In the face of mounting vitriol from the newly ordained Trump administration, the press has ramped up its efforts to elicit leaks from within the White House and elsewhere in the federal bureaucracy.
Leaks matter. The right leak can sustain national discourse, earn journalism prizes and etch new entries into history books, as The Washington Post and The Guardian learned through Edward Snowden’s earth-shattering NSA leaks. The wrong leak can drive industry-wide condemnation, as BuzzFeed News recently endured after publishing an unverified dossier allegedly concerning Donald Trump’s salacious activities.
In this new and porous White House – one that Washington Post blogger Chris Cilizza already called “the leakiest White House [he’d] ever seen” – news organizations are already asking for leaked government information. It’s difficult to relate precedent since the Snowden leaks recently ushered in a new level of accessibility to encrypted and secure communication. However, calls for leaks in the last month appear to uniquely target a Trump leadership team that blacklisted news organizations during the campaign, threatened to “open up” libel laws, and has referred to the press as “slime” and the “opposition party.”
“[…] It seems very possible that the next four years could be marked by critical information being kept under lock and key in executive branch offices,” wrote Washington Post correspondent Philip Bump on January 25. “This is precisely why The Washington Post and other news outlets created systems to allow government employees to leak information as securely as possible.”
Various nonprofit news sites like ProPublica, which does investigative reporting in the public interest, and High Country News, which reports on issues impacting the American West, have also published guidelines for federal employees interested in leaking information in the new administration.
“We know many of you have been told to keep quiet. But speaking up is more important than ever,” ProPublica tweeted on January 27.
“At High Country News, we still believe that a healthy democracy depends on the ability of a free press to deliver accurate, factual information to the public,” wrote deputy digital editor Kate Schimel on February 3.
1/ Hello, federal employees. Many of you have contacted us to tell us what’s happening at your agencies.
— ProPublica (@ProPublica) January 27, 2017
The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news site covering criminal justice, was less explicit when publishing its guide to leaking stories on February 5. However, its founder, former New York Times executive editor Bill Keller, clarified his concerns in an email to MediaFile.
“President Trump seems unlikely to run an administration committed to transparency or welcoming of dissent,” Keller said. “At the same time, he has essentially declared war on the people who work for him. A lot of career public servants may witness things that distress them — policies quietly reversed, regulations not enforced, conflicts of interest and other misconduct. We want them to consider letting us know, specifically anything that relates to the criminal justice system. And we want them to know we will protect them. Our message is: If you see something, say something.”
The Intercept, run by former Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald who helped publish Snowden’s NSA leaks, similarly says “If You See Something, Leak Something.”
Washingtonian Magazine published its own guidelines on Monday just two days after press secretary Sean Spicer tweeted “Getting government updates from @Washingtonian is like getting stock tips from @usweekly.”
— Sean Spicer (@seanspicer) February 12, 2017
“These are unusual times to work in Washington, and Washingtonian wants to continue chronicling them,” the magazine wrote in a note titled “Federal Workers: Send Us Your Memos!”
These news websites detail the most secure ways in which leakers or whistleblowers can communicate with them. Many outline processes for secure email, encrypted messaging through WhatsApp and Signal, as well as how to use SecureDrop, an open-source system developed by the late Reddit founder Aaron Swartz and currently managed by Freedom of the Press Foundation.
“Transparency is good,” says Vice staff writer Mike Pearl, in an email to MediaFile. “The government should feel like the media is an opponent. Leaks—when the leaked material truly doesn’t jeopardize national security—are necessary.”
Pearl authored the Vice how-to article “How and When You Should Leak Government Secrets” on February 8. Pearl’s final two steps in his 9-step instructions are “Expect a Shitstorm” and “Never Tell Anyone.”
But, Pearl says his article is a note for new federal employees rather than one uniquely inspired by Trump’s actions and rhetoric.
“If you asked me if Trump’s agenda is exceptionally alarming, or if it calls for exceptional opposition through some exceptional volume of leaks, I would say, that’s beside the point,” Pearl said. “If other publications’ calls for leakers explicitly make the case that Trump is some kind of singular threat that needs to be opposed through leaks, I would understand why they would do that. But I didn’t say that in mine, because if we in the press rescind our calls for leaks in four or eight years because a Democrat is in the White House, the hypocrisy will be obvious, and frankly, that would do the public a disservice.”
Administrations always leak, inspired by an endless number of careless mistakes or political calculuses. But it seems the levees were hardly built before the floodwaters started to rush toward the public.
“Early coverage of the Trump administration has been defined by seemingly panoptical accounts from within the White House, together composing a bizarre but credible portrayal of an executive branch as it has taken shape, spasmed and questioned the limits of its power,” writes John Herrman in The New York Times Magazine. “Its walls appear to be totally perforated. But these are small leaks — in many cases, anonymous quotes. A government in the midst of a shocking ideological transition is bound to spring bigger ones.”
Herman says the media has a “risky love affair” with leaks. Now, more than ever, media outlets are better prepared to securely welcome leaks from whistleblowers.
So, it’s only a matter of time, right?
[Photo: Win McNamee/AP]