The Atlantic Journalist (Barton Gellman) Always Watching His Back After Interviewing Snowden

This is a chilling tale of how this journalist that interviewed Edward Snowden started being surveilled after the interview.

It’s stories like these that reinforce the thought that we could offend influential entities and endanger ourselves, regardless of whether or not we view what we share as offensive.


Wonder what would happen if he tried Purism’s anti interdiction service?

I’m not sure what else he expected when received a “trove of documents” from Snowden. As far as I’m concerned, he’s lucky to be only surveilled.

What do you mean by this? The journo could not be prosecuted under US law.

Or do you mean death by suspicious accident?

The latter, I suppose. My point was that, considering all the negative attention (to put it mildly) that Snowden got for that very same information, I think the journalist is fortunate to only be being surveilled and not having his place broken into all the time, or snatched into a van and having a black bag put over his face as he’s driven to some warehouse.

And, to be objective, the issue isn’t that he interviewed Snowden and probably isn’t as big an issue that he reported what he reported. It’s that he is in possession of a bunch of sensitive information. I, personally, wouldn’t have accepted that “trove of documents” for this very reason. In this day and age, once someone has information, they have it forever (presumably, and there’s no way to prove otherwise), and thus there’s really not a whole lot this journalist can do to make the US gov’t not care anymore.

Precisely. You want to be Mister big pants, get the scoop, and stick it to the man, then you better be prepared to do the dance.

On top of that, the type of person who does this type of thing, likes the attention. Likes being able to write articles like this one.

I mean how naive do you need to be, to think the information you were given was going to lead to a normal and boring life?

If he was really worried, and wanted it to stop, why not go to the authorities and give them what you have?

He didn’t steel it. He isn’t capable of using it for anything else, other than additional articles etc.

We all know why, no attention that way. No articles.

My response to all of this:

Cry me a river.

The key court ruling in this area is Bartnicki v. Vopper in which the Supreme Court ruled, in 2001, that it is legal to publish material that was originally illegally obtained i.e. that the First Amendment protects publication of the material and that the First Amendment has priority over some of the other considerations (such as privacy and such as freedom of speech for the original speech).

The Supreme Court set down some boundaries for when this decision would determine the outcome of a similar future case. Specifically,

  • the journalist must have had nothing to do with the illegal obtaining of the material
  • the journalist must have him- or herself legally obtained the material (which is not usually a problem in a whistleblower scenario)
  • it must be in the public interest for the publication to take place

The government has of course been attempting to corrode this decision ever since.

Nevertheless this should mean that if a journalist is snatched off the street and taken to an abandoned warehouse, the government risks legal consequences of its own (in the US).

To best meet the condition noted in the first item above, it is best that the journalist has no prior knowledge that the material will be illegally obtained. This avoids the possibility that the journalist becomes an accomplice or co-conspirator. It is best that the journalist does not ask for further material, as that could look like solicitation.

There is also some suggestion that, in an ideal world, the journalist does not know the identity of the party who obtained the material illegally. (A whistleblower may wish his or her identity to be a secret anyway.)

There is some ambiguity as to whether it matters whether the journalist knows, or would reasonably believe, that the material was illegally obtained. In my opinion this is too high a bar for the journalist. However future Supreme Court rulings may disagree with me, as the government works towards knowing more and more about you, while keeping you more and more in the dark about its malfeasance.

That court case is relevant as far as how the journalist obtained the information, and yes, I would agree that he isn’t liable for that. However, I’m very certain that the nature of the trove of documents he has is quite sensitive and either is or very well could be (at the very least, argued to be) pertinent to national security. I don’t know what he has except that it is relevant to Snowden and what he was blowing his whistle about, but I daresay that the information the journalist has could be detrimental to the United States at large should it get into the wrong actor’s or actors’ hands. By my best judgement, it is for that reason that he is being surveilled, and it is for that reason that I think his only being surveilled is rather a circumstance of good fortune rather than an unjust surprise.

There’s certainly some speculation on my part, but I don’t think I’m far off the mark. If the information this journalist has is relevant to espionage of some kind in the US, then I guarandamntee it is relevant to espionage of some kind overseas as well, for good and bad reasons.

If the information came from Snowden then surely it is already in the “wrong” actor’s hands? Snowden has already released documents to other journalists.

As you implied above, you can’t put the genii back in the bottle. The documents escaped into the wild a long time ago (seven years ago). Who knows how many copies there are? Who knows how many people have seen the documents?

It is possible that the government doesn’t know exactly which documents escaped and hence is always keen to get that information from journalists so that the government can definitively mark the document as “compromised”.

Perhaps Snowden could send the government a SHA256 hash of each document. :slight_smile: Then the government knows which documents are compromised but without any untidy disappearances or intimidation.

But as far as information being in the wrong actor’s hands goes, we should be at least as concerned about the “illegal” mass surveillance that has been revealed. In that case the wrong actor is the US government and the information is your information. The purpose is to prevent government overreach.

By “wrong actors” I meant China, Russia, North Korea, etc. If that journalist sells what he has it could be very bad for everybody.

I agree with what you’re saying about the mass surveillance, but it is outside the scope of what I was talking about earlier.

Has the journalist published anything of the documents that would allow anyone to form a judgement about the contents of the documents or the consequences of their falling into the “wrong” hands?

Regardless, it is a bold assumption to think that the documents have not already fallen into Russian hands.

All this was happening many years ago. If the journalist was just going to sell out, he would have done it years ago.

Anyway, the NSA believes that foreign state intelligence services already breached all the journalists’ defences and just took the files !

Has the journalist published anything of the documents that would allow anyone to form a judgement about the contents of the documents or the consequences of their falling into the “wrong” hands?

I think the US government is in a good position to make that judgement. Besides, sensitive data gets published all the time without the public knowledge. You or I not hearing about it has no bearing on whether or not it’s happened.

Regardless, it is a bold assumption to think that the documents have not already fallen into Russian hands.

I suppose it is, and it’s one I haven’t made. As stated earlier, there is a bit (maybe more than a bit) of speculation on my part.

All this was happening many years ago. If the journalist was just going to sell out, he would have done it years ago.

Perhaps the journalist wasn’t in the middle of a costly divorce many years ago, or was still current on all his debts many years ago.

Anyway, the NSA believes that foreign state intelligence services already breached all the journalists’ defences and just took the files !

Do they? I hadn’t seen that. If that’s the case, then maybe he’s being surveilled in case he decides to acquire another, perhaps more valuable, trove of documents, one that could be more damaging to the US.

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It’s in the article linked to at the top of this topic.

The only time I saw that phrase was one person saying to assume that to the reporter.

At any rate, I have little sympathy for reporters who divulge classified information, generally speaking. I heard of a news crew who showed up at a SEAL team landing site to interview them during their mission. This reporter acknowledges the damage that may be done by his reporting but then uses several “what ifs?” to justify it. I don’t think the attention he’s getting is undeserved.

so this begs the question … how do you call someones bluff if you’re playing online “poker” ? :sunglasses:

And then goes on to say more. Of course we only have the journalist’s word for it that this is an accurate transcript of the conversation that he had with the fairly senior NSA guy. Was the journalist having an on-the-record conversation with the NSA guy and the entire conversation was recorded by the journalist (and no doubt by any number of intelligence services :joy:)?

It is debatable whether the foreign intelligence services would target this particular journalist (when he would have had only a tiny fraction of the complete set of documents), rather than targeting Snowden himself (for the complete set of documents). Perhaps they have the resources to target all three journalists and Snowden. The NSA guy only suggests that all three journalists were targeted.

It is important to read the whole article in full because it sheds light on just how creepy the NSA has become i.e. they were targeting this journalist years before this journalist ever met with Snowden. What is wrong with this picture?

As such therefore the headline of the article and the headline of this topic are misleading. Nothing to do with Snowden.

<insert name of journalist> always watching his back after attempting to hold the government to account

He did go on to say more, namely that it was a guess. It was probably a good guess, considering his position, but nevertheless, one man who belongs to an organization making a supposition is a far cry from said organization holding a particular belief. To think otherwise would be a fallacy of generalization.

And I did indeed read the article in its entirety, hence the other 90% of my post. Perhaps I’m playing devil’s advocate here (most assuredly, I am), but the journalist did say he had come into possession of classified material before, which is why Snowden sought him out in the first place. It, thus, makes sense to me that he would have been targeted years before. If I were the government, and I had knowledge of this journalist who, after admitting the damage he may be causing and then justifying that same damage by what-ifs and conjecture, I’d be inclined to keep an eye on him, too.

It is a noble cause to want to rid oneself of government oppression, and I am all for that. I am not all for doing so in such a way that innocent lives are lost (which divulging classified information has, can, and will cause).

At any rate, I have no sympathy for the man, because he’s doing the wrong thing, even if for the right reasons. You don’t give journalists classified information for the same reason you don’t give the Presidency to 18 year olds. They don’t know what the hell they’re doing with the power they have.

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You cannot have a democratic society if citizens are not allowed to be informed about what governments do in their name. Democratic oversight of the government becomes impossible when journalists can be prosecuted as conspirators or accomplices in the obtaining of classified documents. The Obama administration used the Espionage Act seven times to prosecute government employees who were suspected of leaking information to the US press, whereas all previous administrations combined only used it four times. Obama basically declared war on the American citizens’ right to know what their government was doing.

There are times when secrecy is required for security and military operations, but in all 7 prosecutions by the Obama administration using the Espionage Act, the leaks did not endanger US personnel, so your hypothetical situation does not apply. In 4 of the cases, the US government was doing illegal actions that it was trying to cover up. Bradley Manning exposed war crimes, John Kiriakou exposed illegal torture, and Edward Snowden and Thomas Drake exposed NSA mass surveillance that violated the 4th Amendment protecting against illegal searches without a warrant.

Think very carefully about the kind of world you are creating when you allow governments to prosecute journalists and charge whistleblowers under the Espionage Act, because you are basically empowering governments to act without democratic oversight from its citizens. History shows that when governments are able to act in secret and hide their actions from their own citizens, they often do illegal and immoral things, like torture, corruption and mass surveillance.


I would go further than that … even where no prosecution ever takes place, it is important that journalists are not intimidated by harassment, threats, raids, arrests, … etc. Even without prosecution, intimidation can have the chilling effect on reporting, such that even though government malfeasance could be reported, it is not in fact reported - with the same flow-on consequences to how government therefore chooses to behave.

The same principle applies to individuals. How many more people would commit crimes if they knew that they were not going to get caught? if they knew that they were going to get away with it? if they knew that information about their crime will never see the light of day?

Most individuals are a little bit bad and a little bit good. Hence the possibility of exposure is a factor in how they behave.

Government is of course made of individuals.

I would like to take the time after reading this article and several of your comments to ask, how seriously do you guys take your security? will it even make a dent against the industrialised covert Government data acquisition machine?

I for one really appreciate the collective team effort made at Does it ever feel like trying to fight back against a Tsunami?

really puts the stuff you see in the movies, which i thought was BS into perspective.