WaPo's Wemple wonders: Say, whatever happened to source-protection methods?

After yesterday’s arrest of a DIA intel analyst for leaking to two NBC reporters, one of whom was his roommate/girlfriend, the focus fell first on Kyle Frese’s ineptitude. How could Frese have been so careless as to draw attention to his own leaks by retweeting the articles that contained material he had accessed? Why would he have gone out of his way to access information not related to his assignment for other leaks, leaving a trail of breadcrumbs that even an Inspector Clouseau could follow?

Washington Post media critic Eric Wemple has even better questions for the two NBC News reporters who ran Frese as their source. Hasn’t anyone taught them source-protection methods? Especially these days, when this administration and the previous one both targeted leaks?

In this case, the communications presented law-enforcement authorities with a hanging curveball. For instance, the affidavit declares that Macias followed Frese on Twitter and Frese followed Macias on Twitter. “Search warrant returns from Twitter show that, seven days after FRESE accessed Intelligence Report 1 for the second time, Journalist 1 wrote a Twitter Direct Message (“DM”) to FRESE in which she asked whether FRESE would be willing to speak with Journalist 2.” …

It gets worse, though: The affidavit states that via “open source records” search, the authorities were able to determine that Frese followed Macias on Twitter and Macias followed Frese on Twitter. That makes sense, especially when considering this additional fact: “Public records checks also show that FRESE and Journalist 1 had the same residential address from August 2017 through August 2018. Based on reviews of FRESE’s and Journalist 1’s public social media pages, it appears that they were involved in a romantic relationship for some or all of that period of time.”

Wemple then expands on that point, but let’s stick with the source-protection issue first. This came up in the Reality Winner case too, whose cover got blown by The Intercept when they decided to publish the images of documents supplied by her to them. Unbeknownst to any of them, intel agencies have systems that leave identifying marks on printed materials, and the images published by The Intercept pointed investigators right to Winner. The Intercept came under criticism at the time for their amateurish bungling that exposed their source.

What about NBC, which has been in this business a lot longer than The Intercept? Not only did Frese, Macias, and Kube all follow each other on social media under their real names, Macias and Frese lived together while she published stories on her byline with classified information Frese supplied. Frese may have been an idiot, but did it never occur to the reporters involved that perhaps a degree or two of distance would be required to protect their source within the DIA?

Not to mention the ethical issues that sleeping with a source presents, even outside of classified material or source protection. Wemple has a word or two to say about that as well:

Instant conflict of interest. No journalist can report objectively on the defense establishment if he or she is involved romantically with a key source employed therein.

That argument applies specifically to Macias, we should note, and not Kube. The reasons for Wemple’s argument should be obvious, but apparently aren’t. That more than the bungling of the source might be why Macias has been reportedly suspended by NBC News through CNBC, and why Kube has apparently not been suspended.

Wemple’s interest in criticizing the pair for their handling of a source is almost as obvious. The intent of the DoJ’s prosecution of Frese and other leakers is to make clear the disincentives of talking with reporters, which means the latter will eventually get much less access to information. Careless and irresponsible reporters like Macias and by extension Kube will eventually erode confidence of sources in media organizations’ ability to protect their identities and make it even tougher for media outlets to get access to such information.

Of course, the sources themselves could help themselves by not moving in with the reporters and retweeting them, so perhaps the risk is limited. However, Wemple’s not wrong to think that the amateurish handling of Winner, James Wolfe, and now Frese might — and should — have cleared personnel thinking twice about violating the law to spill classified information to reporters.

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