Does the public have a right to know when it comes to interests of national security? Unequivocally yes, says journalist Barton Gellman, insisting on the moral requirement to hold governments accountable.
But how can the US government be held accountable when under the flimsy justification of national security, they spy on, harass, and potentially list for arrest or assassination those journalists who are attempting to learn and report the truth?
Gellman went to great lengths to protect notes and transcripts he made interviewing Edward Snowden in Moscow in 2013. He discovered his digital privacy breached several times in the aftermath, thinking the attacks came from Russia, China, Israel, Turkey, and Iran. He eventually found out his own government had been among those that had compromised his accounts.
I moved the audio files from the memory card of my voice recorder to an encrypted archive on my laptop, along with the notes I had typed. I locked the archive in such a way that I could not reopen it without a private electronic key that I’d left hidden back in New York. I uploaded the encrypted archive to an anonymous server, then another, then a third. Downloading it from the servers would require another private key, also stored in New York. I wiped the encrypted files from my laptop and cut the voice recorder’s unencrypted memory card into pieces. Russian authorities would find nothing on my machines. When I reached the U.S. border, where anyone can be searched for any reason and the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment does not apply, I would possess no evidence of this interview. Even under legal compulsion, I would be unable to retrieve the recordings and notes in transit. I hoped to God I could retrieve them when I got home.
Were my security measures excessive? I knew the spy agencies of multiple governments—most notably the United States’—were eager to glean anything they could from Edward Snowden. After all, he had stolen massive amounts of classified material from NSA servers and shared it with Poitras, Greenwald, and me, and we had collectively published only a fraction of it. The U.S. government wanted Snowden extradited for prosecution. But I’m not a thief or a spy myself. I’m a journalist. Was I just being paranoid?
I was not meant to see the iPad do what it had just done; I had just lucked into seeing it. If I hadn’t, I would have thought it was working normally. It would not have been working for me.
This was the first significant intrusion into my digital life—that I knew of. It was far from the last.