The online news site The Intercept offers a thorough piece looking at how the federal government follows digital and paper trails to identify anonymous whistleblowers in their midst.The folks over at the Intercept should know. The source of one of their stories is sitting in jail.
The August 4 story looks at this and three other cases brought under the Espionage Act and notes:
The Intercept does not comment on its anonymous sources, although it has acknowledged falling short of its own editorial standards in one case.
Last summer, National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Reality Winner accepted 63 months in prison in plea deal. Winner’s case made national headlines after she was identified as the leak of information on the Russian election hack that was reported by the Intercept. Since then, other whistleblowers have been arrested under the Espionage Act, a federal law that was created for spies, not whistleblowers.
The headline in a 2017 New York Time story following Winner’s arrest reads: “ Reality Winner, N.S.A. Contractor Accused of Leak, Was Undone by Trail of Clues.” The Intercept story includes a hypothetical paper trail a whistleblower might leave if they try to investigate suspected wrongdoing:
(T)hey search government databases for more information and maybe print some of the documents they find. They search for related information using Google. Maybe they even send a text message to a friend about how insane this is while they consider possible next steps. Should they contact a journalist? They look up the tips pages of news organizations they like and start researching how to use Tor Browser. All of this happens before they’ve reached out to a journalist for the first time.
The story notes that growing use of Espionage Act works against whistleblowers.
Government insiders charged under the law are not allowed to defend themselves by arguing that their decision to share what they know was prompted by an impulse to help Americans confront and end government abuses. “The act is blind to the possibility that the public’s interest in learning of government incompetence, corruption, or criminality might outweigh the government’s interest in protecting a given secret,” Jameel Jaffer, head of the Knight First Amendment Institute, wrote recently. “It is blind to the difference between whistle-blowers and spies.”
The Intercept has been involved in Winner’s defense and donated $50,000 to a group formed to support her.