BuzzFeed hires Miriam Elder as foreign editor

In December 2011, when Ben Smith, the high-octane reporter and blogger for Politico, jumped ship to become the editor of BuzzFeed, a site then better known for viral slideshows and cat videos, many in the world of political journalism wondered if Smith had lost his mind.

They're not wondering anymore. Smith, 36, quickly established BuzzFeed as a go-to source for political news, hiring a team of smart, hungry, young reporters and bringing the site's signature social media-driven style to coverage of the 2012 campaign.

Now, with the hiring of Miriam Elder, the Moscow correspondent for the Guardian, to be the site's first foreign and national security editor, BuzzFeed is aiming to do the same for world news.

The idea for the expansion, says BuzzFeed founder Jonah Peretti, took shape after the April 15 Boston Marathon bombings, when the site's 60 million monthly unique visitors were looking for answers -- and old-fashioned facts.

"With the Boston bombings, we saw something new," says Peretti, a 39-year-old former cofounder of the Huffington Post and a new media pioneer. "People started tweeting from the scene, and the front page stats jumped."

"It was a real eye-opening moment," Peretti says. "They don't have a legacy news brand, and they were turning to BuzzFeed, a site they visit every day, to figure out what was happening. ... Our top five stories were all hard news content."

BuzzFeed moved quickly, hiring Lisa Tozzi from the New York Times to be its first news director, and accelerating what were then still formative plans to venture into national security and international coverage (in April, the site made a foray into this territory by collaborating with FP on "11 Buzzfeed Lists That Explain the World").

"We think that there's this new central social conversation -- on Twitter in particular -- around international news and national security, and we think reporting is an important way into that conversation," explains Smith.

So is BuzzFeed going up-market, in a bid to broaden its brand? Not exactly, according to Peretti: "We're not going up-market in the sense that when we hired Ben Smith, a few weeks later we launched an animals vertical."

Nor is there a strict business rationale for going global. "I think there are moments when people care about foreign news more than anything else," notes Peretti. But then, "the week after the Boston bombings, people were sharing really comforting content," such as "21 Pictures That Will Restore Your Faith in Humanity."

Peretti likens BuzzFeed's expansion to a TV station or an old-fashioned newspaper diversifying its mix of coverage. "Sometimes people want to be entertained more than they want to be informed, and sometimes it's the other way around. ... The newspaper has the Sunday styles and the crossword sections -- television networks have the sitcoms and the evening news and the late-night variety show."

With Elder, BuzzFeed has hired a journalist who was the first Western reporter to cover Pussy Riot, the punk-rock collective whose members were later prosecuted for their provocative performance art.

"They'd done a shocking performance on Red Square that had piqued my interest," she explains.

"Miriam's a great reporter who both has covered big, complicated stories -- everything from corruption to the failed political revolt against [Russian President Vladimir] Putin," says Smith. "She's also a big voice on Twitter, which is necessary but not sufficient these days."

Elder will be based in New York and will supervise an initial team of half a dozen reporters, including Rosie Gray -- an aggressive 23-year-old former Village Voice writer who has already broken stories on Malaysian influence-peddling in Washington and Boston bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev -- as well as full-time correspondents in places like Cairo, Moscow, and Mexico City.

The site's viral teams will be contributing the odd slideshow, and J. Lester Feder, 32, will be covering the international gay rights movement.

Elder, 34, has been in Moscow since September 2006 and did an earlier stint with AFP from 2002 to 2003. She has a master's degree from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, with a focus on strategic studies and international economics.

Says Smith, "If you can survive covering Russia and do good work there, that's an impressive thing."

Blake Hounshell contributed reporting.

Miriam Elder/Twitter

National Security

This is, hands down, the scariest part of the NSA revelations

Forget PRISM, the National Security Agency's system to help extract data from Google, Facebook, and the like. The more frightening secret program unearthed by the NSA leaks is the gathering and storing of millions of phone records and phone-location information of U.S. citizens.

According to current and former intelligence agency employees who have used the huge collection of metadata obtained from the country's largest telecom carriers, the information is widely available across the intelligence community from analysts' desktop computers.

The data is used to connect known or suspected terrorists to people in the United States, and to help locate them. It has also been used in foreign criminal investigations and to assist military forces overseas. But the laws that govern the collection of this information and its use are not as clear. Nor are they as strong as those associated with PRISM, the system the NSA is using to collate information from the servers of America's tech giants.

Metadata is not protected by the Fourth Amendment. Content of emails and instant messages -- what PRISM helps gather -- is. An order issued to Verizon by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court instructs the company to supply records of all its telephony metadata "on an ongoing, daily basis." Although legal experts say this kind of broad collection of metadata may be legal, it's also "remarkably overbroad and quite likely unwise," according to Paul Rosenzweig, a Bush administration policy official in the Homeland Security Department. "It is difficult to imagine a set of facts that would justify collecting all telephony meta-data in America. While we do live in a changed world after 9/11, one would hope it has not that much changed."

By comparison, PRISM appears more tightly constrained and operates on a more solid legal foundation. Current and former officials who have experience using huge sets of data available to intelligence analysts said that PRISM is used for precisely the kinds of intelligence gathering that Congress and the administration intended when the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act was amended in 2008. Officials wanted to allow intelligence agencies to target and intercept foreigners' communications when they travel across networks inside the United States.

The surveillance law prohibits targeting a U.S. citizen or legal resident without a warrant, which must establish a reasonable basis to suspect the individual of ties to terrorism or being an agent of a foreign power. In defending PRISM, administration officials have said repeatedly in recent days that the FISA Court oversees the collection program to ensure that it's reasonably designed to target foreign entities, and that any incidental collection of Americans' data is expunged. They've also said that press reports describing the system as allowing "direct access" to corporate servers is wrong. Separately, a U.S. intelligence official also said that the system cannot directly query an Internet company's data.

But the administration has not explained why broadly and indiscriminately collecting the metadata records of millions of U.S. citizens and legal residents comports with a law designed to protect innocent people from having their personal information revealed to intelligence analysts. Nor have officials explained why the NSA needs ongoing, daily access to all this information and for so many years, particularly since specific information can be obtained on an as-needed basis from the companies with a subpoena.

Here's why the metadata of phone records could be more invasive and a bigger threat to privacy and civil liberties than the PRISM system:

1.  Metadata is often more revealing than contents of a communication, which is what's being collected with PRISM. A study in the journal Nature found that as few as four "spatio-temporal points," such as the location and time a phone call was placed, is enough to determine the identity of the caller 95 percent of the time.

2.  The Wall Street Journal reports that in addition to phone metadata, the NSA also is collecting metadata on emails, website visits, and credit card transactions (although it's unclear whether those collection efforts are ongoing). If that information were combined with the phone metadata, the collective power could not only reveal someone's identity, but also provide an illustration of his entire social network, his financial transactions, and his movements.

3.  Administration officials have said that intelligence analysts aren't indiscriminately searching this phone metadata. According to two intelligence employees who've used the data in counterterrorism investigations, it contains no names, and when a number that appears to be based in the United States shows up, it is blocked out with an "X" mark. 

But these controls, said a former intelligence employee, are internal agency rules, and it's not clear that the FISA Court has anything to say about them. In this employee's experience, if he wanted to see the phone number associated with that X mark, he had to ask permission from his agency's general counsel. That permission was often obtained, but he wasn't aware of the legal process involved in securing it, or if the request was taken back to the FISA court.

4.  The metadatabase is widely available across the intelligence community on analysts' desktops, increasing the potential for misuse.

5.  The metadata has the potential for mission creep. It's not only used for dissecting potential homegrown terror plots, as some lawmakers have said. The metadata is also used to help military forces overseas target terrorist and insurgent networks. And it is used in foreign criminal investigations, including ones involving suspected weapons traffickers.

For all these reasons, and probably more yet to emerge, it's the metadata that's of bigger concern. By comparison, PRISM is a cool name, a lame PowerPoint presentation -- and business as usual.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images