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Since June, some entity has been releasing e-mails and electronic documents obtained via network intrusions and credential thefts of politicians and political party employees. Some of the releases have appeared on sites believed to be associated with Russian intelligence operations; others have appeared on Wikileaks. On occasion, the leaker has also engaged journalists directly, trying to have them publish information drawn from these documents—sometimes successfully, other times not.
The US government has pinned at least some of the blame for these leaks on Russia. This has led some observers to argue that WikiLeaks and Russian intelligence agencies are “weaponizing” the media. This is what national security circles refer to as an “influence operation,” using reporters as tools to give credibility and cover to a narrative driven by another nation-state. The argument is that by willingly accepting leaked data, journalists have (wittingly or not) aided the leaker’s cause. As such, they have become an “agent of influence.”
The Grugq, a veteran information security researcher who has specialized in counterintelligence research and a former employee of the computer security consulting company @stake, penned an article about the topic yesterday. “The primary role for an agent of influence,” he wrote, “is to add credibility to the narrative/data that the agency is attempting to get out and help influence the public.” Such agents might friendly with or controlled by the agency trying to spread the information, but they can also be unwitting accomplices “sometimes called a ‘useful idiot,’ unaware of their role as conduits of data for an agency.”
The actual impact of the leaked information on the US presidential election may not matter to an influence operation. The intended target of the campaign being waged through the WikiLeaks dumps, Guccifer 2.0, and DCLeaks is likely a larger public—perhaps including citizens in Russia itself and the people and decision-makers of the bordering nations. As Ars previously reported, the attacks on the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and on the US political process may be tied to a Russian effort to “contain” US foreign policy efforts and undermine confidence among the citizens of eastern European NATO members. The continued dumping of documents—and the chaos it creates for the US political process—shows the world that Russia can act upon the US at a distance. Therefore, Russia can also project power much closer to home.
Assuming this attribution and analysis is in some broad sense accurate, the raises a question: what’s a journalist to do with these sorts of hacks and leaks? Has everyone who draws on them become an unwitting “agent of influence?” And if so, is that actually a bad thing if the leaks are newsworthy?
Ethics in information warfare journalism
Dealing with a source’s motivations is not a new problem for the press. Journalists get used all the time (just as they sometimes “use” their sources; it’s part of the circle of life for investigative reporting). “The decision about whether or not to publish has always been about whether or not it’s in the public interest, and also, I think, about what’s the motivation or intention [of the source],” Jeremy Rue, acting dean of academics for the University of California at Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, told Ars.
“Often journalists are so eager to get information, they don’t take the time to ask what the motivation is behind this source,” Rue said. “I think those motivations are important to factor in. Whether or not it changes the choice to publish, I don’t really want to take a specific stand on that. It’s a very complex issue and it keeps coming up in newsrooms. But I do definitely feel strongly that you should absolutely weigh all the different factors, like what are the motivations of your source.”
Glenn Greenwald of The Intercept has vocally disagreed with the idea that the source’s intentions are material to a reporters’ job, particularly in the case of publishing WikiLeaks’ recent dumps. To him, if it’s news, it’s should be reported—regardless of source and motivation. In a recent article, Greenwald wrote as much:
Some have been arguing that because these hacks were engineered by the Russian government with the goal of electing Trump or at least interfering in US elections, journalists should not aid this malevolent scheme by reporting on the material. Leaving aside the fact that there is no evidence (just unproven US government assertions) that the Russian government is behind these hacks, the motive of a source is utterly irrelevant in the decision-making process about whether to publish.
While nothing in the public domain explicitly links the Russian government to the overall operation, there’s at least some suggestive public evidence of Russia’s involvement with Guccifer 2.0—who gave Greenwald exclusive access to some of the breach content—and with the DCLeaks “American hacktivist” site. That evidence includes both analysis by security experts of the initial Guccifer 2.0 document dump and an investigation by The Smoking Gun in August, which was triggered by Guccifer 2.0 reaching out directly to the site.
For The Grugq, the way Greenwald has interacted with Guccifer 2.0 looks like a perfect example of how an influence operation works. “The Intercept was given ‘exclusive’ access to e-mails obtained by the entity known as Guccifer 2.0,” he wrote. “The Intercept was both aware that the e-mails were from Guccifer 2.0, that Guccifer 2.0 has been attributed to Russian intelligence services, and that there is significant public evidence supporting this attribution.”
For a site like Wikileaks, the questions extend further. Assuming that it’s right to publish material regardless of the source’s motivations, how much of that material is fair game?
The Investigative Reporter’s Handbook frames the decision this way:
When exposing private behaviors of public figures a reporter must make sure there is a need for the public to know this information. If there is not than a reporter should not report on it. If the behavior does not affect the figures public performance than there is no need to report on it.
Naomi Klein, speaking on Glenn Greenwald’s podcast this week, said something similar when talking about WikiLeaks:
They’re very clearly looking for maximum media attention and you can tell that just by looking at the WikiLeaks Twitter feed and at how they are timing it right before the debates… These leaks are not, in my opinion, in the same category as the Pentagon Papers or previous WikiLeaks releases like the trade documents they continue to leak, which I am tremendously grateful for, because those are government documents that we have a right to, that are central to democracy. There are many things in that category. But personal e-mails—and there’s all kinds of personal stuff in these e-mails—this sort of indiscriminate dump is precisely what Snowden was trying to protect us from.
For Wikileaks, of course, it’s all fair game in the name of radical transparency.
Between Scylla and Charybdis
While there were certainly influence operations in the pre-Internet era, data breaches and digital media (including social media) have made them more accessible even to non-state actors. The “Climategate” incident, in which a collection of e-mails from the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia was leaked in an attempt to sow doubt about scientists’ consensus on climate change, is an example of selective publication of information to create controversy and political ammunition. So is the recent “Panama Papers” leak (which the Russian government has suggested was a US information operation).
But if the DNC leaks and the wave of other breaches of political figures’ e-mails have been an influence operation, they have operated at a much larger scale with much broader ambitions.
There’s enough to be concerned about ethically when it comes to accurate leaked data being provided by someone running an intentional influence campaign. But things get more complicated when false information is introduced into leaks. While WikiLeaks claims “a 100 percent accuracy rate” for its leaked documents, materials provided by Guccifer 2.0 showed signs of alteration. The entity behind Guccifer 2.0 claimed that one document was a file classified Secret and taken from the computer Hillary Clinton used at the State Department. But the document, which was actually an Obama transition team memorandum from before Clinton was even a nominee for Secretary of State, had been modified to include “Secret” in the document’s header.
This is the sort of thing that Jack Goldsmith, a former Department of Justice official, warned about at a recent seminar at Yale University. “Theft and publication of truthful information is small beans—what about theft and publication of faked information, which is hard to verify, or tampering with the vote itself?” Goldsmith said. “That could have huge consequences, the number of actors who could do this are many, and our ability to defend against it is uncertain.”
That places journalists trying to use the documents from these dumps in a very tight spot, trying to both determine the veracity of content they’ve obtained and decide its newsworthiness. Yes, journalists have been used for propaganda purposes before. Journalists are used by politicians and government agencies every day to put out information to shape perception. Wikileaks’ dumps of the Podesta e-mails and other Democratic Party documents show among other things how journalists both use and are used by their sources, ingratiating themselves to get access. But this is the first time a foreign government’s agent has used the combination of network infiltration, data theft, and public leaking of that data to the press and the world to affect another country’s election—and the perception of that other country’s election in areas of the world.
Scott E. DePasquale, Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center for International Security and Chairman & CEO of Utilidata, suggests that Wikileaks’ decisions have made it a classic agent of influence.
“We can divorce ourselves from whether Russia has actually paid the bills [for WikiLeaks] with no questions and no doubts that Assange knows he is doing benefit to Russia,” he said. “Whether we get down to if they’re on the Russian payroll, is it a deeply covert intelligence operation or something like that—all of that aside, because I think those are impossible questions to answer and even shed light on in an unclassified domain—it is without a doubt that Assange knows what he is doing is benefiting Russia. Whether he’s doing it out of spite for the US as a political activist, or he is using the Russians… whatever the modality is, he knows very well that his interest and Putin’s interest are deeply aligned. And that’s deeply troubling for us at the end of the day.”
The worries don’t even end with the first reporters to hit publish. Questions linger even for more traditional journalists who use only small bits of the most newsworthy leaked material.
“There’s the complicitness of serving this role of disseminating news for a state actor like Russia,” said Rue. “I think that is a factor that should be part of the equation of whether or not to decide to publish something.” A reporter or news organization may still decide that it’s worth it to run with the material even if they believe that it’s been provided by Russia “trying to embarrass the Clinton campaign,” Rue acknowledged. But “you have to consider that as part of the equation to publish.”
The ethical decisions journalists now make about how they interact with that data are much more complicated as a result. And because of the impact of this particular influence operation, this approach may well become the norm—with more countries seeking to expose each others’ secrets using journalists as their proxies.