Guest Post: Munir Umrani – How should bloggers handle classified information?

Filed as Features on July 5, 2006 9:57 pm

Last week, when the debate erupted over the New York Times publication of the use of bank wire information from the Swift network as a part of its anti-terror efforts, I asked Munir Umrani, the editor of the Diplomatic Times Review and The Blogging Journalist to give us his thoughts on how bloggers should handle a similar situation. Munir agreed – and his post is below.

What should a blogger do if confronted with a source willing to reveal classified information? Should he or she post it or not?

Freedom of Speech

Many factors determine what a blogger should do in such a situation. However, the first thing the blogger should not do is immediately publish the information. On the other hand, the first thing the blogger should do, if he or she does not know the the person offering the information, is try to learn the person’s identity and motive. The blogger should try to determine why, out of the millions of bloggers in the world, the source chose to divulge the confidential information to him or her.

If the source is a high profile senior official, meaning at least a deputy, I would probably be less skeptical. However, I’d still ask: why me? I’d also want to know whether the person is engaged in a disinformation campaign for political or intelligence reasons or both.

Before the blogger publishes information from a confidential source, he or she should also want to know whether the information can be verified. Personally, I’d prefer verification by at least three, and preferably more, sources. As in law, corroboration in journalism, and especially investigative reporting, is essential. A blogger should not be so anxious to scoop traditional media or other bloggers at the expense of verification. Chasing the scoop can be extremely dangerous because the person is motivated by the scoop, not the highly debatable principle called “the public’s right to know.” It’s better to lose a story rather than a reputation.

Also, I’d let the confidential source know upfront that I’d reveal the source of the information if turns out to be bogus. If the information is false, maybe such a threat will make the source decline to reveal it.

The blogger should try to determine whether there are documents that would back up the assertions of the source or sources. If the source provides documents, can they be independently certified and authenticated? The documents should be such that they are able to withstand intense scrutiny from bloggers and traditional journalists determined to discredit the information, the source and the blogger for ideological and professional reasons. Don’t forget what happened to former CBS Evening News managing editor Dan Rather and the documents purporting to show that President George W. Bush shirked military duty.

As Wikipedia notes, ‘€œOn September 8, 2004, Rather reported on 60 Minutes Wednesday that a series of documents concerning President George W. Bush’s Texas Air National Guard service record had been discovered in the personal files of Lt. Bush’s former commanding officer, Lt. Col. Jerry B. Killian, in which Bush was found unfit for flight status after failing to obey an order to submit to a physical examination. The authenticity of these documents was quickly called into question by both conservative and liberal bloggers; by September 10, stories in media outlets including The Washington Post, The New York Times, and the Chicago Sun-Times examined the documents’ authenticity.’€?

‘€œRather and CBS vigorously defended the story,’€? Wikipedia adds, ‘€œinsisting that the documents had been authenticated by experts. However, CBS was contradicted by some of the experts it originally cited, and later reported that their source for the documents, former Texas Army National Guard officer Bill Burkett, had misled the network about how he had obtained them. On September 20, CBS retracted the story. Rather stated, “if I knew then what I know now ‘€“ I would not have gone ahead with the story as it was aired, and I certainly would not have used the documents in question.”[2]

The lesson from the Rather episode is that, the blogger should always keep in mind that the court of public opinion is not that much different from a court of law. In each court, a skilled practitioner or practitioners can paint a picture that obfuscates the truth while not necessarily discrediting the facts. All a defense attorney wants to do is to raise is reasonable doubt in the jury’s collective mind. Political ideologues want to impugn motives and question loyalties in the court of public opinion. Karl Rove and the Bush Administration are masters at playing the game and some making Americans view a certain segment of the the traditional press and the blogosphere as having committed treason for exposing and discussing questionable practices in the so-called ‘€œWar on Terror”.

There is more. Before publishing confidential information, a blogger would do well to the assess his or her strengths and weaknesses and ability to evaluate information and manage sources less he or she ends up being managed by the source or sources.

Of course, being a blogger of the stature of Steven Clemons at The Washington Note or Joshua Micah Marshall at Talking Points Memo, both of whom seem to have extensive contacts in government and a knack for ferreting out information, helps when approached by a confidential source. For example, I haven’t been to the State Department, the White House or Capitol Hill since the late 1970s. Having stayed away from Washington for almost 30 years, I know absolutely no one I could turn to verify information from a confidential source. If some one came to me with such information, I’d definitely want to know why they want to confide in me. On the other hand, I might say that it was probably because the source reads The Diplomatic Times Review and thinks I can handle the story. Would I be deluding myself? Probably.

Here’s another thing to consider: If the source confides in a blogger with no journalistic, legal, intelligence or public policy experience, who generally writes about knitting or cars, it’s another ball game and would probably end in disaster. The mindset of an investigative journalist or blogger is totally different than the average blogger. This is not to say that blogger who concentrates on knitting or state and local politics couldn’t use the information to write an article; they can. The question is will the blogger have access to the right sources who could verify the information. Maybe, but most likely not.

With high profile stories, it’s not enough just to be a good writer with a fairly well-read blog. An impeccable reputation is a valuable asset. In other words, is there anything in the blogger’s background that could be used to discredit an article based on confidential information. Someone who has been convicted or charged with rape or child molestation should pass on the story. Why? Because that blogger would become the story. The first question critics would want answered, and rightly so, is: why should I believe a pedophile?

It’s the blogger is a deliberate plagiarist, he or she would be a fool to publish the information. Remember former Washington Post blogger and RedState.org and RedState.com founder Ben Domenech? The Post launched its “Red America” blog on March 21, 2006. Jim Brady, the Post’s often maligned online editor, announced Domenech’s resignation on March 24, 2006. As Wikipedia notes, he resigned ‘€œafter other bloggers posted evidence that he had plagiarized work from writers at The Dallas Morning News, The Washington Post, National Review Online, Cox News Service , and Salon, as well as that of humorist P. J. O’Rourke and several amateur film critics.’€?

If a blogger has a reputation for sometimes inventing facts, he or she may want to tell the source to take the information elsewhere. Currently,Truthout reporter Jason Leopold is Exhibit A for what can befall a blogger when he or she has a reputation for unreliability. On May 13, 2006, Leopold published an article headline Karl Rove Indicted on Charges of Perjury, Lying to Investigators trying to determine who at the White House told journalists that Valerie Plame, the wife of Bush critic Joseph C. Wilson, was a CIA operative. While some bloggers reported the story as true others were skeptical. Some members of the Washington Press corp tried to verify Leopold’s assertions but reportedly could find no corroboration.

So far Rove, who is President Bush’s ‘€œDeputy Chief of Staff, heading the Office of Political Affairs, the Office of Public Liaison, and the Office of Strategic Initiatives at the White House , according to Wikipedia, still has not been indicted.

In fact, Rove’s attorney, Robert Luskin, told reporters June 13, 2006 that he had received a letter from U.S. Attorney and Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald saying Rove would not be indicted. Fitzgerald has not released a statement, so we don’t know whether it’s true or not. Leopold, who reportedly used confidential sources for his story, sticks by his reporting.
if the blogger should decide to publish the confidential information, the wise blogger would avoid ideological taint. I’m not referring to a blogger with political views but one who would let those views cloud his or her judgment regarding the facts. The fact should speak for themselves. Of course, all facts are subject to interpretation.

After publication, the blogger should expect to hit with the kind of blog swarm that targets The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and The Wall Street Journal and other traditional media outlets when they publish national security related articles. A good example is the criticism heaped on those publications after they revealed that the Bush Administration had what The Times calls ‘€œa secret program that seeks to investigate and block terrorists by tracing financial records through a banking consortium in Brussels.’€?

These publications have the financial resources and constitutional attorneys to defend their right to publish and stand their ground. How many bloggers have such resources?

Picture by evill1@flickr – used under a Creative Commons license.

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  1. By Aaron posted on July 7, 2006 at 3:50 pm
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    Excellent write up. Too many people like to run with information just to get a scoop and often its just better to be a little careful

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