American Writers are Self-Censoring to Avoid NSA Scrutiny (McCauley)

Lauren McCauley writes at

Recent disclosures of the NSA's widespread dragnet program coupled with its frequent targeting of journalists are having a 'chilling effect' on American writers, stifling their freedom of expression at great detriment to society, says a new report Chilling Effects: NSA Surveillance Drives U.S. Writers to Self Censor.

Published Tuesday by the group PEN America—an organization of writers dedicated to advancing literature and promoting free speech for writers around the world—surveyed 520 American writers and found they are "not only overwhelmingly worried about government surveillance, but are engaging in self-censorship as a result."

"[D]uring the Nixon years," one respondent wrote, "I took it for granted that the administration had an eye on me, and if it didn’t, I wasn’t doing my job. For a political cartoonist, active early on against Vietnam, one expected tax audits and phone taps. Irritating, but not intimidating. I view the current situation as far more serious, and the culpability and defensiveness of the president and his people deeply and cynically disturbing.”

Journalists and nonfiction writers responding to the poll were overwhelmingly concerned over how best to protect their sources in this new climate of repressed press freedoms.  Eighty-one percent of writers surveyed said they are "very concerned about government efforts to compel journalists to reveal sources of classified information, and another 15% are somewhat concerned."

"The NSA’s surveillance will damage the ability of the press to report on the important issues of our time," note the report authors, "if journalists refrain from contacting sources for fear that their sources will be found out and harmed, or if sources conclude that they cannot safely speak to journalists and thus stay silent."

As a craft, writing demands extensive research into any number of topics. What the survey found was that disclosures of NSA spying, revealed by whistleblower Edward Snowden, have caused the respondents to shy away from speaking or writing about certain subjects, pursuing research about certain subjects, or communicating with sources abroad.

The report notes, "writers reported self-censoring on subjects including military affairs, the Middle East North Africa region, mass incarceration, drug policies, pornography, the Occupy movement, the study of certain languages, and criticism of the U.S. government."

Further, many writers said they "assume that their communications are being monitored," and have thus changed their behavior in many ways which, according to the authors, "curtail their freedom of expression and restrict the free flow of information."

"Part of what makes self-censorship so troubling is the impossibility of knowing precisely what is lost to society because of it."

For example, the survey found:

  • 24% have deliberately avoided certain topics in phone or email conversations;
  • 16% have avoided writer or speaking about a particular topic and another 11% have seriously considered it;
  • 16% have refrained from conducting Internet searches or visiting websites on topics that may be considered controversial or suspicious and another 12% have seriously considered it.

One PEN writer shared a story, which the report authors said indicated "that writers’ fears of being targeted for writing about certain topics are not without basis":

Selected’ for a special security search returning to the United States from Mexico twice last summer, I learned I was on a U.S. Government list. I was searched for ‘cocaine’ and explosives. I suspect … that I must have been put on the government list because of an essay I wrote … in which I describe finding a poem on a Libyan Jihad site, and ultimately express some sympathy for young men on the other side of the world who are tempted into jihad … one can see how [the poem] might be a comfort to jihadists.

And other PEN writers shared their experiences with self-censorship:

As a writer and journalist who deals with the Middle East and the Iraq War in particular, I suspect I am being monitored. As a writer who has exposed sexual violence in the military, and who speaks widely on the subject, likewise.

I would hesitate to express in writing understanding for anti-American sentiments abroad, as I suspect that expressing such understanding might make me suspect in the eyes of the American security apparatus.

"Part of what makes self-censorship so troubling is the impossibility of knowing precisely what is lost to society because of it," the authors lament. "We will never know what books or articles may have been written that would have shaped the world’s thinking on a particular topic if they are not written because potential authors are afraid that their work would invite retribution."



Mirrored from

17 Responses

  1. Dear Professor Cole

    The UK’s Chilcot inquiry into how the saintly Mr Blair sent 45,000 troops to war in Iraq are being censored by the US.

    link to

    Earlier this year, The Independent revealed that early drafts of the report challenged the official version of events leading up to the Iraq war, which saw Mr Blair send in 45,000 troops to overthrow Saddam Hussein’s regime.

    The protected documents relating to the Bush-Blair exchanges are said to provide crucial evidence for already-written passages that are highly critical of the covert way in which Mr Blair committed British troops to the US-led invasion.

    One high-placed diplomatic source said: “The US are highly possessive when documents relate to the presence of the President or anyone close to him. Tony Blair is involved in a dialogue in many of these documents, and naturally someone else is at the other end – the President. Therefore this is not Tony Blair’s or the UK Government’s property to disclose.”

    The source was adamant that “Chilcot, or anyone in London, does not decide what documents relating to a US President are published”.

  2. Professor I am not quite sure what the import of your piece is. Why writers would self censor when they publish their stuff anyway I don’t understand. I can quite see that writers who are producing some kind of clandestine underground publication would not want the attention of the state examining their work, but people like yourself who are widely read and in the open anyway, as well as authors etc, are not going to be spied on by the NSA. The NSA etc can just go and read the publication or buy the book. If you are suggesting that the writers are afraid of the American government as was the case in Stalin’s Russia, then this is a sad turn of events indeed.

    • The writers are saying they are not writing the same things for publication they might have if they weren’t afraid.

      • Or can not do the research required for fear of visiting websites deemed suspicious and talking to contacts / sources who may be suspect for whatever reason the government thinks them to be, warranted or not, particularly if foreign / Middle-East / military, etc.

  3. The basic misunderstanding revealed by this report and the underlying survey is exemplified in thinking that monitoring takes place in real time, and that it can be avoided by being careful.

    • This is correct.

      Monitoring may be implemented simply because of a person’s position or proximity to someone deemed a target – guilt by association.

      Persons who simply attend meetings of certain groups or are on a membership list may be placed under varying degrees of surveillance.

  4. I have a lot to say about this disturbing item but doing so would likely subject me to surveillance and harassment by what was once the world’s beacon of freedom.

  5. Any ordinary soul who doesn’t avoid certain topics and phrases in email is playing a dangerous game. It used to be that ’email is forever and easily replicable’ was the chastening constraint. Everybody knows now that at least the NSA and are keeping & mining your text, and they are not your friends.

  6. For a long time, Iranian writers and poets looked to America as the land of freedom and democracy and tried to learn from it to improve their society. Under the Shah, constant scrutiny by SAVAK meant that Iranians had to engage in self-censorship or learn to write in clever ways that would fool the ignorant censors. Sadly, that situation has continued under the present regime, and in many ways it is much worse than it was under the Shah. May be now, Iranians can reciprocate and teach their fellow-American writers how to evade the censors.

    Practically all leading writers and poets in Iran have complained about the lack of intellectual freedom. A great Iranian poet, Mehdi Akhavan-e Sales (1928-1990), blamed his contemporary generation for allowing that situation to continue. In a powerful poem, speaking on behalf of the ruins of Susa, he conveyed his message about the “spineless” generation:

    O spineless generation…
    Spineless generation, you have been imagined
    From nothing, you who are an effigy
    You who cast no reflection! …
    O how many days and how many nights
    Have come and have gone.
    Either destroy me, level me with the dust,
    Sweep me away, or rebuild me,
    O spineless generation…

    His other powerful poem ‘Zemestan’ (Winter) contains another bitter attack on his contemporaries, and symbolically expresses the chilly and frozen atmosphere that he experiences:

    They don’t want to answer your greetings –
    Heads are in collars.
    Nobody wants to raise his head to answer
    Or to see a friend.
    Eyes can see only one step ahead
    For the road is dark and slippery.
    And if you extend a hand of love toward another
    With reluctance will he take out a hand from under his arm
    For the cold cuts hard.
    The breath which comes out of the warm space of your chest
    Turns into cloud, stands like a wall before your eyes.

    Ahmad Shamlu, a formidable critic of the former regime who had called on his compatriots to rise up, shortly after the victory of the revolution summed up the feeling of most of his fellow-poets in a poem called ‘Dar in Bonbast’ (In this dead-end road), in which the post-revolutionary period is described as a new and worse kind of hell:

    They sniff your mouth,
    Lest you’ve said, ‘I love you,’
    They sniff your heart.
    These are strange times, darling…

    And they whip love
    On the barricades…
    We must hide love in the backroom of the house.
    They keep the fire burning
    In this crooked dead-end of the Cold
    With fuel
    Of songs and poems.

    Don’t endanger yourself
    By thinking.
    These are strange times, darling…

    Whoever pounds on the door at night
    Has come to kill the light…
    We must hide light in the backroom of the house.

    They are the butchers
    Standing at the crossroads
    With clubs and bloody cleavers.
    These are strange times, darling…

    And they excise the smile
    From the lips, and the song from the mouth…
    We must hide Joy in the backroom of the house.

    The canary roasting
    Over a fire of lilies and jasmines
    These are strange times, darling…
    Drunk and victorious
    Satan feasts our mourning…
    We must hide God in the backroom of the house.

    Let us hope that things will not go that far in the United States. The only thing that keeps the United States from following the path of other totalitarian states in the past is the freedom of expression, uniquely enshrined in American constitution. It should be cherished and protected before it is too late.

  7. This is good news because it suggest that Am,erican journalists, writers and the public have become more aware that there is no freedom of (open)speech in the USA. As is happen in other societies where the people have known of State control of free speech, American locutors are going to go underground, an exiting proposition for the realists.

    • One in six admit to self-censoring. On the other hand, if they are telling the truth the other five are showing the moral courage necessary to keep the candle of hope for liberty and freedom flickering. (In this statement, I am using liberty and freedom in their truest sense, not as it is used by the so-called conservatives.

      • probably the majority of those 5 in 6 never even thought to write something that might get them into trouble in the first place. Either because they weren’t political, or because they’ve so internalized the repression it doesn’t even occur to them to write about dangerous topics

        incidentally, I find it VERY interesting that OWS is on the list of topics writers were afraid to write about.

  8. “American locutors are going to go underground, an exiting proposition for the realists.”

    Hear!, Hear! *raises glass of nice grapes (red)*

    At least one writer seems to have the right idea. This paper was published prior to the last election cycle, and it’s scary how foretelling it was.

    link to

  9. That’s exactly what NSA wants! By self-censorship – you’re letting them take control of you. WHY?! Cowards! Pathetic cowards!

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