Special Program: NSA Surveillance Leaks: Facts and Fiction

June 25, 2013
Location: Walter and Leonore Annenberg Theater

By Dinah Douglas, assistant Web writer

WASHINGTON — In the first major program sponsored by the newly launched Newseum Institute — a civics education initiative committed to preserving First Amendment freedoms — experts in the fields of journalism, education and national security met at the Newseum June 25 to discuss the First Amendment implications of the National Security Agency's clandestine surveillance program, also known as PRISM.

Disclosure of the clandestine surveillance program has inspired intense debate about the constitutionality of the covert government surveillance, privacy, and the era of "Big Data."

Laurel Bellows, president of the American Bar Association, introduced the program titled "NSA Surveillance Leaks: Facts and Fiction," and emphasized the importance of addressing the issue in-depth.

"As lawyers, we cannot accept sound-bite constitutionality," she said.

Harvey Rishikof, chairperson of the American Bar Association's committee on law, moderated the program. Panelists included:

Stewart Baker, former general counsel, National Security Agency

  • Spike Bowman, professorial lecturer, George Washington
  • Joel Brenner, principal, Joel Brenner LLC
  • Robert Litt, general counsel, Office of the Director of National Intelligence
  • Kate Martin, director, Center for National Security Studies
  • Gene Policinski, executive director, Newseum's First Amendment Center
  • Ellen Shearer, co-director, National Security Journalism Initiative, Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University

Litt explained that the surveillance programs in place play a crucial role in protecting the United States. But concerns about the secrecy of the programs dominated the debate, particularly the standards the government must meet to monitor communications.

Policinski noted a number of times in the nation's history where disclosures of secret activities to journalists was said to be damaging to the country's interests.

But "when you look at the role of a journalist," he said, "they are outside the structure set up by the founders to be that independent check on the government." 

Shearer defended journalists who have been accused of idealistic reporting, noting that disclosure is vital, despite their opinions on the subjects they cover.

"If I have a point of view, I need to tell you I have a point of view. I still should not be distorting or withholding pertinent information," she said.

The program was the first of many educational programs hosted by the Newseum Institute that will focus on engaging the public on issues of how a free press functions in an increasingly complex media environment.

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