“In June, the Department of Justice filed charges against Reality Leigh Winner for providing The Intercept with a NSA classified report. The FBI says it identified Winner partly because the news site shared a copy of the document with the NSA to confirm its authenticity. Is The Intercept to blame for Winner’s arrest?”
Chamberlain is a communications major and writes for the student-run newspaper, Daily O’Collegian.
It wasn’t long after The Intercept published an article titled, “Top Secret NSA Report Details Russian Hacking Effort Days Before 2016 Election,” that 25-year-old Reality Leigh Winner was arrested in connection with the leak.
So how did a classified report that was “anonymously sourced and independently authenticated” lead to an FBI statement hinting at The Intercept’s role, albeit potentially inadvertent, in identifying Winner as the whistleblower?
To answer that, you must first look at the dense and ever-changing Code of Ethics by the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) in order to establish a baseline on anonymous sourcing.
The SPJ Code of Ethics provides two statements with consideration to sources. Basically, identify sources whenever possible and secondly, always question sources’ motives before promising anonymity.
While you’ll find opposing schools of thought on the integrity and ethics of anonymous sources in journalism, most publications do everything possible to maintain the integrity of their sources while staying committed to telling the stories they bring forward.
Journalism as of late has experienced more leaks than the White House faucets during the Nixon administration and more often than not, the public is quick defend those who simply want to bring them the truth.
So, if asking whether The Intercept acted carelessly or thoroughly in their initial investigation, I would answer both. Surely the journalist at The Intercept who decided to authenticate the document with the NSA must have accounted for the certain amount of risk he or she was causing the anonymous source, as it also seems to contradict the sense of whistleblower safety their leak tab provides.
Ultimately though, Winner is responsible for her arrest, by choosing to act on stolen intelligence which, whether you agree with it or not, under current law is illegal.
Perhaps the only thing that matters, however, has nothing to do with the journalists at The Intercept, but rather with the readers. To the outside world, The Intercept, supposed champion of whistleblowers, burned a source with sloppy investigating and any credibility and authority they had accrued is now damaged.
While there is fault to be found on both sides of the issue, I don’t think this will stop future leakers from pursing their righteous crusades toward justice anytime soon, especially given how leaky the White House faucets are right now. If anything, Winner’s misfortune and The Intercept’s bad press will only make them that much wiser.
Price has served in a dozen roles in his 29 years at the Californian, including metro columnist, opinion editor, entertainment writer and executive editor
America needs leakers.
Agents of conscience—tipsters, internal dissidents, whistleblowers—are not simply the news media’s indispensable partners, they are instruments of a free society. As such they must be protected at all costs. Their information must be corroborated to the fullest extent possible, but their anonymity must be sacrosanct.
We witnessed an epic failure of that tenet when The Intercept failed to protect the identity of Reality Leigh Winner, who gave The Intercept classified documents about Russian efforts to influence the 2016 U.S. election.
The FBI says it identified Winner in part because the news site, seeking to confirm the document’s authenticity, shared a copy with the NSA. In so doing, The Intercept inadvertently exposed its source: The photocopied document had telltale creases and barely discernible microdots that identified the printer’s serial number, and the date and time of the printing. Those fingerprints, among other clues, pointed straight to Winner.
The FBI identified her with such ease, in fact, the Justice Department’s announcement of the charges coincided almost simultaneously with The Intercept’s publication of the leaked document.
That a news organization staffed with some of the best operational security experts in the business could handle such a valuable gift so unskillfully is baffling.
But it also underscores the double-edged nature of these matters: It is simpler than ever today to purloin classified information but also to trace those leaks to their sources—and collect evidence for prosecution.
Winner’s arrest sends a sobering message to the legions of NSA contractors: Government authorities, armed with increasingly sophisticated techniques, are more committed to rooting out leakers than perhaps ever before. The Obama administration prosecuted a record number of them, and the Trump administration, mindful that data leaks can undermine its alternative fact-based strategy of governance, seems prepared to follow suit.
Consequently, the next contractor who stumbles upon information that demands public scrutiny will think twice, and the media’s obligation to hold government accountable becomes more difficult.
But, as Thomas Drake, a former NSA employee who was accused under President Obama of felony espionage, told the Baltimore Sun in 2011: “Accountable government requires people to stand up, and if it means telling truth to power at risk, that’s a necessary part.”
The news media must do its part in that arrangement by redoubling its efforts to secure and protect agents of conscience.