Gellman ’82 Discusses Snowden in Wilson School Talk

There has never been anything like Edward Snowden’s leak of hypersensitive NSA information, reporter Barton Gellman ’82 said in a Sept. 17 talk at the Woodrow Wilson School. Not even the Wikileaks documents were as highly classified.

Gellman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and Woodrow Wilson School author-in-residence, joined former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Egypt Daniel Kurtzer, who served as moderator, to discuss the Snowden affair in front of a full house at Dodds Auditorium. Gellman, who has played a leading role in The Washington Post’s coverage of the NSA surveillance programs, began the talk by explaining how he came into contact with Snowden, initially through a colleague who received information in encrypted messages from the former NSA employee.

On the subject of NSA operations and secrecy, Gellman said, “The NSA has, with court authority for seven years and without court authority for some years before that, collected the records of every single phone call that all of you made.” Most members of Congress did not understand what the executive branch had authorized, he said, adding that the NSA can keep its operations secret because the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court “relies entirely on the NSA to self-report.”

So were Snowden’s actions justified?

Snowden’s argument for doing what he did was to give the public a broad understanding of what the government was doing, according to Gellman. The revelations have raised the question of how to balance liberty and security — a question that, in Gellman’s view, remains unanswered. Gellman also said that he had yet to see a poll in which more Americans saw Snowden as a traitor than as someone who promoted an important debate.

As for the hot topic of metadata — “data about data” — Gellman said that its collection has the potential to be “extraordinarily revealing.” The analysis applied to large sets of information can show patterns and be very intrusive, he said.

“There’s a clash here, of very fundamental interest in the constitutional clauses,” Gellman said. “You have the requirement of self-defense, and you have self-government, the ability at some broad level for the electorate to make decisions, including decision about what kind of power it wants the government to accumulate, and holding the government accountable for the abuse of power.”