23 December 2013
Barton Gellman Spilling Secrets
Spilling secrets: Barton Gellman 82
By Angela Wang Senior Writer October 14, 2013
Barton Gellman 82 has always been a secret breaker.
As an undergraduate at Princeton, Gellman decried secrecy in Nassau Hall
in his first column as the chairman of The Daily Princetonian a position
roughly equivalent to what is now known as editor-in-chief.
Weve been far too tolerant, as well, of Nassau Halls
idiosyncratic preference for secrecy and closed-door decisions on the most
basic issues facing Princeton, Gellman wrote in February 1981. Far
more than at most universities, Princeton officialdom likes to go about its
business without the messy complications of public debate. A newspaper should
not must not tolerate this.
In the same column, he also revealed that student members of the Third World
Center now known as the Fields Center had staged protests in
the Prince newsroom for years, complaining about what they perceived
as skewed coverage, a fact that previous editors had decided not to publish.
A review of Gellmans career, based on close to a dozen interviews with
current and former colleagues, shows that not much has changed since his
time at the Prince. In fact, he has spent much of his life uncovering
and spilling other peoples secrets, most recently those of National
Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden. He is also currently working on
a book on secrecy and government surveillance, a project he said he began
before meeting Snowden.
Publishing what others mean to keep hidden has also earned him a number of
criticisms. Even years before the Snowden stories, a former senior NSA official
reportedly called him a traitor for his reporting.
I am someone who tries to penetrate secret things. Im someone
who tries to understand and write about what powerful people do that they
dont want you to know about, Gellman said in an interview last
month. I see my job as to help the public hold them accountable for
what they do and how they do it. Do we approve of whats being done,
for us, to us, in our interests, or dont we?
Colleagues said that Gellman showed promise from his time at Princeton, where
he graduated summa cum laude and went on to become a Rhodes Scholar. His
senior thesis on George F. Kennan 25, the father of the Cold War policy
of containment, was published as a book only two years after his graduation.
Hes an extremely smart guy and has always been able to think
about 10 steps ahead. Part of his intelligence is his ability to see the
big picture, to see a pattern, Washington Post reporter Joel Achenbach
82, who was editorial chairman at the Prince under Gellman,
said. That ability to see the story is something he had at a really
He also led the campus newspaper with a sense of humor. During the 1981
Yale-Harvard football game, Achenbach said, the Prince editors
went up to New Haven and distributed a fake issue of The Yale Daily News.
The issue included a fake story about a drug probe of the two teams and caused
an uproar in the crowd at the game, according to a story published by the
Princeton Alumni Weekly.
Bart not only orchestrated the whole thing; he also made sure we got
news coverage for it, like in The New York Times, Achenbach said.
The Yale campus newspaper got back at him at the beginning of the 1982-83
school year, when Gellman had already left the University, distributing a
fake issue of the Prince on campus. One of the articles in the
fake issue said that Gellman had plagiarized his senior thesis from a magazine
he had allegedly found at a dentists office in Trenton.
Since then, Gellman has maintained ties with Princeton. He is currently a
visiting lecturer and author-in-residence at the Wilson School, where he
last taught WWS 384: Secrecy, Accountability and the National Security State
in fall 2012.
More than the secrecy beat
Gellman began his reporting career at The Washington Post, writing about
the D.C. district courts. He extended his reporting overseas as a foreign
correspondent in Jerusalem, covering the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister
Yitzhak Rabin, and afterwards served as the Posts diplomatic correspondent.
Gellman went on to garner significant attention for reporting on national
security issues. He broke a number of stories related to 9/11 and the Iraq
War and won the Pulitzer Prize in 2008 for a series on then-Vice President
Dick Cheney with reporter Jo Becker. He then published a best-selling book
on Cheney, called Angler: the Cheney Vice Presidency.
His contemporaries say he is a multifaceted journalist whose expertise extends
into several fields.
Barts written about national security and become an expert on
secrecy, but hes not a beat reporter on the spying industry. Hes
looked at secrecy from a lot of different angles, former Post Managing
Editor Phil Bennett, who worked directly with Gellman, said.
Gellman said that even before he started working on national security stories,
he began to develop his interest and knowledge about electronic security
systems. He believed he had a professional need to keep his sources
information confidential and secure. As he did more research on how to do
this, he realized how hard it is for an ordinary citizen to truly keep
Honestly, it is a little like falling down a rabbit hole. Every time
you think youve got all the gaps filled, you find out theres
another one, Gellman said. There has to be an element of political
debate and regulation and legislation because there are some things that
technology permits government and private industry to do that you just
cant defend against.
Hes always been someone whos very concerned about encryption
and cybersecurity and issues like that. Hes taken those precautions
and learned that tradecraft, and I believe thats helped him in doing
[the Snowden] stories, said Washington Post Assistant Managing Editor
for Investigations Jeff Leen, who worked with Gellman on the Cheney series.
This reputation proved to be key in his future involvement with Snowden and
his NSA files.
Late last year, Gellman said, Laura Poitras, an independent documentary filmmaker
who has experience reporting on surveillance, contacted him regarding certain
confidential government documents.
She had reached out to him because an anonymous informant had contacted her
using advanced communication means that Gellman had taught Poitras how to
use. The source claimed to have proof that the NSA, an intelligence agency
within the Department of Defense, was essentially spying on American citizens.
Gellmans first action upon receiving the documents, he said, was to
present them to government officials and explicitly ask them if they were
Ive had plenty of nut cases come to me over the years. Ive
had people who are naive and thought they had a big scoop. Ive had
people who use reasonably authentic-looking, reasonably sophisticated fakes
in order to get a story that they wanted, Gellman explained. My
first order of business was to figure out, Are these documents
Once Gellman had confirmed that the documents involved in this summers
NSA stories were in fact authentic, he began communicating with Snowden through
Poitras. He then set up a direct channel with Snowden, who sent him additional
documents. He declined to share details of their communication method and
frequency, due to a confidential source agreement.
The knowledge he gained from his work investigating Cheneys vice presidency
led him to believe that these documents were significant and groundbreaking,
With this information in hand, Gellman began breaking stories about the NSA
with the Post, a newspaper he had left in 2010 but through which he has been
publishing his stories on a freelance basis.
One of those pieces, published this June, was a collaboration with Poitras
on the NSAs PRISM program in which Gellman named nine major Internet
companies that have released large amounts of private consumer data to the
The government had verified the documents but requested that he withhold
the names of these companies, which included giants such as Apple and Google.
Gellman said he disregarded the advice because he did not consider that
protecting these companies was a legitimate reason to prevent their disclosure.
In the end, the Post published the names.
Im not against big data; Im against the sort of promiscuous
use of big data, he said.
Journalist, advocate, traitor?
Unsurprisingly, Gellman has faced backlash from the government and accusation
from critics who have found his actions to be unpatriotic and overreaching.
Stewart Baker, a former assistant secretary for Policy at the Department
of Homeland Security, corresponded with Gellman via email and publicly questioned
his journalistic integrity.
Maybe its just me, but I dont think anyone can read
[Gellmans response to Baker] without wondering whether Bart Gellman
has slipped from journalist to advocate, Baker wrote in a blog post.
Put another way, it seemed better to hold the truth back until it could
be used to sandbag the adversary.
In a similar vein, Gellman was criticized in 2008 by Mike Levin, a former
chief of information security at the NSA, for releasing national security
We have a special word for people who provide information to the enemy
of their country. What word do we use? Traitor, Levin said in
Secrecy, a documentary about government secrecy produced by two
In a following sequence in the documentary, Gellman responded to Levin, called
himself a patriot and said that allowing the government, and the government
alone, to decide what the public should know is profoundly
In regards to the Snowden stories, Gellman noted that he regularly consulted
with the government while writing all his stories, making sure to remove
or rewrite any information that he was convinced was sensitive or
potentially damaging to national security.
Democracy isnt free. John F. Kennedy didnt say, We
will pay no price; we will bear no burden to secure the blessings of
liberty. Theres always a trade-off, he said.
Gellmans colleagues have also come to his defense and called his actions
a service to the people.
In our system, giving people the information that they need to be
self-governing is a supremely patriotic thing to do in my view, and I think
he does that as well as anybody, Bennett said. If Edward Snowden
had called me and said, Hey can you recommend a reporter who would
be ideal to leak this stuff to?, I would have said Bart.