How to think critically about news quotes from unnamed "government sources" under trumpism

As the Trump administration continues its twin trademarks of "not having press conferences" and "being at the center of gnarly scandals involving spycraft and hacking," much of the reporting on what's actually happening in the most powerful country on Earth is based on quotes attributed to anonymous government sources — people with something to say but who won't let their names be associated with it.

Not just Trump, either: many administrations have officially leaked government secrets to the press when it suited them (even as they prosecuted whistleblowers who revealed equally classified, but embarrassing and damning secrets to the fullest extent permitted by law) — a favorite tactic of the outgoing Obama administration, the "most transparent in history," which used the Espionage Act against more whistleblowers than all other presidencies in American history combined, and, as its final official act, executed another strategic, deliberate leak.

Sometimes people speak to the press without being named because they fear for their jobs or safety, and then it is a journalist's duty to go to jail, if necessary, to protect that person's identity.

But sometimes, it's is a person's job to talk to the press without being named: they are manipulating the press into publishing official statements, while making the actual officials unaccountable for them. This is anodyne anonymity: the routine practice of insisting that spokespeople, speaking on the record, giving out official positions, not be named. It's how we have arrived at the silent state, through which government officials are able to knowingly lie outright, with fatal consequences for millions of people, without ever paying tha price for it.

In an editorial in Reuters, State Department veteran Peter Van Buren officers advice on how to "think like a spy" about quotes in the press about the Trump administration's plans and views, and the reaction from the rest of government. As the secrecy and obfuscation of the Obama years deepens into perpetual night under Trump, these are essential skills.

For example, is a source in a position to know what they say they know, what intelligence officers call spotting? A story claiming bureaucrats are unhappy with the new president might be legitimately sourced from a contact in the human resources office of a large cabinet agency. But how many people's opinions would that source be in a position to know, beyond cafeteria gossip? Tens out of a workforce of tens of thousands? So if the finished story reads "State Department officials are unhappy with the incoming administration," how credible is such a broad statement? Is it news what a handful of people think?

The "position to know" idea scales up sharply when a source says they are privy to important conversations: how would they know the contents of a call the president-elect made to a foreign leader? Only a very few people would be in the room for something like that. Would any be likely leakers?

Any article that cites a source who claims to know the "why" behind some action, what was in the head of a decision maker, should be subject to special skepticism. Key officials are generally not in the habit of explaining their true motivations outside a tight inner circle. In your own life, do you?

Commentary: Reading news in the age of Trump? Think like a spy.
[Peter Van Buren/Reuters]

(via Naked Capitalism)

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