'The Washington Post' Trolls for Stolen Documents

Pssst -- wanna slip us some secrets?

Within the first week of the administration of President Trump, often-conflicting reports trickled out from government agencies about explicit or tacit requests to withhold information from the public. A memo at the Department of Agriculture halting the release of documents. A shutdown of a government Twitter account for over an embarrassing retweet. A report from Reuters (denied by the administration) that the Environmental Protection Agency was told to remove a page about climate change.

Much of this is murky. Coupled with the administration’s unwillingness to accept demonstrated points of data and with the government’s existing efforts to tamp down on leakers, however, it seems very possible that the next four years could be marked by critical information being kept under lock and key in executive branch offices.

This is precisely why The Washington Post and other news outlets created systems to allow government employees to leak information as securely as possible. We reached out to Trevor Timm of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, which helped set up The Post’s system to explain how it works.

If there is any material difference between this and Whittaker Chambers' hollowed-out pumpkin, what is it?

The Pumpkin Papers consist of sixty-five pages of retyped secret State Department documents, four pages in Hiss's own handwriting of copied State Department cables, and five rolls of developed and undeveloped 35 mm film.  The film included fifty-eight frames, mostly photos of State and Navy Department documents.  The State Department documents dealt with a wide variety of subjects, including U. S. intentions with respect to the Soviet Union, the Spanish Civil War, and Germany's takeover of Austria.  Other frames dealt with subjects that hardly seem the stuff of spy novels, such as diagrams of fire extinguishers and life rafts.  All of the documents that bore dates came from the period from January 5 through April 1, 1938.

Well, you might say one is journalism and the other is espionage. But, especially latterly, is there any material difference? Journalists like to hold up the sainted I.F. Stone as an example of a fearless independent reporter, but in fact he turned out to be a Soviet agent. They also like to point to the Pentagon Papers case as an example of untrammeled First Amendment rights, which in fact it was. But it only protected journalists from prior restraint from the government -- and not from any criminal consequences of their actions.

More from the Post, helping amateur spies:

The tool is called SecureDrop, and can be accessed here. Or, rather, that page includes instructions on how to use it. The system takes advantage of something called The Onion Router, or Tor. Tor is a system by which Internet traffic is routed through a number of servers on its way to a destination, akin to driving to various safe houses and switching cars and outfits before getting to your final destination. Except that thousands of other cars and people in thousands of other outfits are doing so at the same time, making tracking any one of you that much more difficult. Tor encrypts information and passes it through this system so that it’s very difficult to connect a user to a destination.

The connection is solely between you and The Post. “There are no third parties involved in SecureDrop,” Timm explained, “so the government can’t secretly subpoena Google for the news organization’s information, or they can’t secretly go to AT&T and get any information on SecureDrop. They would have to subpoena the news organization directly, who can fight it and refuse to comply.” (News organizations routinely fight such subpoenas, citing the First Amendment protections of the free press.)