Protecting Whistleblowers

reality winner

Reality Winner, whistleblower arrested for leaking NSA material to The Intercept

Yesterday, The Intercept published an extremely important report based on secret documents from an NSA contractor.  It showed that Russia not only intervened in the U.S. election in favor of Trump in ways we already knew.  But it also attempted to intervene in far more troubling ways: apparently seeking to sabotage the voter registration and voter tallies in individual counties and states.

Before it published the story, the media outlet approached the NSA to confirm the information.  This gave the agency a warning about the data breach and the opportunity to find the culprit.  As soon as the story was published, the FBI arrested Reality Leigh Winner, who was employed by an NSA contractor based in Atlanta.  She now potentially faces several decades in prison for performing an important service to the American people.  She will certainly be prosecuted with a vengeance by the Trump Justice Department.

DOJ charges 25-yr-old woman with giving secret NSA docs to unnamed news org (others are reporting as the Intercept) https://www.justice.gov/opa/press-release/file/971331/download 

As Sheera Frenkel, who’s just started a new job as technology reporter for the NY Times noted in this tweet, media outlets like The Intercept must stay one step ahead of the government entities on which they’re reporting in order to protect sources.  While it didn’t expose Winner intentionally, it failed to take steps that might have offered her more protection.

I won’t go deeply into the technical measures which allowed the FBI to identify her.  But as I understand them, they involve the fact that the images of the documents she leaked were published with the news report and revealed a creased fold which indicated the report had been printed in hard copy.  This in turn showed that she’d used an agency printer in order to transfer the documents to The Intercept.  From there, it was just a matter of time before they narrowed in on who had access both to the document and printer.  Further, there are codes embedded in printed documents which link back to the printer on which they’re printed.  This too permitted narrowing the scope of the inquiry till they reached Winner.

As Frenkel noted, this is not a problem confined to The Intercept.  In the case of Anat Kamm, Haaretz printed images of the actual secret IDF documents she leaked to Uri Blau.  They showed her commanding officer and his subordinates engaged in deliberate murder of unarmed Palestinian militants.  The editors failed to redact the cc: list, which enabled a former Shabak agent, Jonathan Dachoach-Halevi,  to eliminate the various military offices included on the cc: list till he could isolate the specific office from which the memo originated.  That in turn permitted Shabak agents to narrow their search to the specific personnel in the office of Lt. Gen. Yair Naveh, which is where Kamm worked.  Had Haaretz been more careful about concealing this identifying information, Shabak might never have discovered Kamm; or at least taken considerably longer to do so.

There is obviously no guarantee for the protection of whistleblowers.  They take enormous risks.  But if the media wishes such courageous people to continue coming forward, they must consider offering state of the art protections to them.  We as citizens must support whistleblowers once they’re exposed and face government jeopardy.  And we must demand of our legislators that they grant them real rights and protections. Whistleblowers are the currency of democracy.  We must cherish, and not be profligate with them.

I understand that there are reasons to conceal from the Russians what we know of their methods and exploits.  But there are equally compelling reasons to alert the American public to the menace that Russia represents to our democracy.

Finally, I had a similar relationship with Shamai Leibowitz and published details from top-secret transcripts of conversations the FBI or NSA was intercepting from Israeli diplomatic facilities in the U.S.  We focused in particular on the perception management campaign waged by Israel in this country seeking to lead us a war against Iran.  To my horror, Shamai was exposed, arrested and imprisoned as a result of offering these documents to me.

Unlike Haaretz or The Intercept, I never published the documents.  I excerpted small portions and did my best to conceal  them within my reporting in an effort to protect Shamai.  I do not know or believe that anything I did directly led to his exposure. Nevertheless, when a source goes to prison because of information he gave you, it’s one of the hardest things a journalist can face.  But nothing compared to what the whistleblower faces.

Subsequently, Shamai has inexplicably renounced his former deeds, offered a revisionist explanation for them, and denied having any relationship with me.  This too causes a journalist remorse, though the steps he took as a whistleblower he took freely and despite my warnings of what might be the result (due to Obama’s draconian witch hunt, those were far worse–20 months in federal prison–than anything I conceived) .

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