Barton Gellman is the current Ottaway Visiting Professor at SUNY New Paltz, where he teaches “The Literature of Fact.” On April 26 he presented a lecture entitled “Secrets, Leaks and the National Security State” at 7 p.m. on the SUNY New Paltz campus.
Gellman opened his talk providing his background both as a journalist and as someone who has first-hand experience being watched by the government. That shouldn’t be surprising considering Gellman has written about Edward Snowden and the National Security Agency (NSA) for the Washington Post team which won a 2014 Pulitzer Prize, and is the bestselling author of “Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency.”
This kind of journalism can force writers to go to extreme measures to keep their sources safe. While writing these pieces, Gellman encountered many hackers trying to steal his sources and information.
“I had one of my Apple devices rebooted in front of my eyes with code that was replacing the main operating system. I had other indications from the U.S. government and Google that there were active spying operations. I would get emails where you see no sender… no subject, no content in the message and the date was December 31, 1969,” Gellman said. “There was even a game in which you got to choose your target for surveillance and I was one of the targets you could choose in this online game.”
Gellman opened the conversation by recounting what happened during the early days of the Snowden case. He recalled getting an email from someone claiming to have what Gellman assumed was one document of highly secretive information. The person he was corresponding with identified themselves as “Verax,” Latin for truth-teller.
Soon after, Gellman learned Edward Snowden was Verax, and was eventually given thousands of documents labeled “Sensitive Compartmented Information.” After seeing the mass amount of information at hand, Gellman realized that he “[I] did not want to be freelance Bart Gellman doing a story like this,” since he knew that he’d need the backing of a major publisher helping him with research and reporting, not to mention, legal challenges.
Gellman knew the information he processed would cause a huge problem for both the government and himself. Legally, there was no way he should have had possession of the documents he planned to release, and he most certainly was not allowed to publish them. He was going to need “a lot of lawyers” and someone to “pay the bills.”
Having left the Washington Post years earlier, Gellman was unsure if the publication would take the story — especially since he was not allowed to disclose any information from the documents and there was a new editor that he didn’t know.
“I made a phone call to an old friend at home one night, a senior editor at the Washington Post and I said, ‘Please get me a meeting with your boss. I need to see him right away,’” he recalled. “[Gellman’s friend] said, ‘Okay, what’s the story?’ And I said, ‘I can’t tell you’ and he said, ‘Well you got to give me something so I can get you a meeting, just getting a general idea of what it’s about.’” Gellman told him it was about national security: that was all he could say.
“I didn’t trust the phones and I was a little bit freaked out because I had in my possession, a great deal of highly sensitive government information.”
In the end, he was able to secure a meeting with the editor of the Washington Post Martin Baron two days after the phone call.
Gellman told Baron about the array of documents he received, and they decided the best course of action for publishing. Gellman had a few requirements for the Washington Post before he entrusted them with the story, including providing a secure room with no windows or cameras to work in, multiple keys to get into the room, encryptions and more.
One of his main points was that “[the Washington Post] will obviously have final say on what gets published, but I need to be able to detail any details that I think shouldn’t be published.”
Of the details he could discuss, Gellman found that the NSA was withholding information about the data they were collecting on members of the public.
Previously, the FBI had made a claim that people should not worry about their data being watched because they had only used section 215 of the Patriot Act 21 times. Section 215 of the Patriot Act allows “the government to obtain a secret order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) requiring third parties like telephone companies to hand over any records or other ‘tangible thing’ if deemed ‘relevant’ to an international terrorism, counterespionage, or foreign intelligence investigation.”
On the surface, it looks like the government was incredibly precise in looking for the data — 21 uses in one year is not an excessive amount. However, upon further research, it took only 12 of those uses to gather over one trillion phone calls, most of which were from everyday Americans.
“The U.S. government did not exactly lie on that one, but it sure did mislead us,” Gellman said.
What did this mean for the average person?
“It’s complicated, but it means that for a period of years, the government had a nearly complete map of everyone’s connection with everyone else,” Gellman said in an interview the day after his lecture. “It’s like the government had all the means to use big data techniques to draw social networks.”
While his talk covered a wide range of subjects, some of the most interesting aspects of his lecture and follow-up Q&A focused on the enigmatic Snowden, and especially the lengths of protection Gellman had to go through to get the pieces published. One of the things he did to protect his information was by “putting glue and glitter on top of the screws” to his computers so he “would be able to tell if someone had opened it.” He said he has also removed the hard drive from his computer so it cannot connect to the internet so no hackers can get into it and has many trustworthy safes where he keeps his important information locked away. the ways the government was collecting data and small things people can do to encrypt their information to help protect themselves.
During the Q&A, a question arose about whether or not Gellman believed the NSA violates the Fourth Amendment, or the protection people have from unreasonable government searches and seizures. Gellman responded by saying that he believed the “NSA is built with all kinds of different people and different votes, but I think it’s largely trying to do its job under the law” and that the law is “really complex and contested.”
“The global telecommunication system is almost certainly the most complex machine ever built by humankind.”
Gellman also made a few comments about the NSA during his lecture. “The NSA doesn’t actually want to spy on everybody,” he said. “But it does want to be able to spy on anybody, whenever it decides it needs to.”
Why does this matter to everyday people?
“The government often thinks that it’s entitled to keep secrets from the people… I don’t accept that,” Gellman said during his presentation. “I don’t think any journalist can accept that. I can’t accept that the government is entitled to lie to us for our own good and enforce that lie by preventing me as a journalist from exposing them.”
In an interview after his lecture, Gellman said he hopes people walk away from the lecture with the idea that “the government should not have exclusive power to declare something as secret,” and “that journalists writing about secret things sometimes are doing an important public service.”
Aside from giving lectures, Gellman has been enjoying his time in the classroom. He says he likes to teach because he likes the “energy” in the classroom, as well as “being around young people” and “talking to the next generation of journalists about the profession.”
As part of his lecture introduction, attendees heard about various pieces his students are working on. Some examples are projects like explaining and unpacking bail bonds and problems within the police department. A student highlighted an exercise the class did where a drama student came in and made a scene. Students then had to write eyewitness accounts of what happened. The purpose of this exercise was to demonstrate how eyewitness accounts are not always reliable, and to prove that more research is needed.
At the conclusion of the post-lecture interview, Gellman gave some advice for future journalists: “Find journalism that you admire and try to emulate it. Publish as much as you can wherever you can.”