Sunday, June 28, 2009

Investigative Reporters Discuss How to Use Sources

It was an interesting study in contrasts as I listened to a session involving Seymour Hersh and James Bamford at the recent Investigative Reporters and Editors conference in Baltimore.

The two investigative journalists were asked to discuss the issue of sourcing, and it quickly became clear they approach it from very different perspectives.

Bamford, author of Body of Secrets and The Puzzle Palace, has built his career investigating the ultra-secret National Security Agency (NSA). His books have opened a window on the activities of the U.S. agency that eavesdrops on pretty much everybody. Hersh, meanwhile, continues to occupy a perch as one of the best investigative reporters in the U.S. His career has produced decades of scoops, ranging from My Lai and CIA dirty-tricks to the torture scandal at Abu Ghraib.

Both journalists operate independently and without the institutional support of a large media outlet. Yet they continue to find sources who will tell them about some of the most sensitive secrets in the U.S. Everyone in the audience was eager to find out how they do it.

Bamford described his process of attending trade conferences and tracking down current and former employees of the NSA, offering to buy them lunch in return for a friendly chat. As he builds trust and confidence, he begins to learn more about the agency and finds more names to contact. Unlike the CIA, which has had a number of dissident agents produce articles and books about the agency, Bamford said no former NSA employee has ever openly written about experiences inside.

Though he guarantees anonymity to all his sources, Bamford also makes an effort to convince people to allow their names to be published. He said it enhances the credibility of the reporting when actual names are attached to the information. Bamford also relies on the U.S. Freedom of Information Act to supplement his intereviews and find background information.

Hersh takes a very different view. He said he does not bother using the FOI Act and concentrates on human sources. He also doesn't see the identification of sources as a big issue. "The story is either true or it's not," he said.

I have heard Hersh speak before, so I know that he can bristle when people ask him to specify exactly what techniques he uses to nail down his stories. In the world he inhabits, having cultivated top level sources in key positions, he is careful about doing anything that might give his enemies any information about his methods. But this time he provided some insights into the work.

Hersh said he tries to cultivate military personnel who are retiring. People often have regrets about not achieving their career goals fully, and this can lead to candid discussions. He said he would never schedule an interview in a public place like a restaurant, as Bamford does. He and Bamford also cautioned against doing sensitive interviews on the phone. Hersh said his preference is to go the source's home.

Interestingly, Hersh also said he worries about getting set up. He is suspicious when someone approaches him with some information. He always prefers to be the one making the first move. At a previous talk, I heard Hersh say he would pay no attention to a document that came across his transom anonymously, for fear that it was a set-up.

Bamford insisted that no employee of the NSA has ever gotten into trouble for talking to him. Still, one should never underestimate the risks whistleblowers and anonymous sources take when talking to journalists, especially when dealing with sensitive government information.

Hersh makes a good point by insisting that the real issue in journalism is getting at the truth. That surely is a more important principle than worrying about whether too many anonymous sources are quoted in a story. But at the same time, the danger of being manipulated by sources is always present. A reporter who grows to rely on being steered in the right direction by a source can wind up disseminating disinformation. Some of the most egregious lies have been transmitted through the media by "sources close to the government" or "sources familiar with the investigation."

The best measure, as in all investigative journalism, is to look for verification for all information. Relying solely on a single source, whether named or anonymous, is always a risky venture.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Wayward Cabinet Documents

Leaving secret memos and cabinet documents in unauthorized places has a long history in Canadian politics. What's unusual is that it continues to happen with regularity.

My own experience with this phenomenon occurred in November 1984, when I was covering provincial politics for the Winnipeg Free Press. Then finance minister Michael Wilson, in the newly-minted Conservative government, was making his first Western swing, meeting with his provincial counterparts to discuss, among other things, transfer payments.

Manitoba was worried that it might lose $72 million in payments. But in his meetings with provincial officials, Wilson assured them no decisions had yet been made.

During the visit, Wilson held an impromptu press conference in the lobby of Winnipeg's Westin Hotel, just before heading off to a luncheon speech.

He put a big stack of binders and file folders on the coffee table in front of him and placed an ashtray on top. When the press conference ended, Wilson left for his speech, with a few dozen reporters in tow. The papers remained on the coffee table.

When all the rival media members were gone, I slowly opened the files and saw a black book marked Secret. Inside were confidential briefing notes to Wilson from his deputy minister, Mickey Cohen.

It was one of those moments reporters seldom experience -- and never forget. Here was the finance minister delivering one message publicly, while the briefing notes indicated that he was not telling the full story.

Even though Wilson was assuring Manitoba that no firm decision about transfer payments had been made, his deputy minister was telling him not to raise the province's hopes about getting the money.

Finding the binders gave me a unique opportunity to test Wilson on the spot.

One of the memos explicitly said that the cost of reviewing and raising equalization payments across Canada would be about $1.3 billion, a considerable sum.

After his luncheon speech, and before any of his aides knew that I had read the briefing notes, I asked Wilson what the cost would be. Hard to say, he replied.

Neither Wilson nor his aides had any idea his files were missing. After more than an hour of quietly reading the documents and taking notes, I informed the minister's assistants about the forgotten binders on the coffee table.

They were very appreciative, until the next morning, when the contents of the secret documents were splashed across the front page of the Winnipeg Free Press. We debated the ethics of publishing the material, but finally decided that papers abandoned in a public place were fair game – especially since they touched upon such an important public issue.

The Mulroney government was still enjoying a honeymoon following its impressive election victory two months earlier. But suddenly here was an issue the opposition could dig into.

The hotel caper, as it was called, dominated question period for the next three days. There were demands for the government to table all the documents that I had found.

Mulroney said he didn't know which documents they were, since he hadn't "pilfered" them.

That led then NDP leader Ed Broadbent to say: "It is a curious world when a cabinet minister is so sloppy and careless to leave behind a document that the prime minister accuses someone else of pilfering. It is a strange government we have."

It also prompted then Liberal critic Lloyd Axworthy to demand Mulroney apologize to me for the pilfering accusation. He did.

Fast forward 20 years. I was teaching a course on investigative journalism techniques where I was explaining how access to information laws worked. Cabinet documents, I told the group, are secret for 20 years, after which they can be accessed through a request.

Mulroney had fervently defended Wilson during the whole episode and resisted any calls that his minister should feel badly about what happened. It occurred to me that I could finally see what really happened in cabinet during the hotel caper.

So I requested the cabinet minutes for December 1984, and sure enough, there was an item entitled: "General Discussion: Security of Classified Material."

"The prime minister reminded cabinet of the importance that must be attached to maintaining proper security of classified and other sensitive documents by ministers," the minutes said. "He underlined that this was a matter of personal responsibility with particular care and prudence being needed when ministers travel outside the National Capital Region where facilities for safekeeping of documents may not be readily available."

What followed was a comprehensive set of instructions on how to keep classified material secure. It included keeping material in locked security briefcases when travelling and never removing cabinet papers from Ottawa without the express consent of the Privy Council Office.

The instructions also advised ministers never to discuss sensitive matters on the telephone. "This lack of security is particularly acute in the case of the mobile telephone, i.e., the radio telephone mounted in private automobiles or staff cars."

The cabinet minutes make for fascinating reading. They might also hold some valuable tips for present-day ministers.

(Also posted at the CBC website)