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Beyond the Document

Categories: Canada, Journalism, Politics, World


Excerpts from an NSA briefing note that outlined intelligence operations during the 2010 G20 summit in Toronto.

People are still talking about CBC's exclusive story last week revealing that the federal government allowed the U.S. National Security Agency to conduct widespread surveillance in Canada during the G8 and G20 summits back in 2010.

It's a big story that made headlines around the world, so we're glad it's receiving the profile it deserves.

Because the story emerged from the documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, there's an extra level of intrigue. CBC News decided that the best thing we could do is be transparent with our audience, and show them the document. We were careful to talk to the US government first to make sure nothing we published would identify any individuals involved. You can see that document here.

Some of you have looked at the document and asked us - or asked the CBC Ombudsman --  whether the information in the document is enough to justify the reporting we did. The wording in the document is full of bureaucratese, and doesn't state outright that there was "widespread surveillance" as we reported.

So how do we know we're right?

Well, in essence, we did a lot of digging and reporting; seeing the document was the beginning of the reporting process, not the end. That's a commitment we would always make. As many of you know, we have a well-documented set of Journalistic Standards and Practices.

In this case, we combed over the document ourselves for a considerable period of time before going ahead.

We sought further interpretation of the document.

We also sought to interpret some of the acronyms and intelligence language in the document to make their meanings clear to us.

We spoke to multiple sources in the intelligence community to help give this context to the material.

We then began sharing our findings with governments and agencies involved in the gathering of intelligence during the G8/G20.

We took into consideration the guidance and reaction they gave us publicly and privately.

We took the contents of our information to an academic specialist before our stories were made public.

Alongside our fine journalists in Ottawa, the story was reported on by freelancer Glenn Greenwald.  He has done extensive reporting on the NSA and contributed additional insight based on his access to the contents of thousands of Snowden documents not yet published.

We allowed experts to go over our material before it was posted. One of those experts pointed out an editing error in the 24th paragraph of the online version of our story. We excised that paragraph from the online version and appended that on the version that remains online.

And through it all, we debated what the real significance was of this story. This was not a matter of a security agency keeping track of a suspected militant aiming to disrupt the summit or even a following a group of evil-doers. That would not be surprising. We expect secret security agencies in Canada and the United States to keep track of people intent on violence or disruption of these events. That is their job.

But this document, prominently marked "secret", suggests the NSA was planning to keep track of everyone attending the summit, not just all of those that might pose a potential threat. Their interest was not targeted, but widespread. Moreover, that interest extended well beyond security and protection to forwarding the policy goals of the United States. That is clear in the secret document.

So that's how we put together our stories.  There was a great deal of rigour throughout the process. And we remain accountable even after we take a story to air. If audience members think we've failed in living up to our standards, they can always approach the CBC Ombudsman to ask for an independent review.

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