Emptywheel’s Marcy Wheeler knows more than she tells, but she tells a lot

Photo: Marcy Wheeler, author and editor of national security blog Emptywheel, courtesy of Wheeler. This article is the first profile in a series focusing on notable forensic journalists for the Tow Center for Digital Journalism.

In the sometimes murky world of national security reporters, few people are wrong less often than Marcy Wheeler.

Wheeler’s insights, gleaned from tireless, detailed reading of declassified documents, are unique because they rely on public information, rather than access, and because Wheeler takes great pains to show her work. The longtime blogger’s site Emptywheel focuses on beats like information warfare and surveillance, traditionally the purview of large institutional newsrooms, where accuracy can sometimes mean the difference between a scoop and a prison sentence.

Wheeler came to prominence as one of the most tenacious reporters writing about the outing of covert CIA officer Valerie Plame by the Bush administration; she covered the trial of Scooter Libby, indicted for leaking Plame’s name to DC reporter Robert Novak, for Daily Kos and the now-defunct FireDogLake from inside the courtroom—a position accorded very few reporters covering the case.

More recently, she has convincingly marshalled the public record to argue that CIA director Gina Haspel likely edited herself out of tapes documenting the prolonged torture of Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, and written with precision about the corruption of many in and around the Trump administration by foreign interests, especially Russia. Wheeler herself made news this summer when she told her readers she had revealed one of her sources to the FBI because she “believed he was doing serious harm to innocent people.”

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In person, Wheeler, 50, is friendly and frank, her mannerisms and habits of speech more like an academic’s (she has a PhD in literature) or an engineer’s (her entire immediate family works or worked in computers) than a newsroom veteran’s. She is interested in absolutes, and in details, and over the course of a long lunch at Boqueria in Manhattan, where she had flown in for a hackers’ conference, she shared her insights about journalism, politics, and the state of technology. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

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You live in Grand Rapids but originally are from New York, right?

Yes. Everywhere there’s an IBM, I’ve lived there. My mom and dad met there [at IBM]. Mom was a coder in the old days, as was dad.

When I was 11, around the age when I wanted a sister because I had two older brothers, my dad kept talking about this “baby” and I didn’t know what it was. This was during a period where for a while, every couple of weeks, we’d get a new personal computer. We’d set it up in the dining room, and we’d tell dad what we thought about it. That was the lead-up to the PC. My dad was developing the PC. That was the baby.

One of the ways they convinced [IBM CEO] John Akers that any child could use a computer was to show my brother actually coding on an Apple II.

 

That sounds like working the system a little bit.

I joke that I am not a coder, but my brothers are, because I didn’t go to the IBM nursery school and they did.

 

So, do you make a living from your blog?

Well, I live in Grand Rapids, Michigan and my mortgage payment is less than I’ll pay for my hotel bill this week. I like living in a place where expenses are low, and I’m married and have no children. I could not do what I do in New York or DC. I mean, my work covering the Russia thing is something people are a lot more willing to support than the kind of weedy surveillance analysis that I otherwise do, but yes. It’s my job.

 

Why don’t you work for an organization like The Washington Post now?

Well, I’ve written publicly about why I left The Intercept. Had The Intercept been what it maybe could have been, it would have been the ideal place for me. I think there is still a real difficulty—people still don’t know what to call me. Like, even in the coverage in the last couple of weeks people are still, Are you a blogger? Are you a journalist? A lot of people call me an “analyst.”

I had a former agency flack say to me, “Well, I don’t think of you as a journalist.” I said, “You know, I do have sources!” Aside from the one that I just brought to the FBI. [laughs] My treatment of sources is different because I don’t have a legal department to protect them, so if I have a source on something, I usually try and point to something in a document to validate it, and people don’t understand that.

And The Washington Post has Julie Tate, who is the best-kept secret of brilliant journalism—she does so much great work and people don’t understand that she touches pretty much all their Pulitzers!—but there’s not really a place there for what I do.

I couldn’t have had the career track as a journalist that I have if it weren’t for Facebook [where my work can get distributed and read]. And the ACLU, who don’t read their own FOIAs [in their entirety]. Some other NGOs are even worse at not reading theirs.

I mean, the ACLU does read their own FOIAs, just not that closely. Like, I think there are five people who have read most of the public documents released from [the Office of the Director of National Intelligence] and that’s it. There’s this huge trove of information about surveillance that even the pros who get paid a lot of money in DC aren’t reading.

 

I was going to ask you how you parse the public record for so much stuff, but that seems to answer that question.

Well, I have a PhD. So I do close reading in three languages. [I’ve also done] documentation consulting, which is the kind of job that a lot of journalists go to after they’ve decided to stop being poor. [The company where I worked] charged $800 a day for English majors to write documents that can be delivered on pallets, and really fascinating documents, because they got into the processes of businesses.

 

How does the work you’ve done on surveillance inform your work on the Russia story?

I mean, there are interesting aspects of Carter Page’s FISA order [a document authorizing the FBI to monitor Page under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act], which the GOP has chased now for six months, to great effect.

 

What interests you about the state of these orders?

Well, it is, in fact, the case that [intelligence agencies] use consultants all the time on FISA orders. And a lot of FISA orders are for terrorist suspects. People who defend terrorists in court have long complained about the shoddy level of expertise among certain consultants who are brought in, and then there are a couple of cases that I’ve covered where there’s reason to believe there was a consultant in a terrorist chat room, and [information provided by that consultant] led to a FISA order on somebody.

There’s a lot of money in law enforcement. There’s a lot of consulting that goes on. It is probably the case that there should be more scrutiny, on what the standards are for consultants in any kind of surveillance affidavit.

 

I’m a big fan of PGP and Signal but there seems to be evidence that even that sort of thing doesn’t work if the government wants access to your information badly enough.

It is my very well-educated belief, as somebody who has posted a Signal text that she believes the FBI to have, that she didn’t give to them, that they have means of doing that remotely now.

 

I thought Signal encryption was device to device.

It is, but when in [FISA section] 702, the FISA court does not review the kinds of assistance requested from providers.

 

So you don’t think they broke Signal’s encryption or received assistance from Signal.

No. As I said, I posted a Signal text that I believe the FBI to have, and I know I did not give the FBI that Signal text. I believe that my phone was the only place that that Signal text existed, so do the math.

I’m not happy with how the FBI approached me [by telling me they had Signal messages from my phone after I agreed to speak with them about my source], but I recognize that in my case it was the right application [because of the seriousness of threat].

[Wheeler became convinced that one of her sources had “played a significant role in the Russian election attack on the US” and, last year, went to the FBI with that information, notably a text from the source demonstrating that he or she was familiar with the Trump administration’s willingness to do the bidding of the Russian government in Syria within hours of his election. The text in question, sent very quickly after Trump was elected, reads: “Off the record[:] You likely don’t want to hear this anymore than I did, I have it on very good intel (A 1 if you know humint ratings) that Flynn is speaking to Team Al-Assad in the next 48 hours. Obviously that in of itself is disconcerting on a number of levels. You can probably figure out a lot more than I can.”]

 

Now, you’ve revealed the name of this person to the FBI, obviously, but not to your readers.

Nope.

 

Why not?

Well, I believe it will become public in the future, at some point. When I spoke to Mueller’s office about doing what I did, I said, “I suspect one of this person’s roles [in public life] will become public very quickly. I suspect another one might become public because I asked some people about the connection between the two, and so they know that I believe there was a connection between the two.” I was probably wrong. I mean, that role hasn’t become public. Like, I thought it was a no-brainer, but apparently it takes more than [what’s available].

There was nothing to be gained by getting a scoop out of it, at all. We would all be a lot less safe if I had gotten a scoop out of it, and so I do not want to do anything to prevent it from being a law enforcement issue, properly.

And so, it mattered a lot to me for them to say that I was not going to hurt the case [against this person] by doing what I did, but that was based on the understanding that his real ID not become public. Because I think other people in the case would be able to figure out certain things if his real ID became public.

 

What were you worried about, specifically?

Flight risks and stuff like that.

Obviously I went to Mueller’s office and I said, “This is precisely what I’m going to do.” I was trying to be really careful, and I keep saying, “That text is unbelievable.” Again, I thought that journalists would come out with one of the roles that this person played, and then it would become really poisonous, because this person did real damage to the United States, and this person knew precisely what Trump was doing 14 hours and 15 minutes after the polls closed. That is astounding, and what we’re seeing is whatever it is that Trump and Putin agreed to in that two hours with no minders, including Syria. So, the Syria agreement that Putin and Trump made on Monday is the Syria agreement that Trump was moving to put into place 14 hours after the polls closed.

For whatever reason, [FBI officials] were far more concerned about protecting the sanctity of the investigation than they were about telling these poor agents that my job is to reverse engineer FBI’s findings. And so, I feel actually a little bit sorry for them because I literally told them that. Like the first one I was like, this is what I do, you don’t know that? Oh boy, it’s going to be a long day.

No one has gotten close. People are so far afield. They’re like, “Oh, it’s Glenn Greenwald.” I’m like, “It’s not Glenn Greenwald. Like, you’re so far afield if you’re guessing Glenn Greenwald.”

 

Do you guys get along?

We get along. I know Glenn is getting a little bit off the deep end with his unwillingness to look at the evidence in the Russia case, but I think his voice is important.

I think that Russia absolutely conned the United States thoroughly. I think that Trump personally colluded with Russia. I think that he is Putin’s plaything at this point, but I also think that people are far too jingoistic. They’re far too ready to use the term treason against tertiary people. I mean, if you want to use it against Trump, fine, but don’t use it against Rand Paul because he’s an idiot. Save it. And the way forward is not to start a war against Russia. I think that the US did screw up its policy with Russia in the last two decades, I really do, but—

 

How in particular?

Well, I mean, I actually am sympathetic about NATO expansion. I think people forget that NATO is no longer a European defense organization, and NATO is fighting in Afghanistan. That’s not Europe the last time I checked, so people need to re-figure what NATO is, and whether there’s a better means to establish common defense.

A lot of the coercive agreements that the United States made to get people into NATO to extend east I think were problematic. As somebody who has spent a lot of time in Prague, I’m very sympathetic to the interest of Czechs to want some protection, but I also think we overstepped.

Russia warned us not to go into Iraq. They were right. And we told Russia clearly that we were not going to engage in regime change in Libya. [Qadafi] was assassinated in terrifically horrible fashion, and I don’t think our engagement in Syria has been positive. I think there were other ways to engage in Syria, partly by tracking down the Saudis. I mean, the Saudis have been as toxic as anything in Syria, and have contributed to the bloodshed in Syria, and they’re supposedly our allies. And [they’ve been accused of war crimes in] Yemen, right?

I think Russia rightly criticizes those things, and those are some of Putin’s key issues. He doesn’t like regime changes.

 

How has your public profile changed in the recent past?

There is an endless audience for these Russia story cases, and I know that. I’ve been through that—my finances have improved because I’m covering the Russia story. It’s a lot sexier than covering [changes to FISA section] 702.

 

Is that a good thing?

Journalists are far too willing to be the playthings of defense attorney lawyers [like Trump’s].

I mean, with Mueller not leaking, there’s so little. This is how Trump has fooled the country into believing his primary risk is obstruction. It’s not! It’s collusion. It’s absolutely collusion, and yet because his attorneys over and over and over again say, “Well, there’s obviously no collusion, and here is how the obstruction case with Jim Comey and blah, blah, blah,” and that has gotten a huge number of very good journalists to believe that Trump’s only exposure is obstruction, and that’s crazy.

Even Maria Butina [the accused Russian spy who allegedly infiltrated the NRA on behalf of Putin confidant Alexandr Torshin] clearly had off-the-record conversations with a number of journalists, some of whom are mainstream, and there should be a real push for them to have to come clean and say, “Oh my gosh, I had no idea she deceived me about who she was.” But there is going to be a need, or there should be a need for a lot of that in journalism, because Butina’s not going to have been the only one [who manipulated the American press], and I don’t have a lot of confidence that people are going to have the appetite for that.

 

What advice you would give to people who want to kind of get into the kind of thing that you’re writing about? Because you seem to have done it in a way that is accessible to more of us.

Journalists are very proprietary about their secrets and their stories and scoops, but on big cases like this it really does help to be open. Always link to the actual document. Invite people to read the document, and tell them what you’re looking at. Be iterative. That was something that was permitted newly with online press, and I think Josh [Marshall, publisher of Talking Points Memo] did a great job of it, and I’d like to think I did a great job of it. We put together tools to help people understand timelines and maps, and the mainstream press is doing that increasingly. I think my hero of 2018, aside from Emma Gonzalez [the Parkland massacre survivor who has advocated for gun control in the wake of the shooting], is Brad Heath, because of the Big Cases Bot [a Twitter bot that tweets out public filings in newsworthy court cases].

One of the things that I care a lot about is directing readers to responsible legal reporting. I mean, I’m not a lawyer, but there are lawyers who did it. Popehat is so accessible, and NYCSouthpaw. These are lawyers who are willing to explain, I mean not all lawyers out there are that useful, and some I kind of dismissed, but both of them I recommend to people, and they really help.

 

Yeah. It was something to see people getting upset that Paul Manafort [Note: who had not yet plea-bargained when this interview was conducted] was in a very gentle version of solitary confinement.

I don’t care that an accused Russian spy has to wear an orange jumpsuit, because these are the moments where people understand the really oppressive side of our criminal justice system, and the areas where it works really well. Therefore, I think it’s a great learning opportunity for people who otherwise would never read a court filing, and so Brad’s blog I think allows people to read court filings and that’s great, too.

Poor Paul Manafort is upset that somebody stole his iPods! It’s like, yeah, what, you know? You were witnessed in a meeting with an Apple device.

 

What if there’s nothing on those iPods except the Nickelback discography?

Then he should get the chair.

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Sam Thielman is the Tow editor at Columbia Journalism Review.