Charlie Savage speaks on security and freedom of the press at Boise State

From the presidency of George Washington to that of George W. Bush there were three government officials who were indicted on criminal charges for leaking information to the press. So far under the Obama administration—with nearly three years to go—there have been eight.

This was just one startling fact pointed out by Charlie Savage, Pulitzer Prize winning author, when he spoke to roughly 200 people on Tuesday, March 18. Savage currently writes for The New York Times and frequently covers issues of national security and government surveillance. He was brought to Boise State by the Andrus Center for their “National Security and Freedom the Press” event.

“In the past, when an official was suspected of leaking secrets it was handled differently … it was virtually unheard of for the government to treat the leaking of information as a crime,” Savage said. “Now, suddenly, almost overnight, the rules have changed.”

Previously, it was difficult to prove where leaked information was coming from beyond a reasonable doubt. However, due to improved technology the government is now able to trace correspondence and communication in ways that has never before been possible and prosecute people who leak information.

According to Savage, this has caused fewer people to come forward which will have a detrimental effect on journalists’ ability to inform the public.

“Regular investigative journalism—the kind keeps the public reasonably informed–hasn’t been possible without someone throwing themselves on a pyre like Snowden did,” Savage said.

Savage gave several examples of how the government—and the executive branch in particular—has created an environment hostile to the exchange of information while simultaneously increasing their own power. Examples included the gathering of information by the NSA, the killing of an American citizen by drone strike without a trial and refusing to make their documents public because they were given priority clearance—a distinction they created.

“That is the area which, as a student of democracy in the American theater, I find really frustrating,” Savage said. “I wish people could see the implications of the changes to separation of powers in play in the last couple
generations.”

While many students came only because their professors were offering extra credit, many found the experience to be worthwhile.

“I probably wouldn’t have come if it weren’t for class,” said Shelby Gunderson, sophomore political science major. “But I’m glad I did. It helped me think about some things in a lot of new ways. That’s
always nice.”

However, other students found Savage’s talk to be overwhelming.

“I didn’t get much from it,” said freshman social science major Dani Jackson. “I guess I wasn’t as informed as I needed to be because I felt like he was talking down to me the entire time.”

Whatever their feelings, Savage encouraged everyone to take steps to protect themselves online. However he acknowledged the limits and feelings of helpless that one might feel.

“I taught myself how to use encryption. But no one else knows how to use encryption so—that’s great,” Savage said. “It’s like having the first telephone.”

About the author  ⁄ Emily Pehrson

Emily Pehrson

Emily Pehrson is working as the managing editor for The Arbiter. She is junior at Boise State with a double major in English and Communication. When not working or in class, Pehrson can be found watching sports with her brother via Skype. She recently became a very proud first-time aunt and adores showering the baby girl with gifts while insisting that dinosaurs are gender neutral. Follow her on Twitter @EmilyPehrson