WASHINGTON -- The Associated Press dropped a significant scoop on Tuesday afternoon, reporting that in the last several years the U.S. government's terrorism watch list has doubled.
A few minutes after the AP story, then consisting of three paragraphs, was posted at 12:32 p.m., The Intercept published a much more comprehensive article. The original article, which has since been updated and expanded, appears below:
The government, it turned out, had "spoiled the scoop," an informally forbidden practice in the world of journalism. To spoil a scoop, the subject of a story, when asked for comment, tips off a different, typically friendlier outlet in the hopes of diminishing the attention the first outlet would have received. Tuesday's AP story was much friendlier to the government's position, explaining the surge of individuals added to the watch list as an ongoing response to a foiled terror plot.
The practice of spoiling a scoop is frowned upon because it destroys trust between the journalist and the subject. In the future, the journalist is much less willing to share the contents of his or her reporting with that subject, which means the subject is given less time, or no time at all, to respond with concerns about the reporting.
The government's decision to spoil a story on the topic of national security is especially unusual, given that it has a significant interest in earning the trust of national security reporters so that it can make its case that certain information should remain private.
After the AP story ran, The Intercept requested a conference call with the National Counterterrorism Center. A source with knowledge of the call said that the government agency admitted having fed the story to the AP, but didn't think the reporter would publish before The Intercept did. "That was our bad," the official said.
Asked by The Intercept editor John Cook if it was the government's policy to feed one outlet's scoop to a friendlier outlet, a silence ensued, followed by the explanation: “We had invested some quality time with Eileen," referring to AP reporter Eileen Sullivan, who the official added had been out to visit the NCTC.
"After seeing you had the docs, and the fact we had been working with Eileen, we did feel compelled to give her a heads up," the official said, according to the source. "We thought she would publish after you."
According to the source, Cook told the official that in the future the agency would have only 30 minutes to respond to questions before publication.
"They also were saying, with most news organizations we'd have a real back-and-forth and we'd have an opportunity to discuss what should be redacted, but with you guys, you've made it clear you're not going to have those kinds of conversations with us," the source said.
Cook did not return requests for comment.
AP spokesman Paul Colford responded to questions about the timing of the stories in a statement to The Huffington Post: "Pulitzer Prize-winning AP reporter Eileen Sullivan has been covering this territory for a long time. She gathered and reported additional news today as part of her expertise on this subject."
Sullivan shared in a Pulitzer for exposing the NYPD's surveillance of the city's Muslim community, and was among the AP reporters to have her phone records seized by the government.
An NCTC spokesperson told HuffPost, "Last year NCTC published the size of the TIDE [Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment] database as a matter of transparency, and was in the process of doing so again this year. As such, we had been working with the AP for several months on a story about watchlisting and TIDE when First Look Media [publisher of The Intercept] approached us with a similar story. Because both the AP and First Look Media were working on a similar story, both news organizations should have been provided the same information simultaneously, which did not happen, and which was our mistake."
The difference in tone between the AP and Intercept stories is clear.
The AP story:
The Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment, or TIDE, is a huge, classified database of people known to be terrorists, those who are suspected of having ties to terrorism, and in some cases those who are related to or are associates of known or suspected terrorists. It feeds to smaller lists that restrict people's abilities to travel on commercial airlines to or within the U.S.
The government does not need evidence that links someone to terrorism in order for the person to be included in the database. This is among the reasons the database and subsequent terror watch lists have been criticized by privacy advocates. Of the 1.1 million people in the database, 25,000 are U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents, the National Counterterrorism Center said.
The database's growth is a result of the government's response to a failed attempt to blow up a commercial airliner over Detroit on Christmas Day in 2009. The terror operative's name was included in the database before the attack, but it was not on a list that would have prevented him from getting on a U.S.-bound airplane. Since then, the government has lowered the standards for placing someone on the no-fly list and intelligence agencies have become more diligent about submitting names to the TIDE database.
The database was created after the 9/11 terror attacks when it became clear that the government's terror watch list was ineffective.
The Intercept story:
Nearly half of the people on the U.S. government's widely shared database of terrorist suspects are not connected to any known terrorist group, according to classified government documents obtained by The Intercept.
Of the 680,000 people caught up in the government's Terrorist Screening Database -- a watchlist of "known or suspected terrorists" that is shared with local law enforcement agencies, private contractors, and foreign governments -- more than 40 percent are described by the government as having "no recognized terrorist group affiliation." That category -- 280,000 people -- dwarfs the number of watchlisted people suspected of ties to al Qaeda, Hamas, and Hezbollah combined.
The documents, obtained from a source in the intelligence community, also reveal that the Obama Administration has presided over an unprecedented expansion of the terrorist screening system. Since taking office, Obama has boosted the number of people on the no fly list more than ten-fold, to an all-time high of 47,000 -- surpassing the number of people barred from flying under George W. Bush.
"If everything is terrorism, then nothing is terrorism," says David Gomez, a former senior FBI special agent. The watchlisting system, he adds, is "revving out of control."
This article has been expanded with statements from the NCTC and AP, excerpts from the AP and Intercept stories, and background on Sullivan.
Michael Calderone contributed reporting.