If you don't share my fascination with the journalistic ethics of the Snowden reporters, you can skip this long piece. But both of the protagonists have now defended themselves, so I'm posting their messages, with commentary.
I began the exchange when I questioned why Glenn Greenwald and the Guardian waited two weeks to release NSA's minimization procedures, which revealed extensive limitations on how NSA handles information about Americans. It seemed odd that Greenwald didn't tell us about those procedures in his original story about Prism, which after all quotes an intelligence community official who defends Prism by invoking the minimization procedures:
"The program is subject to oversight by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the Executive Branch, and Congress. It involves extensive procedures, specifically approved by the court, to ensure that only non-US persons outside the US are targeted, and that minimize the acquisition, retention and dissemination of incidentally acquired information about US persons."
In Greenwald's first story, this passage just sits at the very end, like the warnings that follow an ad for Viagra. There's no hint that Greenwald has copies of the minimization procedures and can confirm much of what the official says.
So why, I asked, did he wait two weeks before publishing the documents and providing much-needed context? To my mind, that was the act not of a journalist committed to informing his readers; it was more like the act of an advocate hoping to get a firestorm started before disclosing information that might give readers second thoughts.
Greenwald is nothing if not diligent in tracking his online reputation. He tweeted a truculent defense a few hours after my post:
@stewartbaker The WashPost had the same docs, yet didn't publish it until we did. How do you explain that? Do they also hate America?
A fair question. The Post story was similar in many ways to the Guardian piece; it too included the "extensive procedures" quote, though a bit higher and with a smidgen of backhanded confirmation:
The Obama administration points to ongoing safeguards in the form of “extensive procedures, specifically approved by the court, to ensure that only non-U.S. persons outside the U.S. are targeted, and that minimize the acquisition, retention and dissemination of incidentally acquired information about U.S. persons.”
And it is true that the PRISM program is not a dragnet, exactly. From inside a company’s data stream the NSA is capable of pulling out anything it likes, but under current rules the agency does not try to collect it all.
But why did the Post stop with the vague reference to "current rules" when it could have confirmed the official's statement by releasing the minimization documents it already had? I still didn't have a better answer than the one I started with. So I sent Bart Gellman an email asking for comment. (He's asked me his share of tough questions over the years, so it seemed only fair.)
To his credit he gave me a thoughtful response, and I'm reprinting it full, with a bit of commentary. It begins with some reflexive High Journalism:
I can’t discuss when and from whom I obtained particular documents, other than what I have already reported. Your analysis relies pretty heavily on assumptions about the answers. Glenn Greenwald is right to say, on that basis, that your critique of the Guardian would apply to my coverage as well.
I have taken no position on whether the programs at issue are good or bad, properly tailored or overbroad. I am doing my best to unearth the facts that would enable such a debate. That is what journalism is supposed to do.But he then gets down to talking about the minimization guidelines: