NSA Chief Apparently Finds Free Press To Be Very Inconvenient

NSA Director General Keith Alexander really doesn't like the idea of a free press.

National Security Agency Building

Responding to the latest wake of revelations of National Security Agency surveillance against foreign leaders and the citizens of putative allies such as Spain, France, and Germany, NSA head General Keith Alexander apparently considers a free press to be inconvenient:

The head of the embattled National Security Agency, Gen. Keith Alexander, is accusing journalists of “selling” his agency’s documents and is calling for an end to the steady stream of public disclosures of secrets snatched by former contractor Edward Snowden.

“I think it’s wrong that that newspaper reporters have all these documents, the 50,000—whatever they have and are selling them and giving them out as if these—you know it just doesn’t make sense,” Alexander said in an interview with the Defense Department’s “Armed With Science” blog.

“We ought to come up with a way of stopping it. I don’t know how to do that. That’s more of the courts and the policymakers but, from my perspective, it’s wrong to allow this to go on,” the NSA director declared.

Alexander did not elaborate on what he meant by reporters “selling” documents or what options he might consider for halting the disclosures. An NSA spokeswoman declined to expand on the general’s comments.

The NSA director’s frustration with the flurry of leaks appears to be building. The interview was posted Thursday, the same day the Guardian reported that the U.S. monitored calls of 35 world leaders after obtaining their phone numbers from other U.S. government officials.

As a preliminary matter, Alexander’s assertion that reporters are “selling” secrets is quite simply absurd. These reporters, whether we’re talking about Glenn Greenwald, who has served as Edward Snowden primary journalistic point of contact since this story began, or any of the other American, British, German, French, or Spanish publications who have published stories about different aspects of the documents that Snowden was making public were not “selling” anything. They were publishing documents that they had been provided by a source, just as The New York Times and Washington Post were doing when they were provided with The Pentagon Papers by Daniel Ellsberg. As much as there might be legitimate concerns about the propriety of Snowden’s actions either in sharing the documents or in absconding from the country after having done so in an effort to avoid prosecution, the journalists who have published the documents that he’s provided them have done nothing more, or less, than their jobs. General Alexander may find the results of that job inconvenient or irritating, but that’s the price for living in a society with a free press.

Alexander doesn’t stop at that criticism, though. He also goes on to suggest that there ought to be a way to stop reporters from reporting on what they’ve discovered by doing their jobs. This, of course, is largely what the famous Pentagon Papers Case was really all about. When the Times first bean publishing excerpts from the documents, the Nixon Administration went to Court to attempt to get an injunction to stop any further publication of any information based on the documents. Ultimately, the Supreme Court sided with two lower courts in ruling that the government had not met its burden for prior restraint of publication and, while the Supreme Court’s ruling did not contain more than a simple affirming of the lower Court’s ruling, Justice Hugo Black’s concurrence has long stood as the best statement on the law of prior restraint in cases such as this:

I adhere to the view that the Government’s case against the Washington Post should have been dismissed, and that the injunction against the New York Times should have been vacated without oral argument when the cases were first presented to this Court. I believe that every moment’s continuance of the injunctions against these newspapers amounts to a flagrant, indefensible, and continuing violation of the First Amendment. Furthermore, after oral argument, I agree completely that we must affirm the judgment of the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit and reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit for the reasons stated by my Brothers DOUGLAS and BRENNAN. In my view, it is unfortunate that some of my Brethren are apparently willing to hold that the publication of news may sometimes be enjoined. Such a holding would make a shambles of the First Amendment.

Our Government was launched in 1789 with the adoption of the Constitution. The Bill of Rights, including the First Amendment, followed in 1791. Now, for the first time in the 182 years since the founding of the Republic, the federal courts are asked to hold that the First Amendment does not mean what it says, but rather means that the Government can halt the publication of current news of vital importance to the people of this country.

In seeking injunctions against these newspapers, and in its presentation to the Court, the Executive Branch seems to have forgotten the essential purpose and history of the First Amendment.


I can imagine no greater perversion of history. Madison and the other Framers of the First Amendment, able men that they were, wrote in language they earnestly believed could never be misunderstood: “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom . . . of the press. . . .” Both the history and language of the First Amendment support the view that the press must be left free to publish news, whatever the source, without censorship, injunctions, or prior restraints.

In the First Amendment, the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors. The Government’s power to censor the press was abolished so that the press would remain forever free to censure the Government. The press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of government and inform the people. Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government. And paramount among the responsibilities of a free press is the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people and sending them off to distant lands to die of foreign fevers and foreign shot and shell. In my view, far from deserving condemnation for their courageous reporting, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and other newspapers should be commended for serving the purpose that the Founding Fathers saw so clearly. In revealing the workings of government that led to the Vietnam war, the newspapers nobly did precisely that which the Founders hoped and trusted they would do.

Functionally, there is no difference between what Alexander is suggesting, albeit in a somewhat offhand manner, in this interview and what the Nixon Administration did in 1971. It seems fairly clear that, if he had the power, he would use the power of the state to prevent a free press from doing its job, mostly because they have embarrassed the agency that he heads and made it, perhaps, slightly more difficult for him to do his job. This is not how things work in a free society, of course. Yes, it’s important that some things remain secret in the name of the national interest and, indeed, there is a long history of American media outlets cooperating with requests from the government that they hold back on publishing something, or leave certain information out of a story, because it could expose intelligence sources and methods or other important matters. That’s a different matter, however, from the kind of intimidation that Alexander seems to be suggesting here. The news media doesn’t exist to do the bidding of secretive agencies like the NSA, and we should all hope the day never comes when they start to believe that they do. In the meantime, someone ought to send General Alexander for some remedial education in Constitutional Law.

FILED UNDER: Democracy, Intelligence, Law and the Courts, National Security, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
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. DC Loser says:

    Alexander is just mad because this is all making him look bad.

  2. C. Clavin says:

    “…These reporters, whether we’re talking about Glenn Greenwald, who has served as Edward Snowden primary journalistic point of contact since this story began, or any of the other American, British, German, French, or Spanish publications who have published stories about different aspects of the documents that Snowden was making public were not “selling” anything…”

    First…he was an independent contractor…selling stories to entities like the Guardian.
    Second…Greenwald just got bankrolled in a new endeavor. Absent the Snowden leak…no bankroll.
    No…he’s not selling anything in the small-minded way of selling something.
    But he was definitely selling something.

  3. Ben says:

    @C. Clavin:

    Oh come on. Greenwald got offered the new venture because he broke the biggest story of the year, and has continued to break related stories for months now. He’s probably one of the most famous journalists on the planet now. You think he did it for the money? I don’t. Greenwald has been a pretty damned passionate civil liberties activist for a long time now.

    As for the “selling something” because his employers paid him for his work, in what possible way is that distinguishable from any other freelance journalist?

  4. grumpy realist says:

    Anyone in a security agency will always a) classify more than is necessary, b) classify at higher levels of security than is necessary, c) hide more stuff than is necessary, and b) confuse its own reputation with the well-being of the greater public.

    Read some of the cat-and-mouse games that have gone on between the No Such Agency or military and scientists when it comes to publications. (Trying to classify a well-known hydrodynamics equation, for example.)

    When you identify your own status with the Greater Good, it’s very easy to go nuts on these matters.

  5. Jeremy R says:


    As for the “selling something” because his employers paid him for his work, in what possible way is that distinguishable from any other freelance journalist?

    A freelance journalist that controls access to 10’s of thousands of our country’s and our allies state secrets, who selectively leaks from them to papers around the world, in the affected countries, to maximize the political impact? Who shares the byline on those stories (gets paid) for those foreign publications to have limited access to slivers of that trove of stolen documents? Who has just had 100’s of millions invested into a venture to further exploit those documents for years to come? I don’t think there’s a contemporary or historical parallel for whatever it is Greenwald and Poitras have been doing, except perhaps Wikileaks:


    Poitras and Greenwald have created their own publishing network as well, placing articles with other outlets in Germany and Brazil and planning more for the future. They have not shared the full set of documents with anyone.

    “We are in partnership with news organizations, but we feel our primary responsibility is to the risk the source took and to the public interest of the information he has provided,” Poitras said. “Further down on the list would be any particular news organization.”

  6. Vast Variety says:

    @Ben: It’s always about the money. You’re kidding yourself if you truly believe Greenwald is involved in this for any other reason.

    My biggest complaint about the whole affair is the piecemeal nature in which it’s all coming out. Rip off the rest of the band-aid all ready and get it over with so we can move on.

  7. Ron Beasley says:

    Yes indeed, sunlight can be very hazardous to your health if you are doing things most people find objectionable.

  8. al-Ameda says:

    News Break!
    Spy Agency personnel do not care for the press or sunshine laws!
    Details at 11.

  9. Mu says:

    Odd, if a general in a country like Turkey would publicly state “we should do something about this” everyone would expect an imminent coup. Here people think it’s sufficient to send the general to remedial class.
    That guy needs to be retired at his permanent grade yesterday.

  10. C. Clavin says:

    I do not disagree at all.
    But you can not ignore the monetary implications of what he was doing…I am positive he didn’t.
    Assuming selfless motivation is just naive. He knew he had won the lottery when Snowden dropped in his lap.
    Look at Woodard and Bernstein (who I readily acknowledge led me to my first career). They certainly capitalized on Watergate…hell Woodward hasn’t done a worthwhile thing since…unless you think kissing Washington DC ass is worthwhile.

  11. wr says:

    @C. Clavin: So what’s your point? Greenwald’s getting paid for his work, Hayden’s getting paid for his work, Woodward, everyone.

    Are you saying that a paycheck is Greenwald’s only motivation? Or Hayden’s for that matter?

    It’s easy to be so cynical, but if you try to reduce everybody down to one basic motivation you’ll miss much of what’s going on around you.

  12. Anonne says:

    Civil liberties is Greenwald’s niche issue, and has been for years. Just because you may be new to him doesn’t mean that it’s all about money.

  13. beth says:

    @Anonne: So how is what Greenwald doing helpful? How can we possibly fix our out of control security agencies until we know the full truth of what they’re doing? Whose interests are being served by doling out the documents piece by piece?

  14. Todd says:

    If a business profits by reselling goods that they know were obtained illegally, they can be an accessory to the crime.

    But if journalists profit by publishing documents that they know were obtained through criminal actions, they’re “just doing their job”.

    Got it.

  15. the Q says:

    Wow, Black, Brennan and Douglas,….read up boomers on what liberals used to be instead of the watered down corporatists that pass as “liberals” today on the court.

  16. Ben says:

    @Vast Variety:

    Are you actually saying that the only reason anyone ever does anything is money? Are you seriously trying to contend this? If that were true, why would anyone ever do volunteer work? Why would anyone ever take a lesser paying job over a higher paying one? Because these things actually occur, you know.

    Now, I’m not saying that Greenwald is doing charity work here, or that he isn’t being well compensated. In fact, his monetary value has probably skyrocketed this year. But no, I don’t think that money is his primary motivation. Because I’ve been reading his writings for many years, and that guy definitely has a passion (or an agenda, depending on whether you like what he writes or not) for civil liberties abuses, and he really does give a shit.

  17. Ben says:


    If a business profits by reselling goods that they know were obtained illegally, they can be an accessory to the crime.

    But if journalists profit by publishing documents that they know were obtained through criminal actions, they’re “just doing their job”.

    Yes, because usually there isn’t any public interest in a business reselling stolen goods. However, one of the founding principles of our country is that a free press, especially one that challenges and criticizes those in power, is absolutely essential to liberty. So we accept as a society that in order for there to be a free press, we have to allow them to make money while doing it. And sometimes they need to have access to stolen classified documents in order to do their job (informing the public and challenging those in power)

  18. legion says:


    But if journalists profit by publishing documents that they know were obtained through criminal actions, they’re “just doing their job”.

    Yes. That is exactly correct, and it is a feature, not a bug. To underscore what Ben said, news is not simply a “product” meant only to make a profit – it’s a public good. We, as a society, have decided that informing the public of potential lawbreaking by our representative government* takes precedence over the ordinary privacy or classification issues that would otherwise conceal that lawbreaking. That’s a good thing.

    * – This is the important part here. Our gov’t does not rule us, it represents us. Our right to know what that gov’t is doing in our names supersedes the gov’t right to keep things secret from us. Period. Always. No arguments accepted.

  19. James in Silverdale, WA says:

    Please fire this clueless fascist general.

  20. James in Silverdale, WA says:

    @beth: Mainly because people have short attention spans. Letting it out over time keeps the story alive. Maybe that serves Greenwald’s wallet. Whatever. People earn their livings, nothing odd about that. But had the information been released all at once, the government would issue a single denial, and would not have been caught in every single lie it has told since. It would have all been swept under the rug.

  21. Ben says:

    @James in Silverdale, WA:

    Agreed with this point -> Releasing the stories one-by-one allows us to catch the government in their bullshit denials. And it makes every press release they put out seem less and less credible.

  22. beth says:

    @James in Silverdale, WA: That makes no sense – if all the information is released, how can the government make a single denial that’s a lie if there’s evidence in the information to refute it? I still hold that everything should be put out there so we have the whole picture. The government is never going to willingly give up power. Let’s know all of what they’re doing so we can structure intelligent security policies, not just reacting to whatever gets released this week.

    I was very much on the side of Snowden in releasing the information however it seems like egos have taken over. Greenwald et al seem more interested in playing “gotcha” with the administration than in helping to effect any meaningful change in this country’s security policies.

  23. DC Loser says:

    The release of the information in dribs and drabs serve a purpose. It forces the government to issue individual denials or explanations with each release, only to be contradicted by subsequent information releases which directly refute the official explanations. This makes the government to be out and out liars.

  24. Ben says:

    Well, we have another big bombshell today, folks.

    And this one isn’t just metadata, it’s content, too. So what’s the lying denial going to be this time?

  25. Matt says:

    @Ben: Not surprised. I’d be surprised if the NSA wasn’t doing stuff like that.