The startling carelessness about protecting Ms. Winner was particularly mystifying at an organization that had been founded on security. Steps from Mr. Cole’s desk in The Intercept’s open-plan office in the Flatiron district sat Ms. Clark and Micah Lee, leading figures in digital security. Mr. Cole did not involve them at all.
Mr. Cole and Mr. Esposito said they’d been pushed to rush the story to publication, but Mr. Cole also acknowledged that failing to consult with the security team was a “face plant.”
The Intercept’s leaders argued in 2017, and still contend, that the narrative laid out by the Justice Department in its prosecution of Ms. Winner was shaped to make The Intercept — a thorn in the government’s side — look bad. And Ms. Winner’s own carelessness — she printed the document at work — could easily have gotten her caught even if The Intercept had been more cautious. But they also knew they had made real journalistic errors.
And so a key question was who to blame for this catastrophe and what consequences they should suffer. Ms. Dombek, who undertook the internal investigation, concluded that the editors — Ms. Reed and Mr. Hodge — needed to take responsibility. Others, including Mr. Greenwald, were demanding that Mr. Cole and Ms. Reed be fired, and The Intercept provide a public reckoning. (Mr. Greenwald later relented, and said he understood the desire not to “scapegoat” for an institutional failure.)
On July 11, 2017, Ms. Reed published a post on The Intercept announcing that First Look would pay for Ms. Winner’s legal defense. Ms. Reed also announced that an “internal review of the reporting of this story has now been completed.”
“We should have taken greater precautions to protect the identity of a source who was anonymous even to us,” she wrote. “As the editor in chief, I take responsibility for this failure, and for making sure that the internal newsroom issues that contributed to it are resolved.”
But the drama didn’t end there.
Mr. Greenwald and Jeremy Scahill, an investigative reporter who is the third founder of The Intercept, publicly demanded a more thorough investigation, and in response to their pressure, the company commissioned a second internal report, by a First Look lawyer, David Bralow. Mr. Bralow’s report, issued four months later, cited as central issues the decision to share the document with the N.S.A., Mr. Cole’s discussion of the postmark and the publication of the identifying markings.