Few events are worse for a news outlet than having a source arrested. Given the U.S. government’s war on whistleblowers under both Barack Obama and Donald Trump, it has sadly become a common event: The New York Times, BuzzFeed News, Fox News, and many other news organizations have had sources prosecuted for sharing information with them. Anyone who values a free press should be alarmed by the extreme measures now used by Trump’s Department of Justice to root out and punish sources.
Sunday’s Times article on Reality Winner’s 2017 arrest and our reporting contains little new information. The Intercept three years ago acknowledged that we made errors in how we handled the document. It was a difficult reporting challenge: A top-secret document arrived by mail to our post office box from an unknown source. Given its importance, we felt compelled to authenticate it so we could report it to the public if it was genuine, but since we did not know the identity of the source, verifying the document was fraught with risk. As we explained in 2017, our process of authenticating the document was flawed. We undertook an intensive examination of our process and structure, and instituted a series of changes in our newsroom to ensure that those errors would never happen again. Our parent company, First Look Media, stepped up to support Winner’s legal defense through the Press Freedom Defense Fund. We remain devastated about Winner’s unjust prosecution and imprisonment under the Espionage Act, and committed to supporting her campaign for the pardon she deserves.
The Times article contains a number of errors, as well as a few significant points requiring clarification:
1. As the Washington Post made clear in 2017, “the mistakes of the leaker before the Intercept even received the document would likely have sealed her fate, regardless of any clumsiness by the reporter in verifying the scoop.” Other outlets reported the same, and our reporting confirmed it. That does not mitigate the mistakes we made, but the suggestion that she was caught because of our errors is untrue.
2. The Times’s suggestion that no independent review was conducted of our processes, but that the inquiry was merely assigned to a subordinate of the editor-in-chief, is false. Indeed, two separate reviews were undertaken: The first was conducted by an outside counsel — precisely the structure that the Times article suggests would have been appropriate — and the second and more comprehensive review was conducted by First Look’s in-house counsel, which came to the same conclusions as the first review. Both of these attorneys reported to the company’s general counsel.
3. While it is true that, three years ago, we had intense and often contentious internal debates about how to manage the aftermath of the arrest of Winner, our newsroom instituted reforms and resolved those differences. Among other actions and initiatives, we devised a set of security principles and created a protocol for determining when a story is sufficiently sensitive to require the attention of an Investigative Reporting Team, which is composed of an editor, the reporter or reporters, an attorney, and a security specialist. We also created an Investigations Committee to oversee sensitive stories. Using this framework, we have built a stronger newsroom and broken major stories, including many enabled by sources who entrusted us with sensitive information. We have proceeded to produce the sort of groundbreaking, high-impact journalism The Intercept was founded to provide the public.
4. There has been substantial misreporting about The Intercept’s relationship to the Snowden archive. Contrary to the claims of Laura Poitras — a co-founding editor of The Intercept who had left in 2016 — The Intercept had no intention of closing the archive when we were directed by our parent company in 2019 to make significant cuts to our newsroom personnel. After spending five years publishing more than 100 articles drawn from the archive, we decided to scale back our focus on it, but we wanted to retain it as a resource and work with staffers and outside journalists on archive-related projects. But Poitras objected to our plan to lay off two newsroom employees. She suggested that we either refuse to make any cuts or eliminate the jobs of other specific employees instead, and claimed that the archive would be inadequately protected if we did not acquiesce to her demands. Because we were confident that we could protect the archive with the security team we would retain, we refused. At that point, Poitras withdrew her consent to allow the Snowden archive to remain with The Intercept, which is what forced us to close it.
(It should be noted that several other outlets — including the Times — also possessed large parts of the Snowden archive, but, despite having a much larger newsroom budget, ceased reporting on those documents several years before we did.)
5. Ben Smith’s column dramatically understates the impact of The Intercept’s aggressive journalism and independent reporting in a range of areas, from the elimination of environmental regulations, police abuses, and the Trump administration’s war on undocumented immigrants and its catastrophic response to a global pandemic, to national politics, technology and surveillance, and the ongoing wars fought by United States and its allies. Notably, last fall, we published a major, highly sensitive investigative project based on anonymously sourced materials — The Iran Cables — in partnership with the Times. And the Times itself earlier this year heralded our yearlong exposés from 2019 into 2020 about the Bolsonaro government as “what a free press is supposed to do: They revealed a painful truth about those in power.”