Putting NSA Under the Microscope

February 3, 2014

During the ALA Washington Office Update on Saturday morning, Patrice McDermott, executive director of Open the Government, introduced Spencer Ackerman, national security editor for the Guardian US, who discussed details of how the newspaper acquired information and documents from whistleblower Edward Snowden and came to the decision to publish them.

Before Ackerman took the podium, McDermott shared her thoughts on how the NSA leaks impact libraries. “The library community has strong stances on First Amendment and privacy rights, open government, public access to information, supporting whistleblowers, and due process for government employees. The Snowden case has tension because it is both a criminal act and a whistleblower [case] that has exposed threats to democracy,” she said, adding that libraries “are not alone in dealing with these issues.”

Ackerman split his discussion into the “darkness before Snowden,” the “daylight”—Snowden’s  revelations—and the “horizon” now that the revelations are in the open.

Darkness before Snowden

In spring 2011, as a senior writer for Wired magazine, Ackerman met with Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) at the senator’s request. Wyden said to Ackerman, “If the public knew how the Executive Branch was interpreting the Patriot Act, they would be horrified.” In effect, Wyden said, there was a secret Patriot Act whose default stance was to classify documents indiscriminately.

At the time, the way the news cycle worked for reporters covering surveillance is that there would be really dramatic comments about the scope of surveillance, but the reports didn’t have legs. Many such stories were treated as though they were no more than conspiracy theories; writing them required a lot of research but the public didn't tend to read them.

Following a June 6, 2013, speech by General John Clapper, head of the National Security Agency, in which he denied reports that the NSA was collecting information, Wyden and Sen. Mark Udall (D.-Colo.) pressed for details. When they asked Clapper about NSA surveillance a week later, Clapper again denied it. Around this time, Ackerman also changed jobs and moved to the Guardian US. The editors asked him to come to New York for an orientation, at which point they revealed some information they had about the NSA; they just didn't want to talk about it over the phone or in email because of government surveillance.

“Now, as a journalist, I have a limited ability to pierce the veneer,” Ackerman said, referring to the difficulty of obtaining information from politicians. “So it is often difficult to validate or refute information because you don’t get it.”


Once the Guardian had begun publishing the information it obtained from Snowden, the NSA defended its massive collection of phone records by saying that no surveillance occurs until it analyzes collected information, and that no triangulation of information was performed under the mass-surveillance program known as PRISM. The agency was effectively saying that the surveillance program didn't show anything about the data’s content because the statute within the Patriot Act only addressed what the NSA could collect, not how or what it analyzed.

“It’s sort of like me asking for your wallet—but I wouldn't ask—and making an impression of your credit card, then giving it back to you. I may not do anything malicious with that impression, but now I have it,” Ackerman said, explaining that the NSA and the public differ on what constitutes surveillance.


Ackerman said the Guardian has been criticized for printing the actual documents and holding onto them. “We do a lot of reporting around documents, but we are often staring into a black box. We try to strike a balance,” he said. “But given the sweeping claims by the government about what’s in this trove, I’m skeptical of the government wanting it back.”

Answering questions from the audience, Ackerman said he doesn’t view Snowden’s options as very good, saying his future depends less on the US and more on Russia.

He also discussed the idea that perhaps the NSA shouldn't be the one collecting or housing this data, but that rather it should be a third, nongovernment entity like a communications company. Ackerman explained that phone companies keep data and purge it periodically. Forcing a telecommunications company to hold data would essentially make it a government contractor, and effectively recreate the NSA program.

“At this point, we either have to end the program or keep it as it is. A middle ground is very hard to find,” he said.

How does he feel about possibly threatening US security? “You never want to take threats of terrorism lightly, but how do you maximize American privacy?” he said. “The government’s defense is that ‘this has nothing to do with the content of your communication.’ But Wyden likened it to a human relations database, and that is arguably more revealing than the content. Is that surveillance? The public needs to determine that.”

Ackerman also explained that journalists often go to prison for reporting on such issues, and that they are reliant on leaks because the relevant information is often classified indefinitely. “The government has never been in this position before. They never thought this would happen,” he said. “If the government wants to prevent leaks, they need to declassify more documents and reverse the Augustinian approach to information.”

Another major point of the NSA revelation was that oversight of the agency seems to be nonexistent, and that the public is not always of one mind regarding its privacy.

“One thing you hear is that the pendulum swings among politicians and the media around terrorism,” Ackerman said. “When intelligence agencies inform the public through proxy, they feel they’ve been misled. Wyden calls it a culture of misinformation. What are we willing to authorize—or not?”