by DYLAN BYERS
Edward Snowden didn’t win a Pulitzer on Monday, but he might as well have.
In a move certain to be interpreted as a vindication of the former government contractor’s efforts, the Pulitzer Prize Board on Monday awarded The Guardian US and The Washington Post its coveted Public Service award for reporting on the National Security Agency’s domestic surveillance practices.
The award was given for the “revelation of widespread secret surveillance by the National Security Agency, marked by authoritative and insightful reports that helped the public understand how the disclosures fit into the larger framework of national security,” the committee said in its release. Sig Gissler, the Pulitzer Prize administrator, announced the winners shortly after 3 p.m. at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York.
Snowden immediately declared the decision “a vindication.”
“Today’s decision is a vindication for everyone who believes that the public has a role in government,” he said in a statement to The Guardian. “We owe it to the efforts of the brave reporters and their colleagues who kept working in the face of extraordinary intimidation, including the forced destruction of journalistic materials, the inappropriate use of terrorism laws, and so many other means of pressure to get them to stop what the world now recognizes was work of vital public importance.”
Martin Baron, the executive editor of the Washington Post, told POLITICO, “None of this would have been possible without Snowden’s release of classified information. I understand that’s a source of controversy, but without his disclosures there would be no discussion of the shift from the rights of the individual to state power, no debate about the balance between privacy and national security.”
Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger similarly championed Snowden’s efforts, telling staff, “The public service in this award is significant because Snowden performed a public service.”
The reporting on the former government contractor’s leaks was led by journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewan McAskill at The Guardian, Barton Gellman at the Post, and Laura Poitras, who worked with both newspapers.
Baron expressed “tremendous respect” for the Guardian before going on to celebrate his own paper’s work, stating that “many of the most significant and shocking disclosures were made by the Post.”
“This is a newsroom that’s not intimidated by power, that will take big risks in the service of the public interest,” he said, echoing remarks he had made minutes earlier to the Post staff in Washington, D.C. “We are willing to take on the most difficult and sensitive subjects, and we demonstrated that in this story.”
The decision to give the two papers the award was likewise greeted with overwhelming support from the American journalistic community.
“It’s clear to me that we are all better off knowing the extent of government surveillance — even the president has, reluctantly, admitted that,” David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker, told POLITICO. “It’s a prize well-earned, and it seems to me the Pulitzer committee came to the right decision. It’s precisely because a different kind of society — Putin’s Russia, say — could never imagine this kind of journalism that we should value and honor it.”
“There are times when a nominee is bigger than a prize. This was such a time,” Mitchell Stephens, a professor of journalism at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Institute, said. “The Pulitzer Prizes would have been diminished had they not recognized the Snowden revelations. Fortunately, they did.”
Meanwhile, Snowden’s critics in the U.S. government blasted the decision.
“Awarding the Pulitzer to Snowden enablers is a disgrace,” Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) tweeted shortly after the announcement.
John Yoo, a former deputy assistant attorney general and author of the 2002 memos advising the CIA’s use of enhanced interrogation techniques, said the Pulitzer committee’s decision did not vindicate Snowden.
“I’m not surprised the Pulitzer committee gave The Washington Post a prize for pursuing a sensationalist story, even when the story is a disaster for its own country,” he said. “I don’t think we need automatically read the prize as a vindication for Snowden’s crimes. Awarding a prize to a newspaper that covered a hurricane does not somehow vindicate the hurricane, [and] awarding a Pulitzer for a photo of a murder does not somehow vindicate the crime.”
The question of whether to reward reporting associated with Snowden had loomed over board members for weeks leading up to the announcement: To honor the NSA reporting would inevitably be perceived as a political act, with the Pulitzer committee invoking its prestige on behalf of one side in a bitter national argument. In effect, it would be a rebuttal to prominent establishment voices in both parties who say Snowden’s revelations, and the decision by journalists to publish them, were the exact opposite of a public service.
Yet to pass on the NSA story would risk giving the appearance of timidity, siding with the government over the journalists who are trying to hold it accountable and ignoring the most significant disclosure of state secrets in recent memory. It would also look like a willful decision to deny the obvious: No other event has had as dramatic an impact on national and international debates over state surveillance and individual privacy.
The board tried to distance itself from politics: The Pulitzer Prize was awarded to the journalists for their journalism, it said — it was by no means an endorsement of the leaker or the leaks. The same was true in 1972, when, after what The Associated Press then described as “unprecedented debate,” the Pulitzer committee gave The New York Times the Public Service award for Neil Sheehan’s reporting on the Pentagon Papers, which he had received from former military analyst Daniel Ellsberg. At the time the award was given, Ellsberg was awaiting trial on charges of theft, which were later dropped.
But as in 1972, the political ramifications could not be ignored. To date, every public comment or legal ruling has been interpreted either as an endorsement or a rebuke of Snowden’s efforts. In March, President Barack Obama proposed that Congress overhaul the NSA’s electronic surveillance program — a move that Snowden called “a turning point” in the government’s mass surveillance of its citizens. Last December, in a move that Snowden described as vindication, a federal district judge ruled that the NSA surveillance Snowden exposed most likely violates the Constitution.
On the other hand, Obama has previously said that Snowden’s leaks “could impact our operations in ways that we may not fully understand for years to come.” Former Vice President Dick Cheney has called him “a traitor.” Snowden, who is living in Russia, is facing three felony charges in a criminal complaint filed by the Justice Department. And another judge found that the NSA surveillance was lawful and did not violate the constitution.
Jesselyn Radack, one of Snowden’s attorneys, told POLITICO that the Pulitzer decision “is something to be celebrated” because it proves that his disclosures had as much value as the reporting.
“I think it validates that Snowden’s revelations were whistleblowing in the public interest,” said Radack, national security and human rights director at the Government Accountability Project, which represents whistleblowers. “It’s material that people have the right to know about.”
Radack noted that the Pulitzer judges never actually mentioned Snowden, saying only that the Washington Post and Guardian awards were for the “revelation of widespread secret surveillance by the National Security Agency” — without saying who was responsible for the revelations.
Still, everyone knows what the judges were talking about, Radack said: “That’s clearly a big elephant that’s missing, but I think everyone knows what that citation refers to.”
Prior to Monday’s announcement, Michael Gartner, the former NBC News president and Iowa newspaperman who spent 10 years on the Pulitzer Board, said he saw no substantive difference between the journalism that resulted from Ellsberg and Snowden’s stolen documents.
“I’m sure that there will be great debates over Snowden’s stuff, but really wasn’t that precedent set with the Pentagon Papers? The nature of the theft might be different, but isn’t the journalism the same — great stories produced from documents that were leaked by an employee of a private contractor?” Gartner wrote in an email. “I can make a distinction between Ellsberg and Snowden, if I have to, based on the nature of what they stole, but how can the board make a distinction between what was published then and what was published now? Reporting is reporting. If I were arguing for the Snowden stuff — and I would — that is the argument I would make.”
In 2006, the Pulitzer committee honored James Risen and Eric Lichtblau of The New York Times for their reporting on the George W. Bush administration’s secret wiretapping program. That decision, too, was a subject of intense internal debate. President Bush had personally asked the Times not to publish the article, and the committee’s decision to honor Risen and Lichtblau’s report was seen as a public rebuke of Bush administration policies.
To date, no substantial evidence has emerged publicly that any of Greenwald or Gellman’s reporting has compromised America’s national security or military personnel, although intelligence officials have said they’ve detected changes in how groups like Al Qaeda communicate as a result of the broad controversy.
Last month, in a move that set the stage for April’s Pulitzer debate, Long Island University gave both the Greenwald and Gellman teams the George Polk Award for National Security Reporting.
John Darnton, the curator of the Polk Awards, said the 10-member Polk panel hardly thought twice about the decision to bestow awards on Greenwald and Gellman.
“In the case of the NSA coverage, we began with a predisposition to seriously consider it because the repercussions were immense,” he explained. “There was a bit of discussion, but not much. The story itself is just so significant — there was no great dissent.”