behind the news

Did a spy agency screw The Intercept?

For better and for worse, trust is key to coverage of the national security beat
August 8, 2014

Predicated on mutual trust, the relationship between reporters and the intelligence community has become increasingly fraught in recent years. The most recent example of the changing dynamic came Tuesday, when the National Counterterrorism Center preempted a scoop by The Intercept, a site whose stable of reporters, led by Glenn Greenwald, has consistently been a thorn in the intelligence community’s side.

After being approached for comment on The Intercept’s in-depth report on the size and growth of the nation’s terrorism database, the NCTC released a few details on the topic — since posted online — to The Associated Press. The AP beat The Intercept by a matter of minutes with its more narrowly focused story, a later version of which referenced The Intercept’s reporting.

The situation sparked the latest flare-up between an increasingly adversarial national-security press and an increasingly secretive intelligence apparatus. The Obama administration has pursued more criminal-leak prosecutions than all previous administrations combined, and last year the Justice Department seized records of 20 telephone lines used by AP staffers. Changes in media business models and an emergent Fifth Estate, meanwhile, have led to the growth of a more advocacy-oriented branch of national-security journalism, personified by Greenwald.

If intentional, veteran reporters said, the NCTC maneuver Tuesday raises questions about journalists’ obligation to approach officials for comment before publishing. But an agency spokesman chalked up the episode to human error, The Huffington Post reported, adding that officials had been working with the AP for months on a story about the database. “Because both the AP and First Look Media [publisher of The Intercept] were working on a similar story, both news organizations should have been provided the same information simultaneously, which did not happen, and which was our mistake,” the spokesman said in a statement.

It’s unclear if any of the data given to the AP had been previously classified, according to Jeremy Scahill, a reporter who co-authored Tuesday’s story for The Intercept. But an NCTC spokesman told CJR on Thursday that the the agency did not declassify any information for the express purpose of sharing it with the wire service.


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Scoop intercepted Jeremy Scahill, right, and Glenn Greenwald wait for a panel discussion after a 2013 screening of Dirty Wars, Scahill’s Academy Award-nominated documentary. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)

National security officials often ask journalists with sensitive information to hold their stories until the government can appropriately respond. In return, agency public-information officers generally promise not to share related facts with other news outlets. And sometimes, with a little prodding, they even agree to warn journalists if competitors begin inquiring about related topics.

“Usually, you’ve got to have a basic level of trust that they’re not going to screw you,” said James Risen, who covers the intelligence community for The New York Times. “And usually, they don’t, at least on that one point. It’s kind of a bare minimum standard.”

The Intercept has fashioned itself as a bare-knuckled antagonist of the US surveillance state, with Greenwald, Scahill, and others publishing leaks by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden. The situation surrounding Tuesday’s story, which sparked speculation that there’s a second NSA leaker, led to a torrent of discussion among journalists on Twitter. Many said it further threatened the rapport between reporters and sources. Intercept journalists have since suggested they may give administration officials a window of just 30 minutes or less to comment on future stories.

Conversations about national-security leaks, such as the classified documents published by The Intercept Tuesday, often divide the journalism community. And much of the criticism this week comprised personal attacks on Eileen Sullivan, the AP journalist who broke the story. Sullivan, part of the team that won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for exposing the New York City Police Department’s clandestine surveillance of Muslims, and one of the AP journalists whose phone records were seized last year, did not respond to requests for comment. But AP spokeswoman Erin Madigan White said in an email to CJR that Sullivan “has been covering this territory for a long time.”

“Among other things, she has been looking into procedural changes the government has made — and is still implementing — to manage its terror watch lists following the Boston bombings,” White wrote. 

Though sharing information to get in front of an unflattering scoop would be an “aberration” in the national security sphere, it’s not without precedent, said Dana Priest, a longtime investigative reporter for The Washington Post. Indeed, the Army attempted to do the same to her in 2007. After learning the Post planned to report on the mistreatment of veterans at Walter Reed Hospital, officials attempted to get ahead of the story by releasing select information with a more positive spin. Of course, the Post series still inspired national outrage and won a Pulitzer Prize. 

Priest said the government has more to lose with such breaches of trust, as it risks future chances to respond to potentially damaging stories. “Nobody benefits from the fallout,” Priest said in a phone interview. “The government isn’t going to benefit from a 30-minute window, and the publication isn’t going to benefit from it, either.” 

Former Post reporter Michael Dobbs faced a similarly preemptive PR strike in 1997, when reporting on then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s previously unknown Jewish heritage. Though Dobbs covered the State Department, not national security, he said the media tactic is a “fairly standard technique” in Washington.

“They wanted to show that they had taken initiative in exposing these facts, as opposed to having them unearthed by a journalist,” Dobbs said of the 1997 episode. “The whole thing was counterproductive, even from their point of view. Instead of getting a nuanced, complete article about her background, which we were going to run in the Sunday Washington Post magazine, they turned this into a daily headline.”

Of course, Dobbs, Priest, and Risen are part of a different generation of journalists than Greenwald, Scahill, and their contemporaries. The overall tenor of media-government relations is changing, as revelations continue about the alarming reach of the government’s national security and intelligence apparatus. But for Risen, who has battled the Justice Department for six years to protect a source’s identity, the give-and-take between reporters and their sources remains paramount.

“It’s a real nuanced part of national-security reporting,” Risen said. “It’s very complicated, usually, because it all depends on the story and the relationships that you have, and whether you can trust the people you’re dealing with.”

David Uberti is a writer in New York. He was previously a media reporter for Gizmodo Media Group and a staff writer for CJR. Follow him on Twitter @DavidUberti.