In the fallout from the Pentagon document leaks, a troubling trend has emerged: Journalists seem to be eagerly volunteering their efforts to help the Pentagon and Justice Department facilitate an investigation into the source of the leaks, with no discussion of the ethical ramifications. If the individual — whose identity has been published by journalists, and who has now been arrested by federal authorities — had shared precisely the same classified materials with reporters, regardless of his motivations, he would be tirelessly defended as a source.
NPR recently decried being labeled by Twitter as state-affiliated media, writing that this is a label Twitter uses “to designate official state mouthpieces and propaganda outlets.” That unrelated controversy is notable given that an NPR staffer seems to have deputized himself to act as a government investigator by posting image analyses on Twitter. (While NPR has announced that its official organizational accounts have quit Twitter, individual staff accounts still appear to be active.)
NPR senior editor and correspondent Geoff Brumfiel on Monday combed through artifacts visible in the periphery of the photos of the leaks, as well as collating findings others have discovered, itemizing and explaining each one. Though Brumfiel claimed that his roundup was “largely pointless,” he was effectively performing free labor for the Justice Department, and his posts may corroborate the identity of a suspect. For instance, it may be possible for investigators to analyze a suspect’s credit card purchase history to see if he at some point ordered the objects in question. Brumfiel did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication.
The saving grace here appears to be that the analysis — as is all too often the case with open-source sleuthing on social media — was flawed. Less than 15 minutes after proclaiming he was “confident” that a manual partially visible in some of the photos of leaked documents was for a particular model of scope, others pointed out that in fact the manual was clearly for a different model. “I regret the error,” responded Brumfiel. To his credit, Brumfiel does freely admit in his bio to being “Mostly stupid on the Twitter,” though in this case that self-professed stupidity may put someone’s liberty at risk.
See Something, Say Something
It’s not atypical for government agencies to explicitly request this type of image identification help. For instance, Europol maintains a Trace an Object website, where budding image analysts can help identify various objects in photos linked to child abuse cases. In the case of the leaked Pentagon documents, the Justice Department hasn’t even needed to put out such a call, as plenty of volunteers are offering up leads.
Brumfiel is by no means alone in his social media vigilantism. Jake Godin, a visual investigations journalist at Scripps News, has likewise engaged in the Twitter pastime of volunteering his time to help the Justice Department. Bellingcat, meanwhile, went further and virtually handed over the potential origin point of the leak by specifying the exact name of the chatroom where the documents appear to have first been shared. The fact that these identifications may be aiding the Justice Department investigation appears not to have merited any public consideration from those doing the analyses.
On Wednesday, the Washington Post disclosed further information about the peripheral contents of “previously unreported images,” as well as a variety of additional information about the alleged leaker and his underage associates. The Post states that the leaker “may have endangered his young followers by allowing them to see and possess classified information, exposing them to potential federal crimes.” Given this risk, the Post was extremely cavalier in its depiction of one of those teenagers, publishing video with only rudimentary pixelation accompanied by his unaltered voice. The Post notes that the interviewee asked them not to obscure his voice, but one wonders whether he also asked for close-up shots of his laptop, clearly showing missing keys, to be included. In other words, the Post appears to be acknowledging the danger the interviewee faces while also choosing to readily present evidence that could help investigators confirm his identity. (In response to detailed questions from The Intercept, a Post spokesperson reiterated that the reporters obtained parental consent for the interview.)
The New York Times went further still, identifying the suspected leaker by name on Thursday based on a “trail of evidence” they compiled, including matching elements in the margins of the document photos to other posts on social media.
Perhaps the most bizarre entry in this dubious parade was a story published last week by VICE’s Motherboard about a role-playing game character sheet that seems to have been included in a batch of the leaked document photos. Motherboard published the character sheet in full (in stark contrast to the extreme trouble the same publication took just days before to avoid publishing a poorly redacted document revealing the names of minors suspected of using the artificial intelligence chatbot ChatGPT in school). Motherboard notes that it’s not clear whether the errant image was inadvertently or intentionally added to the photo dump, or whether it was added by the original leaker or an intermediary who further disseminated the photo archive. This lack of clarity makes the decision to publish the document even more confusing and suspect, but the author doesn’t seem bothered, as the story morphs into a humorous analysis of the fun and creative things people do in the world of online role-playing games.
The document in question appears to be an extremely niche adaptation of a role-playing game. Let’s say that someone in an online community on Reddit, 4chan, or a Discord server instantly recognizes this particular game and says, “Oh, that’s Alice’s game sheet.” Alice may now be the subject of Justice Department scrutiny or an online lynch mob, or both, courtesy of Motherboard. Or suppose the Justice Department zeroes in on a suspected leaker and uses the handwriting in the published Motherboard document to positively identify them. The story’s author, Matthew Gault, did not respond to a request for comment.
Duty of Care
Why is the media so eager to help the Justice Department by supplying potentially viable leads? Sure, the leaker wasn’t NPR’s or Motherboard’s source, and as far as we know, had no intention of being a whistleblower. But does that give journalists a green light to act as investigative agents for the Justice Department? A duty of care arguably extends beyond one’s immediate source: You don’t have to assist an individual in publicizing the workings of government, but at the very least, you should not intentionally compromise them.
The argument could be made that the identity of the leaker is newsworthy. For instance, as the CIA points out, leakers are often senior officials. But ascertaining a source’s identity can be done by journalists privately, as opposed to all over social media or in published stories. If it emerges that the source’s identity is not, in fact, newsworthy, a life hasn’t been damaged by overzealous state-serving reporting.
There is, of course, the distinct possibility that the Justice Department investigators are already well familiar with the ephemera in the photos, seeing as they too have access to reverse image search sites, and that journalists are not telling them anything they don’t already know. Nonetheless, there is a very real possibility that the various clues to the leaker’s and their associates’ identities proffered by various news outlets have helped the government in their recent apprehension of a person suspected to be the leaker.
Either way, the zeal of some “reporters” to out the leaker or find a “gotcha” clue tucked away in the marginalia of an image seems distasteful. A different impulse would be to offer guidance that might help sources avoid getting caught; that could facilitate future leaks and thus greater transparency.