Dare Not Know His Name

Today an indictment was revealed in a Maryland federal court charging Thomas A. Drake, a former official with the National Security Administration with a variety of charges stemming from leaking classified information to an unnamed reporter with a “national newspaper.”

The indictment elaborates that the that the reporter published a “series of newspaper articles” for which Drake was a source between “on or about February 27, 2006, and on or about November 28, 2007.”

Drake, according to the indictment, reached out the reporter under an alias at the request of a friend who is described as a retired congressional staffer. Using an account with Hushmail, a Canada-based email service that purports (perhaps not entirely successfully) to offer secure and encrypted emails, Drake sent him an email saying “someone we both knew referred me to you,” according to the indictment.

After this entree, prosecutors suggest Drake went to some lengths to protect his identity, instructing the reporter to establish, like he had, a Hushmail account. And before “actually” communicating, he made the reporter agree to several conditions. Here’s how the indictment lays them out:

(a) defendant DRAKE’s identity would never be revealed to Reporter A or anyone else;
(b) Reporter A would use the attribution of “senior intelligence official” when defendant DRAKE provided information of a more singular nature;
(c) Reporter A would never use defendant DRAKE as a single source for information;
(d) Reporter A would never tell defendant DRAKE who Reporter A’s other sources were; and
(e) Reporter A would not comment on what other people recommended by defendant DRAKE to Reporter A had told Reporter A.

That’s a fascinating glimpse at how a savvy—though apparently not savvy enough to avoid getting caught—intelligence leaker hammers out a sourcing agreement.

But one item especially has me reeling: the first, namely Drake’s supposed insistence that his identity not even be known to the reporter he was communicating with. This raises obvious, though potentially surmountable, questions as to how the reporter and his editors assured themselves of their leaker’s accuracy and true role.

It is possible that Drake eventually broke this cardinal rule and said who he was, but there’s nothing in the indictment to suggest he did. It goes on to say that he and the reporter met face to face up to a half dozen times around Washington, raising the possibility of a series of meetings where the reporter knew Drake’s face, but not his name. That’s some serious tradecraft.

UPDATE, 5:20 P.M.: Fox News is reporting that Reporter A is Siobhan Gorman, now with the Wall Street Journal, but then a reporter with the Baltimore Sun. In that light, I’d say the Justice Department has a somewhat idiosyncratic definition of a “national newspaper.” (I’ll also beg your indulgence for any improperly gendered pronouns in the above post.)

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Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.