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The Second Source for Snowden Reporters, explained

Still from CitizenFour showing Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald in Hong Kong. Credit: (Courtesy of RADiUS-TWC)

Since revelations about the extent of government surveillance began to flow from former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden last year, the public has engaged in an ongoing debate about the role of leaks and whistleblowers in safeguarding democracy.

And according to some journalists closely associated with Snowden, that debate has spurred another leaker to come forward with what could be more evidence of government overreach.

But now federal investigators have identified a suspect in their investigation into an alleged second source who supplied sensitive documents to an outlet led by journalists connected to Snowden reporting, according to Michael Isikoff at Yahoo News. So is this suspect "another Snowden"? Do these leakers have valuable information to offer to the public? Here on the Switch we sort through the noise.

Wait, there's a second Snowden? 

Not exactly -- but there is a leaker who appears to have funneled sensitive government documents to journalists at The Intercept, the Pierre Omidyar backed site that counts Snowden journalists Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald among its founders.

This "second source" is mentioned during the final minutes of Poitras' recent documentary on Snowden, CitizenFour. Intercept co-founding editor Jeremy Scahill is briefly shown discussing the person, and the final scene of the film shows Greenwald in Moscow discussing the information apparently coming from him or her with Snowden.

"The person is incredibly bold," Snowden tells him while reviewing notes presumably detailing the fresh leaks, and Greenwald replies, "It was motivated by what you did."

The second source is widely believed to be the person who supplied documents for an August story by Scahill and Ryan Devereaux that showed nearly half of the people on the U.S. government's terror-tracking database lacked connections with any known terrorist group. The classified documents in the report referenced dates that were after Snowden was already on the run, strongly suggesting that they came from another individual.

And has this person been caught? 

According to a Yahoo News story this week, which quoted anonymous sources, the FBI has identified a federal contracting employee as a suspect in the leak investigation and raided the suspect's Northern Virginia home. Contacted by the Washington Post, the FBI declined to comment.

Editors and reporters at the Intercept told Yahoo News that they hadn't been notified by federal officials about an investigation -- but didn't seem surprised to hear about the supposed raid. "The Obama administration in my view is conducting a war against whistleblowers and ultimately against independent journalism," Scahill told Isikoff.

In a statement to the Huffington Post, Intercept Editor-in-Chief John Cook declined to comment on the sourcing of the story at the center of the second source speculation, but praised its content, saying "Jeremy Scahill and Ryan Devereaux’s reporting for The Intercept on the federal watchlisting program brought crucial information about this preposterously overbroad and inefficient system to light, and has been repeatedly cited by civil liberties groups and civil rights attorneys who are seeking the intervention of federal courts to reign in its excesses.”

So is this second source going to face charges? 

That's a great question. Scahill's perspective on the Obama administration's treatment of whistleblowers and leakers is widely held. According to Propublica, the Obama administration has brought seven criminal prosecutions over national security leaks under a World War I era law called the Espionage Act, which doesn't consider if leaks were in the public interest. That number may not sound huge, but it's twice as many as all previous president's combined.

And in pursuing those cases, the administration has also targeted journalists. Investigators looking into a potential CIA leak secretly seized Associated Press reporters' phone records -- and tracked Fox News reporter James Rosen's physical movements, phone records, and e-mails while investigating leaks related to North Korea's nuclear program. While no journalists have faced criminal prosecution to date, Rosen was identified as a potential criminal "co-conspirator" in Justice Department affidavit relating to the case.

But according to Isikoff's sources, the Justice Department may have lost its "appetite" for pursuing this type of case -- presumably due to the backlash over previous prosecutions, and perhaps due to the public's reaction to Snowden's revelations. But, of course, Snowden is still facing Espionage Charges despite calls for his clemency.

So are there more stories still coming from this second leaker? 

The only people who really know that are the journalists who are in contact with the leaker -- he or she may have turned over more documents that they have not yet been able to cover. But Greenwald passed an awful lot of notes to Snowden during the final scene of CitizenFour. But at one point in the documentary the word "drones" can briefly be seen among the scribbled notes.

By Andrea Peterson (The Washington Post)