Guardian writer Glenn Greenwald almost missed out on getting the story of US National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden after declining to open an encrypted email, the New York Times has revealed.
The US title today published a profile of the documentary maker Laura Poitras, who made the first contact with Snowden and then later decided to work with Greenwald on the story.
The NYT reports that last December Snowden anonymously sent Greenwald an email "saying he had documents he wanted to share, and followed that up with a step-by-step guide on how to encrypt communications, which Greenwald ignored. Snowden then sent a link to an encryption video, also to no avail."
So Snowden, 29 at the time, contacted Poitras – a documentary maker with an interest in surveillance and security issues – and she went through an elaborate set of encryption procedures in order to make contact with the then anonymous source.
In an encrypted online Q and A with NYT writer Peter Maass, Snowden said he contacted the two US journalists because they were “among the few who reported fearlessly on controversial topics” in the period after 9/11 when journalists were reluctant to “check the excesses of government”.
Asked whether he was surprised that Greenwald ignored his initial contact attempts, he said:
Yes and no. I know journalists are busy and had assumed being taken seriously would be a challenge, especially given the paucity of detail I could initially offer. At the same time, this is 2013, and a journalist who regularly reported on the concentration and excess of state power.
"I was surprised to realize that there were people in news organizations who didn’t recognize any unencrypted message sent over the internet is being delivered to every intelligence service in the world. In the wake of this year’s disclosures, it should be clear that unencrypted journalist-source communication is unforgivably reckless."
The NYT piece also reveals that Greenwald and Poitras discussed taking their first article, about how the NSA was collecting the telephone records of millions of US customers of telecoms provider Verizon, elsewhere because of delays ahead of publication by The Guardian.
The NYT reports that Greenwald sent an encrypted draft of the story to a colleague at another publication and considered setting up a website called NSADisclosures to get the story out.
The pair have published articles in other newspapers around the world and Poitras is in the process of making a documentary about the Snowden affair. The NYT reports that the pair have not shared the full set of NSA documents with anyone.
Poitras told the NYT:
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. Further down on the list would be any particular news organization.”