When being a journalist means you also have to be spy-ish and philospher-ish

In the past I’ve subscribed to two magazines, but I cancelled both of them because I didn’t regularly read them. The problem was that they were magazines I wanted to have read, not ones I actually wanted to read. It was similar to how I sometimes feel towards reading classics.

One of the two was Scientific American. (I think this was when I was interested in possibly being a science journalist.) Each magazine issue is around 100 pages (which would maybe take me as long to read as a full book), and the only page I really liked was their 50, 100 & 150 Years Ago section. In it, they put together clips from past articles.

For example.

From a 1968 article during the Civil Rights Movement:

“Rioting evolves as a form of collective pressure or protest where large numbers of people are crowded and alienated together, sharing a comon fate that they no longer accept as necessary.”

And a 1868 article criticizing certain shoe choices:

The medical journals are making a feeble crusade against the high-heeled and narrow-toed boots now in vogue…Let us hope that before these evils shall have become greatly multiplied, fickle fashion may remove the cause, and give us something more sensible and endurable than these toe-screws.

Sorry man, maybe in another two centuries.

But then this summer, I subscribed to The Atlantic and fell in love with its magazine. I was a few months late to their redesigned logo that they revealed in December 2019, and in the back of my head, I’m planning to go and order those new-logo issues I missed.

They went from the italicized full name to the simple “A” by itself.

If you asked me to choose a favorite essay from all the magazines so far, I would ignore your request. But if you asked me which one made me go WHAT the most, second place would very likely go to Operation Firstfruits by Barton Gellman. (Which doesn’t imply at all that the other articles aren’t crazy. In the October issue, there’s a story about a woman who started a dog adoption program at a prison and ended up sneaking out an inmate in a box.)

I was confused the first time I read this article, and paging through it again, it’s still confusing. It feels like a very serious, no-nonsense fever dream.

I think part of why I was lost is because there’s a lot of context the journalist Barton Gellman doesn’t go into. It might because he and his editor assumed it was basic information and people would already know who he was and his past work. I definitely was not one of those people.

Before reading the article, I had no clue who Edward Snowden was. Only afterwards did I realize this guy was apparently famous — wait ACTUALLY, this is the perfect opportunity to use the word infamous —Edward Snowden is infamous.

Snowden used to work at the CIA, and in 2013, he started leaking super secretive information about the NSA, aka the National Security Agency.

The NSA is kind of like the fourth Jonas brother. I feel like most people have heard of the CIA and the FBI (which would be the first three brothers), but less have heard about the NSA.

All three of these government agencies overlap with spy-work, but they do so in different ways.

The FBI is in charge of doing things inside the US. They’re a combination of spy plus police. (You know how in movies they yell FBI and hold their badges up?)

The CIA works on things outside the US. This is the agency that sends spies all over the world. (I guess I’m probably supposed to call them intelligence officers? Maybe spies has like unprofessional connotations or something?) Unlike the FBI, they’re not similar to police at all. They don’t arrest people. Their job is to collect secret information other people don’t want them to know and to maintain secret relationships other people don’t want them to have. But sometimes they do work as assassins. Hm, maybe I’m not supposed to use the word assasinate either? What else what you call it though??

And finally there’s the NSA. They mostly work on foreign cases as well, but the majority of their agents don’t go abroad. They’re like the CIA’s man-in-chair. The NSA to the CIA is like Ned to Tom Holland’s Peter Parker. They do the spying through technology and data analysis.

Back to Snowden at the CIA leaking information about the NSA.

So what kind of information was this? Uhh, this is where I get kind of lost. I looked it up online, but I’m still not really sure. The general idea I got out of it is that the NSA was doing a lot more surveillance on ordinary Americans and foreign countries than the public knew about. From what I’ve seen, I’m pretty sure it’s the part about ordinary Americans that pushed Snowden to do this. He thought the government was stepping way too far into people’s privacy.

But no matter what his reasoning was, the law says doing that was very illegal. Snowden was charged with esponiage and he had to flee the US. (Last month or so I saw news that he’s gotten permanent residency in Russia.) I don’t know if he still has to be so vigilant now, but in 2013, he went to extreme lengths to stay hidden. It’s insane.

And the extent he goes to not get caught is insane. If he ever committed a crime (well, I guess some people would say he’s already committed a crime), he would definitely not be a criminal that got caught from being sloppy.

The journalist of this article, Barton Gellman, describes the first meeting he had with Snowden in Moscow.

He resisted questioning about his private life, but he allowed that he missed small things from home. Milkshakes, for one. Why not make your own? Snowden refused to confirm or deny possession of a blender. Like all applicants, blenders have an electric signature when switched on. He believed that the U.S. government was trying to discover where he lived. He did not wish to offer clues, electromagnetic or otherwise.


But this article’s main story isn’t even about Snowden. Most of it is Barton Gellman, the journalist who wrote the article. Snowden only shared his files with a few journalists, and Barton Gellman was one of them. Because of this, Gellman starts being tracked by the US government too. A bunch of insane things happen to him.

Gmail gives him a warning saying, “Warning: We believe state-sponsored attackers may be attempting to compromise your account or computer. Protect yourself now.” (Which I had no idea was something Google did. Well, I guess if a government ever hacks me, I now know that Gmail will have my back.) Then his entire Mac gets hacked and so has to buy a new one.

And then he learns that his own name is being called out in government crime reports to the FBI. (Oh my, imagine being watched by the FBI.) He’s the one who translated Snowden’s files into published journalism, so the government sees him as a bad guy as well.

To try and protect his own information and sources, he has to start doing abnormal things like Snowden does. He creates this extremely complicated safe system to put his stuff in at The Washington Post. To access his own notes, he has to type in five long passwords. (That just sounds annoying.) He’s a journalist but he has to start being kind of spy-ish.

And kind of philosopher-ish too.

He writes,

At heart, national-security secrecy presents a conflict of core values: self-government and self-defense. If we do not know what our government is doing, we cannot hold it accountable. If we do know, our enemies know too. That can be dangerous. This is our predicament.

He believes that the public needs to know the information he has because it’ll protect them. But if does this, he knows it’s not just the US public who will read it. Foreign governments will read it too. And any NSA methods those governments know about are methods they can protect themselves from. By trying to protect his fellow citizens from US government surveillance, he is most likely helping to protect other countries from US government surveillance too.

I’m definitely biased towards journalism in general and I definitely don’t know what in the world the actual information they’re debating over is, but I just think Barton Gellman is cool. A few months after I read the article, I listened to an podcast episode he was interviewed on. And guess what? He’s been making people mad since he was a teenager.

As a high schooler, he tried publishing an article in his school newspaper that his principal didn’t want. He printed out copies anyways, and his principal literally burned all the copies. So he sued. And he won. And he told this story like it was lowkey. Yea I’m telling you, he’s cool. If any journalist is trying to balance self-government and self-defense, this interview made me feel relieved it’s him.

Are you subscribed to any magazines?
Did you know there was a fourth Jonas brother?
Is there a journalist you think I should know about? Or just anybody you think is cool?

4 thoughts on “When being a journalist means you also have to be spy-ish and philospher-ish”

  1. I’ve been meaning to post a comment on this one for a while and I just keep forgetting.
    This was a fascinating read Annie. I am not subscribed to any magazines but my sister and I recently got my brother 12 week subscription to The Economist for Christmas so I’m excited to see those showing up soon.
    I’ve probably talked to you before about these, but have you watched/read All the President’s Men? And have you watched The Post? I was reminded of both reading this.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Also, got to add: I remember following the Snowden news when it all happened and finding it really interesting. I hadn’t heard about the blender though. That took it to a whole new level XD

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Oh my goodness, I was literally talking to someone about The Economist yesterday! He told me that if you read any one magazine, it should be The Economist! I would love to hear your thoughts on them.
      YES, I watched All the President’s Men this year–it was so good. I haven’t watched The Post though! Is it similar to All the President’s Men?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.