Intriguing first impressions

The pair agreed to meet at a café in Manhattan’s Soho district at an appointed time.[16] From there, they moved to another venue and talked over coffee. Poitras told Gellman that in late December 2012, she had been contacted by an unidentified individual who purported to be a member of or closely connected to the US intelligence community. The person seemed purposely vague, but promised sensitive information about the National Security Agency. The NSA was a defense intelligence agency established in 1952, but its origins dated back to code-breaking work conducted during World War II. The NSA was charged with monitoring, analyzing and decoding foreign data and information.

Bart Gellman, Reporter

It was Poitras’ impression over multiple exchanges that the anonymous individual was determining whether he or she could trust Poitras to publish information s/he had to offer. The person apparently was trying to establish whether Poitras could be discreet, was skilled at using privacy and security software, was competent to understand classified material and would be interested in writing about it. The contact had reached out to her because of her independence from mainstream media, her documentaries and her problems with US Customs. The stranger wrote, “You probably don’t like how this system works, I think you can tell the story.”[17]

The contact had expressed special concern that a news organization, under government pressure, might fail to publish what s/he had to tell. S/he cited as an example the New York Times and its one-year delay in publishing the Risen/Lichtblau NSA story, originally scheduled for just before the November 2004 presidential election. The source seemed to trust Poitras to make the material public. For her part, Poitras was trying to determine whether her contact was a crank or someone perpetrating a hoax. Even more chilling, this person could be someone trying to plant something false that could incriminate or embarrass her. With each message mentioning secret surveillance programs, the person claimed to have proof. Familiar with Gellman’s extensive work and knowledge of national security and surveillance issues, Poitras sought his advice.

Poitras and Gellman talked at the café for a couple of hours about what Poitras knew, and how he might help her. She had seen no documents, but worried that if the source was legitimate, the story could be too much for her to handle alone. When they parted, Gellman didn’t think much would come of it, but he was intrigued. “This is already in the top sort of one percent of blind tips I’ve ever seen,” he says. What’s more, the informer had told Poitras s/he was willing to reveal his or her name once a story on the classified documents was published. “Normally, people aren’t,” explains Gellman. “If they won’t tell me, or if they won’t let me tell the world, then authenticating and telling readers why they should believe this [information] becomes much harder.”

Gellman left the meeting believing that the person seemed legitimate, but that confirming the facts would be difficult. “It looked, frankly, like the kind of thing that you would have to put a lot of time and energy into and might not pay off,” he says. For now, the story belonged to Poitras. Gellman, however, offered to help. They agreed to tackle the next phase together.

[16] Throughout this case, dates are vague because the interviewees declined to be specific.

[17] Irin Carmon, “How we broke the NSA story,” Salon, June 10, 2013. Retrieved July 1, 2014.