Government Continues to Freak Out about the Intercept, Raise Its Profile

The Intercept had a story on the content of the government’s terrorist watchlist yesterday — I’ll have more to say about the content later. But the government — largely National Counterterrorism Center — response to it shows the government getting increasingly unhinged about the Intercept and other journalistic models based on leaked documents.

First, in an apparent effort to shift the focus away from the 200,000 people on the terrorist watchlist with no tie to a known terrorist organization and to the fact that the watchlist has ballooned in response to the UndieBomb attempt in December 2009, NCTC gave the scoop to AP’s Eileen Sullivan.

The Associated Press dropped a significant scoop on Tuesday afternoon, reporting that in the last several years the U.S. government’s terrorism watch list has doubled.

A few minutes after the AP story, then consisting of three paragraphs, was posted at 12:32 p.m., The Intercept published a much more comprehensive article.

NCTC even admitted they spoiled the scoop after the Intercept’s John Cook called them on it.

After the AP story ran, The Intercept requested a conference call with the National Counterterrorism Center. A source with knowledge of the call said that the government agency admitted having fed the story to the AP, but didn’t think the reporter would publish before The Intercept did. “That was our bad,” the official said.

Asked by The Intercept editor John Cook if it was the government’s policy to feed one outlet’s scoop to a friendlier outlet, a silence ensued, followed by the explanation: “We had invested some quality time with Eileen,” referring to AP reporter Eileen Sullivan, who the official added had been out to visit the NCTC.

“After seeing you had the docs, and the fact we had been working with Eileen, we did feel compelled to give her a heads up,” the official said, according to the source. “We thought she would publish after you.”

This is bone-headed on several levels. In the future, all government agencies will get less time to comment on the Intercept’s upcoming stories, which — given how much classified information they’re sitting on — could really hurt their interests.

And NCTC burned Sullivan badly; she’s a decent reporter, but NCTC has made it clear they consider her their reporter. (NSA has done this similarly but less obviously with some superb beat reporters, leaking them partial stories then exploiting those partial stories to undercut real attention on the documents.)

Then, the government gave CNN’s Evan Perez an “Exclusive” to trumpet their determination that there’s probably someone else leaking documents to the Intercept.

The federal government has concluded there’s a new leaker exposing national security documents in the aftermath of surveillance disclosures by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, U.S. officials tell CNN.

Proof of the newest leak comes from national security documents that formed the basis of a news story published Tuesday by the Intercept, the news site launched by Glenn Greenwald, who also published Snowden’s leaks.

The Intercept article focuses on the growth in U.S. government databases of known or suspected terrorist names during the Obama administration.

The article cites documents prepared by the National Counterterrorism Center dated August 2013, which is after Snowden left the United States to avoid criminal charges.

Greenwald has suggested there was another leaker. In July, he said on Twitter “it seems clear at this point” that there was another.

Government officials have been investigating to find out that identity.

Note, there’s almost certainly an error here, presumably on the part of the government. There appears to be a second NSA leaker, leaking to Jacob Appelbaum. But there’s also the person who gave the Intercept the NCTC documents, which is almost certainly an entirely different person.

Of course, there’s not just one new leaker. In DC there are new leakers everyday, even people who share classified documents. What Perez’ sources mean is OMIGOD there’s another person giving That Outlet documents.

The government has chosen to make it a Big Story that at least one more person has decided to leak the Intercept documents.

Ultimately, I think the Known and Suspected Terrorist documents the Intercept got are badly overclassified and also should be released in whole to permit debate and oversight. The documents show some good things (and some areas where NCTC has implemented questionable demands from Congress such as that they biometric everything). They also show the system lacks controls. Absent real discussion, it appears NCTC and the rest of this bureaucracy hasn’t gotten the right balance on watchlisting.

But rather than engaging in that debate, the government first tried to pre-empt it, burning Sullivan in the process, and then screaming so loud as to raise the value of such leaks.


Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

12 replies
  1. Greg Bean (@GregLBean) says:

    Sadly, crucial details that would have made The Intercept’s (and AP’s) reporting much more valuable, has not been provided.
    That is, what profile(s) do the 280,000 share that have got them into the database?
    My guess is that it has grown dramatically as it now likely includes anyone involved in the Occupy movement, plus, as we now know environmental activists are seen as terrorists, anyone involved in environmental activism, likely including Green Peace members, and many other activists, marchers, protestors, etc who would all be seen as a threat.
    Imagine if The Intercept’s reporting actually detailed these profile characteristics.
    That would be really useful and powerful.
    Instead we have a situation where everyone is alarmed at the overreach but no one knows just how malicious that overreach has been in undermining political activism and as a result, democracy.

    • Ben Franklin says:

      Cook and GG are going to continue to get scooped as they dally about the edges.
      The effort to give us the plain facts has been hobbled by an overly cautious philosophy striving to elevate their status to merchant marine from Buccaneers of the high seas. They haven’t published the names because they respected the wishes of USdotgov. Now they have a ‘shiv’ in their backs, and ours, for their trouble.

    • Les says:

      That’s just once agency, the NCTC. The federal government funds similar data-mining programs in other federal departments and agencies as well as the states. The 2010 book Top Secret America found there were 50 federal agencies performing the same counterterrorism work.

      I have a relative who works there. The last time I talked to him, he didn’t seem to have a clue. The only justification seems to be that any major terrorist attack in the future will be held over the heads of people who oppose these wasteful projects.

  2. orionATL says:

    this is all public relations media reporting manipulation on the part of the federal government’s nctc.

    the pea to not lose track of is the watchlist abuses – and they are colossal abuses which at present are effectively unredressable.

    in order to hide the pea from the public, we have distractions brought to our attention by nctc – a new leaker ?, duelling media sources.

    this whole story illustrates contemporary standards for government deceeiving its citizens, standards which allow any evasion or lie to be fed to the citizenry with impunity most particularly by national security bureaucrats.


    the governments watch list continues to deliver little to no security, but tremendous unfairness and vindictiveness to the citizenry with no recourse for injustices done.

  3. bloopie2 says:

    And the whole ‘biometric’ thing deserves an article of its own. That’s scary, how they amass data about you to track you. Just as much as the fact that they track, you, per se. Or did I miss it somewhere?

  4. Avedon says:

    “In the future, all government agencies will get less time to comment on the Intercept’s upcoming stories, which — given how much classified information they’re sitting on — could really hurt their interests.”

    Good. It is increasingly clear that their interests are not those of the American people, and we need a free press that will spell out those distinctions without being fettered by the interests represented by intelligence agencies.

  5. JTIdaho says:

    I think we have a winner in the “Slogan that best characterizes the Obama Administration” contest. And the winner is: “That was our bad.” It works for everything!

    We spoiled The Intercept’s scoop on the NCTC’s terrorist watch list? “That was our bad.”

    We tortured some folks? “That was our bad.”

    We repeatedly lied to Congress? “That was our bad.”

  6. Greg Bean (@GregLBean) says:

    EW, as a kind of after thought, I’m still waiting expectantly for your followup on the break with The Intercept, as mentioned here:

    If I’ve missed it please point me at it, or if you’ve changed your mind and possibly, understandably, have decided it’s best forgotten, well that is your prerogative.

    But my curiosity makes me want to understand how a weed-whipper of the highest order is not methodically working through the largest weediest stash that has ever existed.

    EW, I’m sure I’m not alone in awaiting your thoughts.

  7. Les says:

    They didn’t exactly spoil the news coverage. None of the major TV networks gave any time to the Intercept news release. Since Intercept failed to provide any details on the characteristics of these non-terrorism-affiliated targets, it just became another story on government waste or mismanagement. Provide some names of prominent people who don’t belong on a terror watchlist and this story would have legs.

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