Civil Liberties

Of Course the NSA Abuses Its Power To Target Journalists


Laura Poitras
Kris Krug

Digging through a New York Times magazine profile of Laura Poitras (pictured at right), a documentary filmmaker who worked with Glenn Greenwald to publish Edward Snowden's revelations about the uber-creepiness of the National Security Agency, The Hill's Jonathan Easley came across an interesting nugget of information: the NSA reportedly targets journalists critical of the U.S. government. In true Grey Lady fashion, that tidbit was buried in the midst of the story (which is currently unavailable along with the rest of the Times Website, no doubt overwhelmed by fans of Tom Friedman's latest pearls of wisdom), but Easley extracted the information from allusions Snowden made as to his reasons for reaching out to Poitras and Greenwald. Honestly, though, it matters less whether this is actually a widespread government policy, than that it's a logical and predictable abuse of vast and secretive surveillance powers.

Writes Jonathan Easley at The Hill:

Leaker Edward Snowden accused the National Security Agency of targeting reporters who wrote critically about the government after the 9/11 attacks and warned it was "unforgivably reckless" for journalists to use unencrypted email messages when discussing sensitive matters.

Snowden said in an interview with the New York Times Magazine published Tuesday that he came to trust Laura Poitras, the documentary filmmaker who, along with Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald, helped report his disclosure of secret surveillance programs, because she herself had been targeted by the NSA.

"Laura and [Guardian reporter] Glenn [Greenwald] 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," Snowden said for the article, a profile of Poitras.

Snowden didn't detail how Poitras was targeted by the NSA surveillance programs he disclosed, but suggested the agency tracked her emails and cautioned other journalists that they could be under surveillance.

Such misuse of NSA surveillance powers is completely predictable, given recent revelations about the secretive Justice Department seizure of Associated Press phone records and its investigation of Fox News reporter James Rosen. These probes of the press were sparked by journalists doing nothing more than their jobs, in ways that annoyed powerful government officials. Attorney General Eric Holder says he's really, really sorry about those violations of Fourth Amendment protections and press freedoms — probably in the same way that a kid caught raiding the candy supply is sorry that he was caught.

This, after all, is the same Justice Department that spent decades chasing after journalist Jack Anderson.

Nobody likes being scrutinized and publicly embarrassed, but most of us either have to take our chances or else avoid doing embarrassing things that are worth scrutinizing and publicizing. Government officials have extra tools at their disposal to extract information, monitor people they find threatening, and punish their tormenters. Those tools are powerful both in reach and resources, because of the legal authority under which they're used and the funding that's extracted from you and I without so much as a "pretty please."

The use of these tools is supposed to be limited by the Constitution and protective procedures. But when government officials operate vast surveillance programs secretly, under classified interpretations of the law, rubber-stamped by courts literally walled off from the public, you can probably expect that they'll be subject to a few temptations in the use of their toys.

We already know that government officials have abused their power to spy upon journalists whose work they find inconvenient. It's inconceivable that a secretive surveillance program would be immune to the abuses to which Justice Department subpoena powers have been subject. So It should be no surprise to learn that Laura Poitras and other journalists have been targeted by the NSA.

And that's just the beginning of the dangers posed by government surveillance.