Using sources to uncover secrets

Cecil Rosner
examines how two renowned investigative journalists handle sourcing and
concludes that whatever the approach, relying on a single source is
always a risky venture.

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 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 interviews 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.

Cecil Rosner is managing editor for CBC Manitoba and editor of J-Source’s Investigative Journalism
J-Topic. He teaches investigative journalism at the University of
Winnipeg, and is the author of Behind the Headlines.