Abramson: ‘Freeze’ on national security beat

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New York Times top editor Jill Abramson said Thursday that national security reporting "is effectively being criminalized" by the Obama White House, citing its aggressive pursuit of whistleblowers.

The remarks were made at Columbia University at a panel discussion titled "Journalism After Snowden" and billed as a “conversation about digital privacy, state surveillance, and the First Amendment rights of journalists.” The final question, put before panelists by digital-journalism professor Emily Bell, was: If there was one thing you could make happen for journalism in the post-Edward Snowden World, what would it be?

“An international agreement that journalists will not be prosecuted for doing their jobs,” said Janine Gibson, editor-in-chief of Guardian U.S. (which broke the bombshell story last summer of Snowden’s leaks about sweeping digital surveillance by the National Security Administration), to applause from the audience of hundreds.

“More great stories to cover,” said Abramson, who joked that she’d gotten “severe indigestion” because the Times hadn’t broken the Snowden story itself, especially given the paper’s previous exposure of the N.S.A.’s warrantless wiretapping program in 2005.

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Abramson also echoed comments she made in an interview that aired on Al Jazeera America earlier this week about the administration’s record-breaking total of seven criminal leak investigations.

“This has had a profound effect on journalists who cover national security, with the Snowden case being the most recent [example],” Abramson told the Columbia crowd. “This seems to be, if not a stated policy, a reality where journalism about sensitive national security issues, that I see as vitally in the public interest, is effectively being criminalized, and a real freeze is setting in to what had been up to this point a healthy discourse between sources and journalists.”

The panel, which also included David Shulz, a Columbia Law School lecturer and outside counsel to The Guardian, and Cass Sunstein, a member of President Obama’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies, was the kickoff to a new program from the Columbia Journalism School’s Tow Center and Columbia Journalism Review magazine.

Introducing the event, journalism school Dean Steve Coll said the program would generate “articles and research about state surveillance in the year to come,” as well as an “in-depth survey” of the practices of investigative reporters and online resources dealing with source protection.