Ewen MacAskill

He was sitting in a cramped hotel room in Hong Kong. It was early morning, his bed rumpled, the remains of dinner congealing on a side table. He was Edward Snowden and he turned out to be the perfect source.

Top secret documents leaked by the former US intelligence officer became one of the biggest stories of the decade. It was clearly in the public interest, starting a world-wide debate about the scale of US and British government surveillance. And it led to legislative change in the US, the 2015 Freedom Act that curtailed, albeit in a modest way, the bulk collection of phone data in America.

The story won lots of journalistic awards, including a Pulitzer prize. A story for the digital age, it inspired several plays in London and New York, an Oscar-winning documentary and a Hollywood film released last year.

What helped make Snowden a perfect source is that he is self-effacing, motivated neither by money nor fame. It made it difficult for the US and British governments to demonise him. Sources that are shifty, politically motivated, looking for money or disgruntled at being passed over for promotion are easier to discredit.

What rounded out the perfect source scenario is that the outcome for him turned out to be a lot happier than he had anticipated in Hong Kong. He enjoys relative freedom in exile in Moscow; not a perfect existence but preferable to idling away the decades in a US supermax prison.

So all good? Not quite. He did not feel like a perfect source at the time. Crammed into his room in the Mira Hotel with him were filmmaker and journalist Laura Poitras, then Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald and myself, a Guardian reporter. There were a lot of uncertainties. There is no template for dealing with sources. Each one is different. And Snowden was very different, the story outside anything I had experienced before. There are some things that with hindsight I did not handle well.

Read any textbook on journalism or guidelines about the relationship between journalists and their sources and two key points are always made. The first is that journalists have an obligation to protect source anonymity. The second is that they also have to protect confidential information or data provided by a source. But the reality, as we found in the Mira Hotel, is often much more complex, throwing up many more issues than just these two.

On first meeting Snowden, the priority was to establish that he was who he said he was. Normally, a few discreet inquiries should help establish an identity. But we could not do that. We had to rely on interviewing him. He sounded plausible, trustworthy and the documents looked real. A lot of it came down to instinct. In the end though, I only knew for sure when the White House, just hours before publication, effectively confirmed the first of the documents was real.

The biggest and most awkward issue when dealing with sources is usually anonymity. A source might be a friendly press officer offering up more information than they are authorised to do, or an employee deep within an organisation who has spotted wrongdoing. In both cases, they could lose their jobs if identified. There are other stories that are riskier for the source, with the prospect of jail or even loss of life.

There are other, less principled motives for leaking; perhaps a personal grudge or for political advantage, and that can be awkward. I was offered a negative story about an opposing candidate by one of the campaign teams during the 2008 Obama-Clinton fight for the Democrat presidential nomination. Anonymity was demanded. I turned it down, partly because the story did not feel that strong and partly because I felt queasy being used in this way.

I did a similar story about a decade earlier as part of a Guardian team that brought down a UK Cabinet minister. That too was politically motivated. The difference is that the UK story seemed definitely to be in the public interest. It is a fine distinction.

The question of anonymity with Snowden barely arose. We discussed it with him but he said from the outset that he would identify himself at some point. Even if he had wanted to remain anonymous, it would not have been practically possible. He had left a clear trail to Hong Kong that would not have taken long to find when the first stories appeared. What we needed in the first week was security. And that meant an instant immersion for me into the world of digital security and encryption. If Snowden has a lasting legacy beyond the surveillance v privacy debate, it is that there is much more awareness now among the public, but especially among journalists, about security of communications. More and more journalists are shifting to encrypted communication.

I did a story last year about a suspected case of Chinese industrial espionage in the UK. I communicated with the source through encrypted chat from beginning to end, with only one face-to-face meeting. There were no phone calls and no emails. The source remains anonymous.

Once a source hands over documents, who has ownership – the journalist or the source? It can be tricky. With Snowden it was easy. He says he handed over all the documents he had to the journalists in Hong Kong and no longer has any access to them. It was for the journalists to decide what was the story, he said. We will not hand them back to the US or British governments, not least because if Snowden was ever to come to trial in the US, the documents might be used against him.

The regret I have about Snowden was what happened after he disappeared from the Mira and went into hiding. I have always believed that journalists’ obligations to a source go well beyond just providing anonymity and protection of documents. There is a duty of care.

A few days after I had met Snowden, Laura Poitras asked me what plans, if any, the Guardian had for helping him once his name became public. I had not given it much thought and had no idea how to handle it. The Guardian does not pay for stories because of the risk that information handed over to journalists will be tainted if money, no matter how innocently, as in the case of hotel bills or legal costs, is involved. If money was handed over, we could also be open to accusations of aiding a wanted man.

I do not fancy going to jail but I have always accepted it as an occupational hazard. The Guardian in the end said it would help if needed with hotel bills and legal fees. At that time, the assumption was that he would remain in Hong Kong and fight extradition.

At that point WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who had not been involved in the story, intervened. He sent a WikiLeaks colleague Sarah Harrison to Hong Kong and she helped organise the flight that ended prematurely in Russia. It turned out for the best: there is nowhere else in the world where Snowden would be safe from the US, at least for now.

There is a risk of journalists becoming too close to sources, losing objectivity and becoming advocates. When writing for the Guardian about Snowden I have tried to retain objectivity, which to me means being as fair to all sides of an argument as possible. But I have been persuaded from the first days I met him that the balance between surveillance and privacy has tilted too far in favour of surveillance. As long as Snowden is in Russia and as long as I am functioning as a journalist, I will press for him to be allowed to move to western Europe, a safer option than a return to the US, albeit probably just as unlikely.

I have always tried to treat sources as decently as I can. I have been as honest with them as I can be, keeping them informed each step of the way towards publication.

Some of the stories I am proudest of are ones I have not published. I repeatedly warned a couple in Syria working for an illegal underground opposition group, long before the present civil war, that they were endangering their lives and that of their daughter if their story was published. On the eve of publication, with the story edited and ready to run, they phoned to say they had changed their minds and asked me not to use it. I killed it.

I always hope that a source will feel at the end that he or she was fairly treated and does not come away thinking it was a mistake to involve the media. I have interviewed Snowden several times since Hong Kong, including twice in Moscow, and have asked him if he felt the Guardian treated him well. He always hesitates, reflecting perhaps a sense that we could have done more to support him after he went public, but in the end says he feels the Guardian did well by him. I will settle for that.


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