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Whistleblowers and journalists emphasize necessity of secure communication at National Press Club panel

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  1. Protecting Sources and Materials
New York Times journalist James Risen moderated a discussion at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., on Thursday that…

New York Times journalist James Risen moderated a discussion at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., on Thursday that featured a panel of known leakers who shared advice with journalists on protecting their notes and sources.

The discussion, hosted by the Government Accountability Project, comes as computer analyst Edward Snowden continues to battle for temporary asylum in Russia and Risen prepares to appeal his own case after a U.S. Court of Appeals (4th Cir.) decision found that the reporter had no First Amendment right to refuse to testify in a government investigation last Friday. More than 50 attendees listened to well-known whistleblowers like former NSA employee Thomas Drake describe their firsthand experience with government prosecution.

Drake kicked off the two-hour discussion by voicing his views on Snowden and alleged Wikileaks source U.S. Army Pfc. Bradley Manning.

“I stand with them without equivocation,” said Drake, a former senior executive at the NSA who leaked information to the press regarding misuse of taxpayer dollars for a warrantless surveillance program in 2011. “We had an American revolution over 200 years ago, in part because of the activities that are protected under the Fourth Amendment. We’re losing what it means to be American.”

In light of the Justice Department’s secret subpoena of phone records for the Associated Press and monitoring of Fox News reporter James Rosen without his knowledge, Drake said reporters must learn one thing.

“Encrypt the crap out of your life,” said Drake, “Even to this day, I will not communicate with people unless they install encryption programs on their computers and on their phones. It’s just prudent.”

In discussing the media maelstrom that follows a leak of classified information, Jesselyn Radack, who faced mounting criticism for her disclosure of ethics violations by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 2001, said the press inevitably pathologizes a whistleblower.

"Bradley Manning is a perfect example of someone who is subject to a caricature,” said Radack. “Instead he was self-aware, eloquent, intelligent. And it just shows you how the mass media will smear any whistleblower as out for fame, or profit, or revenge. That kind of smearing we see regularly, whether it’s Manning, or Snowden, or Tom or me.”

In choosing the publications to bring their information, panelist and Cato Institute research fellow Julian Sanchez said whistleblowers worry less about finding reporters who can keep a secret and more about whether they have the means to keep that secret.

“If you’re a whistleblower, you may have a sense of who has the integrity to protect their sources, but you have no way of knowing who has the technical savvy to be able to use the tools necessary to engage in secure communication,” said Sanchez.

But it seems, he said, publications are catching on. In May, the New Yorker announced the launch of an online drop box specifically designed for anonymous sources to securely submit tips. And more reporters are installing encryption software to protect their electronic devices.

But these precautions, panelists said, are indicative of a time when freedoms promised by the Constitution are fading.

“If we’re not able to practice free speech and freedom of association, what does that future look like?” asked Drake. “Authority doesn’t replace the constitution, secrecy doesn’t work with democracy. That’s not the future we want to keep.”