Did the Obama administration have advance knowledge whistleblower Edward Snowden had leaked NSA surveillance secrets to the Washington Post and London Guardian newspapers?

Washington Post reporter Barton Gellman, who first revealed Snowden’s information about the classified PRISM program, wrote Monday that his newspaper took the former intelligence worker’s evidence to “government officials” prior to publishing his article.

The question is whether the government officials were briefed about the pending NSA leak prior to a May 23 address on national security in which Obama detailed how the intelligence community needs to reform its surveillance programs.

Gellman had been in communication with Snowden since at least February, according to news reports.

Wrote Gellman: “The Post sought the views of government officials about the potential harm to national security prior to publication and decided to reproduce only four of the 41 slides.”

Gellman was referring to a PowerPoint presentation Snowden had provided to the reporter detailing PRISM, the top-secret surveillance program that reportedly gathered intelligence from Microsoft, Facebook, Google and other Internet giants.

Without offering a complete timeline of his communication with Snowden or when he first received the PowerPoint documentation, Gellman relates that a “series of indirect contacts preceded our first direct exchange May 16.”

In an interview with Salon published Monday, documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras stated that she believes Snowden had been in touch with the Post’s Gellman since February. Poitras has been working with Snowden since January and has been filming his months-long drive to release the information.

Stated Poitras: “What I can say is that once I had a few pieces of correspondence, I said, let me ask a couple of people about this, people who have experience, and I sat down with a couple of people, one of whom was Bart Gellman … and he said, it looks like this person could be legit. And that was probably February.”

Gellman wrote that two weeks before the release of his June 6 story on PRISM , Snowden had asked for a guarantee the newspaper would publish within 72 hours the full text of the PowerPoint presentation.

“I told him we would not make any guarantee about what we published or when,” wrote Gellman.

“The Post broke the story two weeks later, on Thursday,” he wrote.

He said the Post only published the story after first vetting Snowden’s slide presentation with “government officials.”

Questions remain about when Gellman first contacted “government officials” regarding the PowerPoint presentation, as well as who those officials are and the extent to which the officials were briefed about the source of the PRISM information.

Clearly, however, unnamed government officials knew beforehand about the pending leak on the NSA surveillance program, according to Gellman’s account.

The Post has long been criticized by conservatives for what they say is friendly coverage of the Obama administration.

In a November 2008 column addressing that criticism, Washington Post ombudsman Deborah Howell wrote: “I’ll bet that most Post journalists voted for Obama. I did. There are centrists at The Post as well. But the conservatives I know here feel so outnumbered that they don’t even want to be quoted by name in a memo.”

Obama: Reform intelligence gathering

In Obama’s May 23 address on national security, the president detailed his views on how the intelligence community needs to reform its surveillance programs.

“Now, thwarting homegrown plots presents particular challenges, in part because of our proud commitment to civil liberties for all who call America home,” Obama stated.

“That’s why in the years to come, we will have to keep working hard to strike the appropriate balance between our need for security and preserving those freedoms that make us who we are,” he said. “That means reviewing the authorities of law enforcement so we can intercept new types of communication, but also build in privacy protections to prevent abuse.”

Obama continued: “That means putting careful constraints on the tools the government uses to protect sensitive information, such as the state secrets doctrine. And that means finally having a strong privacy and civil liberties board to review those issues where our counterterrorism efforts and our values may come into tension.”

Obama even stated that journalists who use whistleblowers from the intelligence community should be protected.

“You know, the Justice Department’s investigation of national security leaks offers a recent example of the challenges involved in striking the right balance between our security and our open society. As commander in chief, I believe we must keep information secret that protects our operations and our people in the field. To do so, we must enforce consequences for those who break the law and breach their commitment to protect classified information.

“But a free press is also essential for our democracy,” the president said. “That’s who we are. And I’m troubled by the possibility that leak investigations may chill the investigative journalism that holds government accountable.”

He argued journalists should not be at legal risk for “doing their jobs.”

“Our focus must be on those who break the law. That’s why I have called on Congress to pass a media shield law to guard against government overreach,” he stated.

Obama warned America “is at a crossroads.”

“We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us,” he said.

He stated that America’s “legitimate claim of self-defense cannot be the end of the discussion.

“To say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance, for the same progress that gives us the technology to strike half a world away also demands the discipline to constrain that power, or risk abusing it.”

With research by Joshua Klein.

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