LONDON – News organizations publishing leaked National Security Agency documents have inadvertently disclosed the names of at least six intelligence workers and other government secrets they never intended to give away, an Associated Press review has found.
The accidental disclosures illustrate the risks of even well-intentioned public-interest reporting on highly secret U.S. programs.
In some cases, prominent newspapers including the New York Times quickly pulled down government records they published online and recensored them to hide information they accidentally exposed. On one occasion, the Guardian newspaper published an NSA document that appeared to identify an American intelligence target living abroad. Before the newspaper could fix its mistake, a curious software engineer, Ron Garret, of Emerald Hills, Calif., tried to contact the man at his office.
“I figured someone ought to give him the heads-up,” Garret told the Associated Press.
The inadvertent disclosures, which include technical details and other information, are another complication in the ethically and technically challenging coverage of the NSA’s surveillance programs. Journalists who have seen the unfiltered secrets leaked by former intelligence worker Edward Snowden agree that some things are off-limits for publication. But media organizations sometimes have struggled to keep them that way.
Glenn Greenwald, the reporter and columnist who has played a key role in publishing so many of Snowden’s revelations, has said he wouldn’t publish the names of U.S. intelligence workers unless they were top-ranking public officials. Greenwald told the AP that the mistaken disclosures of at least six names and other material were minor errors made by technical staff and quickly corrected.
“We reported on these documents with the largest and most well-respected media organizations in the world, but like all human institutions, none is perfect,” Greenwald said.
It was not immediately clear what damage, if any, has come from the disclosures of the names of the six NSA employees and other secrets. The NSA would not discuss its employees. None appeared to be working undercover.
The AP was able to locate several of their home addresses and other personal details about them. The NSA said in a statement that it asks news outlets “to redact and withhold the names of employees, given the sensitive nature of the information and concerns for the safety of employees and their families.”
The AP is not republishing the names of the NSA employees. It generally uses full names of government employees unless there is a specific threat or security concern. In this instance, the AP concluded the names were not vital to readers’ understanding of the issues and provided no additional credibility or transparency into the issues.
The accidental disclosures – the AP counted at least eight of them – involve carelessness by some television broadcasters, sloppy digital redactions applied to copies of documents and, in the Guardian’s case, an incomplete understanding of what information might be revealing.
In another instance, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s nightly news program, “The National,” revealed the names of three NSA employees when its cameras panned across NSA documents during voice-overs.
“They were scrolling through it and I thought, ‘Hold on, that’s an unredacted, classified document,’ ” said Christopher Parsons, who noticed the mistake. “It was kind of nuts. I couldn’t believe that they were so cavalierly showing it on national television.”
Parsons, a privacy expert at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs, was able to read the employees’ names by pausing, rewinding and replaying the video.
CBC’s director of news content, David Walmsley, said the network regretted the error, pulled the video off its website and purged the material from its servers.
“It was a mistake that occurred because we had pixelated the documents and we thought we’d done it well enough. Clearly we didn’t,” he said.