The White House Tried to Rewrite an Entire Interview the NSA Gave to the Washington Post

Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley
Aug. 16 2013 10:11 AM

The White House Tried to Rewrite an Entire Interview the NSA Gave to the Washington Post

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Activists gather for a demonstration in support of former NSA employee Edward Snowden and U.S. soldier Bradley Manning and against the electonic surveillance tactics of the NSA on July 27, 2013 in Berlin, Germany

Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Last night the Washington Post published a major scoop, one showing that the the NSA has "broken privacy rules or overstepped its legal authority thousands of times each year" since 2008. If you're only going to read one NSA story today, make it that one. But for those who want a sneak peek inside the often-frustrating world of national security reporting, journalist Barton Gellman provides it with a complementary post detailing how the Obama administration responded when asked to comment on the leaked documents at the heart of the paper's rather damning report.

Josh Voorhees Josh Voorhees

Josh Voorhees is a Slate senior writer. He lives in Iowa City. 

In short, the administration directed all questions to John DeLong, NSA's director of compliance, who then proceeded to speak with Gellman at length—albeit with some pre-established conditions—about the internal audit given to the paper by Edward Snowden. DeLong, in the paper's words, "answered questions freely in a 90-minute interview," with the agreement that he could be quoted by name and title on at least some of his answers. But following the interview, and before the story went live, the White House stepped in and more or less redacted the entire interview. Instead, the administration offered a prepared statement to be attributed to DeLong—written remarks that the Post refused to run in its main story.

Here's the relevant passage from the Post's rundown on the government statements:

The Obama administration referred all questions for this article to John DeLong, the NSA’s director of compliance, who answered questions freely in a 90-minute interview. DeLong and members of the NSA communications staff said he could be quoted “by name and title” on some of his answers after an unspecified internal review. The Post said it would not permit the editing of quotes. Two days later, White House and NSA spokesmen said that none of DeLong’s comments could be quoted on the record and sent instead a prepared statement in his name. The Post declines to accept the substitute language as quotations from DeLong. The statement is below.
We want people to report if they have made a mistake or even if they believe that an NSA activity is not consistent with the rules. NSA, like other regulated organizations, also has a “hotline” for people to report — and no adverse action or reprisal can be taken for the simple act of reporting. We take each report seriously, investigate the matter, address the issue, constantly look for trends, and address them as well — all as a part of NSA’s internal oversight and compliance efforts. What’s more, we keep our overseers informed through both immediate reporting and periodic reporting. Our internal privacy compliance program has more than 300 personnel assigned to it: a fourfold increase since 2009. They manage NSA’s rules, train personnel, develop and implement technical safeguards, and set up systems to continually monitor and guide NSA’s activities. We take this work very seriously.
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Gellman says that he would have normally refused to allow the administration to review the quotes in the first place, but reluctantly agreed given he was dealing with classified information. Still, he says, he made it crystal clear to everyone involved that he would draw the line at the editing of DeLong's quotes—a promise he lived up to.

Main WaPo story here; NSA comment timeline here.

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