What does a news organization owe its essential sources?

October 8, 2020
Natalie Edwards leaves Federal court on January 30, 2019. Frank Franklin II/AP Photo

Rarely do investigative journalists find a source as obliging as Natalie Mayflower Sours Edwards. 

Starting in October 2017, Edwards leaked hundreds of confidential documents to BuzzFeed News from her post at the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, the FBI found. In the ensuing weeks, Jason Leopold and other BuzzFeed reporters wrote a series titled “The Money Trail,” with richly reported stories describing suspicious Russian cash transactions or juicy details about such Mueller-era figures as Paul Manafort and Maria Butina.

In the end, the reporters got their story, but their source got in trouble. In October 2018, Edwards was arrested on two federal charges that could have brought her ten years in prison. She pleaded guilty to conspiring to disclose confidential government documents last January and now faces a term of up to six months. A sentencing hearing is scheduled for next month. 

Neither BuzzFeed nor its reporters are named in the court documents, and the company declined to comment on its sources. 

Edwards’ legal travails have been covered by the national press, particularly The Wall Street Journal, as well as several smaller publications that focus on legal and security affairs. But that isn’t the case at BuzzFeed, where her arrest has been mentioned just once—two months after it happened—and where her plea and important subsequent developments have gone unmentioned. Nor did Edwards’ name appear anywhere in BuzzFeed’s recent, massive multi-part package on money laundering, even though its partner, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, cited her case in three stories in its contemporaneous package. 

To be clear, this isn’t a Reality Winner-type situation, where a news organization (in that case, The Intercept) screws up essential protocols, providing investigators a pathway to an arrest. There’s no evidence that BuzzFeed reporters were careless or flippant; the FBI said that Edwards was using an encrypted app to communicate with BuzzFeed. Prosecutors made the link clear by citing headlines and publication dates that match BuzzFeed’s own stories, each of which includes Leopold as an author. And Edwards’ own lawyer confirmed that she was leaking to BuzzFeed, in a video captured by Matthew Russell Lee of Inner City Press.

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Still, this case raises the difficult question of what a news organization owes a source, beyond a pledge of confidentiality, and what it owes readers who have been following along for months. When an essential source is arrested, pleads guilty and runs into legal trouble—all in the space of less than two years—it is very likely that people who’ve read a slew of stories about the documents she supplied will also be interested in her fate in the criminal justice system.

BuzzFeed’s reticence is also at odds with how it has covered other cases involving prosecutions of government workers accused of leaking to the press. Its reporters have written about or mentioned Reality Winner’s case at least five times. BuzzFeed published six stories about a former Senate Intelligence Committee staffer who admitted to lying to the FBI about leaking to reporters.

But, as a BuzzFeed spokesman acknowledged, the only time the site has mentioned Edwards’ predicament was in December 2018—and that was thirty paragraphs deep into a story headlined, “Russian Agents Sought Secret US Treasury Records On Clinton Backers During 2016 Campaign.”

Edwards’ case is fascinating, for readers and journalists. Her LinkedIn profile lists a doctorate from Virginia Commonwealth University and thirteen years in the federal government, including a stint with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence before moving to Treasury. Social-media posts before her arrest showed some sympathy for Donald Trump. 

Her chief utility as a source revolved around Suspicious Activity Reports (also known as SARs), which banks and other financial institutions file to Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (where Edwards worked) to let them know of suspicious transactions. The reports are supposed to be strictly confidential, and they’re used to prosecute crimes ranging from drug trafficking to bank fraud.

Edwards has portrayed herself in court documents as a whistleblower. She initially approached congressional staffers with concerns about matters relating to the SARs, the FBI said, before going to BuzzFeed. Some days, the FBI alleged, she would send dozens, even hundreds, of encrypted messages to her BuzzFeed contact. She and the reporter, identified in some press accounts as Leopold, would talk on the phone frequently, for up to 40 minutes. She opened SARs on her computer and took photographs, the FBI said, then sent those pictures to BuzzFeed, along with spreadsheets of SARs, and “a 465-page file labeled ‘Paul Manafort [] request from Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.pdf.’” 

BuzzFeed, according to court documents, worked closely with Edwards to extract the information it needed. One day, Edwards asked the reporter for help digging up files about a Russian investment company that had previously settled a forfeiture case with the US for nearly $6 million. Edwards messaged to BuzzFeed, “I am not getting any hits” on the CEO in question and added, “do you have any idea what the association is. if I had more information i could search in different areas.” The reporter responded, “If not on his name it would be [the company]. That’s the only other one.” She also offered to put BuzzFeed in touch with another Treasury official, nicknamed “Enigma,” who had a “wealth of information willing to verify any information you have” and could “pull the data quick or i can check in the morning.”

When first questioned by investigators, Edwards said she hadn’t been in touch with the press, and instead fingered her boss and a colleague. It wasn’t long, though, before she “changed her account, and admitted that, on numerous occasions, she had accessed SARs” and forwarded photos of them to BuzzFeed. She also characterized herself as a whistleblower who had sent the documents to BuzzFeed for “record-keeping.”

When US District Judge Gregory Woods asked her in January if she knew what she did was illegal, she hedged and mentioned the whistleblower act three times, leading her attorney to intercede, and Edwards to say, “I am probably not supposed to …”  before finally acknowledging she “was not allowed under the law” to pass on the SARs. 

Five months later, she took the extraordinary step of bypassing her lawyers and emailing Judge Woods directly, to cite other whistleblowers’ cases and share confidential attorney-client information. That set off a flurry of orders from the judge and memos from attorneys and Edwards herself—until she reverted to her original plea, but with a new lawyer

There are all kinds of reasons why BuzzFeed might have hesitated to report about Edwards. Assuming that she hasn’t released the site from a confidentiality pledge, BuzzFeed can’t confirm or deny her role. They surely don’t want to report anything that might inflame the judge or jeopardize her plea deal. And, BuzzFeed has clearly relied on other sources for additional reporting. 

There is a way to thread this needle, and it’s no small irony that the playbook comes from the Intercept, which fumbled the Reality Winner case. In 2018, more than a year after the Intercept began running a series on sketchy FBI surveillance tactics, authorities arrested Terry J. Albury, a Minneapolis-based FBI agent, and accused him of providing confidential information to reporters. Local press tied Albury to the Intercept. But the site didn’t ignore his case; the Intercept featured or mentioned him in at least six stories, from when he was charged in March 2018, to his sentencing of four years that October, to a follow-up story about the government’s crackdown on whistleblowers. The Intercept managed to do this without acknowledging being the recipient of Albury’s leaks. As Betsy Reed, the site’s editor-in-chief, said at the time, “News reports have suggested that the prosecution may be linked to stories published by The Intercept. We do not discuss anonymous sources.”

None of this excuses the Trump administration’s relentless pursuit of confidential sources, or Barack Obama’s, for that matter. As Trevor Timm, executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, said after Edwards’ arrest, “these prosecutions are a clear threat not just to whistleblowers who inform the public, but to the press freedom rights of journalists everywhere.”

Sources, particularly those who put their liberty on the line, deserve a lot of deference from reporters. That includes taking steps to ensure their confidentiality, sticking to their pledge even when authorities apply pressure, and taking whatever measures that are feasible and legal to protect a source’s safety. 

But readers are also part of the equation. They’re entitled to know what can happen to sources who risk their careers and freedom to report malfeasance or misconduct. And even the best intentions by a news organization don’t justify the decision to memory-hole their role.

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Bill Grueskin is on the faculty at Columbia Journalism School. He has previously worked as founding editor of a newspaper on the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation, city editor of the Miami Herald, deputy managing editor of the Wall Street Journal, and an executive editor at Bloomberg News. He is a graduate of Stanford University (Classics) and Johns Hopkins’s School of Advanced International Studies (US Foreign Policy and International Economics).