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Did 'Intercept' Out Its Intelligence Source?

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A news site that broke a big story this week faces questions about how it did so. The Intercept published a National Security Agency document about Russian interference in the presidential election. The question is whether The Intercept missed a chance to protect its source. NPR's David Folkenflik reports.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Megyn Kelly of NBC News recently asked Russian President Vladimir Putin about allegations of Russian hacking.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Through interpreter) Hackers can be anywhere. They can be in Russia, in Asia, even in America, Latin America.

FOLKENFLIK: That's the voice of NBC's interpreter over Putin.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PUTIN: (Through interpreter) They can even be hackers, by the way, in the United States, who very skillfully and professionally shifted the blame, as we say, onto Russia.

FOLKENFLIK: The Intercept revealed a top-secret analysis showing the Russians sought to penetrate U.S. local election systems across the country. The analysis arrived anonymously through the mail. An Intercept reporter shared a photo of the papers with a source, a government contractor whom he trusted, seeking to validate it. The printout included a postmark of Augusta, Ga., and microdots, a kind of computerized fingerprint. The contractor told his bosses, who informed the FBI.

BARTON GELLMAN: Look, communication security is really hard with a source. And it's a process. It's not one gadget or one piece of software. And so you have to feel for anyone who makes a mistake on this.

FOLKENFLIK: Barton Gellman of the Century Foundation is a Pulitzer Prize-winning national security reporter.

GELLMAN: The Intercept made several bad mistakes here. And it's more surprising because The Intercept has some of the world's best Comsec talent working there.

FOLKENFLIK: Federal authorities arrested a 25-year-old government contractor who works in Augusta. She's named Reality Winner. Authorities cited The Intercept's images as evidence.

RAJ DE: Most intelligence professionals take their duties to protect information seriously, but the continuous leaks of classified information, particularly in recent months, is troubling and disheartening.

FOLKENFLIK: That's Raj De, former general counsel for the National Security Agency. De joined the agency after a massive leak by a former NSA contractor, Edward Snowden.

DE: Leaks of classified information to the media or elsewhere can be damaging in a whole range of ways that may not be immediately apparent, whether it's damage to sources and methods or information that's helpful to our adversaries.

FOLKENFLIK: Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple has argued the FBI would have been able to identify Reality Winner readily, whatever The Intercept did. Only six people with government clearance printed out the document. She was one of them. And she has disparaged President Trump on her social media accounts.

Winner joins a growing list of those prosecuted in recent years under the Espionage Act for leaking to reporters, rather than for spying for foreign powers. Given Trump's frequent rants about the media, journalists have expressed fears of a crackdown.

GELLMAN: I mean, we're in the middle of a huge national debate on the extent and impact of meddling by Russia on the U.S. election.

FOLKENFLIK: Barton Gellman notes President Trump has a stake in the outcome of that debate.

GELLMAN: This document was an important piece of evidence on what the U.S. government knows and how it knows it. The disclosures in that document are being overshadowed by what happened to the source, and that's too bad. It's too bad for investigative reporting, and it's too bad for the country right now.

FOLKENFLIK: The Intercept declined to comment for this story. David Folkenflik, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOMBAY DUB ORCHESTRA'S "MAP OF DUSK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.

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