On a near-daily basis, the Washington Post is uncorking top-secret information with potentially dramatic intelligence implications, all sourced from a trove of documents that was only briefly visible to the members of a small chat server — and that therefore may still effectively be secret to anyone outside the U.S. intelligence community.
News organizations who find themselves in legal possession of top secrets, as the Post currently has, have the right and the obligation to publish news that has been hidden from the public but is in the public interest, especially when it exposes government misconduct.
But when a news organization has exclusive access to secrets that are effectively still secret, they also have an obligation to publish them judiciously and maintain the secrecy of those that deserve it.
Several recent articles in the Post have arguably been published simply because they could, rather than out of the public interest, raising journalistic concerns.
And some intelligence officials are growing increasingly queasy about the Post’s apparent indifference to releasing information that has never been seen in the wild and could very well impact intelligence collection going forward.
I asked the Post eight questions that I think are in the public interest.
- You received these documents from your source, who had taken them from the Discord “Thug Shaker” server. Correct?
- Do you know when these documents were deleted from the Discord server? Was it before any were posted more publicly, on the Telegram server, or discovered by the Times?
- Is it your view that these documents were “public” before they were deleted?
- Are you assuming that adversaries have already seen these documents?
- If not, are you discussing the possible damage of disclosure with the originating organizations?
- How are you deciding what is worth disclosing?
- Are there any/many documents that you are not intending to disclose? Why or why not?
- How are your keeping the documents safe in your possession? How are reporters working with them?
They declined to answer them. “We will have to decline to answer your questions. Our reporting speaks for itself,” wrote Jennifer Lee of the Post’s PR team. So I went directly to executive editor Sally Buzbee, who replied: “I think we are going to no comment at this point.”
We Deserve Answers
“There ought to be a goddamned explanation,” said Stewart Baker, a longtime intelligence official who most recently was an assistant secretary at the Department of Homeland Security.
“I have been reading those stories with a mounting sense of disquiet,” Baker told me. “I don’t know how much of that was available to the Russians, say, until it was published in the Washington Post.”
We spoke by phone on Monday, a day after the Post published an article about documents that alleged that Wagner Group owner Yevgeniy Prigozhin, five months earlier, had briefly offered to give Kyiv information on Russian troop position if they stopped attacking his own.
The Post wrote that one document was “based on ‘sigint’ — or intercepted communications.”
“A lot of this is titillating. But it’s not like they’re revealing U.S. government malfeasance. They’re just giving us our daily intel report,” Baker aid. “It’s not whistle blowing.”
And, he said: “This discloses we’ve intercepted him, for god’s sake, so that is going to have consequences.”
What should the Post do? “It’s a tough question to say to the Washington Post you should suppress information that you acquired lawfully. It’s hard to say. But frankly they should,” Baker said. “If they are the only place that has these, they have a special responsibility.”
And how is the Post protecting its secrets? As Baker said, “even the Intercept” answered questions about how it was protecting the vast archive of secret documents that Edward Snowden had entrusted to two journalists, Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras.
The Interecept went to extreme measures – building a bug-proof room and rigorously controlled access
The Post won’t say how it’s protecting its trove. “It is fair to ask them: ‘Do you have a different set of ethical standards than the Intercept?” Baker said.
The Intercept, which was founded to be a safe haven and megaphone for national-security whistleblowers – and most assuredly no longer is — was also judicious about what it disclosed from the Snowden archive. It carefully weighed the news value of each disclosure and discussed potential harm with the originating agencies. I worked there. I was only briefly involved in exploring the Snowden archive, but I can assure you there were a lot of secrets in there that should have remained secret, and did.
In addition to the article on the Wagner Group, here are some of the other Discord leak stories the Post has published:
- Buildup resumed at suspected Chinese military site in UAE, leak says
- South Korea will be vulnerable to North’s drones for years, leak warns
- Iran hid weapons among earthquake aid to target U.S. troops, leak says
- Russians boasted that just 1% of fake social profiles are caught, leak shows
How The Post Got the Documents
Jack Teixeira, a young member of the Massachusetts Air National Guard, has been charged with leaking numerous classified documents by posting them onto chat servers that he shared mostly with teenage boys.
Days after the story broke in the New York Times but before the FBI identified the leaker, the Post got an exclusive interview — some of it on video — with a teenage member of the Discord group where some of the documents were shared.
The sum total of what the Post has publicly disclosed about its secret trove is to write in an explainer box on the relevant stories that “The Post also obtained a number of previously unreported documents from a trove of images of classified files posted on a private server on the chat app Discord.”
After I submitted my questions, that language was modified to become both less and more revealing: “The Post also reviewed scores of additional secret documents, most of which have not been made public.”
Aric Toler, the online sleuth who tracked down the sources of the documents, told me more.
Toler is the director of research and training at Bellingcat, an independent investigative site based in the Netherlands. He now has a free-lance contract with the New York Times, where he has contributed to several articles.
The Times has only published articles based on the 100 or so documents that Toler found publicly available. That’s not the case with the Post.
“They got 300-400 leaks from their 17-year-old source who downloaded them from Discord,” Toler wrote to me via Twiter. “They’ll keep doing it indefinitely until all the ones they deem newsworthy are published, I assume.”
“There are 200 to 300 that were not public and exclusively held by Wapo,” Toler wrote.
One Discord server was called “Thug Shaker.” Most of the documents posted there were deleted before the leak gained public attention.
“The 17 year old kid was saving them from thug shaker as they were being posted,” then “gave his cache of them to wapo,” Toler wrote. Shortly after, the FBI raided his house.