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Why The Media Use Anonymous Sources


On the program yesterday, we spoke to an NBC News journalist, William Arkin. He had reported that Russia's President Vladimir Putin personally directed the hacking of U.S. political institutions, which intelligence officials say was an attempt to sway the presidential election. So who told NBC about Putin's involvement?


WILLIAM ARKIN: The intelligence community asked us not to name how we knew this or what our sources were, so...

GREENE: And this actually raises a question that some of you, our listeners, have been asking about. Here's one voicemail we got.


PAUL CUNNINGHAM: These claims that I'm hearing not only on NPR but everywhere, basically, they are based on unverified assertions from anonymous people spreading their own views about...

GREENE: OK, that is Paul Cunningham, a listener from Maine. He gave us permission to air his comment. He left that voicemail for NPR's national security correspondent Mary Louise Kelly, who is here in the studio with me, along with Dana Priest, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist with The Washington Post, to talk about this. Welcome to you both.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: Thank you. Good morning.

DANA PRIEST: Nice to be here.

GREENE: So, Mary Louise, where did that call come from? What was Mr. Cunningham responding to?

KELLY: He was responding to our reporting, which went all this past weekend and into this week, in which we were trying to stand up the story that the CIA has concluded Russia not only intervened in the U.S. election, but intervened with a motive, and the motive was to elect Donald Trump. I have spent the last several days chasing every source I have at the CIA, the director of national intelligence, on Capitol Hill, in the White House, in the Pentagon - everywhere - and got someone who agreed to speak to me at length and agreed to be identified as a U.S. official. This was someone in a position to know who would only agree to be identified by that title.

GREENE: So that was carefully negotiated...

KELLY: Carefully negotiated.

GREENE: ...With this source how you would refer to the source.

KELLY: Absolutely. You try to give the listeners as much information as you can. In an ideal world, you would say - and this is hypothetical. This is not who this was, but you would say, for example, a current senior CIA official with direct access to the intelligence.

GREENE: As much as - you negotiate as much information as they're willing to give.

KELLY: Because that helps the listener weigh how much credibility to give it. I know who that person is, but the more information you give, the narrower the circle becomes in terms of that person being exposed. And if I have agreed to protect that person's identity, you have to do it.

GREENE: Dana Priest, what's an example of a story you've done recently that relied heavily or exclusively on people you can't name?

PRIEST: Well, again, this Russian story. Basically all national security officials refuse to speak with their name attached to it. That's their rule, not ours. National security reporters tend to be senior reporters. They've been around a long time. They're pretty good at judging the character of somebody that they actually quote without their name. And that's how we do that business. It would not happen without it because they're really not supposed to be talking to us. The only...

GREENE: They could be fired. I mean, it...

PRIEST: They could be fired.

GREENE: Mary Louise?

KELLY: Just to give a little bit of insight into that, the people who are agreeing to speak to somebody like Dana or me are people who have security clearances. To keep the clearance, they are regularly polygraphed. And one of the questions that is routinely asked is, have you had any unauthorized contact with the media? These people are risking their jobs, their pensions to speak to us.

GREENE: So they have to take a polygraph. They have spoken to you in some cases. They might have to try and lie and hope that the polygraph doesn't pick it up?

PRIEST: Yes, but also, there's an unofficial thing that's going on. It's happened since forever, which is the government actually wants to tell the American people what's happening, but they don't want to stand on a podium and announce it to the world. It sounds like an official position then. They would rather use us to communicate with people and let people know what's happening, but in a less formal way.

GREENE: Have either of you been burned by someone who agreed to be anonymous, and you trusted that this was an accurate story, and it turned out it just wasn't?

PRIEST: Yes, but it turned out the person didn't do it on purpose. I misunderstood what they were saying. We corrected the story. And actually, that is the check against these kinds of stories. Other agencies will call in. Other agencies will talk to other reporters, and it gets back that this is not true. And we are obligated, then, to correct the record.

GREENE: Mary Louise?

KELLY: And I will add I have not been burned by an anonymous source giving me bad information. I have had many times the experience where even a very senior source doesn't have the full picture. Just because you have a top secret security clearance does not mean you have access to every top secret document that is circulating throughout the U.S. government. So often you speak to somebody, they give you information, but the intelligence community is siloed. And it's your job, as the reporter, to discern, what is this person's motive in speaking to me, are they in a position to know what they're telling me and to try to cross-check it every which way you can.

GREENE: Let me just ask you this. Do you blame the people you are writing for and reporting for for trusting stories less if there are only anonymous sources there? And should they trust them less?

KELLY: I think it's a reasonable question to ask. I would push back and say, if anything, the reverse because if I am using an anonymous source, I have given my - my word that I will not reveal their identity. But I am asking you, the listener, to trust me that I have done everything in my power to make sure this person is who they say they are, that they have access to the information and also to weigh what's their motive.

GREENE: But, Dana Priest, couldn't they have an agenda that you or your readers may not know about?

PRIEST: Not only could they, they often do. They might want to be making one agency look bad by telling you something bad about them. That is true, so yes, agendas abound. But I'd like to make another point, which is I do think our industry needs to pay much more attention to this, especially right now, when the whole media environment is very confusing. I don't think the mainstream media like The Washington Post or even NPR, although you're trying to do that today, has been transparent enough in how we do our jobs. I don't know how you do that, but I'm certainly open to trying.

GREENE: Let me finish with this question to you both. In many ways, having anonymous sources seems like it's against the fundamentals and principles of journalism, where we try to be completely transparent with our listeners. What is at stake? Why is it so important to do this? Mary Louise?

KELLY: Again, you can't tell the story on the national security beat without it. These are stories that we could not bring you if we were insisting on being able to name people.


PRIEST: The other part of that is that, usually, the White House wants to control the flow of information. So until they allow people to speak, we wouldn't be able to say anything.

KELLY: Because nobody wants to get out ahead of the president. I mean, I'll - I'll finish by saying I sometimes laugh. Every time you interview somebody, they want to be identified as a senior administration official.

GREENE: They're not always so senior?

KELLY: I yearn, one day, for somebody to tell me, call me a junior administration official.


KELLY: I'm low on the pole; let's go with it.

GREENE: All right. That is NPR's national security correspondent Mary Louise Kelly and Dana Priest, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist with The Washington Post and also a professor of journalism at the University of Maryland. Thank you both.

KELLY: Thank you.

PRIEST: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.