Transcript: CSIS panel on NSA’s PRISM surveillance program – Part One

PART ONE: Partial transcript of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) panel on the National Security Agency’s PRISM surveillance program on June 25, 2013. The panelists are: Bob Schieffer, CBS News; Barton Gellman, Washington Post reporter; David Sanger, New York Times reporter; and James Lewis, Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Bob Schieffer, CBS News:
Barton, I want to just ask you to start off the threshold question: Why did the Washington Post think it should publish this story?

Barton Gellman, Washington Post reporter:
Well, I’ll speak for myself but I think that it does represent the Post’s view on this: Why wouldn’t we?

We had a situation in which the Congress passed a law, which everybody gets to read, that says very, very little. The terms are quite opaque. Then the executive makes a secret, highly-classified interpretation of what that law says. Then it creates a program that goes to a court and gets this court – the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which works only in highly-classified ways and with no other party present – and the court makes a secret ruling. And all of this is drawing a boundary around where should the limit be between intelligence gathering and privacy and civil liberties.

And that’s a conversation that we have not had an opportunity to debate in this country among the general public and of the foundational questions like that of power because you’re talking about the mutual transparencies of citizens and government that’s supposed to serve them.

I think there were lots of things in this material that needed to be broached, and I think sort of a confirmation of that comes from the fact there have been an extended, you know, running into several weeks now and fairly serious public debate about where these lines should be.

Bob Schieffer, CBS News:
Did you have any concerns that national security might be damaged with what you published?

Barton Gellman, Washington Post reporter:
Yeah, I did. I mean, over my career in journalism having covered a lot of national security stories, there have been quite a few times when I saw a really hard balance to be struck and when I’ve had conversations with government about their concerns and we had those conversations this time.

And I’ll tell you how I started the first conversation. I said, “I’m not going to hand you this document that I have but here’s the date and title and author and I know you can find it. And before we start talking, I just want you to know that everything from slides 21 through 27 we’re not even thinking about publishing. Let’s talk about the rest.”

Bob Schieffer, CBS News:
And is this the way you presented it to the Post? Kind of in that way?

Barton Gellman, Washington Post reporter:
Well, yeah. I mean, when I came to the Post, I had a similar conversation. I said, “You’re going to make your own decisions…about what you’re willing to publish.” And at the start of the conversation, “This is the part I would not myself be willing to publish.”

Bob Schieffer, CBS News:
David, how is what Bart did with his story – is it different in any way from when you did your book? Because you talked about and we learned for the first time about some of the cyber war abilities that the United States has and this had not been known. Did you go through the same kind of a process?

David Sanger, New York Times reporter:
Well, very similar process. I think there were a couple of differences but mostly a similar thing.

And I commend Bart for both his enterprise and for exactly the way he handled it, which I think it was extremely responsible.

The difference was that in the story that we published in the Times and that I excerpted in Confront and Conceal, which was about Olympic Games, which was the code name for offensive cyber operations against Iran but also the first sophisticated use of an offensive cyber weapon.

The overall journalistic impetus I think was very similar to what you just heard from Bart about this – that in both the case of where the U.S. draws the line between personal privacy and doing the kinds of surveillance that fuels the needs for defense and where the government draws the line on use of offensive weapons, it’s all done in secret, and in many cases you have to ask the question, “How much of this needs to be secret?” Because it’s keeping operational details secret, which I think we all understand the need to go do that. And how much of this are fundamental issues that need to get debated by the U.S. public and perhaps by a broader public but certainly by American citizens because it’s done in their name.

And I think the responsible way to do it is exactly as Bart handled, which was go to the government and say, “This is what I have. The key elements are going to get published. The question is if there are security concerns about individual elements of it that would endanger somebody’s life, endanger an ongoing operation and so forth, we’re willing to sit down and hear that and make a case.”

And then I did what Bart did too; I took some things right off the table that I knew I shouldn’t even get into a conversation with because there wasn’t a debate. And then in other cases there were responsible people in U.S. government who made the case.

And I found over the years in doing this…that usually once you get involved in that conversation, you can narrow the subject matter pretty quickly if you’re dealing with relatively reasonable people. At the moment you got the essence of the story, they’re not simply going to say, “Well, we’re just not going to discuss it.”

Now, that raises a more fundamental question, which is the “Who elected us?” question and why is it that the press gets to go do this. And that comes to an understanding that I think many people in the United States have about what the role of the media is and it’s disputed by other, and I don’t think there are any absolutes here.

The U.S. government would like to say that if it is classified, it should never get published. The fact of the matter is almost everything in the realm you write about when you’re writing about national security is classified in some form. I don’t think you can write about Iran’s nuclear weapons program or North Korea’s or our dealings with China without running into something that is classified somewhere.

Now, I didn’t have documents. I had a story that was assembled over a course of a year and a half. In Bart’s case, he had specific documents and that kicks into gear different parts of the classification [incomprehensible audio].

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