McMaster Pushes Back on Washington Post Story

  • 19 May 2017
  • NormanL
McMaster Pushes Back on Washington Post

National Security Advisor Henry McMaster pushed back, in a big way, against a Washinton Post story that alleged the President passed top secret intelligence information to the Russian ambassador. McMaster's biggest concern? The Post used anonymous sources for its article -- sources that may have been pushing personal agendas designed to spread misinformation. As the Wall Street Journal writes:

Now why are such subjects sensitive enough to require anonymity but not sensitive enough to avoid discussing with a Washington Post reporter? We normally think of current government employees needing to remain anonymous while leaking data to the press in order to keep their jobs, but it’s not immediately clear why all the former officials also deserve anonymity in this case.

It’s possible that the sources in this story understand that people not named Clinton may be punished if they are caught mishandling sensitive information they obtained while they were in government. But one would think that a former official could publicly opine that the President is recklessly sharing information without disclosing any particular details of intelligence or the way it is collected. This raises the possibility that the sensitivity problem relates to a source’s current and future employment rather than previous government service.

Not every organization enjoys having its employees publicly accuse the President of endangering national security. And even people without an institutional affiliation understand they run the risk of offending clients when they publicly stand behind a controversial idea. But of course the grant of immunity by a reporter denies readers the opportunity to evaluate sources for themselves and consider their possible agendas.

Readers can’t tell whether the former officials quoted by the Post are retired or work for defense contractors or think tanks or political operations—or perhaps at firms that have nothing to do with government.

McMaster went on the record with his concerns -- and called the Post report false, saying:

At no time, at no time, were intelligence sources or methods discussed. And the president did not disclose any military operations that were not already publicly known. Two other senior officials who were present, including the Secretary of State, remember the meeting the same way and have said so. Their on-the-record accounts should outweigh those of anonymous sources. And I was in the room. It didn’t happen.

There are circumstances under which using anonymous sources is appropriate for a news story. But anonymity is supposed to be offered only as a last resort. According to the AP Stylebook, a reporter should consider "if there is a way to get this same information another way, without resorting to anonymity? Perhaps there is another source you can speak to, or a record you can look up."

Following that advice makes a reporter's job much harder, and more time consuming. But it serves the reader's interest to get people on record. It allows the reader to determine whether the source is credible, the information offered trustworthy, and the story narrative believable and fair.

Too many news outlets do not force their reporters to take the time and make the effort to get people on record. They want timely scoops just as much as their reporters do -- even if it damages truth, and undermines integrity.

Credit to Henry McMaster for speaking up, and speaking forcefully. On the record.

He has made a career of doing just that