The Intercept Likes Getting Its Sources Caught

Last years Reality Leigh Winner, who may have the most ironic name in history, leaked National Security Agency (NSA) documents to The Intercept. Instead of sanitizing the leaked documents, The Intercept staff just scanned them and posted them to their website. Since the documents weren’t sanitized, the NSA was able to use the watermark printed on the document by the printer to identify and arrest Winner.

Now another federal employee, an agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) by the name of Terry Albury, who appears to have leaked documents to The Intercept is sitting in a cage:

A request for a search warrant filed in Minneapolis federal court against Albury did not identify the news outlet, but a review by MPR News found the documents described in the search warrant that Albury leaked exactly match the trove of FBI documents posted by The Intercept.

In January 2017, The Intercept published a series titled “The FBI’s Secret Rules,” based on Albury’s leaked documents, which show the depth and broad powers of the FBI expansion since 9/11 and its recruitment efforts.

The Intercept made two Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to the FBI in late March 2016. The requests contained specific information identifying the names of documents that were not available to the public. In addition, the FBI identified about 27 secret documents published by The Intercept between April 2016 and February 2017.

“The FBI believes that the classified and/or controlled nature of the documents indicates the News Outlet obtained these documents from someone with direct access to them,” according to the warrant. “Furthermore, reviews of the FBI internal records indicate ALBURY has electronically accessed over two thirds of the approximately 27 documents via trusted access granted to him on FBI information systems.”

One of The Intercept’s FOIA requests, dated March 29, 2016, asked for copies of a specific document classified as secret. The document, titled Confidential Human Source Assessing, gives tips for agents on how to cultivate informants.

A Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request that lists specific classified documents by title is going to kick off an internal investigation to discovery the individual who leaked the titles of those documents. It is also known that many federal agencies, especially those involved in law enforcement and intelligence, closely monitor their networks. They often know who accessed what file at what time. If a FOIA request comes in containing a list of specific documents by title and an agent has been found to access many of those documents without official cause, the internal investigation team is going to put two and two together.

The fact that federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies closely monitor network access is well known. Knowing that network monitoring can identify who accessed what documents at what time and that correlating that information with a FOIA request is a trivial matter, a news agency that regularly deals with leakers should know that issuing such specific FOIA requests is likely to put their source at risk of being caught.

Between Reality Winner’s case and this one, the Intercept isn’t establishing a good track record for itself. If I were a federal agent with information to leak, I certainly wouldn’t leak it to The Intercept.