Edward Snowden Leaks Earn Pulitzer Prize For Washington Post, Guardian

Thanks to Edward Snowden, the Washington Post and the Guardian are Pulitzer Prize winners.


The Washington Post and The Guardian have been awarded the Pulitzer Prize in the Public Service category for their stories resulting out of the leaks of classified information from the National Security Agency by Edward Snowden:

The Washington Post won two Pulitzer Prizes on Monday, including the prestigious public-service medal for a series of stories that exposed the National Security Agency’s massive global surveillance programs.

A team of 28 Post journalists, led by reporter Barton Gellman, shared the public-service award with the British-based Guardian newspaper, which also reported extensively about the NSA’s secret programs. Both Gellman and Glenn Greenwald, then the Guardian’s lead reporter on the NSA pieces, based their articles on classified documents leaked by Edward Snowden, the former government contractor who has fled to exile in Russia, lending a controversial edge to this year’s awards.


The awards to The Post and Guardian for their NSA reporting are likely to generate debate, much like the Pulitzer board’s decision to award it public service medal to the New York Times in 1972 for its disclosures of the Pentagon Papers, a secret government history of the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.

In both the NSA and Pentagon Papers stories, the reporting was based on leaks of secret documents by government contractors. Both Snowden and Daniel Ellsberg — who leaked the Pentagon Papers to Times’ reporter Neil Sheehan — were called traitors for their actions. And both the leakers and the news organizations that published stories were accused by critics, including members of Congress, for enabling espionage and harming national security.

But Post executive editor Martin Baron said Monday the reporting exposed a national policy “with profound implications for American citizens’ constitutional rights” and the rights of individuals around the world.

“Disclosing the massive expansion of the NSA’s surveillance network absolutely was a public service,” Baron said. “In constructing a surveillance system of breathtaking scope and intrusiveness, our government also sharply eroded individual privacy. All of this was done in secret, without public debate, and with clear weaknesses in oversight. ”

Baron added that without Snowden’s disclosures, “We never would have known how far this country had shifted away from the rights of the individual in favor of state power. There would have been no public debate about the proper balance between privacy and national security. As even the president has acknowledged, this is a conversation we need to have.”

Gellman, 53, said, “This has been a hard, consequential story, which could have gone wrong in all kinds of ways. I’m thrilled at the recognition for The Post and honestly I’m relieved that we didn’t screw it up.”

On the issues surrounding the story, he said, “We have been as careful as we could be to balance the public interests in self-government and self-defense. We consulted with the responsible officials on every story and held back operational details. But we were not prepared to withhold the secret policy decisions the government is making for us and the surveillance it’s directing against us. The public gets to have a say on those things. Enabling that debate is exactly what a great news organization should be doing.”

Regardless of what one thinks about the legality or morality of what Snowden did, or of the NSA programs themselves, it seems fairly clear that the Post and Guardian reporting teams fully deserve this award. Much like the New York Times coverage of the Pentago Papers leaks in 1971, their coverage last year of the information that Snowden made public served the important and necessary role of informing the American public of actions that the government was undertaking in the name of the so-called “War On Terror.” As a result, we continue to find ourselves in the midst of a debate regarding technology, privacy, and the appropriate limits that should be placed on government under the Fourth Amendment notwithstanding the alleged public interest in gathering this information without warrants and with little actual oversight from independent authorities. Had it not been for Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, and the other reporters who have covered this story and its ongoing aftermath we would not be having that debate today.

The logical question that follows from today’s award, of course, is what if anything it should mean in evaluating Edward Snowden’s actions. On some level, he’s now no different from Daniel Ellsberg, who turned over the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times which ultimately won a Pulitzer Prize for its reporting on those documents and what they meant for the Vietnam War and American foreign policy going forward. As I’ve said before, Snowden certainly hasn’t helped his case by fleeing first to China and then to Russia, while also seeking asylum in nations such as Venezuela and Bolivia. However, the argument in his defense that he feared being treated in the same manner that Bradley Manning was is one that I can at least by sympathetic to in some regard. Additionally, I think it’s possible to separate Snowen the person from what he did last year when he helped publicize the extent to which an agency that most Americans had barely even heard of was gathering information about them and countless other people around the world. In at least that respect, he performed as much of a public service as the reporters who reported on the information he gave them.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Ron Beasley says:

    On some level, he’s now no different from Daniel Ellsberg, who turned over the Pentagon Papers

    In a sense I don’t agree with that. Ellsberg didn’t run off but stayed to pay the consequences of his actions. Of course there were few consequences because the Federal prosecutors made so many mistakes that he was acquitted.
    At the same time their actions were similar because the American people, and in fact the world, found out things they should know but the government didn’t wan’t them to.

  2. Ben says:

    @Ron Beasley:

    I keep hearing that argument, and I keep disagreeing with it. Ellsberg was a different time. He was allowed out on bail, allowed to continue to go to rallies and speaking engagements and was allowed to continue to speak publicly about the issues he leaked.

    There is approximately zero chance that would happen today. Snowden wouldn’t have been granted bail in a million years. He would have been thrown into isolation for months upon months, and would have a gag order put on him that would not allow him to speak about anything related to his leaks.

    Ellsberg himself says that Snowden made the correct decision for exactly those reasons. Because the legal system in this country has changed so profoundly since the early 70s, Snowden would have spent his entire time from the moment he surrendered until sentencing rotting a jail cell, probably in solitary.

  3. @Ron Beasley:

    FWIW, Ellsberg has said publicly that he supports Snowden’s decision to flee the country

  4. Ron Beasley says:

    @Ben: I tend to agree with you, there is no way Snowdon could have received a fair trial in this case, although the fact that Ellsberg got off was not so much because of a fair justice system but because of incompetent Federal prosecutors. Ellsberg could have been put away for a long time.
    @Doug Mataconis: I know that and I approve of what he did.

  5. Anonne says:

    All you have to do is look at how Bradley Manning was treated, and then extrapolate how much worse it would be for Snowden to agree with Snowden’s decision to flee the country. Due process is a joke, and that is the point of all these revelations.

  6. Ron Beasley says:

    @Anonne: I’m not sure it’s the same thing. Manning was tried under the Military “justice” system while Snowden would have been tried under the civil system. Apples and Oranges I think.

  7. James Pearce says:

    Greenwald showed up in NYC the other day to accept a Polk award. He said he fears arrest by stepping on US soil, but of course nothing happened. Well, aside from being presented a Polk award. (Speech! Speech!)

    And now the papers are getting Pulitzers?

    In his bubble, I’m sure Edward Snowden is thrilled. But he shouldn’t be. He’s living as a fugitive in Russia, a life sentence hanging over his head, while his collaborators are getting awards. He takes all the heat, the journalists get all the credit.

    It’s slightly ridiculous, no?

  8. wr says:

    @James Pearce: No.

    Edward Snowden is paying a grave price for something he felt was more important than his own safety or comfort. He made a choice to expose NSA practices knowing what this would mean for him.

  9. Jeremy R says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    FWIW, Ellsberg has said publicly that he supports Snowden’s decision to flee the country

    It’s worth very little as Ellsberg has been a part of Greenwald and Poitras’ anti-Western intelligence project from before Snowden even entered the picture. They were, and still are, all on the board of the Press Freedom Foundation. An org they founded to restore/funnel donations to Wikileaks (after the credit card companies cut them off), to support Manning, and later to do media hits involving Snowden apologetics. These compromising relationships achieved total self-parody when they actually added Snowden to the board, too.

    He’s also kind of a kook. From Ellsberg’s Reddit AMA:


    “Do you believe the government has you under close surveillance? Has anything happened to you that might make you believe so?”

    Yes, now that I’ve been endorsing Manning and Snowden and challenging the “executive coup” that I believe took place after 9-11. No, I can’t point to specific harassment. But remember: Snowden has revealed that NSA has us ALL under surveillance. I’m just guessing that I’m one of the many (millions?) that are targeted for special attention.


    It depends, of course, what you mean by “active.” (Does that sound like Clinton?) It does NOT mean that they listen in, live, on my phone calls. The FBI or NSA, with or without warrants, must do that to very few people at any one time. Perhaps almost none, sometimes. Nor that they are trailing me. Again, they still do that to some people part of the time (I’d be surprised if I ever had that, though who knows), even though they hardly ever have to do it nowadays with their ability to track most people as much as they want by their i-phones and GPS, etc.

    How large is the list, started under Hoover, for people to be picked up for detention in case of “emergency,” “civil disturbance” like another 9-11? (That’s one I think I’m probably on, along with a lot of my friends; though it’s mainly Middle Easterners, at the moment, and Muslims). That could well be a million or more (or somewhat less).


    Do they really believe that real democracy is viable, when one branch of government, the Executive, knows or can know every detail of every private communication (or credit card transaction, or movement) of: every journalist; every source to every journalist; every member of Congress and their staffs; every judge, at every level up to the Supreme Court? Do they think that every one of these people “has nothing to hide,” nothing that could be used to blackmail them or manipulate them, or neutralize their dissent to Executive policies, or influence voting behavior? Is investigative journalism, or aggressive Congressional investigation of the Executive, or court restraints on Executive practices, really possible with that amount of transparency to the Executive of their private and professional lives and associations? And without any of those checks, the kind of democracy you have is that of the German Democratic Republic in East Germany, with its Stasi (which had a miniscule fraction of the surveillance capability the NSA has now, but enough to turn a fraction of the population of East Germany into secret Stasi informants).


    NSA has ability to penetrate our privacy and to collect the details of all our communications that no autocracy in history has been able to aspire to. The East German Stasi, or J. Edgar Hoover, couldn’t even imagine having the comprehensive ability to blackmail and manipulate citizens, members of Congress, journalists, dissenters, that the NSA now has.

  10. James Pearce says:


    Edward Snowden is paying a grave price for something he felt was more important than his own safety or comfort.

    I am not as certain as you are when it comes to the purity of Snowden’s motives or his trustworthiness.

  11. Mikey says:

    @James Pearce: All I need to know about Snowden I learned when he revealed programs that had nothing to do with the surveillance of Americans, but the revealing of which damaged our external national security capabilities and endangered American agents working overseas.

    If he were truly the selfless defender of the Constitution too many people paint him as, he’d have stuck solely to the stuff that’s questionable under the Fourth Amendment. But he didn’t.