Wednesday, October 23, 2013


Recently, 2 serious and stimulating papers have been published looking at the state of journalism, particularly investigative journalism, in the Age of Obama.  Both the collective writers at the TOW Center, who have directly addressed their remarks to the President’s Panel on NSA surveillance issues, and former Washington Post editor Len Downie, in his brilliant essay for The Committee to Protect Journalists (where I was a founding member, a past Chair, and Executive Board member and still serve of the CPJ Advisory Board) consider the impact of Mr. Obama’s unmatched record of aggressive criminal prosecution of suspected whistleblowers, leakers, and the journalists with whom they communicate.

Both are well worth your attention.

Reading them has stimulated me to pose a series of questions, whose answers may well define, not just the future of American journalism, but of American democracy.

1)    In a democracy, do citizens have the right to know everything their government is doing (in their name and with their money)?


2)    Or do governments have a right to keep secrets from citizens?


3)    If the answer to 2) is “Yes,” what should be the limits on what can be kept secret?


4)    Must official secrets be limited to those deemed essential to the security (or just the interests) of the nation and its people?


5)    Who should be empowered to monitor what is to be kept secret, and to make sure the specified limits on secrecy are strictly observed?


6)    Under what rules should these monitors work, and what guarantees of access to secret materials should they have? 


7)    How should their work be made accessible to citizens?


8)    What (in addition to these institutional monitors) is the role of the free press in  reporting on government secrecy and secrets? 


9)    Have press revelations of secrets ever actually damaged national security?


10) Is the public better off for the press’ exposure of government “secrets”?


11) Would the public be worse off if the government had absolute power to protect its self-declared secrets, backed by the threat of criminal or professional sanctions against those who make them public?


12) If the government forecloses secure press access for dissenters or whistleblowers will it leave these “witnesses” no other choice than immediate and total “publication” of dissident information via the internet?


13) Is the government’s and nation’s interest better served by securing access for whistleblowers to journalists, who focus their data-gathering, winnow both data and sources, do further reporting for context and reactions, consult with and solicit comment from government, before presenting and distributing their information, or by sending whistleblowers (with often inchoate, unchecked, information) directly to the global digital audience?


14) How can protections for whistleblowers and journalists be institutionalized to guarantee maximal public access to important information or judgments, without endangering national security?  


15) And what protections should citizens have to protect their privacy, and limit the intrusive powers of government?


Let’s assume the government has access to and registers all digital – phone, internet, and US mail communications.

What problems do those capabilities create?  We’ll seek answers through the journalist’s 5 basic questions: who, what, where, when, why?

Targeting:  Potentially? Worst case? The answers to, “Who can be targeted?” are: WHO? Everyone. WHAT? All communications. WHEN? Whenever. WHERE? Everywhere. WHY? Because government can.

Actually?  We need answers to these questions.


16) WHO?  Whose communication file be opened, examined, and further processed?


17) WHAT? Once a communications file is opened, what kinds of data can be examined?


18) WHEN?  Should investigations be time-limited? For keeping files open? For analyzing what’s in them? For taking action based on collected data?


19) WHY?  Should investigations and analyses be broadly issue-specific,--  to protect national security, to combat major criminal activity, to serve the public interest?


20) Should they be narrowly case-specific, limited to data relating to particular threats or crimes?


21) Should they simply be target-specific?  With what threshold for targets, for secondary targets, for wider examinations based on networks of secondary or  tertiary communicants?


22) Should there a defined threshold for suspected “security threats” or suspected criminal activities to predicate violations of personal communications data?


23) Are simple keywords sufficient predicates for opening, and processing communications data?


24) Who (in government and out?) can know your secrets?


25) What right and mechanism of appeal would citizens have to contest government surveillance of their communications?


I’m sure this list is only the beginning for a discussion of the highest importance.  Please feel invited to join.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for posting these links, and for posing these questions. Think we'll get some answers?