At the same time, the British government has used the so-called “Defense Advisory Notice” to let other newspapers in Britain know that it would take a dim view of efforts to follow or add to the Guardian’s reporting.
Theoretically, the structure of the US government is supposed to keep Americans safe from government abuse, but the rise of an enhanced security state after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, has created a kind of short circuit in that diagram of accountability. That is where journalism comes in, where China gets it wrong and where Britain has lost its footing. Transparency, however painful in the moment, allows democracy, business and the citizenry to thrive in the long run, a point that Biden made in his speech and that Rusbridger made in his testimony.
“There are countries, and they are not generally democracies, where the press are not free to write about these things and where the security services do tell editors what to write and where politicians do censor newspapers,” Rusbridger said. “That’s not the country we live in, in Britain.”
By now, most people know that the Guardian and the Washington Post published articles in June that set off a global debate over the implications of government surveillance, and put citizens everywhere on notice that their private communications are subject to inspection by the US National Security Agency (NSA). Since the leaks first surfaced, there have been many new disclosures exposing fresh insults to privacy. Earlier this month, the Washington Post revealed that the NSA was gathering about 5 billion records a day on the location of cellphones around the world.
Barton Gellman, who helped write that article and broke much of the news about the Snowden material that appeared in the Washington Post, has had a busy few months. However, he did notice that Rusbridger seemed to be on trial this week for committing journalism. For all the complaints about the administration’s aggressiveness in prosecuting leaks, the US is still a better place to reveal uncomfortable truths. After all, no one knocked on the door seeking documents and demanding the destruction of hard drives, as happened at the Guardian.
“I am very happy to enjoy the protections of American law and American political traditions in terms of investigative journalism,” Gellman said. “It is far from perfect and we are still seeing reporters get in trouble for doing their job, but there is a strong norm against prosecuting a reporter for doing accountability work.”
Much of journalism is about shoveling coal, feeding the daily furnace of the news cycle, but every once in a while, a story comes along that grabs a corner of the world and gives it a big, much-needed shake. The reporting about NSA surveillance prompted by the Snowden leaks is that story.
“Sometimes you work hard and uncover something that seems significant and all it gets is a big yawn,” Gellman said. “These are very consequential disclosures: There are new laws being written, new legal challenges in federal court that weren’t possible before and you have a seismic shift in Silicon Valley, where companies are now competing in part on their ability to protect your information from the government. Transparency made that possible.”