No one has greater respect for investigative journalists than I do, and among that select bunch Barton Gellman of The Washington Post has long been one of the very best: intelligent, relentless, scrupulous, and always ethical.
This is most definitely not the Pentagon Papers, when the Post and the New York Times exposed the truth about a war already gone by.
But the latest installment from the "Snowden files" (as the Post's subhead put it Friday) made me wonder if what we're experiencing and reading right now is still journalism, investigative or otherwise, or whether it is becoming something very different. I wonder if, after all the disclosures that have already touched off a major reassessment of National Security Agency surveillance by the U.S. government, what we're reading now is more like free advertising for a certain point of view -- Edward Snowden's point of view, that is, as well as that of his comrade-in-outrage, Glenn Greenwald.
Greenwald is an intelligent blogger and fierce advocate of openness in government; some would even call him an "advocacy journalist," though to my mind that is a contradiction in terms. What Greenwald is definitely not, by his own admission, is even-handed. Anyone who has followed his writings, before he became famous for the Snowden files, knows that his point of view is singular and routinely black-and-white: anything that smacks of a high-tech security state, whether surveillance or secret drone warfare, is pretty much always bad.
Greenwald, moreover, has made the case that all journalists should be more like him, since "all journalism is a form of activism," as he wrote in this revealing exchange with The New York Times' Bill Keller, and it's ridiculous to pretend that anything like objectivity is possible.
So we know where Snowden and Greenwald are coming from, and it's not hard to divine their strategy: dribble out, bit by bit, revelations about the NSA's spying program until the agency is effectively neutered or even dismantled. Friday's story in the Post, exposing the agency's effort to build a "quantum computer" that could break virtually every kind of encryption, was just another chapter in what we are told is vast volumes more to come from the Snowden files.
It seems clear by now, as even President Obama appeared to concede at his year-end news conference, that the NSA was overreaching to some degree. And that it's probably wise to add new restraints to its behavior, as even the intelligence-friendly presidential panel concluded last month. But to listen to Snowden and Greenwald, you'd think Big Brother was at our doorstep, which is plainly not true. Among the panel's conclusions, in fact, is this line: "In our review, we have not uncovered any official efforts to suppress dissent or any intent to intrude into people's private lives without legal justification."
So the question is, what purpose does this endless and seemingly indiscriminate exposure of American national-security secrets serve?
Nor has any journalist, including me, turned up such an instance. And on the other side of the ledger, despite very justifiable doubts about the efficacy of the NSA's bulk collection of telephony metadata, and very reasonable concerns that more protections should be built in against the possibility of a future J. Edgar Hoover -- an abuser of liberty and privacy, in other words -- intelligence experts have said most of the agency's key programs, such as surveillance of emails abroad, have already proven critical to national security. As panel member Michael Morell, the former acting director of the CIA, told me last month, even the telephony program might have helped to avert 9/11. He also said he is in favor of restarting a program the NSA discontinued in 2011 that involved the collection of "metadata" for Internet communications. Both programs together, he added, have "the ability to stop the next 9/11."
So the question is, what purpose does this endless and seemingly indiscriminate exposure of American national-security secrets serve? This is most definitely not the Pentagon Papers, when the Post and the New York Times exposed the truth about a war already largely gone by. This is, if not quite a war, then at least a genuine present danger to Americans -- a threat that is, according to some officials, only growing more dangerous.
Finally, is the august Washington Post effectively endorsing Greenwald's view of journalism by becoming part of his and Snowden's dissemination machine? Is this wise? Many of us believe, contra Greenwald, that without objectivity as a working ideal, good journalism is lost forever. There is no longer any direction home to the truth. Shouldn't we be taking a stand? Already, because of the rise of Greenwaldism and the blogger culture that has invaded traditional journalism (at the Post, most egregiously in the person of the habitually misinformative Jennifer Rubin), junk science and bad information rule in every debate in Washington from climate change to stimulus spending.
Yes, Greenwald is correct to say that "adversarial journalism" has had a very long history, going back to the pamphleteers of the Revolution like Tom Paine. But so did the practice of slavery and the conduct of war without the Geneva conventions. There is always a place for advocates and zealots -- America will always welcome its Tom Paines -- but I think most of us would prefer to have them on the op-ed page. Most of us in the business consider the effort at objectivity in journalism to be evidence of progress.