NSA Leak: Story Ideas for Student Journalists

The explosive national security leak that has exposed several massive governmental surveillance programs is undoubtedly the news story of the summer — possibly the year.

As USA TODAY and basically every other media outlet on Earth is reporting, a former CIA employee who currently works for a National Security Agency defense contractor revealed that the NSA is monitoring and examining tons of mobile phone calls, emails, online chats, and other private information.

The data and what is known as “metadata” is at times secured through arrangements made with big-time companies such as Verizon, Facebook, Microsoft, and Google — but without public knowledge or consent.

The Guardian in Britain, which broke the story along with The Washington Postdeclared the revelations “one of the most significant leaks in U.S. political history.”


While college media will most likely not be involved directly in the subsequent leak saga, there are scores of relevant stories to consider pursuing for student audiences this summer or fall.

Here are four higher education angles that immediately come to mind:

1. Vetting

Many of the early reports on the leaker — a 29-year-old Hawaii resident named Edward Snowden who is currently hiding in Hong Kong — have focused on his unique rise through the intelligence community and his access to so much sensitive material.

As The Telegraph asks, “[I]f the NSA is capable of running such a huge national operation, entrusted with the security of the free world, why is it so bad at vetting and keeping tabs on the movements of its own personnel? It beggars belief that someone so young and so junior had access to what Snowden had access to.”

Employee and student vetting has also become a significant issue in academia in recent years. It most recently surged into the national spotlight last month at Rutgers University. Newark’s Star-Ledger reported that the new Rutgers athletic director has a professional past checkered with possible athlete and coach mistreatment — parts of her history glossed over or not checked out during her hiring process.

Questions: How are prospective employees vetted at your school? What about students, during undergraduate and graduate admissions? And what is the pscyhological evaluation process for students and staff, especially those deemed potential risks?

2. Outside Contractors

Snowden gained access to damaging NSA files through his work as an outside contractor hired by the government. It certainly calls into question how these contractors interact with the country’s military and security apparatuses. It should also lead to a number of questions about your school.

For example, what outside contractors operate on campus? My advice: Begin in the cafeteria. Next, head to a construction zone. Possibly check in on the campus security headquarters. And then head over to the athletic center or waste and recycling facilities.

Once you’ve identified them, start digging. How are the contractors chosen? What access and privileges do they have on campus? How are they evaluated? How are their employees vetted and monitored? And what, if any, say do students have in respect to contractor selection and work quality?

To read the rest at USA TODAY College, click here or on the screenshot below.


One Response to “NSA Leak: Story Ideas for Student Journalists”
  1. Spencer says:

    I took a break from school and enlisted in the Navy to be a linguist. At 22, I landed at NSA as a Russian linguist with a TS-SCI (top secret-secret compartmented information) clearance, which is the highest possible and the same clearance Snowden had. Now I’m back in school and editor of my university’s lit mag and a contributor to other publications. Now to the point of this post, let me be crystal clear: Vetting is not the problem.

    I went through at least three interviews during the year-and-a-half-long process of getting a TS-SCI, and NCIS, the service who performed my background check, interviewed ex-girlfriends (whom I obviously hadn’t included on my list of references), former landlords, neighbors, former employers and even some of my teachers from high school. Only after that process do applicants finally take their polygraph test, which Snowden surely took.

    I’ve seen a few references to his age and lack of education, but those are merely shallow, condescending attempts to make Snowden seem dumb or unworthy of his access. I was a high school dropout who had completed about 30 hours at a community college, but I also got a 32 on the ACT and a 99 on the ASVAB. From my experience, this background is not unusual for NSA employees and contractors. So attacking his education seems irrelevant.

    Rather than blaming the vetting process, we should be blaming Snowden. Over a million Americans have the same TS-SCI clearance, but most would-be violators are deterred by the threat of decades in prison for either a) accessing, using or disbursing confidential information; or b) spying–in any form or fashion–on Americans.

    Does the NSA have some questions to answer? Yes. But if you look at PRISM and the way it works, it’s not such an egregious violation. The idea that there’s someone sitting at a computer in Fort Meade, Md., and reading your texts to your girlfriend is a farce. Government agencies all over the world use similar metadata (phone calls, text messages, browser history, et al.) to find patterns that might indicate suspicious behavior, and this type of surveillance has paid off when considering the number of foiled terrorist plots. The only pieces of identifiable information in the metadata are numbers (the phone numbers, IP addresses, etc.) Much more revealing information is already volunteered by most of the population on social media and search platforms.

    I do not want to come off as an NSA apologist. It’s just frustrating to see so much misinformation floating around.