(Reuters) - If U.S. prosecutors ever get their hands on Edward Snowden, they’ll play such a tympanic symphony on his skull he’ll wish his hands never touched a computer keyboard.
Should U.S. prosecutors fail, U.S. diplomats will squeeze, as they did in Hong Kong, until he squirts from his hiding place and scurries away in search of a new sanctuary. But even if he finds asylum in a friendly nation, his reservation will last only as long as a sympathetic regime is calling the shots.
Whether he ends up in Venezuela or some other country that enjoys needling the United States, he’ll forever be one election or one coup away from extradition. Even then, he won’t be completely safe. “Always check six, as we said when I used to be a flyer in the Air Force,” said NSA whistle-blower Thomas Drake recently. “Always make sure you know what’s behind you.”
Solitary whistle-blowers like Snowden, Drake and Daniel Ellsberg draw targets on their backs with their disclosures of official secrets, either by leaving a trail from the heist scene, being the most logical suspect, or because they admit their deed. Escaping prison time, such whistle-blowers have learned, depends on the luck of prosecutorial overreach (Drake) or self-destruction by the state, which derailed the prosecution of Pentagon Papers liberator Ellsberg.
The solitary whistle-blower, usually a career government employee, isn’t really a leaker, as Stephen Hess explains in his enduring typology of leakers. Typically, the whistle-blower seeks revolutionary change, not piecemeal reform. He doesn’t share information with journalists to purchase their goodwill or to loft a trial balloon or to give himself an ego boost. He’s motivated by principle, not self-interest or Machiavellian intrigue, and seeks to correct what he considers an intolerable wrong. And in most cases, his whistle-blowing results in career suicide if not jail time.
Most leakers, mindful of the fate of the pure and solitary whistle-blowers, scale the size of their leaks to avoid detection. Rather than giving the whole puzzle away to reporters, they break off pieces for distribution, in hopes that it can’t be traced back to them. Or, if crafty, leakers dispense pieces of the puzzle that aren’t especially revealing and therefore not precisely classified, but provide hints about the location of the next puzzle piece. Investigative reporters who excel at fitting a mosaic together benefit the most from this class of leaker.
The best way to escape detection, however, is to leak as part of a flock, a flock that may or may not fly together. The best recent example of this kind of leaking can be found in two excellent stories about the NSA’s machinations published earlier this week: the New York Times‘s “In Secret, Court Vastly Broadens Powers of NSA,” and the Wall Street Journal‘s “Secret Court’s Redefinition of ‘Relevant’ Empowered Vast NSA Data-Gathering.”
I‘m not privy to how the Times or Journal reported these stories, but both attribute their revelations to interviews with “current and former” officials. As identification stamps go, “current and former” officials is pretty vague. The complete Journal credit goes to interviews with “current and former administration and congressional officials,” but that’s still plenty vague.
In plurality, any flocking bird will tell you, resides security. When a mass of current and former officials talk to the press about a classified story, it’s harder for a government investigator to pick off one for punishment. Such vague sourcing means the government investigator would have to investigate every current and former official exposed to the classified information discussed in the story which can often be a very long list. In our current national security reporting renaissance, with a dozen or more reporters breaking new parts of the NSA story almost daily, the number of suspected leakers quickly expands to defeat the ability of the spy cops to track all of them.
That’s assuming of course, that the leakers have actually leaked classified information. As mentioned above, fitting pieces of unclassified material together mosaic style can lead a good reporter toward a mostly completed picture. At this juncture, the reporter can ask authorities direct “confirm or deny” questions about his findings. The authorities can confirm his hypothesis, beg him not to publish it, or confess a kind of defeat by confirming parts of the story (but not for attribution) while explaining why other parts of it aren’t true.
One thing the government can rarely afford to do is blow the reporter off, lest the government be damaged by the publication of an inaccurate story. Also, the last thing the national security state wants is to turn away reporters whose questions might cause it more grief than the less-damaging story the national security state can confirm.
The “current and former officials” formulation serves the press well in times like these, where the former officials might belong to a different party or faction. This broadening of the sourcing helps lift the story out of the partisan realm, and helps make the reporters look more like truth-finders and less like partisans.
It also provides the leakers with camouflage that makes them look less like leakers and more like think-tankers conducting a policy debate in the pages of the press, and helps dislodge the debate from the political.
Sometimes the protestations of “current and former officials” is a genuine signal of a policy debate inside the government, which appears to have been the case in 2005 when New York Times reporters James Risen and Eric Lichtblau broke the “Bush Lets U.S. Spy on Callers Without Courts” story.
Breaking convention, Risen and Lichtblau enumerated the officials yakking with them, writing that “nearly a dozen” anonymous current and former officials had discussed the story with the Times “because of their concerns about the operation’s legality and oversight.”
The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal aren’t the only major news outlets favoring the “current and former” construction. In recent months, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and Reuters have relied on it to extend anonymity to sources that may or may not have been authorized to discuss national security-related issues.
The last thing a source who doesn’t consider himself a whistle-blower should do if he hopes to evade detection is grandstand.
According to a recent report by NBC News, the Justice Department has opened an investigation of James “Hoss” Cartwright, a four-star general and former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for possibly leaking classified information about the Stuxnet virus that appeared in a June 1, 2012 New York Times story by David E. Sanger. That story, of course, attributed some of its findings to interviews with “current and former American, European and Israeli officials involved with the program, as well as a range of outsiders.”
We can and should presume the innocence of Cartwright, but in a piece for Slate, my friend and former colleague Fred Kaplan sketched some of the circumstantial evidence that might have led investigators to the general. Given his military position, he was certain to know all about Stuxnet. Kaplan noted that Cartwright is also quoted by name in Sanger’s book, Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power, from which the Times article was adapted. And the general had a reputation inside of the Pentagon of being a “lone wolf,” wrote Kaplan, who did things his own way and by himself, and lone wolves often pay a price for their independence.
“If the Justice Department continues its probe and winds up indicting Cartwright for violating his security oath, it’s unlikely that any officers will leap to his defense in this crisis either,” Kaplan wrote. “It’s a fair guess, in fact, that some of those officers may have pointed prosecutors in his direction.”
If you hope to leak national security information and avoid prosecution, don’t do it solo, as Snowden (and perhaps Cartwright) did. Bring a posse of like-minded leakers with you to muddy your tracks. And forget the fire hose: A drip irrigation system might take forever to drench the press but it’s a lot less conspicuous.
(Jack Shafer is a Reuters columnist but his opinions are his own.)