The editors of The Intercept are facing mounting criticism for potentially outing a source, after publishing a classified National Security Agency document sent to the website anonymously, which reportedly resulted in the arrest of an intelligence contractor.
About an hour after The Intercept published a report detailing Russian efforts to hack into US voting systems days before the November election, based on the NSA document, the Justice Department charged 25-year-old Reality Leigh Winner for leaking a classified report to a news website.
Winner is believed to be the source of the intelligence report, dated May 5, that was sent to The Intercept. According to an FBI affidavit, reporters from The Intercept reached out to an NSA contact in an attempt to verify the classified documents, sending the contact a hard copy.
After analyzing the document, the NSA “determined the pages of the intelligence reporting appeared to be folded and/or creased, suggesting they had been printed and hand-carried out of a secured space.”
The agency further determined that only six people had printed out the document, and after an audit of those people’s computers, email communications were found between Winner and the news outlet she provided the documents to. After speaking with Winner at her home in Georgia, she confessed to sending the classified report to the news outlet.
In light of Winner’s swift arrest following the publication of the report, and the trail left by The Intercept that led authorities to her, many national security commentators have criticized the website for what appears to be the irresponsible (if unintentional) outing of a source.
Surveillance reporter Barton Gellman described The Intercept’s “egregious mistakes that doomed its source,” including informing their NSA contact that their source was from Augusta, Georgia:
7/ It handed USG a color copy of original doc & told a clearance-holding contractor the doc was mailed from Augusta. Where source lives.
— Barton Gellman (@bartongellman) June 6, 2017
Washington Post national security columnist Josh Rogin tweeted that The Intercept “blew its source’s cover by giving the NSA a copy of the leaked document,” citing a New York Times report. He added his email for “anyone who wants to leak without getting arrested”:
For anyone who wants to leak without getting arrested, I’m at firstname.lastname@example.org
— Josh Rogin (@joshrogin) June 6, 2017
National security attorney Jesselyn Radack, who has defended a number of whistleblowers in the past, noted this is the second time Intercept reporter Matthew Cole was “involved in a story where the source ended up prosecuted.” Her client John Kiriakou, a former CIA officer, served nearly two years in prison after leaking classified information to Cole:
Winner case is 2nd time Matt Cole was involved in a story where the source ended up prosecuted for Espionage
1st was my client @JohnKiriakou
— unR̶A̶D̶A̶C̶K̶ted (@JesselynRadack) June 6, 2017
Kiriakou himself also went after Cole on Twitter, bashing the reporter for “[burning] yet another source”:
.@theintercept should be ashamed of itself. Matthew Cole burns yet another source. It makes your entire organization untrustworthy.
— John Kiriakou (@JohnKiriakou) June 6, 2017
Tech reporter Xeni Jardin asked if The Intercept would be contributing to Winner’s defense:
Will the Intercept be contributing to Ms. Winner’s defense? Sure looks a lot like source protection was fumbled.
— Xeni Jardin (@xeni) June 6, 2017
Other reporters linked to a post on cybersecurity blog Errata Security detailing how The Intercept left a trail leading back to Winner:
How not to get your source busted: https://t.co/yLj36XwM2z
— Adam Goldman (@adamgoldmanNYT) June 6, 2017
How the Intercept may have outed its source on the Russia hack attempt document https://t.co/J0LCaEDOEX
— Maggie Haberman (@maggieNYT) June 6, 2017
Glenn Greenwald started The Intercept, a national security news outlet, in 2014, after he rose to international fame as the reporter who first broke news of the NSA’s surveillance programs, thanks to classified information leaked by then-contractor Edward Snowden. The Intercept has been a champion of whistleblowers since its inception — but in light of Winner’s arrest, it’s unclear whether sources will still look to the website as a safe depository for classified information.
UPDATE –– 11:59 am ET: The Intercept issued a statement responding to the “Justice Department allegations,” noting that the government documents released — including the FBI affidavit — contain “unproven assertions and speculation designed to serve the government’s agenda and as such warrant skepticism.”
The statement adds:
Winner faces allegations that have not been proven. The same is true of the FBI’s claims about how it came to arrest Winner.
We take this matter with the utmost seriousness. However, because of the continued investigation, we will make no further comment on it at this time.
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