While The Intercept skillfully shows the audacious federal government’s attack on whistleblower Winner is a threat to our democracy, it woefully obfuscates its own multiple failings to protect sources.
On Jeremy Scahill’s June 6, 2018 Intercepted podcast, The Persecution of Reality Winner, his guests, colleagues and he skillfully showed how Reality Winner’s prosecution is a shameless act of the federal government’s prosecutorial overreach to shut down whistleblowers.
Briefly, Winner released one classified NSA document that showed the federal government was aware of the potential of the elections being hacked. Since the information had not been shared with the public or other government officials responsible for voting integrity, this act of whistleblowing provided valuable information in the public interest. As usual, Intercepted and its brethren reporters from The Intercept did a good job of reporting on this aspect of case. (The online news organization The Intercept and the podcast Intercepted are both parts of First Look Media and the remainder of this article will refer to the work and coverage as that of The Intercept. Jeremy Scahill is a founding editor of The Intercept.)
Since the arrest of Winner, The Intercept has maintained a defensive position about the entire affair — that it still does not know who its source was, thereby implying that’s its own actions may not be culpable. It is well documented though that The Intercept most likely outed Winner by sending a copy of the source document to the NSA for confirmation of the veracity of the document and its comments. Such printed documents have barely visible identifiers to show who was responsible for printing the document. In essence, The Intercept handed over Winner’s name to the very agency on which she was whistle-blowing. Disturbingly, the entire 58-minute podcast fails to mention this.
Having to walk a fine line of providing coverage and protecting its own reputation, The Intercept stated during the podcast that it was providing for Winner’s defense. Yet this too was somewhat misleading, since The Intercept’s first and only official statement on the affair from 11 months ago under the byline of Editor-in-Chief Betsy Reed states:
First Look’s Press Freedom Defense Fund, whose mission is to pursue legal fights where key principles of press freedom are at stake, will provide funding for the engagement of an additional law firm to support [Winner’s main counsel] Bell & Brigham.”
In other words, First Look is providing money for support work, not the main defense team, which is likely to generate most of the costs of the defense. A news organization should know the importance of this distinction.
In addition, The Intercept failed to mention that it likely outed another government whistleblower, FBI agent Terry James Albury, in March of this year. As Whitney Webb reports in MintPress News:
“While the FBI warrant filed against Albury does not explicitly name The Intercept, MPR revealed that the documents described in the search warrant exactly match a cache of FBI documents used in The Intercept’s article series titled ‘The FBI’s Secret Rules,’ published in January 2017. Albury is alleged to have possessed and shared the documents with a news outlet between February 2016 and January 2017.”
Consider Albury’s outing in light of The Intercept’s July 2017 statement:
We are conducting a comprehensive analysis of our source protection protocols and will make revisions to ensure that any materials provided to us anonymously are handled in the most secure manner possible. We will ensure that all staff members have rigorous security training and are held to account for any lapses. Our security team will be consistently integrated into the editorial process. We will also provide revised and expanded guidelines for whistleblowers on our website.”
This leaves us with the question whether it is The Intercept’s stupidity, or possibly worse, complicity, that have destroyed the lives of Winner and Albury.
Perhaps just as disturbing as this self-interested coverage is the analogous approach to the Democratic Party’s response to the 2016 election debacle. While The Intercept is correct in focusing on the federal government’s attack on Winner as a whistleblower as a threat to our democratic society, it also utilized a Russia narrative to take the focus away from its own failings.
Repeatedly through the segment with Editor-in-Chief Betsy Reed and reporter Sam Biddle, the threat of Russia’s interference in the election process is mentioned. If the podcast went into any detail how the threat could come from any number of sources, including corporate insiders that provide the black-box election systems, the repeated Russia reference might have been justified. Yet, since the podcast wreaked of “Russia, Russia, Russia” as Scahill would say, it appears The Intercept used the same distracting narrative of a foreign threat that the Democratic Party used after 2016 — distract from the failure of your own doing.
The Intercept’s Reporters: A Pattern of Failing Sources and Ruining Lives
In The Intercept’s July 2017 statement, Reed notes:
Like other journalistic outlets, we routinely verify such materials with any individuals or institutions implicated by their disclosure and seek their comment, as we explain on our website. This process carries some risks of source exposure that are impossible to mitigate when dealing with sensitive materials. Nonetheless, it is clear that we should have taken greater precautions to protect the identity of a source who was anonymous even to us.”
Implicitly, The Intercept is saying “whistleblowers are knowingly taking risks. We should have done better though.” No kidding, because it is not the news organization that faces the destruction of a career, crippling legal fees, extreme emotional distress and jail time. Further, the admission that they should have taken greater precautions is in essence an admission of guilt. (Perhaps the counsel who helped draft the July 2017 statement is incompetent too.)
Former CIA Agent John Kiriakou has suggested, “The Intercept should walk away from national-security reporting before its lack of journalistic professionalism ruins any more lives.” Kiriakou should know. He still remains the only man to serve jail time in a case relating to U.S. torture of prisoners. His crime? Confirming a name of a former CIA officer. Facing financial ruin and the prospect of decades of incarceration away from his family, Kiriakou was forced to accept a plea deal as he too faced federal government prosecutorial overreach.
Kiriakou places the blame squarely on Matthew Cole, who was working independently at the time and is one of The Intercept reporters involved in the Winner affair. Kiriakou asserts Cole misrepresented his inquiries for the writing of a book and subsequently revealed the former CIA officer’s name to defense lawyers for Guantanamo detainees. The name was never published, but Kiriakou still spent 2-1/2 years in jail; his career was ruined; and his wife, who was also forced to resign from the CIA, divorced him. Thanks to now-Intercept reporter Matthew Cole.
Accordingly, The Intercept should fire the responsible actors and ask the Editor-in-Chief Betsy Reed, who has claimed to “take responsibility for this failure,” to step down, especially after the outing of Terrence Albury. Perhaps a news organization that does excellent work like The Intercept should not leave national security reporting, but there have to be consequences for repeated failure. It is not hard to imagine that if Jeremy Scahill was a disinterested party, he would say “what exactly does ‘Betsy Reed taking responsibility’ mean? Has she resigned to work on Ms. Winner’s behalf? Has she dedicated three-fourths of her salary to Ms. Winner’s defense? What exactly is ‘taking responsibility’ if they are just empty words?”
In the future, any coverage of this affair should be conducted by another alternative media news organization that provides the same level of excellent coverage, but obviously without the inherent conflict. All of those involved from The Intercept should make themselves available for interviews to address the issues raised of both the prosecutorial overreach against Winner and the failure of The Intercept to protect its sources. The Intercept is trying to do the right thing by bringing this travesty against Reality Winner to light. Yet the self-interested, highly conflicted coverage does not cut it.
Reporting on your own affairs is as bad as government and Wall Street self-regulation. The Intercept should pass this very important baton to another news outlet.
Top Photo | Accused NSA whistleblower, Reality Winner, leaves the U.S. District Courthouse in Augusta, Ga., following a bond hearing on June 8, 2017. Michael Holahan | The Augusta Chronicle | AP
Ian Berman is an entrepreneur and former corporate banker at leading global banks in New York City. He now focuses on financial advisory services and writing about representative government, equitable public policies and ending American militarism and Israel’s continuing colonization of Palestine. He is the Co-Founder of Palestine 365, the Ongoing Oppression and its predecessor, Palestine 365, on Facebook.