A response to James Ball

by Naomi Colvin

In a piece for the Guardian’s Comment is Free published on Saturday 16th July, James Ball suggests that Bradley Manning’s arrest over a year ago can be primarily attributed to the inherent shortcomings of electronic methods of source protection – rather than, say, the duplicitous and highly unethical conduct of Adrian Lamo.

This is a point of view I have seen expressed before by some of James’ colleagues at the Guardian

and its implicit corollary is that only established media outlets can provide sufficient pastoral support to fully protect sources that have put themselves at great potential risk in order to reveal wrongdoing. If the chat logs are accurate – and of course, in the absence of the record of other side of the conversation, if there is one, we simply can’t say – then Bradley clearly felt the need to confide in someone and, equally clearly, chose the single worst person imaginable.

In this narrow sense, James Ball is quite correct: no amount of technologically-derived protection can guard the identity of someone who decides to send their facebook address to someone they are corresponding with, even if they do so over encrypted protocol. The point of such measures – as I understand them – is to limit the amount of information one reveals involuntarily about identity and location. Ultimately, the security of any information freely volunteered depends on the degree of trust one has in the person it is shared with: but this is true of any method of communication.

The point about the comment attributed to Julian Assange in the chat logs – that he was keen to know as little about his (alleged) sources as possible, to the extent that he would be prefer to be actively misdirected about their identity –  is that freely volunteered information should be as minimised to the same degree as involuntarily revealed information. If this can be achieved, it provides perfect deniability on the part of the publisher.  This is actually important and it is misleading to suggest that this does not provide a certain degree of security that the traditional news media model of source protection cannot. While knowing the identity of a source, getting to know them and establishing a relationship with them might lend itself to a greater degree of personal support, it does mean that the security of that source relies to a large degree on the ability of their confidant to protect them. History tells us that, unfortunately, this cannot always be relied upon.

It is not irrelevant to this discussion that Lamo – again, if the chatlogs are an accurate representation of a conversation that took place – assured Bradley Manning that their conversation would be covered by journalistic standards of source protection:

“I’m a journalist and a minister. You can pick either, and treat this as a confession or an interview (never to be published) & enjoy a modicum of legal protection.”

Adrian Lamo appears to have violated this promise without much compunction, but it is well to realise that actual  journalists, equipped with a sense of professional integrity and ethical awareness, can also come under immense pressure to compromise the assurances they give their own sources. In the US, New York Times reporter James Risen has been subpoenaed to testify at the trial of suspected whistleblower Jeffrey Sterling. Should Risen continue to protect his alleged source in a courtroom (which he has shown every sign of doing) then he is risking a term in prison. This is a great testament to James Risen’s personal and professional integrity, but it does also show that traditional models of source protection rely on an enormous degree of trust. It also indicates that these relationships are made more vulnerable by traditional journalists having to operate in a national context, which is less of a problem for an organisation like WikiLeaks.

Finally, while it may long predate James Ball (and even David Leigh’s!) time at the Guardian, it is probably worth noting that the paper did not withstand political pressure to compromise a source back in 1983. Sarah Tisdall was a junior clerk at the Foreign Office who anonymously sent the Guardian a set of photocopied documents about the presence of US nuclear weapons in the UK. The Guardian, following a court order, handed those documents over to the Government, allowing Tisdall to be identified and prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act.

In conclusion, those who would release information of critical importance at great potential risk to themselves face a difficult dilemma: to decide to trust in true anonymity – with all the personal resilience that involves – or to have their hands held by someone who might ultimately have the power to slip the handcuffs over them.  Should the Manning/Lamo chatlogs be an accurate reflection of what Bradley was feeling last May, then it is clear he needed someone trustworthy to reach out to. Nevertheless, given the extraordinary pressure that has been brought to bear on Bradley himself over the past year, the continuing US investigations into those who would support him and the treatment the case has received in the mainstream media, I am far from persuaded that that person should have been a journalist.