The Pulitzer Prize for public service was awarded Monday to The Washington Post and The Guardian, which broke the story of National Security Agency surveillance programs leaked by Edward Snowden.
In giving U.S. journalism’s top prize to the Guardian and the Post, the Pulitzer committee delivered support for Snowden and Glenn Greenwald, the former Guardian journalist most associated with the story, while offering a rebuke of the government.
Publication of the NSA stories deeply embarrassed the Obama administration, and turned Snowden into perhaps the country's most famous fugitive.
Critics say that the leaks have weakened U.S. national security and put Americans in danger. They also argue that Snowden’s files, including information not yet released to the public, is likely in the hands of the Russians and Chinese.
Snowden was in Hong Kong by the time the first stories were published before settling in Russia, which has provided him temporary asylum. The administration is pursuing espionage charges against him that could put Snowden in jail for decades, and some lawmakers have branded the former NSA contractor a traitor.
Snowden’s supporters say he provided the public with valuable information, and both the Post and the Guardian have said they have been careful in what they have released.
Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the top-secret 1971 Pentagon papers detailing U.S. policy in Vietnam, said in an op-ed in the Post last year that Snowden had given the U.S. the “best chance... to rescue ourselves from out-of-control surveillance that shifts all practical power to the executive branch and its intelligence agencies...”
Filmmaker Laura Poitras and veteran Post journal Barton Gellman, who has previously won two Pulitzers, also led reporting on the stories. The Pulitzer Prize Board did not specifically named any reporters, which is common for the Public Service category.
Among the efforts unveiled by their reports was the bulk collection of records about people’s phone calls, a program tapping into the central servers of major tech companies like Google and Facebook and the collection of hundreds of millions of email and instant messaging contact lists, among others.
In a statement published by the Freedom of the Press Foundation, Snowden called the award “a vindication for everyone who believes that the public has a role in government.”
“We owe it to the efforts of the brave reporters and their colleagues who kept working in the face of extraordinary intimidation, including the forced destruction of journalistic materials, the inappropriate use of terrorism laws, and so many other means of pressure to get them to stop what the world now recognizes was work of vital public importance,” he added.
Like Snowden, journalists reporting about the leaked documents have also come under fire from lawmakers. After the Pulitzers were announced on Monday, Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) tweeted that handing the Pulitzer to Snowden's “enablers” was a “disgrace.”
The congressman's comment seemed similar to a previous remark by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who called in a Senate hearing this year for Snowden “and his accomplices” to return documents the former NSA contractor took. Intelligence officials would not clarify whether or not Clapper was referring to journalists as accomplices of Snowden.
Reports based on the documents became the subject of heated debate in journalist circles. Greenwald, who has since left the Guardian to start a new outlet, the Intercept, with Poitras, has been a vocal critic of mainstream news outlets that he said would never have published the Snowden documents.
In a much-watched interview segment last year, Greenwald sparred with NBC’s David Gregory over whether or not he had “aided and abetted” Snowden.