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The Anonymous Informer

Tell the president that the way to solve his problem is to find that one man who would turn out to be . . . possessed of . . . a passion for anonymity.
— Tom Jones, (private secretary to Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin) 1936

A number of readers have written asking if I would explain how the reader should deal with information the reader has received that the reader wants to share with the outside world but is prohibited from doing so for a variety of reasons. The question is asked because recipients of such information are often anxious to share their privileged information with members of the media in order to seem important or because they think the information they have is so important that they should share it. I cannot tell people what the preferred method of sharing such information is (Edward Snowden is not a good example) but this column hopes to demonstrate how the injunction has been avoided in different cases. The reader may file them away for future reference should he or she ever be told a secret that is simply too good to keep secret.

(Modified image from Graham Lampa/cc/flickr)The first trick of the disclosure trade is to learn the proper use of the word “anonymous.” That word is essentially a “get out of jail free” card if the bearer of a secret discloses the secret to others. The following are some examples of really confidential information that was nonetheless disclosed by its possessor to a member of the media without fear of any untoward consequences by declaring himself or herself to be “anonymous” even though the person with whom “anonymous” is speaking knows exactly who anonymous is.

An Associated Press report dated October 6, 2013 concerned a successful raid in Libya by Navy SEALS that annoyed the Libyan government because it was successful as well as an unsuccessful raid by a Delta force in Somalia that didn’t annoy anyone since it was unsuccessful. The raid in Libya resulted in the capture of Abu Anas al-Libi a suspected Libyan al-Qaida figure. Since the raid was successful and since he is the Secretary of State, John Kerry spoke proudly and publicly of the raid saying the capture “makes clear that the United States of America will never stop in the effort to hold those accountable who conduct acts of terror.” A U.S. Defense Department spokesman said al-Libi was immediately taken out of the country. Neither man requested that he be described as being an anonymous source.

The Somalian raid was less successful. There was a fierce firefight as a result of which the Delta team had to retreat without accomplishing its objective. The circumstances of that attack were described by U.S. officials but they spoke anonymously because they were “not authorized to discuss the raid publicly.” By speaking anonymously what they said was not being discussed publicly even though what they said was widely reported in the media.

On October 9 there was a report about the status of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a deputy leader of the Afghan Taliban who had been in detention in Pakistan. A disagreement between the Taliban and Pakistan as to Baradar’s status arose. The Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, insisted Baradar remained in captivity and Pakistani officials insisted that Baradar was free but living under tight security so he could be protected. The Pakistani assurances came from officials “who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media about the issue.” The reader was left to decide Baradar’s status but could not rely on what was published because the sources were not permitted to speak.

Another way of disclosing confidential information is to explain that the disclosure is “off the record” thus rendering it slightly less interesting, but certainly not less reportable, than if it were on the record. On October 13 it was reported that four men were arrested by British security officials who, the report said, were planning an attack similar to that carried out at the Kenyan Westgate Mall. The official who was describing the planned attack spoke to the reporters “on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media on the record.” Since it was not on the record his comments were fine.

A final example of not disclosing while disclosing comes from an October 16 Associated Press description of the nuclear discussions being conducted in Geneva between Iran and the European Union. A woman privy to the discussions described the status of the talks but insisted on anonymity since she wasn’t authorized to “divulge details of the closed meeting. “ Another person, who was described as a former senior U.N. official, described what was being demanded of Iran by the six powers. He spoke to reporters “on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment on the talks.”

Armed with the foregoing, all readers need do if they would like to attain public anonymity and the perks that accompany it, is find some really good secret and a media person with whom to share it. Good luck with that.

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