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Snowden: NSA Story Needed the 'Courage' Major Media Outlets Have Abandoned

Profile of journalists Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald reveals power and responsibility of "fearless" journalism

Jon Queally, staff writer

In an interview given for the upcoming New York Times Magazine cover story, NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden describes why he chose independent journalist Laura Poitras and the Guardian's Glenn Greenwald over "major American news outlets" to handle the explosive content he was ready to share with the world.

In an encrypted email exchange with the NYT's Peter Maass, Snowden explained:

After 9/11, many of the most important news outlets in America abdicated their role as a check to power — the journalistic responsibility to challenge the excesses of government — for fear of being seen as unpatriotic and punished in the market during a period of heightened nationalism. From a business perspective, this was the obvious strategy, but what benefited the institutions ended up costing the public dearly. The major outlets are still only beginning to recover from this cold period.

Laura and Glenn are among the few who reported fearlessly on controversial topics throughout this period, even in the face of withering personal criticism, and resulted in Laura specifically becoming targeted by the very programs involved in the recent disclosures. She had demonstrated the courage, personal experience and skill needed to handle what is probably the most dangerous assignment any journalist can be given — reporting on the secret misdeeds of the most powerful government in the world — making her an obvious choice.

The interview with Snowden was given as part of Maass' profile of Poitras and Greenwald, who together have formed the nucleus of the journalistic team responsible for handling and reporting the numerous classifieds National Security documents leaked by Snowden over the last several months.

Though less well known in public circles than Greenwald, Poitras is given particular focus by Maass for her role in the still-developing NSA leak story. Though essential and integral to the entire process, Poitras has "preferred to stay in the background," even as the intrigue surrounding the way the leaks surfaced and how they've been reported has at times become a more elevated story than the contents of the leaks themselves.

As Greenwald says of Poitras, “I keep calling her the Keyser Soze of the story, because she’s at once completely invisible and yet ubiquitous,” he said. “She’s been at the center of all of this, and yet no one knows anything about her.”

As his exchange with Maass indicates, the main reason that Snowden initially reached out to Poitras—known more for her award-winning documentary film war in the post 9/11 era than newspaper-style investigative journalism—was because of the way she has herself been targeted by government agencies. In the email interview, Snowden writes:

We came to a point in the verification and vetting process where I discovered Laura was more suspicious of me than I was of her, and I’m famously paranoid. The combination of her experience and her exacting focus on detail and process gave her a natural talent for security, and that’s a refreshing trait to discover in someone who is likely to come under intense scrutiny in the future, as normally one would have to work very hard to get them to take the risks seriously.

With that putting me at ease, it became easier to open up without fearing the invested trust would be mishandled...


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The magazine profile also explores the ongoing work of Poitras and Greenwald, who continue to pour over documents provided by Snowden. The work, they think, has changed their lives, but the narrative shows them as dedicated servants not only to the contents of the disclosures, but also to the source of the leaks, Snowden himself.

In but one revealing passage describing an interaction with Poitras, Maass recounts her reflections on the work and why she avoids television interviews and public attention:

“It’s an incredible emotional experience,” she said, “to be contacted by a complete stranger saying that he was going to risk his life to expose things the public should know. He was putting his life on the line and trusting me with that burden. My experience and relationship to that is something that I want to retain an emotional relation to.” Her connection to him and the material, she said, is what will guide her work. “I am sympathetic to what he sees as the horror of the world [and] what he imagines could come. I want to communicate that with as much resonance as possible. If I were to sit and do endless cable interviews — all those things alienate me from what I need to stay connected to. It’s not just a scoop. It’s someone’s life.”

The NSA revelations made possible by Snowden, Poitras and the Guardian have captured headlines in recent weeks, leading to a national debate in the US and an international dialogue about the nature of global surveillance in the digital age, and the profile is compelling reading for anyone curious about just how it all come together to make the disclosures possible.  The film version will make for incredible viewing.

As Maass concludes, however, he pauses to reflect on the two journalists at the heart of the dramatic story, even as Greenwald and Poitrascontinue to put their focus on the work of the documents and the surveillance systems they so stunningly reveal:

They are holding onto more secrets than they are exposing, at least for now.

“We have this window into this world, and we’re still trying to understand it,” Poitras said in one of our last conversations. “We’re not trying to keep it a secret, but piece the puzzle together. That’s a project that is going to take time. Our intention is to release what’s in the public interest but also to try to get a handle on what this world is, and then try to communicate that.”

The deepest paradox, of course, is that their effort to understand and expose government surveillance may have condemned them to a lifetime of it.

The complete transcript of the email exchange with Snowden is here. The NYT Magazine profile of Poitras and Greenwald here.


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