The Intercept’s Source Burning Problem
Long having built its reputation on reports derived from classified information provided to them by leakers, The Intercept now finds itself in the unpleasant position of having burned – or outed – one of its anonymous sources.
The leaker, Reality Leigh Winner, allegedly gave The Intercept classified NSA documents pertaining to an investigation of Russian military intelligence hacking within the U.S. and now faces years in prison under the Espionage Act. While outing Winner could have been the result of negligence, the FBI affidavit explaining why the bureau arrested Winner shows it went beyond mere negligence.
According to FBI documents, a reporter at the paper sent the leaked documents to a contractor working for the National Security Agency (NSA) – the very agency they had been taken from – a full week before The Intercept published the story. The alleged intention was to let the NSA itself verify the documents, an unusual move for a news outlet that was originally intended to have exclusive publication rights over the Snowden leaks that exposed NSA surveillance. Upon being contacted, the NSA asked that The Intercept redact parts of the document and The Intercept complied with some of those requests.
The FBI warrant also notes that the reporter in question – who is unnamed in the document – contacted a government contractor with whom he had a prior relationship and revealed where the documents had been postmarked from – Winner’s home of Augusta, Georgia – along with Winner’s work location. He also sent unedited images of the documents that contained security markings that allowed the document to be traced to Winner.
While the reporter’s identity remains unknown, the published report has four authors – two of whom have been known to burn sources before. Journalists Richard Esposito and Matthew Cole once found themselves involved in a case against CIA whistleblower John Kiriakou. Kiriakou specifically singled out Cole as having not only misled him, but having played a likely role in incriminating him. Kiriakou spent nearly two years in prison for exposing the CIA’s torture program.
.@theintercept should be ashamed of itself. Matthew Cole burns yet another source. It makes your entire organization untrustworthy.
— John Kiriakou (@JohnKiriakou) June 6, 2017
WikiLeaks, a publishing organization committed to transparency that maintains the confidentiality of its sources, has sharply condemned The Intercept’s role in Winner’s arrest. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange wrote that “If the FBI affidavit is accurate, the reporter concerned must be named, shamed and fired by whomever they work for to maintain industry standards.” “Source-burning reporters are a menace,” he continued. “They chill trust in all journalists, which impedes public understanding.”
WikiLeaks is now offering a $10,000 reward for information “leading to the public exposure & termination” of the responsible reporter.
WikiLeaks issues a US$10,000 reward for information leading to the public exposure & termination of this 'reporter': https://t.co/W9wijCk5d3
— WikiLeaks (@wikileaks) June 6, 2017
The Intercept responded to the situation in a statement, stating:
“While the FBI’s allegations against Winner have been made public through the release of an affidavit and search warrant, which were unsealed at the government’s request, it is important to keep in mind that these documents contain unproven assertions and speculation designed to serve the government’s agenda and as such warrant skepticism. Winner faces allegations that have not been proven. The same is true of the FBI’s claims about how it came to arrest Winner.”
I didn't write the article, & I don't edit the Intercept. I don't control other journalists. My views on it are here https://t.co/bLVvxrpc15
— Glenn Greenwald (@ggreenwald) June 6, 2017
The Intercept’s corporate dark side
This latest debacle for The Intercept may be proving the organization’s long-time critics right. The short history of the publication shows that it was hardly set up to serve the public interest. The paper was founded by Pierre Omidyar, a billionaire and major owner of both eBay and PayPal, who gave the project more than $50 million in seed money.
This alone should have been enough to complicate its mission “to hold the most powerful governmental and corporate factions accountable.”
Its first hires were Glenn Greenwald, Jeremy Scahill, and Laura Poitras – all of whom were involved in publishing the Snowden revelations, as well as other leaks. Greenwald and Poitras were the only journalists with the full Snowden cache and those secrets now belong to a single billionaire running a for-profit media company.
Omidyar’s connections to the U.S. political establishment are numerous and concerning. One of his foundation’s microcredit projects to “help” farmers in India led to an epidemic of farmer suicides that gained international headlines, as farmers became unable to pay the foundation back. His network has also funded regime change operations with USAID, most recently in Ukraine. In addition, Omidyar was well-connected to the Obama White House, which stood to lose the most from the mass publication of the Snowden cache. One of Omidyar’s main companies, PayPal, is said to be implicated in some of the NSA documents that have still been withheld.
Omidyar’s influence on The Intercept has also been established. Former Intercept writer Ken Silverstein wrote that, at the paper, “a cult of personality existed around him [Omidyar] internally that disrupted the whole organization” and that “the company’s culture centered on Omidyar.”
This background makes it less surprising that The Intercept has been caught publishing partisan stories that back U.S. establishment objectives, such as articles supporting U.S.-led regime change efforts in Syria and the very piece that outed Winner.
Outing a source only to perpetuate the “Russian hacker” narrative
The Intercept piece at the center of the controversy is particularly troubling. Titled “Top-Secret NSA Report Details Russian Hacking Effort Days Before 2016 Election,” it asserts that “Russian military intelligence executed a cyberattack on at least one U.S. voting software supplier and sent spear-phishing emails to more than 100 local election officials just days before last November’s presidential election, according to a highly classified intelligence report obtained by The Intercept.”
However, the NSA report that The Intercept published in tandem with the article provides no evidence for that claim, as it does not even mention of a cyberattack by “cyber espionage operations,” indicating that no one was attacked and only that information was collected. It also presents no proof that any accounts were compromised, nor were the U.S. elections. Even worse is that the document itself states that techniques were used by this cyber espionage actor that distinguish it from known Russian military intelligence operations, meaning the act in question may not have been carried out by Russian intelligence.
In addition, the piece quotes cyber security expert Bruce Schneier. However, Schneier is a well-known Clinton supporter and argued that Russia hacked the Democrats as far back as last July, a claim for which there is still no evidence. The Intercept piece fails to mention this aspect of Schneier’s background.
Essentially, The Intercept piece – which could lead to hard prison time for one very unfortunate whistleblower – does not accurately interpret the classified information at its core and instead seeks to propagate the “Russian hacker” narrative still being peddled by the parts of the U.S. establishment that are still bitter over Hillary Clinton’s loss. Given Omidyar’s cozy ties with the Obama White House and the left-leaning slant of The Intercept’s current editor Betsy Reed, this could be more than coincidence.
While The Intercept is now making headlines for outing a source, the bigger message is that the paper has revealed itself as being part of the system of establishment journalism it purports to stand against.
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