The moment the New York Times reported the leak of classified military documents to Discord and other Internet outposts, journalists began racing to identify and locate the source of the materials. Unnamed military analysts immediately speculated to the Times that the source could be Moscow disinformation jockeys, but in short order, the press, including the Washington Post and others, traced the breadcrumbs back to Jack Teixeira, an Air National Guardsman, as did the FBI, which arrested him on espionage charges.
The press took a bow for its sleuthing, but not everybody was cheering their enterprise. Independent journalist Glenn Greenwald took to Fox News on April 13 to accuse reporters of doing the FBI’s bidding by leading them to Teixeira. “He did the job of what journalists claim to do, which is to show the public the truth,” Greenwald said. Media corporations “love leaks when the CIA and Homeland Security tell them to leak,” he added, but they take the government’s side when a leak “undermines the agenda of these agencies.”
Journalist Matt Taibbi seconded Greenwald on his Substack, writing that the news media, which once luxuriated in leaks like the Pentagon Papers or the WikiLeaks “War Logs,” was now applying a hypocritical standard to the Discord leaks. The press corps’ pursuit of Teixeira, Taibbi stated, showed that reporters were morphing from “public advocate to cop,” and that the unmasking efforts would deter future sources from releasing government secrets. Playing the role of “snitch” was a bad look for reporters, he maintained. “The press loses its institutional power the moment the public ceases to view it as being separate from government,” he asserted.
Bracing stuff, but is the establishment media really in the tank for the national security state? At almost every juncture in the modern era, journalists have sought to expose the identities of major leakers.
Reporter Sidney Zion and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch both fingered Daniel Ellsberg as the Pentagon Papers’ leaker in 1971. As soon as Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein published All the President’s Men in June 1974, reporters started speculating who the confidential leaker Deep Throat was. Edward J. Epstein correctly surmised in the July 1974 issue of Commentary that it was W. Mark Felt, and the reporting on Deep Throat’s identity didn’t end until he gave himself up in 2006. Working forward on the timeline, in 2003, Robert Novak’s column about Valerie Plame being a CIA officer set off a mad search for the identity of Novak’s source. WikiLeaks’ diplomatic cables leak in 2010 prompted the same, as did the WikiLeaks emails leak of 2016. When “Anonymous” wrote a New York Times op-ed describing President Donald Trump as an “undisciplined” and “amoral” leader, the press gang scrambled to name him. (He later outed himself.)
So on the facts, Greenwald and Taibbi appear to be wrong.
Following almost every big leak — and the Discord leaks have been big enough to drive a number of Page One scoops — journalists scatter to find leakers, so there was nothing inconsistent in the recent quest for alleged leaker Jack Teixeira. There’s no absolute way to prove this, but it also appears that Taibbi is wrong when he claims that the uncovering of leakers by the press will deter future leakers. The leaks keep coming — and anybody who reads the front pages of newspapers knows that most major leakers get caught and many times the press has a hand in the unveiling.
The pair also seem to be mistaken about the press corps’ motive in outing the alleged secret-sharer. It may look like reporters are carrying the government’s water by finding him. But like it or not, his identity and the way he dispensed classified information was news.
“Establishing who leaked something and why is an integral part of understanding the full story,” says journalism professor and lapsed investigative reporter Mark Feldstein. “Journalists don’t always seek to tell this story behind the story, especially if they’re trying to get the source to provide additional leaks, or if for some reason they feel some obligation to protect a whistleblower.”
In the case of Deep Throat, Watergate scholar Max Holland says Woodward and Bernstein made his identity news by writing about him in violation of the “deep background” agreement Woodward struck with him. “Identifying him made discovering his identity a legitimate news story,” Holland notes.
It’s worth observing here that journalists almost always do the utmost to protect their confidential sources, often going to jail when subpoenaed. But that calculus does not automatically apply if the source is not yours.
“If the leaker leaked to me, and I promised confidentiality, which I almost certainly would have done, then obviously I protect the person,” says investigative reporter Michael Isikoff, now at Yahoo News. “But if he or she leaked to you and sets off a national security crisis in which the Pentagon is desperately trying to figure out who did it, and legitimate secrets are disclosed, and I found out who did it, then sorry — of course I’m going to name that person and try to explain, if possible, their motivation. This is not a close call.”
It’s true that Teixeira might occupy a unique niche in the annals of leaking. If he was the one who posted the classified documents on the web, he wasn’t really whistleblowing. He wasn’t disseminating his information through a trusted source-reporter relationship. From the outside, it looks like he was playing mumblety-peg with explosives and they blew up in his face. Journalists can extend their gratitude to Teixeira, if he was the one who shared the Discord leaks. But they don’t owe him a cloak of invisibility, as Isikoff puts it, if he wasn’t their source.
On the larger point, Taibbi is correct about Washington reporters not spending much energy revealing the identities of government officials who leak national security information for political ends. Most journalists want to be read in on leaks like that, and avoid naming other reporters’ sources so they won’t get shut out. A strong case can be made that the “protection” reporters offer other reporters’ official sources is corrupt, and makes them the tools of the powerful. But Teixeira wasn’t any journalist’s source; he was just a guy sharing information with his Discord group.
‘‘Teixeira is not a journalistic source and didn’t make this bargain with anyone,” says Barton Gellman, who reported on the classified documents he obtained from Edward Snowden in 2013 for the Washington Post. “Nor is he in any way a whistleblower trying to inform the public for the public good. Journalists owe him no special protection, and his identity and motives are important elements of the story.” But Gellman draws a line on exposing other reporters’ sources, willy nilly. “I’m reluctant to undermine someone else’s journalism by trying to out a competitor’s sources without some really good reason.”
Exposing the Discord leaker helped validate the newsworthy information he dumped on the web and explain the laxness of military security. It’s too late for Teixeira, but it also serves as a lesson for future leakers of the perils of the occupation. If you don’t want to get caught, be careful who you share your documents with. Be assured that the only journalist you can trust is the one you’ve made an agreement with. And even after all that, don’t be surprised when you get busted.
Don’t send secrets to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. No new email alert subscriptions are being honored at this time. My Twitter feed works close to the Rosslyn parking structure where Woodward met Deep Throat. Won’t somebody please out my Mastodon and Post accounts? Substack Notes are blank this week. My RSS feed remembers Gordon Liddy telling him, “If you want anyone killed, just let me know.”