When these sources are anonymous or — in the case of earlier NSA sources — gray men whose stories haven’t captured the public imagination, nobody much cares. The Nixon Administration’s campaign to smear reporters’ Vietnam source, Daniel Ellsberg, is remembered only for having happened. When you learn decades later that the most famous anonymous source in American history — Deep Throat — was an unappealing figure fighting a bureaucratic civil war, that a mildly interesting footnote. The criminality he unearthed was interesting; Mark Felt wasn’t really. Who cares?
Christians talk of hating the sin and loving the sinner; reporters occasionally operate in exactly the opposite way: They hate, or at least, dislike the source, and love the story. (They also sometimes adore the source, respect the source, like the source — you know who you are, honored BuzzFeed sources.) If anyone ought to understand this, it’s the national security establishment: Spy agencies haven’t ever been accused of being overly solicitous of their assets.
But the new media ecosystem has moved sources to the foreground. They make their cases directly on Twitter or in web videos; in Snowden’s case, he also chose to protect himself by going and staying public in a way that would never before have been fully possible. “Big news will now carve its own route to the ocean, and no one feels the need to work with the traditional power players to make it happen,” David Carr wrote recently. The fact that the public must now meet our sources, with their complex motives and personalities, is part of that deal.