People in Washington Talk – As Long as You Keep Their Names Out of It

By Chris Adams

Shane Harris was early to covering the world of cybersecurity and is now in the midst of some of the most dramatic times on the intelligence beat.

Now a national security reporter for The Wall Street Journal, Harris (bio, Twitter) covers intelligence agencies – Central Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency, Office of the Director of National Intelligence – and spends his days trying to get people to talk when they’re not supposed to.

“The intelligence beat is one of the most difficult places to source up,” Harris said.

In a session with Paul Miller fellows, Harris discussed how to cover those agencies. He also gave practical tips about getting people to talk on an off-the-record or background basis – even when doing so could lead to jail time for them.

“Developing sources in that world is a matter of building up trust,” he said.

In some ways, he said, working the source network is no different than it is for other beats. It’s about keeping in touch with people, listening to them and sharing a bit of yourself to sources. Sometimes, sources want to learn what the reporters know as much as reporters want to learn what the sources know.

Harris also talked about the obligation that reporters have to protect their sources – even at a time the government has gotten better at tracking down leaks and more aggressive in dealing with leakers.

Harris often suggests to sources that they “take this conversation” elsewhere – such as a secure email program such as ProtonMail or a text platform such as Signal. He talked about the difference between Signal and WhatsApp; both are encrypted programs, meaning that the sender and the receiver share a software platform that means they can see the words but anybody who intercepts the communication will see gibberish.

Even with secure platforms, however, many people in the business of spy craft are exceedingly careful. “I will talk to people on Signal who will veil what they say on Signal,” he said.

He also described steps reporters can take to protect their sources. In his own notes, for example, Harris will assign code names for sources; if somebody got his notes, they wouldn’t unmask source names.

Harris also tightly controls who in his newsroom knows his sources (“I would say that 99 percent of your colleagues don’t need to know.”) and he does as much of his source development as possible in person.

“We all know that talking to people in person and having a personal relationship makes for better reporting,” he said.

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