A Spy’s Guide to Protecting Whistleblowers

Journalists now compete with spooks and spies, and the spooks have the home-field advantage.

Brandon Smith July 2, 2015

ALEXAN­DRIA, VIR­GINIA — A smil­ing woman I don’t know greets me by first name.

Only certain people should be worried: Whistleblowers from the national security or intelligence communities, and the journalists who work with them.

The con­fer­ence room has been swept for sur­veil­lance devices, she explains, and every­one who enters will get a brief pat-down.

With three oth­er jour­nal­ists and a com­put­er secu­ri­ty expert, I am about to begin a two-day train­ing in pre-elec­tron­ic spy­craft. Our instruc­tors: two mil­i­tary police vet­er­ans. The goal: Learn how to pro­tect peo­ple who risk their jobs or free­dom to share infor­ma­tion with the pub­lic — aka whistleblowers.

After we all get set­tled in, class starts. Once you real­ize that what’s pos­si­ble in elec­tron­ic sur­veil­lance today has basi­cal­ly reached the realm of sci­ence fic­tion, you have to take a dif­fer­ent route,” says Lar­ry Jones, a for­mer intel­li­gence ana­lyst for the Marines and one of the workshop’s leaders.

His part­ner, Daryl Bagin­s­ki, guides us through pen-and-paper cryp­tosys­tems — ways to encrypt and decrypt short mes­sages. When we’ve encrypt­ed a note, we mail it or leave it for some­one to pick up. These tech­niques date back thou­sands of years, but even sim­ple ciphers can stump today’s best code-break­ing com­put­ers for days. A cipher called the one-time pad” can defeat com­put­er analy­sis entire­ly and is still used by spies. How­ev­er, to get around its lim­i­ta­tions (it requires a long key of ran­dom let­ters), Bagin­s­ki invent­ed his own cipher and teach­es it in class. The aim, Bagin­s­ki says, is mak­ing it pro­hib­i­tive­ly labo­ri­ous and expen­sive to keep a tab on you.”

Gov­ern­ments from all over the world are [act­ing] against jour­nal­ists, human rights activists, human rights defend­ers and polit­i­cal dis­si­dents,” explains Bruce Schneier, wide­ly con­sid­ered the fore­most U.S. elec­tron­ic-secu­ri­ty expert (Con­gress called him in to explain the impli­ca­tions of the Edward Snow­den leaks). There’s an arms race here, and jour­nal­ists are losing.”

In Novem­ber 2014, for exam­ple, The Inter­cept report­ed that the U.K.’s top intel­li­gence agen­cies gave their employ­ees author­i­ty to ignore attor­ney-client priv­i­lege and review the pri­vate doc­u­ments of any­one in sen­si­tive pro­fes­sions,” includ­ing jour­nal­ists. In Feb­ru­ary 2014, the Wash­ing­ton Post report­ed that state actors from Ethiopia were the like­ly cul­prits” in a cam­paign to spy on U.S. jour­nal­ists with off-the-shelf ” spy­ware. Mean­while, under the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion, the U.S. gov­ern­ment has sub­poe­naed or snooped on reporters from Fox News to the New York Times and, accord­ing to an analy­sis by Poli­ti­Fact, pros­e­cut­ed more employ­ees for press leaks than all pre­vi­ous admin­is­tra­tions combined.

In this cli­mate, jour­nal­ists must take pre­cau­tions when com­mu­ni­cat­ing with sen­si­tive sources. In 2012, reporters from Vice News failed to strip meta­da­ta from a pho­to of John McAfee, a famous fugi­tive with whom they were trav­el­ing, and inad­ver­tent­ly revealed his loca­tion. But even the best elec­tron­ic secu­ri­ty prac­tices have their lim­its. Jour­nal­ists now com­pete with spooks and spies,” Tom Lowen­thal, the res­i­dent secu­ri­ty expert for the Com­mit­tee to Pro­tect Jour­nal­ists (CPJ), wrote in a recent post on CPJ’s web­site, and the spooks have the home-field advantage.”

Some­one mon­i­tor­ing pow­er lines can tell what sequence of keys are being pressed on a plugged-in key­board. That includes the pass­words nec­es­sary to unlock encrypt­ed com­mu­ni­ca­tions and files. Anoth­er device can, from a short dis­tance away, read the elec­tro­mag­net­ic waves ema­nat­ing from com­put­er mon­i­tors. So any­thing on screen is poten­tial­ly vul­ner­a­ble. Still wack­i­er are the pro­grams that can lis­ten to the tiny sounds of a com­put­er proces­sor. A tech­ni­cian with suf­fi­cient soft­ware can, in the­o­ry, enlist your cell phone to lis­ten to the data being han­dled by your near­by lap­top — includ­ing, again, encryp­tion keys. In this age of tech­no­log­i­cal wiz­ardry, the hum­ble pass­ing of notes may be the last way to com­mu­ni­cate with guar­an­teed privacy.

To be clear, these lis­ten­ing tech­niques are high­ly tar­get­ed, unlike the NSA pro­grams revealed by Snow­den. Only cer­tain peo­ple should be wor­ried: whistle­blow­ers from the nation­al secu­ri­ty or intel­li­gence com­mu­ni­ties (and pos­si­bly from mega­cor­po­ra­tions), and the jour­nal­ists who work with them. But since free­dom of the press is at stake, every­one should be con­cerned. From Snow­den to the man who released more than 200 videos of heli­copters dump­ing nox­ious her­bi­cide on agri­cul­tur­al work­ers in Ore­gon: With­out whistle­blow­ers, crit­i­cal inves­tiga­tive report­ing will die.

That’s where Bagin­s­ki and Jones come in. The ex-mil­i­tary – police agents start­ed the Clan­des­tine Reporters Work­ing Group (CRWG) because they believe inves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ism is a core Amer­i­can val­ue. Bagin­s­ki is fond of quot­ing Alex­is de Tocqueville’s 1835 study, Democ­ra­cy in Amer­i­ca, which held up U.S. democ­ra­cy as a mod­el for France:

The press it is whose ever watch­ful eye expos­es the secret moti­va­tions of pol­i­tics and forces men in pub­lic life to appear one by one before the court of pop­u­lar opinion.

Bagin­s­ki looks the part of a spy, with a Smith & Wes­son watch fit for an extrac­tion oper­a­tion. Both he and Jones are in Brooks Broth­ers polo shirts, D.C.’s ver­sion of casu­al wear, but Jones, in khakis, comes off as less guard­ed. Where Bagin­s­ki seems to want to ensure you’re up to snuff, Jones wants to remind you that you’re capa­ble. The two make a well-bal­anced team. Since leav­ing the Marines six years ago, Jones has worked as a pri­vate inves­ti­ga­tor. Bagin­s­ki left the mil­i­tary in 2002 and became an attor­ney and col­lege instructor.

The men aren’t out to bash their for­mer col­leagues. Bagin­s­ki grants that some extra­or­di­nar­i­ly smart peo­ple work in the intel­li­gence com­mu­ni­ty. He says the lav­ish recruit­ing process — which sells intel­li­gence work as a high­er call­ing” — lures them in.

Both stress that train­ing as an intel­li­gence oper­a­tor nev­er tru­ly leaves your psy­che. That isn’t to say you look over your shoul­der all the time, but you’re con­stant­ly aware of your sur­round­ings and many poten­tial adversaries.

If we weren’t edu­cat­ing reporters,” Jones says, only half jok­ing, we’d be doing some­thing else with our skills. We could help keep tabs on big-game poach­ers in Africa.”

That after­noon, we take a field trip into Alexandria’s his­toric down­town. Jones shows us how to ana­lyze the urban land­scape for cre­ative ways to lose a min­der: to mail some­thing with­out being seen and to com­mu­ni­cate with sources while going about our dai­ly busi­ness. To any­one keep­ing track, our move­ments look utter­ly bor­ing — and that’s the point.

This is CRWG’s first train­ing ses­sion. Even­tu­al­ly, Jones and Bagin­s­ki envi­sion the orga­ni­za­tion being able to pro­vide high­ly trained reporters to media orga­ni­za­tions when a sto­ry seems too risky to tack­le alone. Bagin­s­ki imag­ines pro­vid­ing more thor­ough train­ing in detect­ing and evad­ing sur­veil­lance, urban land nav­i­ga­tion and even how to maneu­ver out of check­points and stand up to interrogation.

It’s clear that ser­vices like those pro­vid­ed by CRWG have val­ue, but they come at a cost. Lowen­thal, writ­ing for the CPJ web­site, notes that the expens­es nec­es­sary to pro­tect key sources, such as hir­ing elite secu­ri­ty teams instead of extra edi­tors,” can take a deep toll on news­room budgets.

When jour­nal­ists must com­pete with spies and sur­veil­lance,” he writes, even if they win, soci­ety loses.”

Bran­don Smith writes about pub­lic health and civ­il lib­er­ties, and the ways in which tech­nol­o­gy upends them. Find Bran­don on Twit­ter at @muckrakery or mail some­thing in his care to In These Times, 2040 N. Mil­wau­kee Ave., Chica­go, IL 60647. If sen­si­tive, write only that address on the envelope.
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