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Editor in Chief

Reporting on Secrets and National Security

Categories: Canada, Politics, World



Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Edward Snowden, U.S. President Barack Obama

The debate around revelations relating to the United States' scale of spying shows no sign of abating. CBC News' exclusive reports since Wednesday night show how Canada worked with the US, specifically to listen in on policy makers attending the G20 Summit in Toronto in 2010. 

One argument all media face is how can journalists possibly justify revealing information designated by the United States as classified. How is that responsible?

Those questions were among the first we asked ourselves. The decision by CBC News to highlight material that is not written for general access is never one taken lightly. It is puerile to suggest that a respected news organization broadcasts or publishes simply because it can. We weigh many factors, and we work to show responsibility in our coverage plans. We are governed by our Journalistic Standards and Practices, a document that is publicly available.

By its very nature, national security is the most sensitive file journalists work on. It is of course serious stuff, and a big disadvantage inherent in covering national security is the inability of officials working in that arena to speak in public, in detail or specifically. There are strict rules and even laws that restrict agency comment. So indeed an argument can be made that those handling secrets are working with one hand tied behind their back when a leak takes place.

No government agency particularly enjoys working with the media, but as long as we are fair, most accept journalists have a job to do.

But a test for any democracy is the ability of its institutions to handle the challenge of public scrutiny. Arguably, the most robust behaviour should reside with those who have the most secrets.

How do our country's most influential people make difficult decisions that affect people's lives? What are those who work in the shadows of public life actually up to? This doesn't mean we reveal operations or capabilities but there are legitimate questions that receive the best answers when there is accountability.  Did CSEC (Communications Security Establishment Canada) manage to work with the United States' NSA (National Security Agency) through a legal partnership? Was the minister of defence or foreign affairs aware of the decisions or grant permission? If so, how often are the agencies granted or refused ministerial permission? What is the precise process a minister uses to guide him or herself? What is the political, economic and legal frame? The questions, which can only be asked when we have sight of the work through leaks, will continue in the days and weeks ahead.

Already, in response to our story, the United States reiterated that President Obama had asked for a review of the work the intelligence agencies do.

For those of you wondering, CBC News is currently in a freelance relationship with Glenn Greenwald. As both a journalist and a commentator, Greenwald has written for many prestigious media outlets in recent years, ranging from The Guardian to the New York Times to Salon.com.

He will write and report for CBC News and will help provide context and analysis on the documents from the NSA. Greenwald knows these files well. He has spent months exploring the global role of the NSA working with material taken by a former National Security Agency employee, Edward Snowden.

As with all CBC News content, stories generated by CBC reporters and Mr. Greenwald that are connected to these documents will be held to CBC journalistic standards.

David Walmsley
Director of News Content
CBC News

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