How journalists can cover leaks without helping spies

August 3, 2016

Speaking on NBC’s Meet the Press Sunday, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange told Chuck Todd that when it comes to protecting the identity of sources, he makes no distinction between whistleblowers seeking to expose government abuse and government spy agencies seeking, for example, to manipulate elections.

With new reports each day that Russian hackers may have penetrated the US government and Democratic Party, more damaging leaks are entirely possible in the weeks and months ahead.

The question is how should journalists cover them without allowing themselves to be manipulated?

The starting point is a recognition that Russia is engaged in a systematic campaign of information warfare. As in all forms of conflict, Russia has offensive and defensive capabilities.

Vladimir Putin believes that Western governments have used information operations to topple regimes around the world–from Georgia, to Ukraine, to Egypt–and that they are targeting his government, encouraging civic unrest via social media and hyping scandals in the international press, like doping by Russian Olympic athletes and high-level corruption at the Kremlin. Russia must protect itself by censoring the domestic media and asserting increasing control over online speech.

Russia also is responding to this perceived threat by enhancing its offensive capabilities under what is known as the Gerasimov Doctrine, which posits that “deception and disinformation, not tanks and planes, [are] the new tools of power,” according to Max Fisher’s Interpreter column in The New York Times.

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Russia has used false news to stir up unrest in the Balkans, and more recently in Ukraine, where it planted stories of attacks on ethnic Russians that paved the way for the annexation of Crimea in March 2014.

Now there is evidence–compelling evidence–that Russia has brought information warfare to the US by hacking and then releasing the internal emails of the Democratic National Committee, or DNC. Much is unknown–including Russia’s precise motivation and whether it both hacked and leaked the emails–but US intelligence and other informed sources are increasingly suggesting Russian involvement. Russia officially denies it.

The most difficult challenge in such operations is not necessarily collecting the information; Russia’s spycraft and hacking capabilities are uncontested. Rather, it’s disseminating the information to the public in a credible manner. In the last few years, Russia has invested heavily in developing a global media network. RT–previously Russia Today–operates a flagship English language news station that broadcasts a mix of serious coverage and propaganda intended to advance Russia’s foreign policy agenda.

However, RT has serious limitations. “RT says it reaches hundreds of millions of people in over 100 countries,” notes Columbia Journalism School professor Ann Cooper, who has studied RT along with her students. “Okay, it’s widely available, but how many are actually watching it? Audience statistics are scarce, to put it mildly. A Daily Beast article suggests it’s in the tens of thousands–but it mainly just underscores how little we know about RT audience or influence.”  One thing is certain: Because RT is widely perceived as an instrument of the Kremlin, it has a major credibility problem. Its reports are almost never picked up by the mainstream media.

In the case of the DNC leaks, it’s possible, according to media reports, that Russian intelligence successfully planted the story with a number of political Web sites, including The Hill, Gawker, and The Smoking Gun. But the story did not really gain traction until the emails were released by WikiLeaks. This makes sense. WikiLeaks is the ideal vehicle through which an intelligence service might launder information. WikiLeaks’ style is to publish leaked material uncritically, in large data dumps, devoid of context, and without reference to the motivations of the leaker. WikiLeaks has global visibility, a track record, and enough partnerships with leading media outlets that major leaks are likely to generate global coverage across media platforms.

In the case of the DNC emails, it is impossible know whether the timing of the release responded to the needs of Russian intelligence or merely represented a convergence of interests. Assange has acknowledged in an interview that he intended to damage Clinton politically by releasing the email on the eve of the convention. He justified his actions by noting that while Donald Trump is merely unpredictable, a Clinton presidency would pose a direct threat to freedom of the press (my own purely unscientific analysis suggests Trump would be worse).

The initial coverage of the DNC leak in the mainstream media focused on what the emails revealed, notably that DNC leadership maneuvered to give Clinton an advantage in her primary battle with Bernie Sanders. Sanders supporters were justifiably outraged, and their outcry was strong enough to force the resignation of DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz.

This was all undoubtedly newsworthy, but by failing to focus on the context of the leaks, there is a good chance that US media unwittingly served to advance the interests of Russian intelligence. Now that the alarm has been sounded, this should not happen again.

How can it be avoided? Journalists should hold back on reporting on any leaks that have the whiff of a government information operation without carrying out systematic reporting on the source of the leak itself. In today’s wired world, taking time to provide context is a huge challenge, but this is the only way to ensure that journalists do not become tools of spy operations.

This is even more important because Russia is hardly the only country to use information and misinformation to manipulate elections and wreak revenge. Such efforts have been part of US covert operations from the 1954 US-orchestrated coup in Guatemala to the 2003 Iraq invasion (think weapons of mass destruction). North Korea’s Sony hack was payback for that company’s release of the movie that mocked President Kim Jong-un.

As for WikiLeaks, by publishing a data dump without verifying the source or providing its readers with the context to make informed decisions about the motivations of the leakers, it is allowing itself to be a vehicle for governments like Russia that are weaponizing information and using it to achieve policy objectives. Ethical and committed journalists should do all within their power to ensure they are never put in such a position.

Joel Simon is the founding director of the Journalism Protection Initiative at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism.