First 'cyber' Pulitzer honors publishers of NSA leaks for public service

In awarding the Pulitzer to The Washington Post and The Guardian US for their reports on information leaked by Edward Snowden, the committee is highlighting the importance of the cyber realm.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Washington Post reporters and editors gather in the newsroom in Washington on Monday after the paper won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for its reporting on the Edward Snowden leak.

The Pulitzer Prize for Public Service was awarded Monday to The Washington Post and The Guardian US for reporting on the global scope and intricacies of the National Security Agency’s global surveillance programs.

A controversial award to be sure, the Pulitzer committee appeared to draw distinctions between the two organizations’ approaches to the task of reporting on the tens of thousands of top secret documents leaked to them by Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor now living in asylum in Russia.

But the committee’s choice transcended ongoing debate over whether Mr. Snowden is a “hero or traitor,” by highlighting the first-ever Pulitzer for cyberspace reporting, observers said. In that sense, the prize underscores the fast-growing importance of the cyber realm – crime, conflict, surveillance – and its accelerating impact on the everyday life of citizens worldwide, they said.

“It’s really a recognition, not only in terms of being an award for great journalism, but also because of the importance of the area being covered, which really makes it the first ‘cyber Pulitzer,’ ” says Peter Singer, a senior fellow in the Brookings Institution’s foreign policy program and author of "Cybersecurity and Cyberwar: What Everyone Needs to Know," in an interview.

“It’s a new form of journalism,” he says. “You can’t identify an issue area that isn’t being affected and arguably reshaped by the cyber realm, whether it's communications, commerce, critical infrastructure, or conflict, they’re all being affected by this.”

The Post won for its revelations of widespread secret surveillance by the NSA, “marked by authoritative and insightful reports that helped the public understand how the disclosures fit into the larger framework of national security,” the committee wrote. The Guardian, meanwhile, shared the prize for its role “helping through aggressive reporting to spark a debate” between the government and the public over issues of security and privacy.

To some cyber-policy experts, the wording seemed carefully calibrated.

“It appears that the decision was a difficult one for the Committee: they didn't name any specific journalists, and they carefully chose their adjectives, calling the Washington Post's reporting 'authoritative' and 'insightful' whereas the Guardian is 'aggressive,” writes Thomas Rid, professor of security studies at King's College in London and author of “Cyber War Will Not Take Place,” in an e-mail interview.

“The Committee seems to be saying, between the lines: The Washington Post's reporting was better sourced, better reported, and possibly more responsible than the Guardian [read: Glenn Greenwald],” Dr. Rid continues. “This Pulitzer prize doesn't vindicate Snowden. He didn't get the prize."

As a the result of the documents' release, Post and Guardian reporters were able to investigate and document the NSA’s mass collection of Internet communications via a slew of programs that scooped up data from social media providers like Yahoo, Microsoft, Facebook, and others. One NSA program revealed by Mr. Snowden, code named PRISM, required high-tech companies to share their data with the agency.

Another revelation was the NSA’s collection of more than five years of telephony metadata, requiring a careful explanation for readers about why something so esoteric is so coveted and powerful, even though it is not the actual contents of a phone conversation. Add to that reporting detailing the intricacies of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court as well as why NSA evaluation of such data over “three hops” is far more invasive than just “two hops.” One result, Congress is closer than ever to pulling the plug on the program.

Awarding the most prestigious of the news awards for the Snowden story shows how crucial the role of cyber-security and its impact on civil liberties  and privacy have become, writes Ellen Shearer, co-director of the National Security Journalism Initiative at Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, in an e-mail interview.

The stories, she notes, “changed the debate” and made the government more accountable for the information it gathers both on citizens and foreign governments.

“As the first Pulitzer dealing with cyber issues, this award shows the prominence of cyber issues in American policy and citizens’ lives,” Ms. Shearer writes. “I don’t think this settles the debate on Snowden’s legal culpability, but certainly shows that these disclosures service the public interest.”

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