NEW YORK –- The Washington Post revealed on Thursday the existence of a secret National Security Agency program code-named PRISM, which reportedly allows the U.S. government to tap directly into the servers of several major Internet companies, including Microsoft, Yahoo, AOL and Google.
The blockbuster story, which included PowerPoint slides provided by a “career intelligence official,” landed online at 5:43 p.m. and led the front page Friday morning.
But roughly 20 minutes after the Post story appeared online Thursday, The Guardian –- which had already broken a major story the previous night on the NSA’s seizure of millions of Verizon customers’ phone records –- published its own story on PRISM, complete with PowerPoint slides. The Guardian's Glenn Greenwald, who broke the Verizon story, shared a byline on the PRISM story with Washington bureau chief Ewen MacAskill.
That two news outlets would publish stories on a secret government program so close together is striking, and the timing suggests there was a race to get the news up first. Indeed, Barton Gellman, who co-wrote the Post’s story, told The Huffington Post that he “started to hear some footsteps, so I had to move.”
Gellman has won two Pulitzer Prizes with the Post, but readers haven’t seen his byline on the front page in some time. He left the paper in 2010 for Time magazine, where he continues to write on a non-exclusive basis. But for the PRISM story, Gellman returned to his old stomping grounds.
Three weeks ago, Gellman and Laura Poitras -- a filmmaker who has chronicled security in the post-9/11 world, and whom Gellman knew from a previous fellowship at NYU -- approached Post editors with the PRISM story. Gellman described his co-author as having done "really tough, ballsy, documentary film work” on surveillance issues in the past.
Gellman, who is currently a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, said he chose to write the piece for the Post because it “felt more like a newspaper story than a magazine story” and because of his experience reporting major national security stories there in years past. “It calls for a whole battalion of support,” Gellman said of the staff needed for this type of story.
He met first with Post managing editor Kevin Merida, with whom he had worked previously, and later with executive editor Marty Baron, other top editors, reporters and lawyers.
Gellman said it was as much of a "journalistic, legal, source management and national security knot as I've ever come across."
Still, Gellman tried to keep a low profile at the Post in recent weeks, given that rumors would have inevitably spread that he might be rejoining the paper. Instead of reporting from the 5th floor newsroom, Gellman worked two floors up near the paper's legal staff.
Recently, it became clear to Gellman that the scoop might be broken elsewhere and so the Post “decided to push it through." Gellman said he “would have been happier to have had a day or two” more to work on the PRISM story, but it was clear, for competitive reasons, the Post had to move quickly. (A Post spokeswoman did not provide anyone to speak with The Huffington Post for this story).
"The Guardian was working toward a 6pm deadline in order to allow the technology companies referenced in the training document to respond to our request for comment as we believed it was an important element of the story," a Guardian News & Media spokeswoman told The Huffington Post when asked about Thursday's publication.
"As soon as the story was ready, we published," she said, adding that "the Prism story is part of a narrative the Guardian has published along with the Verizon story."
Indeed, the Guardian led the way with its Verizon story and has doggedly covered the still-unfolding story of government surveillance in the Obama years.
Gellman and Poitras noted in their piece that their source for the PowerPoint slides leaked them "to expose what he believes to be a gross intrusion on privacy." The career officer said the government "quite literally can watch your ideas form as you type."
Gellman would not respond to questions about whether he suspects the Post and Guardian had the same source for the slides.
Broadly speaking, Gellman said that he and Poitras “couldn’t have even started to get the story if the source” wasn’t comfortable that they were taking precautions in protecting him.
“The source is at considerable risk and was only wiling to communicate in the most secure way and knew what he was doing on that,” Gellman said.
The Huffington Post is owned by AOL, which has denied knowledge of the PRISM program.