How free is our freedom of the press? | Trevor Timm


So this is James Risen. You may know him as the
Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The New York Times. Long before anybody knew
Edward Snowden’s name, Risen wrote a book in which
he famously exposed that the NSA was illegally wiretapping
the phone calls of Americans. But it’s another chapter in that book that may have an even more lasting impact. In it, he describes a catastrophic
US intelligence operation in which the CIA quite literally
handed over blueprints of a nuclear bomb to Iran. If that sounds crazy, go read it. It’s an incredible story. But you know who didn’t like that chapter? The US government. For nearly a decade afterwards, Risen was the subject
of a US government investigation in which prosecutors demanded
that he testify against one of his alleged sources. And along the way, he became the face
for the US government’s recent pattern of prosecuting whistleblowers
and spying on journalists. You see, under the First Amendment, the press has the right to publish
secret information in the public interest. But it’s impossible to exercise that right
if the media can’t also gather that news and protect the identities
of the brave men and women who get it to them. So when the government came knocking, Risen did what many brave reporters
have done before him: he refused and said he’d rather go to jail. So from 2007 to 2015, Risen lived under the specter
of going to federal prison. That is, until just days before the trial,
when a curious thing happened. Suddenly, after years of claiming
it was vital to their case, the government dropped their demands
to Risen altogether. It turns out, in the age
of electronic surveillance, there are very few places
reporters and sources can hide. And instead of trying and failing
to have Risen testify, they could have his digital trail
testify against him instead. So completely in secret
and without his consent, prosecutors got Risen’s phone records. They got his email records,
his financial and banking information, his credit reports, even travel records with a list
of flights he had taken. And it was among this information that
they used to convict Jeffrey Sterling, Risen’s alleged source
and CIA whistleblower. Sadly, this is only one case of many. President Obama ran on a promise
to protect whistleblowers, and instead, his Justice Department
has prosecuted more than all other administrations combined. Now, you can see how this
could be a problem, especially because the government
considers so much of what it does secret. Since 9/11, virtually every important
story about national security has been the result of a whistleblower
coming to a journalist. So we risk seeing the press
unable to do their job that the First Amendment
is supposed to protect because of the government’s
expanded ability to spy on everyone. But just as technology has allowed
the government to circumvent reporters’ rights, the press can also use technology to protect their sources
even better than before. And they can start from the moment
they begin speaking with them, rather than on the witness stand
after the fact. Communications software now exists that wasn’t available
when Risen was writing his book, and is much more surveillance-resistant
than regular emails or phone calls. For example, one such tool is SecureDrop, an open-source whistleblower
submission system that was originally created by the late
Internet luminary Aaron Swartz, and is now developed
at the non-profit where I work, Freedom of the Press Foundation. Instead of sending an email, you go to a news organization’s website, like this one here on The Washington Post. From there, you can upload a document
or send information much like you would
on any other contact form. It’ll then be encrypted
and stored on a server that only the news organization
has access to. So the government can no longer
secretly demand the information, and much of the information
they would demand wouldn’t be available in the first place. SecureDrop, though, is really
only a small part of the puzzle for protecting press freedom
in the 21st century. Unfortunately, governments
all over the world are constantly developing
new spying techniques that put us all at risk. And it’s up to us going forward
to make sure that it’s not just
the tech-savvy whistleblowers, like Edward Snowden, who have
an avenue for exposing wrongdoing. It’s just as vital that we protect the
next veteran’s health care whistleblower alerting us to overcrowded hospitals, or the next environmental worker sounding the alarm
about Flint’s dirty water, or a Wall Street insider warning us of the next financial crisis. After all, these tools weren’t just built
to help the brave men and women who expose crimes, but are meant to protect
all of our rights under the Constitution. Thank you. (Applause)

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