On Thursday, June 6, the Washington Postpublished a bombshell of a story, alleging that nine giants of the tech industry had “knowingly participated” in a widespread program by the United States National Security Agency (NSA).
One day later, with no acknowledgment except for a change in the timestamp, the Post revised the story, backing down from sensational claims it made originally. But the damage was already done.
The primary author of the story, Barton Gellman, is a Pulitzer Prize winner, and the Washington Post has a history in investigative journalism that goes back to Watergate and All the President’s Men. On a roster of journalistic failures, this one has to rank near the very top.
The allegations are shocking:
The National Security Agency and the FBI are tapping directly into the central servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies, extracting audio, video, photographs, e-mails, documents and connection logs that enable analysts to track a person’s movements and contacts over time.
The story alleges that the NSA is “reaching deep inside the machinery of American companies that host hundreds of millions of American-held accounts on American soil.” It specifically names nine companies: Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, Apple. And the story alleges, “From inside a company’s data stream the NSA is capable of pulling out anything it likes.”
Within hours after the story broke, it had been amplified by other news agencies and tech websites and had inspired expressions of outrage over this invasion of privacy. And seven of the nine companies named issued categorical denials that they knew of or participated in any such program.
And then a funny thing happened the next morning. If you followed the link to that story, you found a completely different story, nearly twice as long, with a slightly different headline. The new story wasn’t just expanded; it had been stripped of key details, with no acknowledgment of the changes. That updated version, time-stamped at 8:51 AM on June 7, backed off from key details in the original story.
Crucially, the Post removed the “knowingly participated” language and also scrubbed a reference to the program as being “highly classified.” In addition, a detail in the opening graf that claimed the NSA could “track a person’s movements and contacts over time” was changed to read simply “track foreign targets.”