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Sources of Discomfort

National security reporting in the age of leak hunts

George Marks

It doesn’t take a top-secret data-mining algorithm to tell you that national security reporting has changed in the years since 9/11. A would-be whistle-blower is newly able to share vast amounts of classified information by simply tapping a mouse pad. The government, meanwhile, is more willing to deploy its own digital technology to hunt down and prosecute the leakers. One side effect of this reality, though, is decidedly low-tech: Within the small world of journalists who write about national security, there’s a renewed embrace of what you might call artisanal information-gathering techniques. Or, as the spies they cover might call it, tradecraft.

A good lesson in poor tradecraft, as it happens, shows up in the government’s affidavit for a search warrant against James Rosen, the Fox News reporter whose article containing a classified leak on North Korea prompted a criminal investigation. Investigators linked Rosen to his source because the pair swiped into and out of the State Department immodestly close to one another. Bad idea. “National security reporters are not nearly as clever as we think we are,” says one such journalist. “As the leak investigations are showing, our tradecraft is really, really lame.” (The Rosen case also inspired reporters to look a bit more closely at the government’s security, revealing a useful work-around at the Pentagon: Badge swipes are not required at one particular turnstile in the building. Reporters have nicknamed it the Rosen entrance.1)

It’s not so surprising that the State Department would check the turnstile time-stamps of its own headquarters. But the end of the post-Watergate, pre–Judith Miller détente between the media and the Justice Department has also changed perceptions about what reporters can safely do once they leave federal real estate. Bottom line: They need to step up their game. The average journalist’s skill at avoiding scrutiny “is basically out of an episode of ‘Get Smart,’” the reporter says. “And we at least have to raise it to the level of ‘The Wire.’ Time to buy some burner phones.”

Or not use phones at all. Even chatting about the weather over the phone with a source means possibly exposing them. Same goes for other electronic communications. The e-mails about National Security Agency waste and fraud that whistle-blower Tom Drake sent a Baltimore Sun reporter were encrypted using Hushmail, which is supposed to ensure security. But he coughed up his passwords when he became the target of an investigation, giving the prosecutors access to an intact paper trail of messages that they used to charge him with violating the Espionage Act. (He ultimately pled to a lesser charge.)

Not that separating twenty-first-century reporters from their technology is going to be easy. One attendee at a recent University of California, Berkeley, conference on investigative journalism described national security reporting panelists as a bit confused about how it might even be possible to set up a face-to-face meeting without using the phone. A return to potted plants on balconies?

Savvy information-gathering in the face of executive branch leak-hunting, though, means changing even analog behavior. The legal department at one major newspaper instructs reporters to use Post-it notes—removable in the face of a subpoena—should they ever need to write a source’s name in a notebook. One Pentagon reporter says he has taken to hiding the blue badge that identifies him as press when walking through the building, lest it scare off potential sources. (He has been stopped a couple times and asked to produce ID but now knows to swerve the other way when he sees a Segway-enabled security officer.)

Despite the difficulty, it’s hard not to hear a small note of excitement when journalists start talking tradecraft. National security reporters tend to be people (mostly men) motivated by noble goals like bringing truth to the public—but they can also exhibit an almost boyish delight at the coolness of negotiating with, or acting like, spies.

In cracking down on reporters’ sources, the Obama administration has also highlighted the value of another old-school discipline common to both journalism and espionage: understanding the psychology of the person passing you the information. Sure, most unauthorized leaks still come from the sorts of sources reporters have long known how to court—the ass-coverer, the bureaucratic infighter, the aggrieved also-ran. (Deep Throat was upset about being aced out at the FBI.) But cultivating the whistle-blowers behind the big Bush/Obama-era scoops requires skills akin to running an asset-in-place in some distant dictatorship—you have to work them through understandable freak-outs about the riskiness of what they’re doing.

“There’s something inherently paranoia inducing about operating in a highly secret environment,” says one national security magazine reporter. The reporter also offers a less charitable version: “They’re almost always crackpots!” Leakers who reach out, unsolicited, are often convinced that their information is explosive. (It’s usually not.) But even non-crackpots who become whistle-blowers tend to be a little squirrelly by the time they reach out. They’ve tried all the proper internal channels and been denied. One reporter likens his job to that of a therapist. “Don’t disagree with their point of view,” advises another national security reporter. “I would not lie to them, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to say, ‘You’re just wrong and stupid.’ It’s not unlike if you’ve got an uncle who always likes to discuss politics. You just say, ‘I see your point.’”

In fact, whistle-blowers like Edward Snowden—the source for this month’s explosive stories about the National Security Agency’s data-mining programs—are rarely radicals. Although leaking amounts to “an act of civil disobedience,” according to one reporter, a colleague says leakers “tend to be fairly type-A people, who sometimes perceive that they have the weight of national security on their backs.” All the same, facilitating that act can require some hand-holding.

In this culture of heightened scrutiny, journalists say their confidential sources are more eager than ever to see evidence of reporters’ own bona fides. “Most of those people are pretty fucking paranoid,” says a longtime reporter, who, like everyone else in this article, asked to remain anonymous. It’s no accident: Reporters on these beats need skittish sources to trust them. Talking to another reporter on the record is a good way to jeopardize those relationships.

Sources’ post-9/11 demands for spy-quality tradecraft can undercut reportorial glory in more substantive ways. One leaker gave a particularly explosive document to a reporter at the Los Angeles Times on the condition that the story not be published under the reporter’s own name, thus ensuring that their relationship would outlast any investigation. (He lost the byline, got the story, and kept the source.) Another reporter says that he has had sources ask if he’s willing to fight a subpoena for them—the national security reporting equivalent of “Say you love me!” and the kind of thing sources asked much less frequently before prosecutors put Judith Miller behind bars in 2005.

Sources, though, aren’t the only ones looking for extra reassurance these days. One of the reporters I spoke to e-mailed me after our conversation. “An addendum: My colleagues listening in to our conversation said you were likely an FBI agent trying to ferret out our sources and methods.” For the record, I’m not. But who knows who else might have been listening to our call? 

Noreen Malone is a staff writer at The New Republic.

  1. The day after this article hit newsstands, the Rosen entrance at the Pentagon was eliminated. The usually always-open turnstile at the River entrance was closed Tuesday morning, meaning there was no longer a way into the building without swiping. A Pentagon spokesman has not provided comment to The New Republic about whether the timing was related. Update: The turnstile has since been reopened.

Correction: A previous version of this story contained a footnote stating that prior to 1968, all cops in New York City could surveil telephone conversations from the basement of apartment buildings. It should have read Federal Bureau of Narcotics agents.