Is a second leaker spilling US secrets?

Whistle-blowers come in packs, so it’s a wonder no one followed the example of former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden for so long. Now, there seems to be a second leaker, and he or she is, like Snowden, feeding information to the press rather than peddling it to foreign intelligence services. It’s a sign that there’s a flaw in the U.S. approach to national security.

After WikiLeaks published its trove of U.S. military and diplomatic documents in 2010, copycat sites sprang up throughout the world. Even established media outlets set up their own. The information released on these Web pages was not always sent in by whistle-blowers. I was present at the birth of YanukovychLeaks, the Ukrainian site where documentation plundered from former president Viktor Yanukovych’s abandoned residence was published. The “leaks” component in the names, however, pointed to the original project spearheaded by Julian Assange.

Snowden handed over his archive of stolen NSA documents to the journalist Glenn Greenwald and others more than a year ago, and no copycats came forward, reinforcing the impression that Snowden’s leak – the first ever from the NSA – was an anomaly, a foolhardy act that no one wanted to repeat. Since people are prone to find safety, even moral safety, in numbers, Snowden’s loneliness somehow made his motivation suspect. Now he may finally have company.

The blogger Cory Doctorow was the first to suggest there’s a second NSA leaker. Last month, one of his sources told him that a story on the German site Tagesschau was not based on documents from Snowden’s trove. The article dealt with the NSA’s spying on the anonymous Tor network, the backbone of the “Dark Web” that intrigues the intelligence services of many countries.

“The existence of a potential second source means that Snowden may have inspired some of his former colleagues to take a long, hard look at the agency’s cavalier attitude to the law and decency,” Doctorow wrote. Bruce Schneier, a U.S. computer security expert and blogger, agreed with Doctorow’s suggestion, pointing out a second leak – concerning the NSA’s “Tailored Access Operations,” allegedly the agency’s cyberattack outfit – had also been unlikely to come from Snowden’s archive. Greenwald himself said the second leaker conclusion “seems clear at this point.”

Now, new evidence has surfaced that somebody at the U.S. government’s most secretive agency is supplying information to journalists. The Intercept, an investigative site founded by Greenwald and eBay chairman Pierre Omidyar, was handed documents showing that the government’s Terrorist Screening Database has expanded greatly under President Barack Obama and that half the people in it did not have links with any known terrorist organization such as Hamas or al-Qaida. The National Counterrorism Center, contacted for comment on the information, immediately fed it to an Associated Press journalist, hoping to obtain friendlier coverage.

That spurred an ethics discussion, with Greenwald accusing the government agency of stealing the Intercept’s scoop, but that is a less significant aspect of the episode than the subsequent admission by U.S. government sources, to CNN, that the second leaker probably exists and his or her identity was being investigated.

CNN called the leaker a “mole,” a name usually given to double agents within intelligence services. That’s a misnomer in this case, as it would have been in Snowden’s. A mole would have passed the information quietly to the Russian or Chinese or whatever intelligence services. The person who is handing information bit by bit to different media outlets – a sensible strategy to avoid detection – can only be a double agent for the press.

We often forget that the press has a useful function in society: It’s supposed to keep tabs on governments so they don’t overstep the line that divides democracy from authoritarian rule. Silly as that may sound in this cynical age, the journalists who publish the leaks are doing a useful job for society, as well as their readers.

People deserve to know, for example, that the NSA will take a special interest in them, and store their communications longer, if they so much as search for information about Tor. That the names of people who are not members of terrorist groups are added to the terrorist database, and no-fly lists, is also worthy of public attention. That the government has not seen fit to reveal these facts just goes to show that the press still has a job beyond entertaining.

That explains, by the way, why people like Omidyar and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos are interested in journalism: The Western governments’ forays into dictatorship territory are increasingly frequent on the Internet, where modern companies conduct most of their business.

As in the days of Watergate, people with sensitive information about the government’s doings seek to make it public, not sell it to hostile governments. That’s a sign that Washington needs to clean house again.

Bloomberg View contributor Leonid Bershidsky is a a Moscow-based writer.