NBC News correspondent Ken Dilanian on Monday turned in a desperate and half-baked story as he rushed to compete with a CNN scoop. The U.S. government in 2017, CNN’s Jim Sciutto reported, had extracted an intelligence asset from inside the Russian government. The story was silent on a key point: “Details of the extraction itself remain secret and the whereabouts of the asset today are unknown to CNN.”
Dilanian filled in a couple of those blanks. A former Russian official, he reported, had been living under his true name in the Washington region. There was no mention in the story of the fellow’s name: “NBC News is withholding the man’s name and other key details at the request of U.S. officials, who say reporting the information could endanger his life.” Dilanian knocked on the former official’s door and came face to face with a pair of “young men” who’d pulled up in an SUV. NBC News couldn’t be certain that the official was the same person at the center of the CNN story, but cited sources who believed as much.
Those actions earned the scorn of the Erik Wemple Blog, which called NBC News “really stupid.” There was, indeed, something for a scolding columnist to work with: Dilanian had told MSNBC host Rachel Maddow that a former Russian asset generally isn’t in danger until he’s "discovered by the media in the world and we all start writing about him. That essentially pokes the bear.”
Intervening days, however, have treated our opinion poorly. Whereas NBC News withheld the name of the asset — and continues to do so — numerous outlets have published it. Kommersant, a Russian publication, reported the name of a former Russian government employee in connection with CNN’s scoop. As The Post noted, that publication acted with the likely knowledge of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Michael McFaul, who served as U.S. ambassador to Moscow during the Obama administration, speculated that the motive behind the release was to “intimidate.” The Post, Reuters, the New York Times and others have repeated the name.
In light of those circumstances, Dilanian’s NBC News report appears to be an act of relative restraint. That’s not to say that the Erik Wemple Blog would have proceeded exactly as he did — and we certainly would have ditched the poke-the-bear talk. But our judgment was excessive, ill-considered and awful. We apologize.
Editors and reporters puzzle over how to produce aggressive coverage of the U.S. intelligence community without compromising its sources and methods. Stern warnings from intelligence officials often beget deference from news outlets. In 2003, for example, then-New York Times reporter James Risen sought comment from the government on Operation Merlin, a failed effort to thwart Iran’s nuclear program. Government memos that surfaced in a subsequent leak case show how officials stressed that publication of the story could “easily” lead to the death of a U.S. citizen and “conceivably contribute to the deaths of millions of innocent victims of a foreign nuclear weapons program.” The New York Times killed the story, but Risen published it in his book "State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration."
Jill Abramson, who, at that time, was the Washington bureau chief for the New York Times, later told Vanity Fair, "I feel bad in retrospect that I wasn’t focused on Jim’s story, or interested in it.”
Foreign intelligence sources take great risks to pass along information critical to U.S. democracy. According to CNN, the extracted spy “was considered the highest level source for the US inside the Kremlin, high up in the national security infrastructure, according to the source familiar with the matter and a former senior intelligence official. According to CNN’s sources, the spy had access to Putin and could even provide images of documents on the Russian leader’s desk.” The Kremlin, of course, has articulated a less flattering evaluation of his professional ascent. “He was essentially the coffee boy, per the Kremlin,” quipped New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman.
In this case, however, the imperative of protecting a helpful asset ran into a thicket of bewildering considerations. For one, the man was “hiding in plain sight,” as The Post put it. And for another, the forces of public disclosure are ineluctable. Once a state-friendly Russian news outlet trades in the name of a likely CIA asset, it’s out there. We asked The Post whether it applied internal disclosure standards in such a case, as opposed to yielding to the rush of publicized accounts. Post spokeswoman Molly Gannon responded that by the time the newspaper’s story appeared, the name “had been reported by many other outlets. The question of protecting his identity was moot.”
There’s at least one holdout: CNN broke the exfiltration story, and it’s a network that’ll transform even the slightest news increments into towering television banners. In a bit of admirable restraint, however, it still hasn’t aired the asset’s name or discussed his now-former house.
One last point: There’s no scandal in slapping together a desperate and half-baked story after a competitor emerges with a big story. We’ve all been there.
Here’s the original, faulty piece:
NBC News wanted a part of the Russian spy story. So it did something really stupid.
There’s an acronymal maxim in journalism that goes like this: GOYA-KOD. Get off your ass — knock on doors. The idea is that you can never go wrong by showing up on the doorstep of a source.
Or can you?
Ken Dilanian of NBC News is testing the proposition. On Monday, Dilanian, a national security and intelligence correspondent, watched as CNN and then the New York Times broke big chunks of news on a U.S. operation in 2017 to extract a valuable intelligence source from inside the Russian government. As discussed in this post, the reporting was divided on just what circumstances actuated the exfiltration. Was President Trump’s carelessness a factor?
In a story bylined by Dilanian and Tatyana Chistikova, NBC News added this tidbit to this critical question: “A former senior Russian official is living in the Washington area under U.S. government protection, current and former government officials tell NBC News.” That’s the lead of the story — the nugget that NBC News was seeking to convey to its audience. The organization was proud of the scoopito: “NBC News National Security Correspondent Ken Dilanian broke the news that a former senior Russian official is living in the Washington area under U.S. government protection according to multiple sources," reads a teaser for the MSNBC program “11th Hour.”
More: Dilanian reported that the former senior Russian official was living in the open, under his “true name.”
So Dilanian knocked on his door last Wednesday. “An NBC News correspondent went to the man’s house in the Washington area and rang the doorbell. Five minutes later, two young men in an SUV came racing up the street and parked immediately adjacent to the correspondent’s car,” notes the NBC News story.
What benefit does the public derive from this reporting? Here’s one argument: The five-minute lag suggests that protection for this former senior Russian official isn’t terribly robust. “The fact that you were able to get up to the door suggests they’re not watching him all that close,” said MSNBC host Rachel Maddow on her Monday program, during conversation with Dilanian.
After that, the rationales thin out. Must we know that this fellow is using his actual name? Eh. Must we know that he is living in the Washington area? Negative. Must we know anything aside from what CNN and the New York Times reported? Perhaps, but Dilanian isn’t providing it.
The critical context for Dilanian’s field trip is recent Russian history. Those whom Russian President Vladimir Putin views as traitors have been known to endure cruel and creative hell. For example: Sergei Skripal, a former Russian spy, was nearly assassinated via toxic nerve agent in 2018 in Britain.
Here’s an official justification for Dilanian’s door-knocking:
It’s at this spot where the Erik Wemple Blog usually slides in a pointed judgment on the facts at hand. But why do that, when Dilanian himself took care of that? On Maddow’s show Monday night, he explained the dynamics of reporting on these matters:
What [U.S. officials] don’t want and what they think happened in Skripal is to taunt Putin with the idea that here’s this turncoat, here’s this former Russian official who spied for the CIA living in the United States. So they sort of feel there’s a measure of safety. They don’t expect the Russians to come over and assassinate him until unfortunately he’s discovered by the media in the world and we all start writing about him. That essentially pokes the bear. This is what my sources are telling me. That’s why they’re now more worried about his safety than they were 48 hours ago.
Nothing says “poke the bear” quite like reporting on national television that a Russian traitor is living under his true name. And, by the way, you can find him near Washington. And if you show up, don’t worry too much about security! In defense of the story, an NBC source noted that it didn’t publish the former Russian official’s name or his location, and that other outlets have reported his name.
News organizations frequently have to make on-the-fly decisions about sensitive intelligence matters. They often hear that their reporting will harm national security or put sources at personal risk. Their job is to examine the plausibility of those warnings and weigh the whole package against the public interest in knowing the information. In this case, CNN and the New York Times decided that the public should know that the CIA had extracted a source who provided key details for its assessment of Russian election-interference operations — and that future intelligence reports may suffer as a result.
NBC News, meanwhile, settled on the housing angle. We know from Dilanian that the former Russian official will likely be moving. That’s according to “current and former officials.”