The Guardian and Washington Post each won the highest award in Journalism, the Pulitzer prize for public service, for their reports on the National Security Agency’s surveillance activities of US citizens, leaked to the organizations through former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

Vindication

“Today’s decision is a vindication for everyone who believes that the public has a role in government,” Snowden said in a statement, noting that the journalists had to suffer through intimidation, destruction of their journalistic materials and inappropriate use of terrorism laws to halt a free press.

Edward Snowden

“Most substantial disclosures… since Pentagon Papers”

The Guardian newspaper called the series of articles published on the NSA “the most substantial disclosures of US government secrets since the Pentagon Papers on the Vietnam war in 1971.” The Washington Post also made a comparison to the Pentagon Papers.  “In both the NSA and Pentagon Papers stories, the reporting was based on leaks of secret documents by government contractors,” they wrote on their web site.  “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.”

Other winners

The Washington Post’s Eli Saslow won a Pulitzer for a series about the difficulty of living on food stamps, while the Boston Globe won in the breaking-news category for coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings nearly a year ago.  The investigative reporting award went to Chris Hamby at the Center for non-profit Public Integrity for a story of how doctors and lawyers rigged the system to deny benefits to coal miners stricken with black lung disease. The New York Times won two awards, sweeping the photography categories for breaking news and features.

Disclosure of NSA surveillance machine could be trouble if in the wrong hands

What the NSA has built is a surveillance machine that, if turned over the wrong hands, could be easily converted to control society.  Even the massive data the NSA stores on US citizens and their computer communication, web site visitation patterns and search patterns could be damaging if it was hacked by computer thieves.

“Disclosing the massive expansion of the NSA’s surveillance network absolutely was a public service,” said Washington Post Editor Martin Baron. “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.”

Although the NSA and other detractors of Snowden have claimed the leaks damaged national security, much of the damaging operational information, such as computers and cell phones used as tools of spying, was said to be generally known in intelligence and terrorist circles, just not in the mainstream.

“Americans are now aware of the dragnet electronic surveillance conducted by the NSA only because a whistleblower, Mr. Snowden, exposed it, and through the Washington Post and the Guardian US sparked a national debate,” said Bea Edwards, Government Accountability Project executive director. “The Board of the Pulitzer Prizes should be commended for this selection.”

Ultimately it is a free press, the only non-governmental organization mentioned in the US Constitution, whose job it is to hold runaway government power accountable.  “This decision reminds us that what no individual conscience can change, a free press can,” Snowden said. “My efforts would have been meaningless without the dedication, passion, and skill of these newspapers, and they have my gratitude and respect for their extraordinary service to our society. Their work has given us a better future and a more accountable democracy.”