Media surveillance and ‘the day we fight back’

Today, a broad coalition of technology companies, human rights organizations, political groups, and others will take to the Web and to the streets to protest mass surveillance. The mobilization, known as “The Day We Fight Back,” honors activist and technologist Aaron Swartz, who passed away just over a year ago. Throughout the day, the campaign will encourage individuals to contact their representatives, pressure their employers, and march for an end to government surveillance practices that sweep up huge amounts of data, often indiscriminately.

Mass surveillance has implications for all of society, as evidenced by today’s coalition. However pervasive its nature, though, surveillance is often specifically deployed against journalists.

During the Cold War, U.S. intelligence agencies engaged in aggressive efforts to target and disrupt legitimate, lawful newsgathering activities. In their book about Watergate, All the President’s Men, former Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein describe how they took extreme measures, at least for a time, after learning they were likely under surveillance. While Woodward and Bernstein never uncovered evidence they were surveilled, other mainstream reporters certainly were, including New York Times journalist Tom Wicker and veteran Washington Post humor columnist Art Buchwald, both of whom were spied upon by the U.S. National Security Agency.

Independent and alternative journalists fared far worse. According to former Washington Post reporter Betty Medsger’s book, The Burglary, the CIA targeted the staffs of more than 500 alternative newspapers. The FBI set up fake newspapers to lure left-leaning reporters into submitting content, and fake photo agencies to gain access to groups; the Bureau even planned to burn the offices of a national news service, to which it had tasked a dozen informants, while news staff slept upstairs. And ominously, as cited in Center for Investigative Reporting correspondent Seth Rosenfeld’s book, Subversives, an FBI list of individuals to be detained “in a time of national emergency” included specific journalists who, according to the FBI, “are in a position to influence others against the national interest … due to their subversive associations and ideology.”

Woodward and Bernstein’s work won them the Pulitzer, of course, and helped spur the U.S. Senate to unanimously create the Senate Watergate Committee 40 years ago this month; Buchwald also won a Pulitzer, and Wicker enjoyed a long and successful career. But it is less clear what happened to countless others who were not only watched, but whose work was quietly disrupted.

It is also unclear whether much of the work that Woodward, Bernstein, and Wicker conducted several decades ago would be possible today. Government surveillance capabilities are rapidly expanding, and not just in the West; insufficient oversight of new technologies has the potential to exacerbate existing press freedom issues. Indeed, many technologies and techniques described in an infamous 1970 White House memorandum on surveillance, while not specifically aimed at the press, are in wide use today. From increased electronic surveillance, the monitoring of international communications, and the broad use of mail covers, to the expansion of undercover informants and “surreptitious entry,” and the creation of a centralized intelligence agency with representatives from the White House, CIA, NSA, and the military, much of the Nixon White House’s wish list has become a reality.

Even as surveillance tools are increasingly multifarious, journalists continue to find themselves in the crosshairs of programs ostensibly designed to catch terrorists. Late last year, Der Spiegel reported that the NSA hacked a protected internal communications network at Al-Jazeera. Last week, NBC News reported that the British intelligence agency Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) covertly monitored reporters’ communications, and that the agency concocted (but abandoned) a scheme to use journalists for passing information and disinformation to intelligence targets. Finally, as CPJ points out in an early chapter of its annual Attacks on the Press, which launches Wednesday and which is excerpted here, experts believe that the NSA also broadly targeted journalists for surveillance during the Bush Administration, and that it continues to do so.

Given the history of how surveillance is applied to the press, it is clear that mass surveillance is synonymous with press surveillance. And existing steps toward surveillance reform have proved to be halting at best. It should be unsurprising that groups are calling for a more robust response than to accede to government assurances of “Trust us.”