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Russian spy case provides test for news outlets

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    The seal of the Central Intelligence Agency at CIA headquarters, seen in April 2016, in Langley, Va. Most stories about espionage are shrouded in secrecy due to the danger involved, but news organizations have been tested with the emergence of a potential spy’s name.

NEW YORK >> He may be A spy. But is he THE spy?

That’s the question bedeviling news organizations reporting on a story about the U.S. extracting a Russian official who provided information about Kremlin interference in the 2016 presidential election. CNN on Monday revealed the secret mission to remove the man and his family out of Russia for fear his life was in danger.

The network did not identify the alleged spy. With government secrets and lives at stake, espionage is usually shrouded in secrecy.

Yet the Russian newspaper Kommersant on Tuesday named an individual it said was a missing member of Vladimir Putin’s administration and suggested that he was an agent who provided the United States with information about the election.

That night, NBC News posted a story about a “former senior Russian official” who was living in the Washington area under U.S. government protection, citing current and former government officials.

NBC reporter Ken Dilanian went to the house where this person supposedly lived, although no one was home. He wrote about ringing the doorbell and waiting for five minutes, until two men who identified themselves as friends of the owner drove up and asked what he was doing there. The NBC story speculated that the men were U.S. government agents.

But NBC said it was withholding the Russian’s name and other details at the request of the U.S. government, which said such reporting could endanger the person’s life.

“I wanted to knock on the door hoping he would come out and talk to me, even if we didn’t identify him,” Dilanian said. “Just so people understand, we didn’t out him. My sources are telling me the Russians surely know where he was because it wasn’t a secret. If you Googled the name, you could find where he was living.”

The story, however, led Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple to post his own take headlined, “NBC News wanted a part of the Russian spy story. So it did something really stupid.”

Wemple questioned how the public benefited from the reporting, other than the knowledge that the spy wasn’t well-protected. “Must we know that this fellow is using his actual name? Eh,” he wrote. “Must we know that he is living in the Washington area? Negative. Must we know anything aside from what CNN and the New York Times reported? Perhaps, but Dilanian isn’t providing it.”

Yet a half hour earlier, Wemple’s own newspaper posted a story by Shane Harris and Ellen Nakashima identifying the Russian and the town where he lived. They went to the house, too, and no one was there. Spotting toys and clothing strewn across the yard, they wrote that “the family seems to have left in a hurry.” The Post reporters quoted a neighbor who talked about the person.

Wemple told the Associated Press that his story was being edited when the Harris and Nakashima piece was posted. He said he had no idea his newspaper was working on it.

“They do their thing and we do our thing,” he said. “The messiness of this situation attests to the separation between our ranks.”

In a later column, he apologized to NBC News, saying its decision not to use the name appeared to be an act of relative restraint.

“Our judgment was excessive, ill-considered and awful,” he wrote.

One thing the Post and NBC stories had in common: They said they could not confirm that the person whose home they visited was the spy who gave the CIA information about election interference. NBC wrote that “he fits the profile of someone who may have had access to information about Putin’s activities and who would have been recruited by American intelligence officials.” The Post quoted unnamed officials saying the person “was almost certainly a valuable CIA asset.”

Some other news organizations, including The Associated Press and NPR, cited the inability to definitively tie the spy to the CIA’s extraction mission as the reason why they have not used the person’s name. NPR said the name was mistakenly used once in a report filed from Moscow, but wasn’t repeated.

The Post noted that by the time its story was published, the person’s name had been reported by many other outlets.

“The question of protecting his identity was moot,” spokeswoman Molly Gannon said.

Tom Bettag, former producer of ABC’s “Nightline” and now a journalism professor at the University of Maryland, put up a caution flag.

“Everyone has left the impression that this is the guy,” Bettag said. “It would be a terrible thing if it turns out that he’s not. I think you have to be super-careful.”

In the back of many minds is the 2018 poisoning in Britain of Sergei Skripal, a former Russian military officer and double agent for that country’s intelligence service. He and his daughter survived the nerve agent attack.

CNN noted in its original story that it was careful not to include information that could lead to identifying the agent involved. The network used some of that information later when it came out in the Times — the person’s length of service and ability to collect images of material on Putin’s desk — in order to make the point that the spy had a high-level job. The network has not sought to name the person.

The New York Times used the Washington-area Russian’s name Wednesday afternoon in a story headlined, “What Spy? Kremlin Mocks Aide Recruited by C.I.A. as a Boozy Nobody.”

The story said the Times was not able to independently confirm that the “boozy nobody” was the spy extracted by the United States.

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