NEW YORK >> Where were you when you first heard about the Snowden leak?
The huge breach of the National Security Agency’s domestic surveillance program in June 2013 was one of the proudest moments in modern journalism, and one of the purest: A brave and disgusted whistleblower, Edward Snowden, revealed the government’s extensive surveillance of American and foreign citizens. Two journalists protected their source, revealed his secrets and won the blessings of the Establishment — a Pulitzer Prize and an Oscar for it.
One of the people who fell in love with that story was Pierre Omidyar, the earnest if remote billionaire founder of eBay. That October, he pledged $250 million for a new institution led by those two journalists, Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras. Omidyar was the benefactor of journalists’ dreams. He promised total independence for a new nonprofit news site, The Intercept, under the umbrella of his First Look Media. The Intercept was founded in the belief that “the prime value of journalism is that it imposes transparency, and thus accountability, on those who wield the greatest governmental and corporate power.” The outlet’s first mission was to set up a secure archive of Snowden’s documents, and to keep mining them for stories.
The recent history of the news business has been about what happens when your traditional business is disrupted by the internet and your revenues dry up. But at The Intercept and First Look, the story is of a different destabilizing force: gushers of money.
In 2017, the for-profit arm of the company had budgeted $40 million for a growing staff and bets on movies and television shows, a former executive said, while the nonprofit arm spent about $26 million in 2017 and again in 2018, according to its public filings, most of it on The Intercept.
High-profile stars collected big salaries — Greenwald brought in more than $500,000 in 2015 — and they sometimes clashed in public with their titular bosses over the rocky efforts to build an organization. Writers warred on Twitter and in Slack messages over Donald Trump, race and the politics of the left.
Greenwald continues to infuriate younger colleagues with tweets like one denouncing “woke ideologues.”
Not long after Omidyar wired his first dollar, he found himself presiding over chaos so public that Vanity Fair asked in 2015 “whether First Look Media can make headlines that aren’t about itself.”
All the drama would make this another colorful story about extreme newsroom dysfunction had The Intercept not caught the attention of a naive NSA linguist with the improbable name of Reality Winner in 2017. Winner, then 25, had been listening to the site’s podcast. She printed out a secret report on Russian cyberattacks on American voting software that seemed to address some of Greenwald’s doubts about Russian interference in the 2016 campaign and mailed it to The Intercept’s Washington, D.C., post office box in early May.
The Intercept scrambled to publish a story on the report, ignoring the most basic security precautions. The lead reporter on the story sent a copy of the document, which contained markings that showed exactly where and when it had been printed, to the NSA media affairs office, all but identifying Winner as the leaker.
On June 3, about three weeks after Winner sent her letter, two FBI agents showed up at her home in Georgia to arrest her. They announced the arrest soon after The Intercept’s article was published on June 5.
“They sold her out, and they messed it up so that she would get caught, and they didn’t protect their source,” her mother, Billie Winner-Davis, said in a telephone interview last week. “The best years of her life are being spent in a system where she doesn’t belong.”
Failing to protect an anonymous leaker is a cardinal sin in journalism, though the remarkable thing in this instance is that The Intercept didn’t seem to try to protect its source. The outlet immediately opened an investigation into its blunder, which confirmed the details that the Justice Department had gleefully announced after it arrested Winner. They included the fact that The Intercept led the authorities to Winner when it circulated the document in an effort to verify it, and then published the document, complete with the identifying markings, on the internet.
Internal emails and records I obtained reveal the tumult that led to one of the highest-profile journalistic disasters in recent memory and provide broader insights into the limits of a news organization dependent on an inattentive billionaire’s noblesse oblige. A spokeswoman for Omidyar declined to make him available for an interview. The New York Times is not publishing the documents, which run to more than 100 pages, because they include discussions of sourcing and security measures.
The documents, among them two internal reports on the Reality Winner incident that have not been made public, were given to me by people who were senior employees in 2017 and contend that the organization failed to hold itself accountable for its mistakes and for what happened to Winner as a result.
Some current and former staff members I interviewed expressed fundamental questions about the internal investigation into the debacle, including why The Intercept hadn’t brought in an outside law firm or other independent entity to conduct the inquiry. They also asked why Betsy Reed, the editor-in-chief, had assigned the investigation to Lynn Dombek, then The Intercept’s head of research, who reported directly to her.
Reed, who had been brought in to stabilize The Intercept and rein in its big personalities in 2015, told me she faced “a treacherous situation” after the article was published. She needed to balance a “legitimate demand for transparency” that aligned with The Intercept’s founding values with lawyers’ strong advice to stay silent to protect her reporters and their sources.
Poitras said The Intercept should have held itself to a higher standard.
“We founded this organization on the principle of holding the powerful accountable and protecting whistleblowers,” Poitras said in an interview. “Not only was this a cover-up and betrayal of core values, but the lack of any meaningful accountability promoted a culture of impunity and puts future sources at risk.”
The internal tensions were boiling over one night, just before Thanksgiving 2017, when the two U.S. journalists who helped bring Snowden’s revelations public were exchanging late-night emails, which I obtained. They were writing not about government misconduct but their own newsroom’s.
Reed’s oversight of the investigation, Poitras wrote, was an attempt “to cover up what happened for self-protective reasons.”
It was, Greenwald agreed in response, a “whitewash.”
The documents fall short of revealing a conspiratorial cover-up. Instead they show an extreme version of the human errors, hubris and mismanagement familiar to anyone who has worked in a newsroom — and the struggle of The Intercept to live up to its lofty founding ideals in dealing with its own errors.
Winner may have thought she was mailing the documents to Greenwald and Poitras, who went to great lengths to protect Snowden. But Greenwald was in Brazil, and when he heard about the document, he was not interested. He told me that he considered its claims about Russian hacking during the 2016 race “wildly overblown” and that it didn’t include direct evidence to convince him otherwise.
Poitras, meanwhile, had at that point left The Intercept, and established a nonprofit production firm, Field of Vision, a part of First Look Media, which also includes The Intercept and Omidyar’s other ventures.
Reed and her deputy, Roger Hodge, gave the story to a pair of established television journalists: Matthew Cole and Richard Esposito. Cole, formerly of NBC, had collaborated with Greenwald on the Snowden stories and was on staff. Esposito, also a veteran of broadcast news at NBC News and ABC News, was brought in from outside and is now the top spokesman for the New York Police Department.
Reed told me she’d brought them in partly because The Intercept’s outsider posture had left it without the inside sources who could verify documents like Winner’s. But their reflex to reach out to national security officials carried its own risk.
“If you get a document that purports to be from the NSA, it should be a five-alarm fire,” a member of The Intercept’s high-powered security team, Erinn Clark, said in her interview for the internal inquiry. “Go to a secure room, with an editor, freeze where you are. You are not aware who you are exposing or putting at risk.”
Instead, Cole put the document in his bag and got on a train to New York.
One concern did cross his mind. “I thought at the time there would be an audit if they printed on a government printer,” he said, according to the internal review notes. “I forgot about that thought.”
Later, he called a source in the intelligence community in an attempt to verify the document, and casually revealed its postmark.
“My source said something about, ‘How did it come to us?’ I said in the mail, from Georgia, and my source laughed about that,” he recalled during the internal investigation. Then Cole mentioned that the postmark was Fort Gordon, Georgia, which is home to the NSA’s Cryptologic Center. ” ‘There’s a logic to that,’ the source said.”
The startling carelessness about protecting Winner was particularly mystifying at an organization that had been founded on security. Steps from Cole’s desk in The Intercept’s open-plan office in Manhattan sat Clark and Micah Lee, leading figures in digital security. Cole did not involve them at all.
Cole and Esposito said they’d been pushed to rush the story to publication, but Cole also acknowledged that failing to consult with the security team was a “face plant.”
The Intercept’s leaders argued in 2017, and still contend, that the narrative laid out by the Justice Department in its prosecution of Winner was shaped to make The Intercept — a thorn in the government’s side — look bad. And Winner’s own carelessness — she printed the document at work — could easily have gotten her caught even if The Intercept had been more cautious. But they also knew they had made real journalistic errors.
And so a key question was who to blame for this catastrophe and what consequences they should suffer. Dombek, who undertook the internal investigation, concluded that the editors — Reed and Hodge — needed to take responsibility. Others, including Greenwald, were demanding that Cole and Reed be fired, and The Intercept provide a public reckoning. (Greenwald later relented and said he understood the desire not to “scapegoat” for an institutional failure.)
On July 11, 2017, Reed published a post on The Intercept announcing that First Look would pay for Winner’s legal defense. Reed also announced that an “internal review of the reporting of this story has now been completed.”
“We should have taken greater precautions to protect the identity of a source who was anonymous even to us,” she wrote. “As the editor-in-chief, I take responsibility for this failure, and for making sure that the internal newsroom issues that contributed to it are resolved.”
But the drama didn’t end there.
Greenwald and Jeremy Scahill, an investigative reporter who is the third founder of The Intercept, publicly demanded a more thorough investigation, and in response to their pressure, the company commissioned a second internal report, by a First Look lawyer, David Bralow. Bralow’s report, issued four months later, cited as central issues the decision to share the document with the NSA, Cole’s discussion of the postmark and the publication of the identifying markings.
“While each of these actions may or may not amount to an error in all cases, in this instance, these actions fell below The Intercept’s goals of protecting sources who seek to share information of significant public importance,” he wrote. “The procedures for authenticating leaked, classified documents reveal institutional weaknesses.”
Winner was sentenced to five years and three months in federal prison in 2018, and The Intercept has covered her case regularly, always noting its own role — “an important part of accountability,” Reed said.
But there hasn’t been any further accounting. Neither internal report was shared with the public. Nobody at The Intercept was fired, demoted or even reassigned.
Reed and Bralow argued that any public reckoning could still expose other sources they spoke to about the document.
The story has clearly been a psychic blow to the idealism that marked the founding of The Intercept. The outlet has stepped back from its early ambitions. The archive of Snowden documents, which it received from Greenwald and Poitras on the condition that the company maintain a specific, complex security protocol and a staff to support it, was closed after Reed reduced its staff, citing budget cuts. Poitras, who furiously objected to the cuts at the time, called the move “staggering.”
The repository had been “the most significant historical archive documenting the rise of the surveillance state in the twenty first century,” Poitras wrote in a memo to The Intercept’s parent company. Closing it did a disservice to “the public for whom Edward Snowden blew the whistle.”
The Intercept never fully regained its swagger after the Reality Winner case, though it has continued to produce notable stories. It has broadened its original mandate to reporting on “civil liberties, social justice, the fight against corruption,” Reed said, and broken stories including revelations from the Snowden files of AT&T’s role in NSA surveillance and an investigative profile by Cole of Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater, the private security contractor.
Nowadays, it seems more taken by politics, both in Brazil, where Greenwald lives, and in the United States, where it has become a hub for the fiery ideological battles playing out among the American left.
A leak to Greenwald last year showed how corruption investigations had been politicized in Brazil; the reporting reshaped the country’s politics. In the United States, Greenwald has been increasingly engaged in the bitter feuds with others on the left, charging that liberals — including some of his Intercept colleagues — have become fixated on identity politics and Russia, and ignored the more insidious workings of corporate power. His most memorable television appearances these days seem to be on Fox’s Tucker Carlson show, during which the two men denounce the “deep state.”
Meanwhile, his colleagues have refashioned the site to champion insurgents and critics of the Democratic mainstream, including a woman who accused Joe Biden of sexual assault, Tara Reade, as mainstream outlets raised doubts about her story.
The business conceived to underwrite the journalism at The Intercept — the for-profit moviemaking arm — has sputtered, too, failing to produce another hit since “Spotlight” in 2015. The documents I obtained show a bitter internal fight over leaders’ refusal to give a top female executive a producer credit. Another of its highest-profile hires, former Topic.com editor Anna Holmes, who left in 2019, told me: “I’ve always admired First Look Media’s stated commitment to free speech, transparency and speaking truth to power. So in that spirit I’ll say this: My tenure there was creatively rewarding — it was also personally and professionally demoralizing.”
Reality Winner, meanwhile, is recovering from the coronavirus in federal prison in Texas. She’s still short of breath sometimes, said her mother, who still blames The Intercept for the disastrous consequences of her daughter’s incautious effort to blow the whistle, though First Look is also paying the legal bills.
Winner-Davis recently abandoned her retirement to take a job as a corrections officer at a local jail so she could feel closer to her daughter and understand her experience behind bars.
“It tears me apart every day going into that setting and knowing this is what my daughter is going through,” she said.
Ben Smith writes the The Media Equation column for the New York Times.