Why Edward Snowden's Motives Matter

Matthew Cooper
National Journal

Buzzfeed's Ben Smith wrote a provocative piece arguing that, as journalists, we shouldn't care about the motives of Edward Snowden – only the information that he's been leaking out. "Reporters don't, and shouldn't, spend too much time thinking about the moral status of their sources," Smith writes. He's wrong.

Smith's argument is that reporters have long known that sources can be unlikable figures with foul motives who nevertheless come forward with valuable information. That is surely true. (He goes on to imply that now that sources are so much more public, readers can also dispense with moral judgments.) "I'm not sure why reporters should care all that much about [Snowden's] personal moral status, the meaning of the phrase 'civil disobedience,' or the fate of his eternal soul. And the public who used to be known as 'readers' are going to have to get used to making that distinction," Smith argues.

Really? There's no reason that reporters or citizens need to suspend their moral judgment when thinking about a leak. You can appreciate the value of the revealed information without ignoring the problems posed by the leakers' motives.

Say what you will about The Guardian's Glenn Greenwald, but he presented Snowden's information as part of an argument about what he sees as the surveillance state -- and his pieces are more powerful than if he just dumped the facts. Greenwald made a judgment that what Snowden did is moral, brave and heroic and it makes his stories better.

In my own small way, I tried to do this in the CIA leak case. When administration officials revealed the identity of Valerie Plame to me, I didn't want to just be a transmission belt for their motives. I co-authored a piece called "A War on Wilson?" noting that officials were going after Plame and her husband, Joe Wilson, in an effort to discredit his powerful claim that he'd found no evidence of Iraq seeking nuclear materials in Africa. At the time, I was profoundly curious about why the officials, including Karl Rove, were bashing Wilson at the same time they had acknowledged that the president should not have made the Africa claim in his 2003 State of the Union address. Sorting through the ambiguity and the motives of those involved was, I thought, central to my role as a journalist.

Journalism isn't open mic night. When using leaks, reporters aren't obliged to simply print them without judgment. They need context and focus and that means rendering an appraisal.

The same applies to leaks. Reporters have a duty to assess their sources' motives for all of their faults. First, it's the best test of the validity of what they have. Knowing more about why they are leaking can tell you how skeptical to be about the leak's accuracy. Ideally, reporters will share some of this with readers within the confines of any confidentiality agreements between journalist and source. "Papers provided by a Democrat," is more telling than "papers provided by an insider." It telegraphs some sense of motivation which is something to which readers are entitled.

Of course, we're right to separate the leaker from the leak. As Smith notes, Mark Felt, the sainted "Deep Throat," of Watergate fame had a range of unsavory motives. He doesn't get into the details but Felt was a senior FBI official, a longtime ally of J. Edgar Hoover who was furious at the Nixon White House for being passed over to be FBI director. He was also angry about the president turning to his own private band of wiretappers and dirty tricksters instead of Hoover's band of wiretappers and dirty tricksters. In Smith's view, all of this is at best interesting but unimportant. Citizens should be less enthralled with Felt's or Snowden's personal story than with the facts they brought to light.

Smith says that "the new media ecosystem" has moved sources "to the foreground." He surely knows, but ignores, that the new system encourages journalists to dispense with older definitions of objectivity, where sources are given free reign and all sides are treated equally even if one has more validity. Whether it's old or new, digital or print, journalism is evolving past "he said-she said" journalism. Today, a reporter is more likely to make a judgment about a source's motives. In Greenwald's view, Snowden is a hero. Others, like myself, see nothing heroic in the consultant's journey from China to Russia. That rendering of judgment is healthy. It shouldn't be willfully ignored.