If the U.S. and British governments could stop the press from publishing stories based on the National Security Agency files leaked by Edward Snowden in June, they probably would have acted by now. Oh, the Guardian was coerced by the British government into destroying the hard drives in London containing the leaked files, and London police used terrorism law to detain the partner of Glenn Greenwald — one of the journalists to whom Snowden leaked — at Heathrow Airport and confiscated computer media believed to contain leaked files.
But these measures were largely for show. As Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger had earlier reminded officials, other publications and individuals possess copies of the files, and “doomsday” copies exist that will be released “if anything happens at all to Edward Snowden,” said Greenwald in June. Greenwald wasn’t so much blackmailing the U.S. and British governments as promising retaliation, Capone-style, should harm come to his source.
Meanwhile, hardly a week has expired since June without the publication of a new Snowden revelation somewhere in the world, as this Wikipedia page illustrates. Last week, the Washington Post reported how the NSA pinches data from Yahoo and Google’s worldwide data centers. On Sunday, the New York Times published a laundry list of NSA operations, demonstrating the agency’s pervasiveness. “The N.S.A. seems to be listening everywhere in the world, gathering every stray electron that might add, however minutely, to the United States government’s knowledge of the world,” wrote reporter Scott Shane.
From the sidelines, the U.S. and British governments appear to be helpless, pitiful giants, to steal a phrase from Richard Nixon, when it comes to the NSA disclosures. Traditionally, the U.S. government has been more or less successful in getting the press to delay — or at least reduce the octane — of their most explosive national security stories, as these Shorenstein Center papers by Jack Nelson (pdf) and Allan Siegal (pdf) attest. Failing to daunt or cajole the press, the government can try other behavior-mod strategies. It can deter future leakers by aggressively prosecuting current leakers, as the Obama administration has done. It can intimidate reporters who refuse to surrender their confidential sources in criminal proceedings with threats of contempt and jail time, an outcome New York Times reporter James Risen seems resigned to. (Gabriel Schoenfeld, author of Necessary Secrets, made the case for why Risen deserves jail in 2010 in the Daily Beast.)
Those techniques won’t work against the reporters writing about the Snowden leaks: Snowden outed himself as the source of the NSA files — essentially confessing to the espionage charge against him — so prosecutors can’t retaliate against Greenwald, the Washington Post‘s Barton Gellman, or filmmaker Laura Poitras, early recipients of the Snowden leaks, by using the courts to expose their sources.