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ProPublica’s Engelberg: WaPo’s “Top Secret America” an “Extraordinary Commitment”

The national security business is booming, even bloated, according to “Top Secret America,” an in-depth investigative report published Monday in the Washington Post.  Among the findings: an estimated 854,000 people hold top-secret security clearances.

More than a dozen Washington Post journalists, led by reporters Dana Priest and William M. Arkin, spent two years on the report which has received great attention for its detailing of the sprawling security network in the U.S.  To get at the heart of how such an investigation works, Big Think spoke with Stephen Engelberg, former investigative editor of the New York Times and current managing editor of ProPublica, the independent, non-profit organization supporting investigative journalism:

“This is the kind of bet that even a newspaper like the Post makes maybe once a year,” said Engelberg. “You are betting hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars of reporter, editor, and programmer time on this. … It’s the kind of thing that people in the fat years did occasionally, and in the thin years they do even less occasionally.”

Engelberg said the report is notable both for what it revealed and for how it collected the information and presented it to the public.  “When you look at the powerful, complicated, impressive database work the Post has done, and then the programming to translate that into the apps that you can look at online, it’s an extraordinary commitment,” he said.

National security reporting is often controversial, and the Post has received strong criticism from some outlets for publishing the details of potentially critical data.  When asked how investigative journalists approach such sensitive issues, Engelberg said: “There is a tacit understanding among journalists that cover national security that one really needs to be a little bit careful about what one publishes.  There are times when somebody can tell you something and the persons who are handling the information are not themselves aware of the sensitivity, and you may not be aware of the sensitivity.” 

He added that, “The way, historically, people deal with this is you go to the government, much as you go to what you might call the ‘target’ of any investigation, and give a very full disclosure of what it is you intend to publish, why it’s newsworthy, why it’s important, and what’s your comment.”


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