As the NSA's latest bête noire plays Carmen Sandiego with both the United States and reporters in Moscow, other journalists are looking at the broader implications of dealing with sources that leak classified material. Do motives matter in how the media should approach the leak, or should journalists remain objective and focus only on the story? With the Department of Justice naming reporters as co-conspirators to espionage in federal court and popular sentiment for Edward Snowden split between hero and traitor, the publishers of leaks have some soul-searching to do.
BuzzFeed's Ben Smith argues for agnosticism in addressing leaks, ironically by using the reverse of a Christian teaching on sin. "Christians talk of hating the sin and loving the sinner," Smith wrote over the weekend. "[R]eporters occasionally operate in exactly the opposite way: They hate, or at least, dislike the source, and love the story." Smith uses the example of Mark Felt, who revealed himself as Deep Throat decades after advising Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein on Watergate, as an unlikeable figure who nonetheless gave critical information on government corruption. Should the pair have questioned his motives — which turned out to be venal — and missed the bigger story?
Smith says journalists need to report the story and let readers decide how to weigh motive. "I'm not sure why reporters should care all that much about his personal moral status, the meaning of the phrase 'civil disobedience,' or the fate of his eternal soul," he concludes. "And the public who used to be known as 'readers' are going to have to get used to making that distinction."
Not so fast, counters Matthew Cooper at National Journal. Cooper, who first reported on Valerie Plame's status as a CIA analyst and set off a scandal that ended up putting Scooter Libby in prison for obstruction of justice, says that journalism is not merely "open mic night" for government sources with axes to grind. A good reporter needs to understand the motives of the leaker as well as the context of the information to determine what the story is. In fact, Cooper argues, the reporter owes readers that information to allow them to make the distinction that Smith assigns as their responsibility.
Watergate readers didn't know until more than 30 years later that Felt was the Deep Throat source, and that his motivation wasn't an outrage over the abuse of power as much as the fact that Felt didn't get to partake in it. "Felt was a senior FBI official, a longtime ally of J. Edgar Hoover who was furious at the Nixon White House for being passed over to be FBI director," Cooper reminds us. "He was also angry about the president turning to his own private band of wiretappers and dirty tricksters instead of Hoover's band of wiretappers and dirty tricksters."
This is a better example than Cooper realizes in the need to judge motivation as part of the story. Felt was more than just a "senior FBI official." He served as the number two man under Hoover, which is why he knew so much about the extent and depth of the corruption at the Nixon White House. As one of the most senior law-enforcement officials in the country, Felt could have started an investigation into executive-branch corruption — or at the very least, gone to Congress to expose it. Without a doubt, Felt had an obligation to do that as a law enforcement official.
Instead, Felt chose to leak the information to two reporters. That allowed Woodward and Bernstein to dig up a lot more on Watergate than they otherwise might have found, and pushed Congress to conduct an investigation that would have led to impeachment had Richard Nixon not resigned — the only American president to have done so. However, that also allowed Felt to deflect attention from the massive abuses of power that had been going on for decades at the FBI under Hoover, although not for too much longer, as it turned out.
Had readers known that Deep Throat came from the FBI, Felt might have been outed much sooner. It might also have prompted a lot of questions about why the FBI was leaking to the press rather than investigating the wrongdoing themselves, and exposed more abuses than Watergate did, including those in which Felt participated.
What does that say about Snowden? Not much, actually. Unlike Felt or Plame and her husband Joe Wilson, Snowden had no significant power within government. Glenn Greenwald at the Guardian, who worked the closest with Snowden over the last few months, argues that Snowden is motivated by outrage over abuses of power; Snowden's detractors argue that he either hates the U.S. or has a narcissistic desire for glory. Either way, Snowden had similar channels to choose as Felt did, which was to either contact law enforcement or members of Congress about those abuses, at least before exposing highly classified material to the public.
Why did he not avail himself of those channels? Here, too, actions arguably speak to motivation. Snowden fled to Hong Kong, then Russia, and apparently has started to bargain with Ecuador for asylum — and may need to travel through Cuba and Venezuela. None of these nations are known for a deep commitment to free speech and investigative media. Ecuador, in fact, has prosecuted journalists for reporting on the authoritarian government's activities, and has imposed a panel to regulate media content — presumably in favor of President Rafael Correa.
It's entirely possible that Snowden's information accurately describes abuses of power, even if he's not the free-speech hero or liberty martyr that his supporters claim. In part, we can now judge that because Snowden did what Felt refused to do for decades, which is reveal himself as the leaker. For the most part, though, we are left with only fragments of evidence to support Snowden's public conclusions about the NSA and Britain's GCHQ signals-intelligence group. Until we get a robust investigation into the activities of both by the respective legislatures that are supposed to oversee those activities, we can't reach any real conclusions. That's why motive matters in leaks, as well as context.