By: Gretchen A. Peck
ExposeFacts.org made news in July when it created a series of “pro-whistleblower” posters that were strategically placed around Washington, D.C. One of the graphics featured Daniel Ellsberg imploring passersby to expose lies and crimes. Similar campaigns are reportedly in the works for Wall Street and Silicon Valley. Though the geography and audiences may differ, the messages are consistent and clear: Whistleblowers welcome. Whistleblowers wanted. Whistleblowers are in demand.
While at the Southland technology conference in Tennessee earlier this year, former Vice President Al Gore was asked about his thoughts on Edward Snowden. The Guardian’s Ewen MacAskill reported that Gore refused to be sucked into the traitor-versus-hero debate, but did acknowledge that he thought Snowden’s disclosures, made while using the alias “Cincinnatus,” had been “an important service.”
“I’m not sure that I would say that it’s a good time to be a whistleblower, but it does seem to be an important time to be a whistleblower, at least in America,” Garrett Robinson said. Robinson is a security and privacy engineer for Mozilla, and the lead developer of Freedom of the Press Foundation’s SecureDrop. “The Obama administration has been extremely aggressive in prosecuting federal whistleblowers. … More than all previous administrations combined. That’s somewhat ironic—in fact, it’s incredibly ironic, given that his campaign promises to be the most transparent administration in history.
“I think it’s a dangerous time to be a whistleblower, particularly a federal government or a national security whistleblower, because the potential penalties are fierce. You know, Chelsea Manning is facing 30 years in prison. Edward Snowden can’t return to his home country,” Robinson said, adding that others have been incarcerated or had their lives and reputations decimated.
“There have always been anonymous sources,” according to Lowell Bergman, the Reva and David Logan Distinguished Chair for investigative journalism at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. Bergman is a Pulitzer Prize-awarded journalist. In 1977, he co-founded the Center for Investigative Reporting, and spent 14 years with CBS’ “60 Minutes,” where he was perhaps best known for blowing the lid off Big Tobacco, an investigative pursuit that became the basis for Al Pacino’s role in “The Insider.” Bergman is also a correspondent and producer for PBS’ “Frontline.”
Though anonymous sources aren’t a fresh phenomenon, the legal and rhetorical climate for whistleblowers, and the journalists who tell their stories, is stormy.
The Whole Purpose
The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald—no stranger to the matter of whistleblowers—made an appearance on HBO’s “Real Time With Bill Maher” on June 20 and offered an eloquent reminder about the Constitution’s First Amendment: “The Founders knew, and I think anybody who pays minimal attention to any politics anywhere knows that when people in power can operate in the dark, inevitably they abuse that power. You need outside forces to bring light and transparency to what they’re doing. And one of the ways you do that is through journalism and guaranteeing a free press. That is its purpose—to provide a check on those who wield power.”
One of journalism’s adversaries is apathy. Perhaps the public, news organizations, and social-media have been too fixated on Second Amendment matters that they’ve forgotten the importance of the First.
“The State of the First Amendment: 2014,” published by the First Amendment Center, revealed some disturbing data. Out of more than 1,000 people surveyed, 29-percent could not identify any of the rights afforded by the First Amendment. None of them. Fortunately, that percentage was better than the previous year’s 36 percent.
Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., the First Amendment is getting lots of exercise.
Bergman delivered a keynote address at the Investigative Reporters & Editors 2014 conference in June (IRE 2014), and he subtitled the speech, “President Obama and Eric Holder are not your friends.” He pulled no punches about the disappointment this administration has been, for its record on prosecuting whistleblowers, putting the squeeze on journalists, and other offenses.
“We welcomed Obama as a President, as journalists, primarily because he could talk. That was a great improvement. He said all the right words. He said that whistleblowers were courageous and patriotic. But the problem is that his administration says one thing, and they do exactly the opposite,” Bergman said.
“I wouldn’t call [the Justice Department] corrupt like the Nixon administration, under Mitchell and Kleindienst, but a Justice Department that has, in many ways, abandoned its historic role.”
The Society of Professional Journalists sent an open letter (signed by its president, members and leaders at a wide array of news organizations and associations) to President Obama on July 8, asking the administration to stop this “form of censorship—an attempt to control what the public is allowed to see and hear.”
The New York Times’ James Risen, who is feeling the weight of the government’s might in the case against Jeffrey Sterling, publicly declared at a George Polk Awards event in the spring that the Obama administration is “the greatest enemy of press freedom that we have encountered in at least a generation.”
In the audience during Bergman’s IRE 2014 keynote address was Stephen Engelberg, editor-in-chief at ProPublica, who said Bergman’s talk resonated with him.
“What Lowell argued, and I think persuasively, is that we are facing an unprecedented war on sources by the government, first, but also to some lesser extent by business,” Engelberg said. “It is absolutely an attack at the heart of investigative journalist—all reporting, because, remember, you make it very painful for high-level government officials to talk, right? They get punished, lose their livelihood, are prosecuted, go to jail and go bankrupt. If that happens, it has a chilling effect that ripples through bureaucracy and government. People start thinking, ‘it’s just not worth it; I’m not going to talk to you.’ Obama has brought eight separate prosecutions, the most of any president. I was around as a national security reporter in the ’80s, and as an editor in the ’90s, when there were very serious and significant breaches, for which nobody was ever prosecuted. And now this has become almost a routine event.”
While the Obama administration and the Department of Justice rhetorically champion the First Amendment—all the while cracking down hard on federal informants—it may not even be those types of whistleblowers that prove to be the most vulnerable to prosecution. Bergman thinks those are people who reveal the secrets of private organizations; they’re the ones with the least amount of legal protections.
“On the corporate side of the equation,” Bergman said, “the super rich—whether it’s a corporation or an individual—they know now that all they have to do is pay a fine. They’re not going to jail.”
Anonymous sources may be standard operating procedure for newspaper journalists, but what happens when a whistleblower with big revelations makes contact, looking for someone to trust, someone to tell the story? Is the journalist and the newspaper prepared to take on those roles?
At HOPE X 2014 (promoted as “one of the most creative and diverse hacker events in the world”), Robinson suggested the audience think of SecureDrop as “a Wikileaks in every newsroom.” A less techy crowd may think of it as a secure way for journalists to communicate and share documents with anonymous sources. As the lead developer of SecureDrop at Freedom of the Press Foundation, Robinson helped transition the development and management of what was formerly known as DeadDrop, the brainchild of Aaron Swartz and Kevin Poulsen.
As of July 2014, SecureDrop was in place and operational at 12 news organizations, including Forbes, The Guardian, The Intercept, ProPublica, The Washington Post and San Francisco Bay Guardian. In August, it got a facelift, with the launch of SecureDrop 0.3.
“We train organizations that deploy [SecureDrop] on how to use it, and we try to make it easy for sources to use,” said Robinson, who revealed that the list of interested publishers is 40 deep.
Besides getting SecureDrop up and running, Robinson offered some advice on how newspaper organizations can prepare for these types of sources: “Showing that you are able to responsibly handle these kinds of cases, and that your journalists are trained sufficiently, such that they won’t endanger a whistleblower who is already taking a number of risks in coming forward in the first place. So I think having training in whistleblowing and all the relevant legal precedents would be useful.”
Threat modeling, Robinson said, is a valuable discipline for news organizations and journalists. It prompts taking a look at the assets that need protection—scoops, leads, sources, for example—and also how they could be threatened or compromised. This exercise will reveal how best to protect those assets.
“Even better than having a single software platform or technology, you really want to have the confidence and the decision-making ability that comes from that understanding. I think training in threat modeling would also be useful,” Robinson added. “Funding the tools is always good—secure communication tools and also workflow tools for journalists.”
The Role, the Duty
Managing classified or secretive information is tricky, and managing relationships with whistleblowers is no easy feat. When things go south, it impacts the paper’s reputation, Bergman suggested, and used The New York Times’ relationship with Julian Assange as an example: “They made a big mistake of … attacking their own source, which is a real sin for which The New York Times is now suffering.” Bergman speculated that was one of the reasons why Snowden didn’t trust the newspaper after seeing how the relationship with Assange had soured.
It’s not just the big-brand news institutions that should be leading this charge in championing First Amendment protections and welcoming the disclosures of whistle-blowing sources. Smaller publishing and broadcast organizations have a critical role to play, as well.
Bergman addressed publishers directly and reminded them, “They’re supposed to be fulfilling a service for the public good. … It’s time for local and regional newspapers, in particular, to stop being shy about how they represent the public good. Now, that means that they do have to do more reporting, and take on that burden, even if it’s not immediately profitable. But they’ve got to talk about it. They’ve got to push it; they’ve got to lobby for it. No one else is going to do it.”
Bergman said that timidity has plagued the news business all along, but that newspapers have particularly lost their way in recent decades. “A vast majority of news organizations that have gone out of business, or are severely crippled today, never did really fulfill their public interest role in a regular way,” he said. “They always were after the profits and the power, and sometimes they would only exercise that power in their own interests or in particular political interests.”
Motivation and sincerity matters when journalists are confronted with an anonymous source with sensitive information.
“Chelsea Manning said that she was motivated by the fact that innocent people were dying every day in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that Americans should understand why that was happening and what were the consequences of this war that they were either implicitly or explicitly supporting,” Robinson said.
“[Snowden] said that he went through channels expressing his concerns at different levels and was rebuffed and mostly ignored,” Robinson added.
It was through the revelations of four whistleblowers that Congress and the public got wind of unconscionable neglect and mismanagement at Veterans Affairs.
At the end of his IRE 2014 keynote address, Bergman punctuated the message about how important all this information has been; how these whistleblowers have been courageous; and how the journalists telling the story have been under assault. “I said, ‘The 1,600 journalists here today don’t have any other choice but to stand up. And let’s start with Jim Risen.’ So I got them to stand up for Jim Risen at the end of my talk—or, as one journalist said, guaranteeing myself a standing ovation.”
Bergman stipulated, however, that the challenge to news publishing doesn’t end at the prosecution of Risen: “The problem is the attack on our sources—the people out there, the citizens out there who have information, whether they’re in your local community or in your region, or inside the major employer in town—and they want to come forward and to talk to someone they can trust. And I learned, just recently again, that the only professional out there who can listen to someone’s story and actually take actions around it to bring it to light—and protect that person’s identity—is a journalist. … We have a much more important role on a local and regional level, particularly in private industry, and a potentially powerful role if you’re a publisher or an editor. You need to step up.”
Engelberg agreed that there’s a seeming lack of gumption and fortitude plaguing legacy news organizations in the print and broadcast worlds. “I don’t feel, honestly, that we’re doing enough,” he said. “I’m happy to say that on the record. I feel like the way we’ve tried to respond to this has clearly not had much of an effect on people in government. …
“Eric Holder has said that no journalist is ever going to be prosecuted for doing his or her job. Well, that’s a very nice statement, but here’s the problem,” Engelberg added, “If they choose—as they have repeatedly done—to pursue the case against a source, you can find yourself very quickly in the position of my friend and former colleague James Risen, and they’re trying to get you to testify. … James is facing a jail term of up to 18 months. That’s real, and I think it’s a clear and present threat against reporting of all kinds. … If you follow the government’s viewpoint to its logical conclusion, and you say, in essence, that anyone who talks about classified information is committing a crime for which they will be prosecuted, then I challenge you to have an intelligent conversation about any of the national security issues that are before us as a country, because they’re all classified.”
Engelberg acknowledged that it’s difficult for newspapers to mount assertive and effective legal posturing when funds are tight. “It costs money to go to court,” he said. “It’s complicated. I think it’s a very treacherous and tenuous moment for the press.”
A Job to Do
Education is fundamental in matters of investigative journalism, which is a “key component of a healthy democracy,” Newspaper Association of America’s president and CEO Caroline Little said. We must instill in journalists a full understanding of the repercussions of not having a Federal Shield Law, for example. “If there are not protections for reporters who are protecting their sources, sources aren’t going to talk,” she said.
Newspapers have a choice: Do the work. Dig deeper. Woo whistleblowers. Be the trusted storyteller. Or concede the role to others who are stepping up to fill the void.
“As a publisher, you should look around at the competitive landscape,” Robinson said. “[Newspapers] are in a state of prolonged turmoil, and have been for a long time, for a number of reasons. But if you’re going to have competitors like First Look [Media], The Intercept, and so forth, they’re going to be fearless about publishing this stuff.”
Besides investing in investigative journalism, newspapers should also evangelize the process to the public. For too long, publishers cowered in fear, worried that revealing their process might make it difficult to legally defend a story later on. Commercial interests also interfered with editorial direction, Bergman pointed out.
The public needs to be reminded of the real service newspapers provide to their communities, from small towns to great nations.
“[The First Amendment] was a tool to let citizens work against the government, work against people in power, through the printing press,” Greenwald told Maher’s audience. Greenwald scolded (via Twitter) David Gregory of “Meet the Press,” after Gregory had Greenwald on as a guest and asked him if he thought he might face criminal charges in connection with the Snowden case. To Greenwald and other journalists, Gregory’s question seemed to insinuate that the prosecution of a journalist—a direct violation of the First Amendment—is on the table for debate.
The New York Times’ Bill Keller made news himself in February 2012 for writing “WikiLeaks, a PostScript,” an op-ed in which he rhetorically yawned over the notion that Wikileaks changed the face of whistleblowing and publishing: “It was a hell of a story and a wild collaboration, but it did not herald, as the documentarians yearn to believe, some new digital age of transparency. In fact, if there is a larger point, it is quite the contrary.”
When members of the press eat their own, or peddle the propaganda that reporting news should—or could be—prosecuted, it undermines the First Amendment. It’s bad enough when former authors of policies of secrecy are given a megaphone to undermine the journalist’s mission. Take, for example, former NSA Director Michael Hayden’s musings for CNN in 2013, in which he wrote that Greenwald was “far more deserving of the Justice Department’s characterization of a co-conspirator than Rosen ever was.” That’s what the press is up against.
Still, there’s no shortage of sources sharing secrets. “Look at any front page of any newspaper,” Robinson said. You often see sources who cannot be named, anonymous sources, that kind of language. So there are a lot of leakers leaking information about what powerful organizations or governments are doing.”
While politicians chew over the Free Flow of Information Act, journalists have become embroiled in criminal and civil suits, and have sometimes been charged and prosecuted—for contempt or worse, such as in deference to the 1917 Espionage Act.
In 1973, investigative reporter Lucy Morgan was sentenced to eight months in a Florida jail for refusal to reveal sources.
More recently, there’s been: The New York Times’ Judith Miller and the leak that comprised CIA Agent Valerie Plame’s cover. Rosen was named as a criminal co-conspirator. And now, Risen faces a prison term in association with the case of United States vs. Sterling.
While reporters and sources are dragged through court, the jury in the court of public opinion remains impressionable.
Little suggested being more transparent about the dilemmas journalists and editors face whenever they’re handling sensitive or controversial information—especially in cases of national security. In these cases, there are often confidential negotiations taking place under the public’s radar—real conversations about what is known, what to make public, and the repercussions of publishing it. It isn’t just politically juiced-up representatives in Washington, D.C. who are having these rhetorical risk-assessments. Journalists analyze them, too.
Greenwald defended Snowden’s actions, as well as his own. “[Snowden] didn’t release a single document,” Greenwald explained. “He came to two of the most well-regarded newspapers in the world.” During those talks, Snowden expressed to Greenwald that he only wanted vetted information to be released, and only that which would basically inform the American public about activities of the federal government he believed were important to know. “We had tens of thousands of documents for over a year, and only a tiny percentage of those have been released at his insistence,” Greenwald said.
These are the anecdotes that the public need to hear, to appreciate their right to a free press and feel assured that journalists are out there being thoughtful, doing due diligence, and weighing heavy dilemmas every day.
The Internet is forcing change in that regard; as an information platform, its greatest strength or its greatest flaw is that it thrives on transparency and voyeurism.
“You can show documents; you can do all kinds of things, like put outtakes up, and that is being done more and more,” said Bergman. “Even ‘60 Minutes’ is doing that when it used to be a matter of policy not to even give an outtake to the evening news. … The New York Times is doing a lot more of that online, and I think it’s great. The New York Times’ business decision to do more investigative reporting and video is significant.”
Bergman also suggested that news media (collectively) begin to celebrate the freedoms it has and explain how it got them: “For there is no other country in the world where you could publish Snowden documents, right?”
Q&A: Whistleblowers Welcome
ExposeFacts.org, under the direction of the Institute for Public Accuracy, rolled out the whistleblower welcome mat with a print campaign featuring one of the most influential whistleblowers in recent history, Daniel Ellsberg. E&P asked Institute for Public Accuracy Executive Director Norman Solomon about the creative development and the campaign’s goal.
E&P: ExposeFacts.org recently created a print campaign based on the idea, “whistleblowers welcome.” Why was it was a good time to roll out a campaign of this kind?
Norman Solomon: Our ‘whistleblowers welcome’ message targets a key aspect of today’s grim crisis for American journalism. It’s the clear intent of the Obama administration to make whistleblowing less and less common, particularly in national security realms. As a nonprofit news outlet, ExposeFacts.org has launched a public outreach campaign to emphasize that we will do our utmost to protect the identity of confidential sources, and that we will not be intimated by the government’s attempts to create a suppressive climate of fear. … As long as this, or any administration persists with wrongheaded and dangerous policies—such as vast surveillance, jail threats against cutting-edge journalists like James Risen, witch hunts against whistleblowers and the insidious ‘Insider Threat’ program imposed on federal employees—ExposeFacts will assertively reach out to potential whistleblowers, putting out an explicit welcome mat.
E&P: During creative, what was the goal?
Solomon: As we brainstormed creative design ideas, the advertising goal was focused on direct communication with many thousands of people who go to work each day in Washington. We wanted to stir the pot and raise key issues about what’s at stake—what can be the terrible results when people stifle their impulses and remain silent about what can’t withstand the light of day. Daniel Ellsberg offered powerful words that resonate.
E&P: How did you decide on the graphics?
Solomon: The ExposeFacts logo, which appears under Daniel Ellsberg’s name, was the result of a lot of back-and-forth between the ExposeFacts team and a designer. We settled on a simple logo that conveys a process of peeling away obstruction in order to, well, expose facts. We chose a picture of Dan Ellsberg that evokes the strength and consistency of his stance. The quote from Ellsberg really distills the essence of a message that he’s eager to convey to people who are working today in places like the State Department and the Pentagon. The words that lead off the quote in big type—‘Don’t do what I did’ and ‘Don’t wait’—express a lot about what is quintessentially Daniel Ellsberg. He is anything but self-congratulatory. Rather than praise himself for what he eventually did by releasing the Pentagon Papers, he is at pains to acknowledge how much better it would have been if he’d released these documents many years before he did in 1971.
E&P: The posters were to be strategically placed around Washington, D.C. How did you decide where to post them?
Solomon: IPA’s Director of Media and Communications Sam Husseini led the way in thinking through how these six-foot displays at bus-shelters could be most effective. He was meticulous about assessing the options and figuring out which locations would provide the best reach. We ended up with two displays very close to the State Department, two near the White House, two close to the Capitol, and several other locations that seemed prime for government workers who might respond to Ellsberg’s words. Also, we were very pleased to get a spot on the heavily foot-trafficked block where Kramer’s bookstore is located at Dupont Circle.
E&P: Do you expect the campaign will be effective at not just inspiring anonymous sources but in reminding the public that these are courageous, important acts?
Solomon: We’ll see what information arrives via the SecureDrop tech system on the ExposeFacts.org site. No matter what, I’m confident that our messaging—not only reaching people as they walk down the street, but also via the Internet and other media—has already had some impact to help pull the topic of whistleblowing out of the shadows. We want to continually reinforce people’s gut-level understanding that democratic media can’t exist by just relying on official sources to tell official stories.
E&P: It was reported that more campaigns are planned—perhaps for Wall Street and Silicon Valley. What can you tell us about those future campaigns?
Solomon: As we plan for autumn and beyond, we’re looking closely at overlaps between illegitimate government surveillance and the huge array of corporations that are hauling in billions of dollars from contracts with outfits like the NSA, the CIA, and the Pentagon. I expect that ExposeFacts will develop campaigns outside of the nation’s capital, in locations where corporate profiteers are feeding off the taxpayer’s largesse while perpetuating abuse of the environment, human rights and civil liberties.