NEW YORK — The Washington Post and The Guardian won the Pulitzer Prize in public service Monday for revealing the US government’s sweeping surveillance programs in a blockbuster series of stories based on secret documents supplied by NSA leaker Edward Snowden.
The Pulitzer for breaking news was awarded to The Boston Globe for its “exhaustive and empathetic” coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing and the manhunt that followed.
Two of the nation’s biggest and most distinguished newspapers, The Post and The New York Times, won two Pulitzers each, while the other awards were scattered among a variety of publications large and small.
The stories about the National Security Agency’s spy programs revealed that the government has systematically collected information about millions of Americans’ phone calls and emails in its effort to head off terrorist attacks. The resulting furor led President Barack Obama to impose limits on the surveillance.
The reporting “helped stimulate the very important discussion about the balance between privacy and security, and that discussion is still going on,” said Sig Gissler, administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes.
Snowden issued a statement Monday congratulating the Washington Post and The Guardian on their awards. He said awarding the top prize in US journalism to his colleagues was “a vindication for everyone who believes that the public has a role in government.”
He added that the reporters he worked with faced “extraordinary intimidation” and other pressure to get them to stop reporting. “Their work has given us a better future and a more accountable democracy.”
The NSA stories were written by Barton Gellman at The Washington Post and Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras and Ewen MacAskill, whose work was published by The Guardian US, the British newspaper’s American operation, based in New York.
“I think this is amazing news,” Poitras said. “It’s a testament to Snowden’s courage, a vindication of his courage and his desire to let the public know what the government is doing.”
Snowden, a former contract employee at the NSA, has been charged with espionage and other offenses in the US and could get 30 years in prison if convicted. He has received asylum in Russia.
In a statement issued by the Freedom of the Press Foundation, Snowden saluted “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.”
Snowden’s supporters have likened his disclosures to the release of the Pentagon Papers, the secret Vietnam War history whose publication by The New York Times in 1971 won the newspaper a Pulitzer. His critics have branded him a criminal.
“To be rewarding illegal conduct, to be enabling a traitor like Snowden, to me is not something that should be rewarded with a Pulitzer Prize,” said Rep. Peter King, R-New York. “Snowden has violated his oath. He has put American lives at risk.”
At The Boston Globe, the newsroom was closed off to outsiders, and staff members marked the announcement of the breaking-news award — coming just a day before the anniversary of the bombing — with a moment of silence for the victims.
“There’s nobody in this room who wanted to cover this story. Each and every one of us hopes that nothing like it ever happens again on our watch,” Globe Editor Brian McGrory told the newsroom.
The bombing last April 15 that killed three people and wounded more than 260 also led to a Pulitzer in the feature photography category for Josh Haner of The New York Times, for his photo essay on a blast victim who lost his legs.
The Times also won in the breaking-news photography category, for Tyler Hicks’ coverage of the Westgate mall terrorist attack in Kenya.
The Pulitzers are given out each year by Columbia University on the recommendation of a board of distinguished journalists and others. The two winners of the public service award will receive gold medals. The other awards carry a $10,000 prize.
The Post’s Gellman said the NSA stories were the product of the “most exhilarating and frightening year of reporting.”
“I’m especially proud of the category,” he said. “Public service feels like a validation of our belief in the face of some pretty strong criticism that the people have a right to take part in drawing the boundaries of secret intelligence in a democracy.”
Copyright 2014 The Associated Press.