Before The Intercept had even published its report, written by Matthew Cole, Richard Esposito, Sam Biddle and Ryan Grim, detailing Russian government cyberattacks on government officials during the 2016 election, the FBI had arrested the publication’s alleged source, Reality Leigh Winner.
The Department of Justice announcement of the arrest came later, on Monday, not long after The Intercept published its story, taking attention away from the story itself and onto The Intercept, who some blamed in part for its role in inadvertently helping the unnamed “Intelligence Community Agency,” as it was described in the affidavit, to link the document received by The Intercept to Winner, a contractor working at the NSA.
As the affidavit details, The Intercept provided an image of the original document to the intelligence agency for confirmation, disclosing where it had originated from based on the postmark of the envelope in which it was sent. The creased pages apparent on the document, as well as the yellow dots that could be picked up on the copy, revealing the specific printer used and date and time at which it was printed, led the agency to narrow it down to the six people who could have handled it. Winner’s own work computer revealed that she had contacted The Intercept by email, leading to her arrest Saturday.
The latter action, of using a work computer to get in touch with a site like The Intercept, is something the publication cautions against in its own suggestions to whistleblowers, but some of the actions The Intercept took to verify the document have come under scrutiny. In a Twitter essay, Century Foundation fellow and surveillance journalist Barton Gellman detailed The Intercept’s missteps while at the same time providing a lesson on how to handle leaked information:
Erik Wemple was kinder in his assessment, writing:
Journalistic tradecraft has a way of appearing ham-fisted, awkward and ill-advised when it surfaces in hacked emails, hot mics and federal court documents. It’s ever so easy to look back at a reporter’s decisions and mock them. With that luxury, we can question the wisdom of telling the contractor about the Augusta postmark, not to mention sending the documents to the contractor. Did the contractor then feel implicated and thus obligated to report this incident?
Perhaps. Consider, however, that these steps were taken toward the goal of authenticating a leaked document. A fine imperative.
It just so happens that in this case, an act of due diligence appears to have turned into a lead for a leak investigation.
Jesselyn Radack, who represented former CIA officer John Kiriakou when he was discovered to have leaked information on Bush era CIA-administered torture, was not so forgiving, noting that reporter Matthew Cole was the link in both these cases.
Her former client was even more direct.
In a statement issued this morning, The Intercept said the document was received anonymously and that it did not know the source when it published the story, cautioning against assuming that the FBI got the right person, or that the methods the FBI detailed about how Winner was discovered are correct:
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.
The Intercept has built its reputation, and its site, on the careful way in which founders Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras and Jeremy Scahill protected their sources, particularly around Greenwald’s and Poitras’ communications with NSA leaker Edward Snowden. The potential consequences if the publication’s reputation is damaged by this is not merely cosmetic. Will future leakers trust The Intercept with their information? It’s the answer to that question, more than any criticisms or defenses of their actions, that will matter most.