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