Trevor Timm: How free is our freedom of the press?
So this is James Risen. You may know him as the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The New York Times. Long before anybody knew Edward Snowden's name, Risen wrote a book in which he famously exposed that the NSA was illegally wiretapping the phone calls of Americans. But it's another chapter in that book that may have an even more lasting impact. In it, he describes a catastrophic US intelligence operation in which the CIA quite literally handed over blueprints of a nuclear bomb to Iran. If that sounds crazy, go read it. It's an incredible story.
But you know who didn't like that chapter? The US government. For nearly a decade afterwards, Risen was the subject of a US government investigation in which prosecutors demanded that he testify against one of his alleged sources. And along the way, he became the face for the US government's recent pattern of prosecuting whistleblowers and spying on journalists.
You see, under the First Amendment, the press has the right to publish secret information in the public interest. But it's impossible to exercise that right if the media can't also gather that news and protect the identities of the brave men and women who get it to them. So when the government came knocking, Risen did what many brave reporters have done before him: he refused and said he'd rather go to jail. So from 2007 to 2015, Risen lived under the specter of going to federal prison.
That is, until just days before the trial, when a curious thing happened. Suddenly, after years of claiming it was vital to their case, the government dropped their demands to Risen altogether. It turns out, in the age of electronic surveillance, there are very few places reporters and sources can hide. And instead of trying and failing to have Risen testify, they could have his digital trail testify against him instead. So completely in secret and without his consent, prosecutors got Risen's phone records. They got his email records, his financial and banking information, his credit reports, even travel records with a list of flights he had taken. And it was among this information that they used to convict Jeffrey Sterling, Risen's alleged source and CIA whistleblower.
Sadly, this is only one case of many. President Obama ran on a promise to protect whistleblowers, and instead, his Justice Department has prosecuted more than all other administrations combined. Now, you can see how this could be a problem, especially because the government considers so much of what it does secret. Since 9/11, virtually every important story about national security has been the result of a whistleblower coming to a journalist. So we risk seeing the press unable to do their job that the First Amendment is supposed to protect because of the government's expanded ability to spy on everyone.
But just as technology has allowed the government to circumvent reporters' rights, the press can also use technology to protect their sources even better than before. And they can start from the moment they begin speaking with them, rather than on the witness stand after the fact. Communications software now exists that wasn't available when Risen was writing his book, and is much more surveillance-resistant than regular emails or phone calls. For example, one such tool is SecureDrop, an open-source whistleblower submission system that was originally created by the late Internet luminary Aaron Swartz, and is now developed at the non-profit where I work, Freedom of the Press Foundation. Instead of sending an email, you go to a news organization's website, like this one here on The Washington Post. From there, you can upload a document or send information much like you would on any other contact form. It'll then be encrypted and stored on a server that only the news organization has access to. So the government can no longer secretly demand the information, and much of the information they would demand wouldn't be available in the first place.
SecureDrop, though, is really only a small part of the puzzle for protecting press freedom in the 21st century. Unfortunately, governments all over the world are constantly developing new spying techniques that put us all at risk. And it's up to us going forward to make sure that it's not just the tech-savvy whistleblowers, like Edward Snowden, who have an avenue for exposing wrongdoing. It's just as vital that we protect the next veteran's health care whistleblower alerting us to overcrowded hospitals, or the next environmental worker sounding the alarm about Flint's dirty water, or a Wall Street insider warning us of the next financial crisis. After all, these tools weren't just built to help the brave men and women who expose crimes, but are meant to protect all of our rights under the Constitution.