave in Russia is actually Putin recognizing that in Russia the Internet has become a form of mass communication. This space that was open was partially a result of the fact that it was an elite communication, and Putin had tolerated a certain amount of dissent among the elite. But when he saw this become a tool for mass organizing, not just in Russia but in other parts of the world, he said, "Okay, this is the end of the game." It was actually announced, "The space is closing," and, sure enough, he followed through.


Jim, I still hold out a little more hope for digital technology as a force for challenging illegitimate authority. I don't think there has ever been any new communication technology that didn't function in that way, at least in part.

There has been this debate for years now between the cyber-utopians, who think the Internet simply is going to give advantage to the good guys, and the skeptics who think, "No, it's better for the bad guys."

I think it's partly that the bad guys have done better with a little more time. But I think, even from the beginning, it has been a combination of factors country by country who has had the leg-up.

In Iran, from the very beginning, the government was probably ahead.

In Egypt you had this interesting collection of circumstances. You had a guy who worked for Google who was at the center of the movement, who really understood how to use it, Wael Ghonim. I remember him telling the story when he came here on his first trip about how he had set up this Facebook page and the government took him in.

Somebody in this audience asked him, "Weren't you afraid you were going to be tortured?"

He said, "Of course. These guys are thugs. I gave up the password immediately. But I had set it up so that it wasn't the password anymore. I didn't know the password."

The people in Egypt, and the government especially, were sort of Keystone Cop'ish and stupid there. Now the balance has probably shifted.

In Tunisia it was sort of that the good guys did probably more with the Internet than the bad guys.

JOEL SIMON: I don't disagree. But I think the balance has shifted very dramatically in the last year. I can't isolate all of the factors, but I think one of them is just that the governments are taking this threat much more seriously. That's the key.


QUESTION: I'm David Hunt.

I was in the CIA clandestine service for 32 years. I can tell you that, while you have represented a view of the journalists, I want to just give you a view of what it is like to be inside the service that is running and recruiting sensitive sources. To do that you need a disciplined bureaucracy at home within the agency that can protect those sources, because if that is lost, then you are not going to be recruiting anymore.

Our contacts with the press were closely controlled, discouraged. When you had a social contact with a journalist, you were supposed to report it, because if you didn't, when you took a polygraph every five years, there was always a question, "Have you ever had any unauthorized contacts with the press?" So it was a good way of keeping everybody honest.

But if you are in the field working sources, your worst fear is that there is somebody back at headquarters on a desk with loose lips who goes out and has a drink sometime with a journalist.

Believe me, they will press you. I got calls from people at The Washington Post at 3 o'clock in the morning about Iran-Contra, and I used to say, "John"—his name wasn't John—"please don't call me. I have to report it, and if I knew anything I wouldn't tell you anyway."

You can't disagree with at least the clandestine service having a strong discipline to protect the sources that it runs because their lives certainly depend on it.

JACOB WEISBERG: I think that's a very valuable rejoinder. I certainly agree. I had a younger brother who was in the CIA for several years. We are not unsympathetic to the idea of intelligence gathering in my family.

I think the real question is—well, partly the question arises. When you started in the CIA, it was a couple thousand people?

QUESTIONER: In the clandestine service, about 5,000 people.

JACOB WEISBERG: Right. The number of top-secret clearances in the United States is over a million. I don't think it was an accident that we had Wikileaks and Snowden within a couple of years. The number of people who had access to information was so vast and the issues around the ethics and morality of what was being collected and what was being done with it were significant enough that it was simply implausible to think you could keep that information.

I think government, in terms of its legitimate security interests and its legitimate secrets, has to think very seriously about how it protects what it needs to protect. I absolutely think that part of that answer has to be many fewer people having access to the crown jewels.

JOEL SIMON: Yes. I would only add to that that some of the most important national security reporting that has benefited this country's democracy has been accomplished because of relationships between journalists and people in the intelligence world.

Yes, you need a bureaucracy that ensures operational discipline, there is no question about that. But there is a question of just how much effort do you expend in ensuring that there is no contact whatsoever, given the fact that these things are happening in the same space? There inevitably are relationships, are conversations.

So I think it is a really tough question. I think the conversation is enriched by having your perspective. But I think ultimately there is a response to these leaks and revelations on the part of the government that has the potential to stifle critically valuable reporting. That's my concern.

JACOB WEISBERG: I just want to add one point. I think it goes back to this distinction between the public knowing what its government is doing in principle and knowing what it is doing in detail. I think the public has to know what it is doing in principle, and I think it does know in principle what the CIA does around human intelligence gathering.

It didn't even really know in principle what the NSA was doing around data collection. But once that is established and you have a sense of democratic consent—I don't favor people in government leaking the details of programs that put people at risk—I think the press has legitimate protections around trying to do its job. But that doesn't mean that everything should come out.

QUESTION: I'm Edward Marschner.

Given that obviously the Internet is supposed to be a tool that journalists can use to get information to themselves but it is being used by repressive governments in the reverse direction, to roll up networks of contacts that journalists have, just as they always have tried to roll up networks, the technology of the Internet makes it much easier, it seems to me, for them to roll up networks of contacts to journalists.

As a practical matter, what are journalistic enterprises telling their people to do to protect themselves against that and to protect themselves physically? Do they take out kidnapping insurance? Have you dealt with that, in terms of what are the best practices in journalistic enterprises these days?

JACOB WEISBERG: Joel can speak to this. Being a journalist, in terms of your being a national security journalist, is a lot more like being a drug dealer or being a money launderer or being a bitcoin trader than it used to be in terms of your attempt to use technology to anonymize, to encrypt your communications, using burner phones. It's sort of amazing. It involves you in this netherworld of dodgy-seeming activity to protect legitimate activity.

JOEL SIMON: Yes. On the other hand, there is also a return of low tech. When The Guardian was doing its Snowden reporting, they just spent a lot of times on planes flying to Brazil, because they just didn't feel there was any way that they could communicate or transmit their stories using the communication tools that we rely on.

You asked a lot of questions. One thing that you have to keep in mind about the work we do is that most of the journalists who are threatened and the most vulnerable journalists do not work for large media organizations; they are actually working for small national media organizations in their own countries. So they don't necessarily have the resources and training and support that U.S. journalists or international journalists working for major media organizations would have.

But when it comes to information security, I'll make a couple of points.

One, most journalists, with a few notable exceptions, are ignorant about this issue and the risk. They are. Some are aware but are overwhelmed, because they just—especially because the things that they thought were safe, now they understand are not necessarily safe. The technology is changing and the awareness of the government capabilities in terms of surveillance and intervention is growing.

If you are committed to using these tools and you want to be able to ensure the security of your source, you have to do what Jacob was talking about. The alternative is pen and paper. That works pretty well.

JACOB WEISBERG: And we have had some really interesting conversations at CPJ about training journalists and our role. Journalists are looking for resources about how do you function in this environment. I think the CPJ has put out a couple of really useful documents.

JOEL SIMON: I think the main thing we are doing, because the training is really challenging, because the technology is changing—but what journalists have to do and have to be aware of is they have to do a risk assessment when they talk to sources who are vulnerable: "How am I communicating with this source? Who might want this information? If they get this information what are they going to do with it? And what steps can I take to reduce the risk?" Those are the kinds of questions.

If you are reporting on city hall and you really could care less about, let's say, NSA getting that information—I don't know why they would; it would have no impact whatsoever—then [shrugs]. But if you are a journalist in Pakistan and you are talking to some Taliban and you have regular contact with them in order to do your reporting, I would be very concerned about the communication tools that I would use.

QUESTION: Carmen Maria Rodriguez of Radio Martí.

I wanted to know, please, in Nigeria was it fear of the press that kept the press from letting the plight of the 200 or so girls that were abducted be known, or was it social media stepping in to do the work?

JOEL SIMON: I can't really respond about the specific dynamic in Nigeria. Let me make a general comment about the way that I am seeing social media function in many places where the traditional media is not meeting the public's expectations in terms of providing information.

I was a little bit cynical about technology in answering the previous question. I see in places like Turkey, I see in places like Brazil, I see in places like Nigeria, that where the traditional media fails to fully report information that a segment of the public wants, that there is an explosion of that information on social media and people get that information.

Now, it is not as broadly disseminated as you would like because in many of these countries the people using those tools still represent a relatively small elite. But it is very hard for governments to contain it.

JOANNE MYERS: I just want to thank you both for really a very interesting discussion. I'm sure many of you have learned a lot and you know a lot more now than you did when you first came in.

Thank you very much.

You may also like

CREDIT: <a href="">thierry ehrmann</a> (<a href="">CC</a>)

JAN 8, 2014 Article

Secrets and Allies: UK and U.S. Government Reaction to the Snowden Leaks

Is Edward Snowden a whistleblower, a traitor, or a mixture of both? How should he and the media that published his leaks be treated? Journalist ...

CREDIT: DreamWorks Studios

DEC 3, 2013 Article

Ethics on Film: Discussion of "The Fifth Estate"

"The Fifth Estate" tells the story of Julian Assange and his Wikileaks organization. Since the story is still ongoing, was it too early to make ...

Not translated

This content has not yet been translated into your language. You can request a translation by clicking the button below.

Request Translation