The PJ Tatler

Snowden Redux

There’s a new leaker in town, says the federal government, and he’s handing over more sensitive national security documents to selected press outlets.

Specifically, whoever is doing the leaking has taken the secret documents to Glenn Greenwald — the same writer who aided Edward Snowden in his efforts to expose NSA snooping.

CNN reports:

The federal government has concluded there’s a new leaker exposing national security documents in the aftermath of surveillance disclosures by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, U.S. officials tell CNN.

Proof of the newest leak comes from national security documents that formed the basis of a news story published Tuesday by the Intercept, the news site launched by Glenn Greenwald, who also published Snowden’s leaks.

NSA leaker Edward Snowden asks to extend Russia asylum

The Intercept article focuses on the growth in U.S. government databases of known or suspected terrorist names during the Obama administration.

The article cites documents prepared by the National Counterterrorism Center dated August 2013, which is after Snowden flew to Russia to avoid U.S. criminal charges.

Greenwald has suggested there was another leaker. In July, he said on Twitter “it seems clear at this point” that there was another. Government officials have been investigating to find out who.

In a February interview with CNN’s Reliable Sources, Greenwald said: “I definitely think it’s fair to say that there are people who have been inspired by Edward Snowden’s courage and by the great good and virtue that it has achieved.”

He added, “I have no doubt there will be other sources inside the government who see extreme wrongdoing who are inspired by Edward Snowden.”

There’s a fascinating twist to this story. Realizing that Greenwald’s website was going to break the story on the massive increase in the terrorist database, the National Counterterrorism Center did its own leaking of the story to the AP.

The government, it turned out, had “spoiled the scoop,” an informally forbidden practice in the world of journalism. To spoil a scoop, the subject of a story, when asked for comment, tips off a different, typically friendlier outlet in the hopes of diminishing the attention the first outlet would have received. Tuesday’s AP story was much friendlier to the government’s position, explaining the surge of individuals added to the watch list as an ongoing response to a foiled terror plot.

The practice of spoiling a scoop is frowned upon because it destroys trust between the journalist and the subject. In the future, the journalist is much less willing to share the contents of his or her reporting with that subject, which means the subject is given less time, or no time at all, to respond with concerns about the reporting.

The government’s decision to spoil a story on the topic of national security is especially unusual, given that it has a significant interest in earning the trust of national security reporters so that it can make its case that certain information should remain private.

After the AP story ran, The Intercept requested a conference call with the National Counterterrorism Center. A source with knowledge of the call said that the government agency admitted having fed the story to the AP, but didn’t think the reporter would publish before The Intercept did. “That was our bad,” the official said.

Asked by The Intercept editor John Cook if it was the government’s policy to feed one outlet’s scoop to a friendlier outlet, a silence ensued, followed by the explanation: “We had invested some quality time with Eileen,” referring to AP reporter Eileen Sullivan, who the official added had been out to visit the NCTC.

“After seeing you had the docs, and the fact we had been working with Eileen, we did feel compelled to give her a heads up,” the official said, according to the source. “We thought she would publish after you.”

Sounds bogus to me. As a wire service, AP is not in the habit of holding off on publishing a scoop. Certainly the NCTC realized this, and feeding a friendly reporter a story that was about to be broken by a decidedly unfriendly publication makes sense from their point of view.

As for the The Intercept’s story, it is mildly interesting and not surprising. When the government creates a law enforcement dragnet, they sweep up a lot of innocents — something like six degrees of separation. The NSA’s email trees were like this, although the NCTC database doesn’t appear to be as extensive.

The problem is that if you’re trying to get a job with an airline, or in law enforcement, or join the military, and you’re on the list erroneously, you’re likely to get turned down — with no rational explanation why. There ought to be administrative procedures in place where you can clear your name and force the government to remove your name from the list, rather than being forced to go through the courts at much time and great expense.

It’s good that we’re informed of the database, but I would worry about whistleblower cowboys out there who would leak information that could get an intelligence operative killed, or expose something really damaging. The Intercept appears to be circumspect in that regard, but other media outlets might not be as responsible. In this brave new world of transparency, I would like to see more thought given to what we might lose in exposing some secrets compared to what we are gaining.