The Intercept is an online publication launched in February 2014 by First Look Media, the news organization created and funded by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar. The editors are Betsy Reed, Glenn Greenwald, and Jeremy Scahill; former editor Laura Poitras moved to Field of Vision, a First Look Media project focused on non-fiction films.
The publication serves as a platform to report on the documents released by Edward Snowden in the short term, and to "produce aggressive, adversarial journalism across a wide range of issues" in the long term.
At launch, the editors announced:
A primary function of The Intercept is to insist upon and defend our press freedoms from those who wish to infringe them. We are determined to move forward with what we believe is essential reporting in the public interest and with a commitment to the ideal that a truly free and independent press is a vital component of any healthy democratic society.... Our focus in this very initial stage will be overwhelmingly on the NSA story. We will use all forms of digital media for our reporting. We will publish original source documents on which our reporting is based. We will have reporters in Washington covering reactions to these revelations and the ongoing reform efforts. We will provide commentary from our journalists, including the return of Glenn Greenwald's regular column. We will engage with our readers in the comment section. We will host outside experts to write op-eds and contribute news items.
Our longer-term mission is to provide aggressive and independent adversarial journalism across a wide range of issues, from secrecy, criminal and civil justice abuses and civil liberties violations to media conduct, societal inequality and all forms of financial and political corruption. The editorial independence of our journalists will be guaranteed, and they will be encouraged to pursue their journalistic passion, areas of interest, and unique voices.
We believe the prime value of journalism is that it imposes transparency, and thus accountability, on those who wield the greatest governmental and corporate power. Our journalists will be not only permitted, but encouraged, to pursue stories without regard to whom they might alienate.
In March 2014, The Intercept published leaked documents from Edward Snowden showing that the National Security Agency was building a system to infect potentially millions of computers around the world with malware. The report included a top-secret NSA animation showing how the agency disguised itself as a Facebook server in order to hack into computers for surveillance. The story reportedly prompted Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg to phone President Obama and complain about the NSA's surveillance. Zuckerberg later wrote in a blog post: "I've called President Obama to express my frustration over the damage the government is creating for all of our future."
In May 2014, The Intercept reported that the National Security Agency (NSA) was secretly intercepting, recording, and archiving the audio of virtually every cell phone conversation on the island nation of the Bahamas and collecting cell phone metadata in Mexico, the Philippines and Kenya. Following the report, The Intercept was criticized by WikiLeaks for withholding the name of one country whose calls were being recorded. WikiLeaks announced that "the country in question is Afghanistan."
In July 2014, The Intercept obtained leaked documents revealing that the Obama administration approved a major expansion of the terrorist watchlist system, authorizing a secret process that required neither "concrete facts" nor "irrefutable evidence" to designate an American or foreigner as a terrorist. In August 2014, The Intercept reported that nearly half of the people on the U.S. government’s widely shared database of terrorist suspects were not connected to any known terrorist group. The watchlist reports prompted intelligence official to consider requesting a criminal investigation into The Intercept's sources. In October 2014, it was reported that the FBI had raided the home of the suspected source in northern Virginia, outside Washington D.C.
In October 2015, The Intercept published the Drone Papers, a series of stories based on a cache of leaked secret documents detailing the inner workings of the U.S. military’s assassination program in Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia. The news site said that the documents were "provided by a whistleblower" and offered "an unprecedented glimpse into Obama's drone wars". The revelations were praised by Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg and NSA leaker Edward Snowden, who said: “When we look back on today, we will find the most important national security story of the year.” Micah Zenko, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, described the Drone Papers reports as "pretty remarkable stuff." He added: “In some ways it reconfirms and illuminates much of what we knew, or thought we knew, about a lot of these programs, like that the administration firmly prefers kill over capture despite claiming the opposite, and that there’s not ‘a bunch of folks in the room’, as Obama calls it – that there’s a clear, bureaucratic process for this. It clearly shows, as we’ve known, that the United States does not know who it’s killing.” The White House and National Security Council declined to comment, saying in a statement that it does not "comment on the details of classified reports.”
In February 2016, The Intercept won a National Magazine Award for columns and commentary by the writer Barrett Brown and it was a finalist in the public interest category for a series by Sharon Lerner called the Teflon Toxin, which exposed how DuPont harmed the public and its workers with toxic chemicals. In April 2016, The Intercept won the People's Voice award for best news website at the 10th annual Webby Awards. In May 2016, The Intercept won three awards at the New York Press Club Awards For Journalism. The site was awarded in the "special event reporting" category for its investigative reporting on the U.S. drone program, the "humor" category for a series of columns by the writer Barrett Brown, and the "documentary" category for a short film called "The Surrender"—about the former U.S. intelligence analyst Stephen Jin-Woo Kim—produced by Stephen Maing, Laura Poitras, and Peter Maass. At the September 2016 Online News Awards, The Intercept won the University of Florida Award in Investigative Data Journalism for its Drone Papers series, an investigation of secret documents detailing a covert U.S. military overseas assassination program.
On August 15, 2014, U.S. National Counterintelligence Executive (NCE) William Evanina confirmed that the FBI is moving forward with a probe into how classified documents were leaked to The Intercept for its article revealing details about a database of terrorism suspects, which linked some people to terrorism even if they had no known association with any terrorism group. "It's a criminal act that has us very concerned," said Evanina, a former FBI special agent with a counter-terrorism specialty who was appointed NCE by Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper in May 2014.
Erik Wemple, writing for The Washington Post, noted the conspicuous refusal of The Intercept to use the term "targeted killings" to refer to the U.S.'s drone program, instead referring to the drone strikes as "assassinations." Wemple included Greenwald's explanation that assassinations is "the accurate term rather than the euphemistic term that the government wants us to use"; Greenwald further noted that "anyone who is murdered deliberately away from a battlefield for political purposes is being assassinated." TechCrunch referred to the story as clear evidence of "unabashed opposition to security hawks."
In May 2014, journalist Ed Pilkington of The Guardian asked Greenwald whether it had been "wise to leave The Guardian, an organ with no owner, run by a trust, in order to embrace a billionaire tech tycoon waving a $250m cheque? And was it, given his scathing critique of big business, true to his own values?" "Maybe my judgment was a bit impaired," Greenwald reflected. "I didn't predict how people would see it. Pierre [Omidyar]'s not just a funder. He's the 100th-richest person in the world. He has $9bn, which is an unfathomable sum, and he's from the very tech industry that is implicated in the NSA story. I probably paid insufficient attention to those perceptions." Greenwald nevertheless insisted that he and The Intercept remain editorially independent of Omidyar. "I know in my mind that the minute anybody tries to interfere with what I'm doing, that is the minute I will stop doing it."
In February 2015, having resigned after nearly 14 months, Ken Silverstein contributed an article on Politico about his time at First Look and The Intercept. "I went to First Look to do fearless journalism," Silverstein wrote, "but I found I couldn't navigate any journalism, fearless or not, through the layers of what I saw as inept management, oversight and editing."
In January 2015, Benjamin Wittes, editor in chief of Lawfare, argued that The Intercept was essentially inviting individuals and organizations to steal documents and leak them to the Intercept by publishing a "How to Leak to the Intercept" guide. Wittes wrote, "If I were a foreign intelligence agency, I'd be looking at this as a great way to send enticing-looking documents, maybe even real ones, that contain some nifty bits of executable code that offered visibility for me onto the activities of people with access to the Snowden materials, people who are talking to and recruiting other leakers. Or maybe I'd be drop some honey-pot files, some files that beacon their location. Or maybe I'd just use the opportunity to drop disinformation on journalists who have shown they will believe just about anything if it's disparaging of U.S. intelligence." Wittes also questioned the ability of The Intercept to protect those who leak to the online publication.
In February 2016, the site appended lengthy corrections to five stories by reporter Juan M. Thompson and retracted a sixth, about Charleston church shooter Dylann Roof, written over the previous year, focused on the African-American community. Shortly afterward, a note from editor Betsy Reed indicated that Thompson had been fired recently after his editors discovered "a pattern of deception" in his reporting. According to Reed, he had "fabricated several quotes in his stories and created fake email accounts that he used to impersonate people, one of which was a Gmail account in my name".
Reed apologized to readers and to those misquoted. She noted that some of Thompson's work, most of it using public sources, was verifiable. Editors alerted any downstream users of the affected stories, and promised to take similar action if further fabrication came to light.
Thompson suggested that the greater problem was racism in the media field. He had made up pseudonyms for some of his sources, whom he described as "poor black people who didn't want their names in the public given the situations" and would not have spoken with a reporter otherwise. "[T]he journalism that covers the experiences of poor black folk and the journalism others, such as you and First Look, are used to differs drastically," he argued. He also claimed he had felt a need to "exaggerate my personal shit in order to prove my worth" at The Intercept given incidents of racial bias he said he had witnessed there. When Gawker published his email, Reed said those allegations had not been in the version he sent her.
He was fired by The Intercept in early 2016, and according to Reed, did not cooperate with the investigation into his actions.
In early June 2017, The Intercept published a National Security Agency document that asserts Russian intelligence successfully hacked an American voter registration and poll software company, and used information culled to phish state election officials. The document was mailed from a source inside the NSA, who did not reveal their identity to Intercept writers. One hour after publication, a 25-year old NSA contract employee named Reality Leigh Winner was arrested by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and charged under the Espionage Act of 1917.
The article bolstered public suspicion that Russia interfered in the 2016 election. It also drew attention for being at odds with views held by editor Glenn Greenwald. Greenwald often publicly ridiculed or dismissed allegations of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, calling them "radical conspiracy theories." Greenwald alleged that the Democratic party hyperbolized the evidence supporting collusion complaints about Trump, in order to shift the blame for Trump's election as president from the Democratic Party itself.
The document explains that Russian intelligence attempted to crack the log-in information of the employees of a vendor providing voter registration software and databases for states to use with their election systems. It alleged that the Russians were successful enough that they were able to email 122 election officials, by posing as employees of the vendor.
According to David Folkenflik of National Public Radio, "An Intercept reporter shared a photo of the papers with a source, a government contractor whom he trusted, seeking to validate it. The printout included a postmark of Augusta, Ga., and microdots, a kind of computerized fingerprint. The contractor told his bosses, who informed the FBI." The NSA quickly identified the leaker of the documents.
Verifying the legitimacy of leaked documents is common journalism practice, as is protecting third parties who may be incidentally harmed by the leak being published. However, professional media outlets who receive documents or recordings from confidential sources do not, as a practice, share the unfiltered primary evidence with a federal agency for review or verification, as it is known that metadata and unique identifiers may be revealed that were not obvious to the journalist, and the source exposed.
The evidence chain led to the arrest of Winner, a young Air Force veteran who was working in Georgia for Pluribus International Corporation, an NSA contractor, when the document was mailed to The Intercept. The Intercept has been criticized for unprofessional handling of the document, and indifference to the source's safety.
In August 2016, the site launched a Brazilian version, The Intercept Brasil, edited in Portuguese, aimed at Brazilian political news, and produced by a team of Brazilian journalists. The Intercept Brasil also features translated news from the English edition.
Intercepted with Jeremy Scahill is a weekly podcast hosted by investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill and produced by First Look Media. The podcast uses interviews, round table discussions, and journalistic narrative to present investigative reporting, analysis and commentary on topics such as war, national security, the media, the environment, criminal justice, government, and politics. Launched on January 25, 2017, the show often includes discussion with other writers, reporters, artists and thinkers. It regularly features The Intercept editor and journalist Glenn Greenwald as well as senior correspondent, author and journalist Naomi Klein. The editor-in-chief is Betsy Reed. Music for the show is created and performed by DJ Spooky.
The premier episode, on January 25, 2017, "The Clock Strikes Thirteen, Donald Trump is President" features an interview with Seymour Hersh who criticizes the media's response to the alleged Russian hacking of the 2016 US Presidential election, calling the way the media went along with the story "outrageous". Other notable guests on the show include Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, and Barbara Lee.