BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I’m Bob Garfield. If making sense of Russian interference and computer hacking and conflicting media narratives is a challenge for news consumers, it can be positively dangerous for a journalist trying to uncover the truth. Marcy Wheeler blogs about national security and civil liberties @emptywheel.net and her sources include some sinister actors, among them hackers and other dark web sorts. As she was reporting on the 2016 presidential election, particularly the hacks of the DNC and other entities, she came to believe that one of her sources was not only deceiving her about key elements of Russian interference, he was an active player in that operation and a threat to her own safety. So in an act that defies the norms of journalistic practice, Wheeler outed her source to the FBI. Marcy, welcome back to OTM.
MARCY WHEELER: Always great to be on.
BOB GARFIELD: All right. You dimed out a source to the FBI.
MARCY WHEELER: [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: That wasn’t surprising only because of your career billed on being suspicious of the government but just journalistically. News organizations very seldom do these things, lest we be perceived as agents of or collaborators with the state. Why you, why now?
MARCY WHEELER: Because the person was doing ongoing significant damage to innocent people, and I wasn't willing to sit there and watch that continue to happen. The other thing is that I do think he was trying to tamper with my site but also because if the FBI otherwise came to certain information that was in my possession, I believed that they would start tracking my readers to try and find him, and so I wanted to prevent that from happening. So there were a bunch of different ethical concerns that wouldn't necessarily be the same ones for somebody working at New York Times, for example.
But I will also say that the security challenge of even getting to the FBI took me a very long time and a lot of hoop jumping.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, were you a walk-in? I mean, they’ve got a building right here in Washington, DC.
MARCY WHEELER: Among the rules that I broke, don't touch the FBI, don't let the police in your house without a warrant, one rule I did not break was don't talk to the FBI without a lawyer. So first I had to find a lawyer who didn't think this was a crazy story and who was willing to make at least some concessions for ways I was trying to protect sources and other journalists, and so on. So I had privileged conversations with eight different lawyers before I got to the FBI.
BOB GARFIELD: The source that you turned in has been someone who's been giving you information for some good while. What happened that you became suspicious not only of what he was telling you but of perhaps a role in collusion with the Russians?
MARCY WHEELER: It was a lot of little tiny details that built up over time. For a long period of time, I would go on a day-to-day basis, at one point believing that I was correct and the next point believing I was stark raving insane. But it was information that started in June of 2016 that was suspicious but, of course, there was no way I was going to go to the FBI, ‘cause journalists don’t do that. And then there was an interim period where I was, like, I'll just ask questions of the FBI, but I didn't find a way to do that securely. And then, as time went on, I grew increasingly alarmed and the damage that he was doing was increasingly obvious.
BOB GARFIELD: And I just want to get clear of what that damage might have been.
MARCY WHEELER: There was clear disinformation, clear deception about who he was, but that's separate from the actual physical damage, real damage he was doing in the real world, the role he played in the election-year attack. And I’m gonna stay a little bit vague about what that is, still, ‘cause it’s not out there yet.
BOB GARFIELD: This is a kind of complicated interview to conduct --
MARCY WHEELER: Sorry. [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: -- because you can’t give me any of the details that --
MARCY WHEELER: Yeah, and make sense -- [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: -- and make sense of, of what has taken place here, but
MARCY WHEELER: I mean, look, the, the election-year attack involved hacks, so I, I will say that he was involved in election-year hacks, and I’ll leave it there.
BOB GARFIELD: On behalf of the Russians, perhaps in the, the Democratic National Committee, perhaps in WikiLeaks, perhaps elsewhere.
MARCY WHEELER: Yeah, and there were more hacks than people, I think, understand as part of the election-year attack.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, this person, this [LAUGHS] mystery source, he is not someone who is part of the administration, not someone who was, as far as you knew, part of the campaign but who has been an ongoing source for you on national security and law enforcement matters over time. Nonetheless, just a few hours after the polls closed, in November of 2016, you heard from him in a text message that gave you some remarkably inside information about the new administration's plans, in fact, its actions. Can you tell me about that text?
MARCY WHEELER: I got it about 14 hours after the polls closed in Hawaii and the substance of it basically said that Mike Flynn would be contacting, quote, “team al-Assad” within the next 48 hours, meaning that he was going to do some outreach to whatever team al-Assad means, whether that actually means the Syrians or the Russians, and that he had been instructed to do so immediately after the election.
BOB GARFIELD: And you’re thinkin’, I guess, well, that’s weird. How would he have any idea what the new administration is planning. But, apart from that, you weren’t all that suspicious at the time?
MARCY WHEELER: I didn't really start trying to figure out what the text was about until months later, after I had become more convinced that he had had a role in the election-year attack.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, I want to get back to journalistic best practices.
MARCY WHEELER: [LAUGHING] Or not.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] Even if you had had an explicit off-the- record arrangement with this guy, which, evidently, you didn't, under journalistic canon, being lied to would void any anonymity deal. So you could have simply written a story naming your source and about the nature of his lies, disinformation and so forth and just let justice or, or the Justice Department take its natural course. But you didn't do that. Why?
MARCY WHEELER: Several reasons, one of which is I believed that that would allow him to flee. It would have meant that law enforcement would not have been able to pursue him. But the other reason is that some of what he was doing was so reactive and dangerous that I believed that he might respond by doing far worse damage than he was already doing. So I believed that that might exacerbate the problem, rather than fix it.
BOB GARFIELD: In the days since you've written this, have you gotten any backlash from people you depend on who are afraid that they're going to be the next name handed to the FBI?
MARCY WHEELER: Well, covering what I cover I rely on criminals as sources as much as I rely on law enforcement. Of some of my criminal sources, one definitely really questions what I did. Another one doesn't seem to. I will take a hit for this. I absolutely acknowledge that and know that and expect that.
I think it was worth it. I think the information I had was important enough that the hit I will take is just a cost that I'm willing to pay, I guess.
BOB GARFIELD: You believe that this guy has been a source not just for you but for many, many other news organizations, which raises the possibility that we as news consumers have been dis-informed about significant aspects of the, the probe. Do you believe that the narrative that people have pieced together through other reporting has skewed our perceptions?
MARCY WHEELER: With one very notable exception, I don't know that his disinformation has had a big role on the reporting of the investigation. And I think that his disinformation, in some cases, successfully underplayed the role that Russia had in hacking, going back a couple of years.
But, of course, journalists are generally not going to single- source stuff and, therefore, I know of a number of stories that he tried to place that did not succeed or did not succeed directly from him. But I can think back going years of what I now, in retrospect, believe was an attempt at disinformation to hide what Russia was up to.
BOB GARFIELD: What is the biggest takeaway that our listeners should take away?
MARCY WHEELER: That the stakes are real. This investigation is real. It is based off of, at least as far as I'm concerned, some pretty startling information and that the notion of the underlying threat, both in the election-year attacks and the threats going forward, those are all real. So while we get caught up in, in the partisanship and the suggestions this is just Republicans versus Democrats, people need to stop thinking in those terms and think in terms of the damage that's been done to the United States and, frankly, to innocent people around the world.
BOB GARFIELD: Marcy Wheeler blogs about national security @emptywheel.net. Be safe and thank you very much.