The Intercept, a national-security news site, wouldn’t exist without the most famous leaker of the 21st century, Edward Snowden. The organization was established in 2014 to publish material from the former National Security Agency contractor and to reveal other government secrets and push for press rights.
It should have been the last place a news source would have to worry about protection and confidentiality. And indeed, the organization funded by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar includes some world-class security experts.
But early last month, the site – founded by the crusading journalists Glenn Greenwald, Jeremy Scahill and Laura Poitras – came under fire for inadvertently failing in that core mission. Now, having taken a deep look at what happened, the Intercept has adopted some reforms and its parent company is helping a young whistleblower who has been charged under the Espionage Act.
“It’s been an incredibly wrenching period here, and it was necessary to take the time to do a thorough review of what happened,” Intercept editor-in-chief Betsy Reed told me.
To recap: The Trump administration charged 25-year-old Reality Leigh Winner, a former Air Force linguist, with leaking classified information – just hours after The Intercept published a story based on a National Security Agency document describing efforts by Russian military intelligence to hack into America’s voting system.
Barton Gellman, a leading national-security journalist and former Washington Post staffer, pointed to “egregious mistakes” by the site’s reporters as they tried to verify the NSA document before publication.. He called what happened “a catastrophic failure of source protection,” while acknowledging that Winner would have been the lead suspect under any circumstances.
A month later, The Intercept and its parent company, First Look (both are funded by Omidyar) are taking steps to fix their mistakes and help defend Winner.
“As the news outlet Winner is accused of leaking to, The Intercept has a unique perspective on her case and a passionate desire to see her receive a fair trial – even though we had no idea who our source was and stil have no independent knowledge of the source’s identify,” Reed said in a statement Tuesday.
Helping Winner’s case will take two forms, she said.
First Look’s Press Freedom Defense Fun will pay for a law firm to support her current defense lawyers. And it will give $50,000 in matching funds to “Stand With Reality,” a grassroots crowd-funding campaign intended to increase public awareness and support legal work for the young whistleblower.
Winner has been charged under the 100-year-old Espionage Act, the same arcane law that the Obama Administration began using to charge leakers, including Snowden.
“The First Amendment, not the Espionage Act, should be the framework for viewing the act of whistleblowing,” Reed said.
Reed said that the Intercept has been examining its practices for source-protection, and, in this case, found them wanting.
“At several points in the editorial process, our practices fell short of the standards to which we hold ourselves” for keeping risks to sources at a minimum, Reed said. “We should have taken greater precautions to protect the identity of a source who was anonymous even to us.”
The Justice Department would have charged Winner without The Intercept’s mistakes. Still, the apparent sloppiness was regrettable, to say the least.
Last month, the tech site ArsTechnica wrote that The Intercept team inadvertently exposed its source because a hard copy, sent for verification purposes to an NSA contact, “showed fold marks that indicated it had been printed and it included encoded watermarking that revealed exactly when it had been printed out and on what printer.” Reporters reportedly also let their source know where the document had been mailed from, which further pointed to Winner.
Reed, who declined for legal reasons to go into detail about what happened, told me the entire staff would be retrained in best practices and that new levels of editorial scrutiny would be put in place. No staffers will be fired.
The Intercept’s founding principles are transparency and accountability, and its mission remains important.
So, it’s heartening to see the site, and its parent company, doing everything in their power to admit and make good on their own mistakes. And it’s important that they’ll help Winner be treated fairly at the hands of an administration that could hardly be more averse to press rights.
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Margaret Sullivan