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Barton Gellman

Reporter Barton Gellman broke the story of the NSA's work to mine the communications data of millions of Americans by tapping directly into the central servers of U.S. Internet companies. His story, which drew on leaked documents provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, was honored with the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for public service. Gellman also served as a consultant for the FRONTLINE investigation, United States of Secrets. He spoke with FRONTLINE's Michael Kirk on March 7, 2014.

Reporter Barton Gellman broke the story of the NSA's work to mine the communications data of millions of Americans by tapping directly into the central servers of U.S. Internet companies. His story, which drew on leaked documents provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, was honored with the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for public service. Gellman also served as a consultant for the FRONTLINE investigation, United States of Secrets. He spoke with FRONTLINE's Michael Kirk on March 7, 2014.

  1. Ψ ShareDetermining whether Snowden was "the real thing"

    So when did Laura first come to you?

    Laura came to me in February. She had been in contact for over a month with a mysterious source who had reached out to her using her encryption key and using anonymous channels, and said he had a big story for her. And she wanted to pick my brains about whether it sounded good, whether it sounded real.

    You know, anybody in our business gets anonymous tips sometimes from people who imagine they have a big story or have a story that may be true but it's not interesting or are trying to plant things. And something of this magnitude required extraordinary evidence. Over the next months, we started to feel each other out.

    I mean, [Edward] Snowden was very suspicious of me as a member of the mainstream media and wanted convincing that I really wanted this story and that the Washington Post would stand behind it. I, like Laura, worried a lot about whether he was authentic. By the time we came to the early spring, we were both quite convinced that he would turn out to be the real thing, even though we still didn't know his name and still hadn't seen the document.

    ... Do you remember your initial reaction when she rolled out whatever she rolled out?

    I do. I remember exactly how it went when we had our first conversation. She told me, and then showed me, just little fragments of the things that she was talking about with this source.

    A lot of it dated back to the warrantless surveillance programs under President Bush that I had spent a lot of my time and professional life delving into. It was the kind of thing where everything I knew about was exactly right. The gaps in my knowledge were filled in ways that were quite plausible. You still have to worry that this could be someone trying to plant a false story. This could be someone who has mastered the public record and is inventing the rest. But every time we asked a question and got back an answer, we liked it better.

    And there's one more thing here. Snowden turned out to be among the very most reliable sources I've ever had, leaving aside all the documents. I mean, you can get a lot of good information from someone where only half of it's true, or some of it's distorted or out of context. By using verification methods, you could find out which parts are true, and that's still very valuable. Snowden has yet to tell me anything that was a fact that I have been able to rebut or that anybody in the U.S. government I have talked to has been able to rebut.

    We had this confidence-building dialogue in which I would say, "So you mean this?," and he'd say: "No, I don't know that. I know this. This part is speculation. This part I don't know at all." That's a dream source for a reporter.

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    ... What did you know about what the game was from his point of view?

    Right up until the moment when I first got a document from him, I thought we were talking about one or two, maybe three documents. It was a very specific kind of story that he was talking about. He always held information back. He didn't fully trust anyone. And you didn't know what all of his plans were going to be.

    So one day I received a document; it's the PRISM story about gathering information from the Silicon Valley companies, Google and Yahoo and Microsoft and the rest. The next day, there comes to me and to Laura Poitras a lot more documents. I have never said how many I have, but a substantial number of additional documents came, completely unexpected. It was a jaw-dropper. ...

    In those early days, as it was coming up, what were you imagining the future was with this guy and what he was handing off?

    Look, I was approaching this as if it were not unlike other national security stories, with confidential sources that I've done before. I assumed that he was going to try to stay anonymous and not get caught. I assumed that it was going to be one story -- one significant story, it seemed increasingly to me, but still a story. I assumed that I was going to have a very heavy responsibility to try to keep his identity and our means of communication secret because I assumed he would still be in this job.

    He had a different plan. He had a plan to hand over a much larger quantity of material. And he intended, from the start, to make himself known. He intended, from the start, to unmask himself.

    I said to Snowden, before and after I knew his identity, that I was going to do everything in my power as a journalist, in a normal journalistic way, to keep his identity secure, that I was not going to be sharing it, for example, with my editors, and he said: "You're not going to have to worry about that. It won't be long before I announce myself."

    I said, "Why would you do that?," and he said he didn't want the story to be about some sneaky leaker. He did not want his co-workers and his family to bear the brunt of one of these come-down-on-everyone investigations, where everyone is a suspect, and everyone's life is disrupted. He wanted to take responsibility.

    And he told me that he wanted to be actually a model for other whistleblowers, that he wanted to show that you could come out and tell the truth about something you thought was wrong, and you didn't have to hide.

    Now, I don't know of any other leaker, any other source of consequence in my lifetime, who has voluntarily come out and said, "This was me," raised their hand and said, "I did it." I mean, Daniel Ellsberg showed tremendous courage back in the '70s. But he didn't do that. He acknowledged his authorship of this leak when he got caught, but he didn't volunteer it.

  3. Ψ ShareHow he vetted Snowden's story

    When it's all coming your way, when in that process does he finally say: "I'm Edward Snowden. This is who I am"?

    It was in the second half of May that Laura and I learned his identity, and he didn't just say, "Here is my name." He said: "Here is my name. Here is my Social Security Number. Here is my government identity number. Here are some details about the cover that I used when I was a CIA employee." Those are details that we have never published, because it seemed to us that that could do harm. But he said, "I know you're going to want to check me out thoroughly."

    At the same time -- we had not yet written the first stories; we were not yet ready to write the first stories -- and Laura and I agreed that we were not going to Google him. We were not going to use commercial databases to look him up. We were not going to do the normal kind of things that you would do to check out someone's claim that they are this person, and they did this and that. We would have wanted to know where he lived, what his address history had been, you know, anything else you could find out.

    But by this time, he had been gone from work without a very good explanation, and we had to assume that as time went on, the U.S. government would come to suspect that we were working on these stories. I was frankly afraid that his name alone, and other identifying details, were now already selectors or search terms for the NSA and that if I typed this search, if I typed his name into any of the databases, the NSA would know it.

    Was he ever worried for his life?

    Snowden said that he believed he was risking his freedom, which for sure he was, and possibly his life. And he warned me as well that if the U.S. intelligence community believed that I was at any point in time a single point of failure, as he said, if by getting rid of me they could prevent the story from happening, he said that my life would be at risk.

    At first I sort of scoffed at him, and then I thought to myself, there's a lot of stuff in these files that I never imagined would happen. ... I did not then and I still do not believe that my life was at risk. I think he was trying to impress upon me the seriousness of the consequences, for him and for me, of jumping into this story. And I think he was trying to impress on me the reaction that he expected from the NSA when this material came out. And this is at a time when I still don't know what he's going to give me.

  4. Ψ Share

    Code name?

    Besides using email addresses or other kinds of identifiers online that did not have our real names in them, Snowden assigned us code names, cover names in the usual NSA style. He called me Brass Banner, and he called himself Verax, which means "truth teller" in Latin, and which has a history actually in the U.K. of British social critics and dissidents using that as an anonymous byline in some of the tracts that they published. …

    When you learned that he was Edward Snowden, are there ways that you as a reporter know that you could employ to find out if he was kosher? And did you?

    Well, there's a period during which I know his identity, and he's not yet announced himself, and we've yet to write the first story. All of us understand that this is a period of maximum risk, risk in any way you want to define that.

    The thing that he said he worried about the most is that he would have taken all these chances, exposed himself to all this risk, for a set of stories that he thought were very important to tell, and that somehow he would be pre-empted. He would be unable to get it to the reporters, or that we would be pre-empted, or that we would chicken out.

    He was very suspicious that I might bring this to the Washington Post and the government would express its displeasure, or the Post would say, "Oh, well, we're not going to do that story." That's not the way the Post is -- never has been. I tried to explain that to him. But I think he didn't believe it until the first stories actually hit the press. …

  5. Ψ Share

    ... So when is the offer to, or the invitation to Hong Kong made by Snowden?

    So Snowden does two things roughly at the same time. He gives Laura and me the first document, and he makes the invitation to Hong Kong. She has been talking to him for some time about meeting. She is a documentary filmmaker. She needs to be there in the room with him. All this typing on the screen is not going to cut it for her. So she's been talking to him about a visit for a long time, and one day, as she's told the story, he said, "Your destination is Hong Kong."

    You too?

    Yeah. It was a pretty startling shift of perspective in the story, because neither of us expected that he was out of the country. And it meant something that he was in a place that was under the jurisdiction of a hostile power. So when you get invited to a meeting under Chinese jurisdiction, it's different from a meeting, you know, in the Maryland suburbs. ...

    So those guys go over there. Are you in contact with them when they're over there and he's at the Mira Hotel? ...

    So I can't speak to what happened in the Hong Kong hotel room, obviously. I was in contact with Laura on an ongoing basis because we were partnering on that first story, and we both shared an astonishment at one thing, which is Snowden had given us a lot of information, but he had not given us his date of birth. And again, I was afraid to look him up. When it got very close to the first story, for the first time, I looked him up by name and Social Security Number, and I see a date of birth, and I'm feeling like it's got to be a typo.

    And Laura, I think, learned -- well, you know, Laura has said she had the same reaction. She gets there, and here's this very young-looking guy. This can't possibly be the graybeard we've been talking to online. It just goes to show you that, you know, on the Internet, you really can appear to be something other than what people expect. …

    So while they're there, you're not in ongoing communication with him?

    I am.

    Oh, you are?

    Yeah. I was still in touch with Snowden and with Laura while they were in Hong Kong. I was working on the documents. I was working on my stories and making my way through them.

    You know, we had some really hard problems here. First is authentication. The thing may look good, but is it a real document? Or has somebody sort of made it in his basement? Or has someone taken a real document and altered it?

    And then, even if it's authentic, you have to verify its contents. There are real documents that say wrong things. In fact, we, every now and then, have found errors in the documents that we have from Snowden -- nothing that looks at all deliberate, but just someone who had one cone of knowledge and didn't know about something else over there, or even literally a typo that changes the meaning of a document, so a pretty big job on my hands.

    And I was very constrained in how I could do it. I mean, I was talking to my own sources, but most of them I was not telling that I had these documents, because that would implicate them. Or, if they have classified knowledge, and they become aware that I have classified knowledge, officially they're obliged to report that.

    So with the people that I had the greatest relationships of trust, I would sometimes say, after an hour talking about a subject in general and in a nonclassified way, I'd say: "Well, suppose one day a reporter came to you and knew more than that. Suppose the reporter knew things he wasn't supposed to know. Would you want the reporter to tell you that, or would you want to say, 'Get out of my house'?" And I got both answers from different people at different times. …

  6. Ψ Share

    When the stories hit Guardian [US] President Obama comes out in the White House and does a quick press conference. … Characterize, by your lights, how he reacts. 

    It's hard to believe, knowing what we know about Barack Obama, that he came out and spoke to the press about this stuff without having been briefed. It had been a few days since the first stories came. 'Clearly, he had refreshed his recollection about what these programs were, and he came out and characterized, and he tried to reassure people that their privacy was protected. He characterized the program, in part, in ways that simply weren't right. He made it sound very much like that if the federal government wanted to listen to your phone calls or read your mail, it had to have an individual specific warrant, and he said, "Just the same way you would have in a criminal case."

    And that's simply not true. That's not the way the programs operated. There was a considerable amount of U.S. communication, including content, that was being collected, not only without an individual warrant, but simply on authority that was granted once a year by a secret court called the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

  7. Ψ Share

    ... Do you know why Hong Kong?

    I don't know why exactly he went to Hong Kong, but I do know it wasn't because he wanted to be under the jurisdiction of China. He was leaving a job, a very sensitive job, and heading for the airport with a substantial amount of classified material on his person.

    And he had to fly somewhere that would not send him straight back to the United States if asked. He expected that he could be caught any time, and he needed to pick a route -- which is to say, a direct flight from Hawaii to somewhere that did not have an extradition treaty. Why he chose Hong Kong exactly, I don't know.

  8. Ψ ShareOn Snowden's motivations

    Where did Snowden come from? Give us a little back story of Edward Snowden, as far as you know it.

    Snowden has been very sparing about discussing his early life or his personal life. He's said all along: "This is not about me. This is not about what comic books that I read when I was a kid, or I got stung by a bee, and that changed my life."

    He wants the story to be about the U.S. government and what it's doing. He is a guy who is an almost classic sort of digital native. He is introspective. He is not especially extroverted. His girlfriend describes him in her blog as someone who's sort of hard to get out of the house. He is most comfortable interacting virtually with information, with people, with reality.

    Now look, he spent a lot of time learning martial arts. He has his likes and dislikes. But he said to me, when I visited him in Moscow, that he's an ascetic, an indoor cat, a guy who doesn't need all that much or care all that much. You know, he sits around eating ramen noodles and tortilla chips in front of the screen. He's not this stereotype of a sort of a sloppy, out-of-shape hacker with crumbs all over his keyboard. He's actually quite fastidious. But he doesn't need a whole lot from the physical world.

    And his interest in national security issues, any sense of where that comes from, what the genesis of that is?

    Well, he comes from a Coast Guard family. His father and grandfather were both Coast Guard officers, and he had the reaction after 9/11 that a lot of patriotic young Americans had, which is "I'd like to do my part."

    He signed up for the Army, and he signed up for a program that, after basic training, sends you off for special forces training. Evidently, during the course of this training, he broke both of his legs, and he had to drop out. So he looked for something else, and that brought him to the NSA and the CIA and the worlds of secret intelligence.

    A world more or less he was made to order for.

    Yeah. Look, he is instinctively cautious, instinctively protective of plans and information. The discipline of the classified world was and would have been no special stretch for him until he started seeing things that worried him, worried him a great deal.

    But, I mean, the NSA needs people like Edward Snowden. That is to say, they need the people who are very comfortable and proficient with the digital tools. The CIA hired him because, after 9/11, it was vastly expanding its operations and therefore its needs to communicate securely and its computer operations.

    They needed people who you could just say, "Go in here and figure out this problem and solve it." And Snowden, unexpectedly to them, turned out to be that guy. He turned out to be the guy that you say, "We need a system that does this," or, "This one's not working," or, "Something is going wrong here," and he would say: "Oh, that's easy. Do it this way." And he was good at it.

  9. Ψ Share

    What was his job in Japan?

    ... In Japan he's working for Dell as a classified contractor to the NSA, and he has a number of different jobs, many of which he has not yet talked about.

    But one of the jobs he had was to train U.S. intelligence personnel on how to operate in what's called a high-threat digital environment, how to go to a place where you know you're under surveillance by somebody good, and threat model is China, and how to use, even on untrusted hardware, even on a machine that might have been compromised by the bad guys, how to communicate securely. That's the kind of thing he was good at. And sometimes he was asked to train other intelligence personnel on how to do that.

    And there's a moment in Japan where it feels like, to us from the outside, and certainly from what we've learned, that he tips, that he gets real concerned about the national security state. And that apparently, I think, happens there. What trips him, do you know?

    I don't. I'll just say, I mean, Snowden is very resistant to the idea that there is this, I don't know, storybook narrative in which everything is going along fine, and then one moment comes along, and everything changes for him.

    It was a gradual accumulation of evidence and of observations that led him to think something's going wrong here. The balance is out of whack. The surveillance of ordinary people is far greater than I would have imagined and far greater than the American public has been able to debate.

    And because he has access, he's swimming in this stuff, he begins to -- my sense is he begins to see and fill in the blanks in ways that surprise even him in the early going.

    Right. In the early days, people talked about him as some kind of a low-level technician. He couldn't possibly have access to all this stuff. You have to realize that, in the CIA and the NSA, a lot of times the number of policymakers, people at the top who know about a thing, is very small. But you need a lot more people at the operating level to know, or you can't get done at all.

    So in the CIA, Snowden had clearances for human intelligence. In the NSA, he had clearances for many, many compartments, specially protected parts of top-secret information in what's called signals intelligence. That's the electronic surveillance. And he had a third set of powers, which is actually called super user, when you're a system administrator in which you have root-level access to processes that anybody else would be locked out from. And that combination of human and signals intelligence and super user, sys admin power, it's a very potent combination that opened many, many doors to him.

  10. Ψ Share

    And when he walked through those doors, take the IG report, for example. What happens when he reads that?

    Snowden has said, and he told me that reading the inspector general's report from 2009, which described the whole history in a classified way, of the warrantless surveillance conducted under President Bush, that made a big impression on him, because it was clear, from that history, that the Justice Department had come to believe that parts of the program were illegal.

    And the document says -- this is the NSA's own inspector general -- says that the director of the NSA, Mike Hayden, was told one day that the Justice Department will not go along with this. They say it's unlawful. And Dick Cheney's lawyer David Addington calls Hayden and says, "Are you going to go ahead and do it anyway?" And Hayden says, "Yes." That drove Snowden through the ceiling. He felt like people had done things that were wrong and had not been held accountable for them. …

    And he's sitting there, reading this IG report. So it must be a little bit like Pandora's box to him. He's already kind of worried about things, and he reads this thing. As you say, it's a roadmap to apparent illegality.

    There was something special about that report, which is that it has a narrative. Most of these documents in the NSA archive are a daily briefing or a weekly report or a description of this or that sub-subprogram. And they're highly technical, or they're about operations, or they're filled with acronyms and cover terms.

    The inspector general's report is 60-some pages, and it tells a story. It describes events from beginning to end. It has footnotes. It has sources named. It has actually the equivalent of marginal comments by a senior NSA official. And it is a remarkable story that's told there. And it is the origin of it all. …

  11. Ψ Share

    During this time, Obama, who had been a big hope for him, I gather from what I read -- like Obama was a big hope for lots of people -- turns out to at least have said, "Keep it going."

    Yeah. Looking back on this, Snowden told me that he had become disenchanted and worried before Obama's election, and he held back. He did not form a plan to do what he did until after the election, because his hope was that Obama would, as he said he would in the campaign, be a force for transparency, that he would live up to the idea that we don't have to sacrifice our ideals and our freedoms for our security. He believed Obama would come in and slow this stuff down, put some chains on it, put some restraints on it.

    And that's not what happened. That was another of the pivotal moments in which Snowden realized that if anyone was going to enable a debate about whether things had gone too far, if anyone was going to be able to put some new checks on U.S. government surveillance, it was going to have to be him.

    He told me, in Moscow: "It's not that I'm some special messenger blessed by God or anyone else to take on this role. It's just that, if you look around the table and nobody else is doing it, year after year, you realize, if you don't do it, it's not going to happen."

  12. Ψ Share

    ... What do you think he learned from watching [Tom] Drake and [Tom] Tamm, all those guys inside the NSA and Justice Department [who] wanted to raise their hands? Do you think he walked away with a different perspective, at least, of how to do it himself?

    You have to realize that, from the beginning, before I received documents and after, I wasn't just sort of saying: "Yes this, yes that. It all sounds great." I was probing his motives, and I was asking him: "Don't you think there is a risk that you are going to endanger U.S. national security as properly defined by yourself, by making these leaks? Why aren't you using ordinary whistleblower channels? Why aren't you going to your bosses? Why aren't you going to Congress?"

    And he explained that he had watched very carefully when people had tried to do that before him.

    He said: "Look, as a technical matter, I'm a contractor. I'm not actually covered by the Whistleblower Protection Act or by these procedures." And that is accurate.

    He also said that he had informally raised his concerns with four different superiors and many co-workers. And he even, you know, had the brass to ask some of them, "What do you think the American people would think if this appeared on the front page?" That's a pretty remarkable thing to say or to ask when you're in the middle of talking to reporters about this material. …

    Did he ever talk about Drake? Did the Drake lesson teach him anything?

    He did. He talked about Bill Binney. He talked about Tom Drake. He talked about some of the others. He said that when you try to work the system from the inside, first of all, the system will reach out and crush you. ...

    The other lesson he learned from Drake and Binney is that you can be discredited or your claims deflected, or people won't know whether to believe you if you don't have proof. And it was because of that that he decided it had to be documents, and it had to be a lot of documents, because one document would be one story.

    It had to be proof. It had to be documents.

    It had to be proof. It had to be documents, and it had to be a lot of documents, because one document is one story. Maybe it goes on for a few days, and people stop. And in the context that will be described by the U.S. government, it will be, "Well, that's just this thing over here." He wanted to show the breadth and depth of the surveillance state that had grown up with our knowledge. And to do that, there had to be a lot of material, a lot of perspectives on it, and a lot of stories over time.

  13. Ψ ShareHis visit to see Snowden in Russia

    ... So when you go see him in Russia, what's that like?

    ... I knew very little when I arrived about where I was going to find him or how he was going to contact me or where we would go. I had left that kind of detail to him. I was going to leave his own security to him. It was up to him to figure out how he wanted to meet, how he wanted to protect himself.

    So I went to a hotel that was arranged in advance. I got a phone call. He gave me a place to meet within a certain time period, and he showed up. He had sort of blended into the crowd, and he emerged from the crowd. He looked very much like what we've all seen in the photos and videos. There were small, subtle changes he had made that made him less conspicuous. But he met me, shook my hand, said almost nothing, and led me away. And we moved to a place that he considered secure.

    And the interview, in as much detail as you can give us, was typical of what you'd get? Different? Special?

    It was as though we were getting to know each other again for the first time. There's only so much you can do on the keyboard. And now we had expressions and body language and tone of voice and joking around or sharing a meal, and again, sort of exploring the boundaries of what we could trust, and who are you really, and what's motivating you here? We spent two very long days together in a small room, without any breakout, without parting the curtains on the windows, without a telephone in the room. It was a pretty extraordinary experience. I don't recall anything like it in my career or in my life. …

    I was as curious as anybody else is about his private life there. You just can't not be curious. And he drew pretty firm boundaries. I don't know where he lives. I don't know what he does all day other than spend a lot of time in front of a computer. But he did tell me a little bit about his life. And the striking thing was that it had changed very little. It simply wasn't that different from living in paradise, in Hawaii, to living in Moscow, because most of his waking hours are still spent in front of a screen, and in front of a keyboard. And that's Ed Snowden.

    The biggest question I had when I arrived is, what kind of state is he going to be in? Is he going to be kind of aghast, a little bit, at what has happened? Is it not likely that he could not have foreseen what his life would be like? He didn't expect to be stuck in Moscow. He couldn't have known, in advance, what it would feel like to be unable to go home, unable to see or communicate with most of the people you hold dear, to kind of face the fact, for the first time, that at 30 years old, it's quite likely you won't be allowed to return to your own country.

    I was looking for signs of second thoughts or regrets, or wishing that he had done something a little bit differently, and I found none of that. I found a guy who was almost Zen-like in his serenity and his comfort with what he had done, that he had consciously decided he was willing to take huge risks to provoke a public debate. He had provoked a public debate that no one could possibly have foreseen, that had to be way beyond his reasonable expectations, that was still going on. And he was quite satisfied at the result. ...

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