Information Collection: NYT and O'Grady at AFGE

Breitbart recently criticized the New York Times for emailing potential sources.

Assuming the emails are authentic, the Times employee contacted a President of an AFGE council.  We can glean a lot of tactical information from the contact and the content of the email.  Our analysis is that the Times reporter did an above average job of attempting to collect the priority information, probably tasked with by managers.  There may be have been better sources targeted by a more thorough plan.  Operations in law enforcement and military are very similar.

First, let us look at the information requirements in the email:

I’ve heard a lot of second-hand rumors, but in order to report these incidents, I’d need to have first-hand or eyewitness accounts. I’m looking for examples of things like, information being communicated only verbally when it would historically have been put in writing, people being told not to bring phones, laptops or even take notes in meetings where they would in the past typically have done so, eyewitness accounts of things like the administrator or top political appointees refusing to use official email, phones or computers, or any other specific, first-hand examples of practices that appear to demonstrate unprecedented secrecy or transparency.

Buried in this solicitation are a few requirements: verbal information usually put in writing; prohibitions on phones and laptops; orders to take notes instead of electronic recording; refusing to use email, phones, or computers; examples of secrecy.  The solicitation gives more detail of instances of what Davenport (reporter) was looking for.  And these examples indicate he was looking for information about behaviors consistent with avoiding public records.  That is, do EPA workers intentionally bypass public records by communicating face-to-face?  That is an "intelligence requirement" in the traditional sense. 

The task then is to find human sources to provide information that answers the requirements.  Could O'Grady help give examples?  A "collector" wants to find the right person with the right access to the right information.  This is straight out of current Army Human Intelligence Collector manuals sold on  So the schemes of approaching and recruiting people to give up information is unclassified and quite archaic.  It works though.

The method of searching for a source generally takes the following cluster of traits: Placement, Access, Exposure, Motivation.


Using the Breitbart story, did O'Grady have proper placement within or surrounding the EPA offices to observe first-hand, or hear second-hand, about intentional behavior designed to avoid public recordation?  Perhaps.  Placement here requires at least working with EPA employees.  Rating placement on scale of 1-10, O'Grady would be perhaps 5.


Not only do potential sources need proper placement within the organization, they need sufficient access to the kind of information sought.  For example, a mailroom clerk may be placed in an EPA section, but doesn't have access to many people outside of mailroom to observe them or listen to conversations.  On the other hand, a worker "on the floor" in a cubicle who can roam and listen and observe would have better access.

Here is where O'Grady might observe behavior, or hear of examples, but as a union representative and not an employee at the EPA, he likely would have no access to that kind of information.  His information would be judgments about first-hand accounts.  That is less valuable than access directly to internal prohibitions and orders.  He visits the EPA offices on occasion and meetings are outside of agency buildings often.  Access would be 2/10.


Suppose we have an EPA employee places within organization with access to the examples Davenport mentions.  That employee is undesirable unless she has the proper exposure to the kind of information sought.  She could observe and maybe overhear informal directions; yet, what we want is intentional policy consistent with secrecy and bypassing transparency.  A middle manager (GS-12/13) or upper manager (GS-14+) would certainly be on management calls and have access to any implicit or explicit policies about avoiding emails and phones.  We want someone exposed to the most substantive information to meet the intelligence requirement.  O'Grady, as an AFGE worker and not EPA manager, is 4/10 up to 5/10 for exposure unless colluding with EPA officials personally.


Motivation is a big factor in source recruiting.  The Times solicited by email someone in the union that represents EPA employees.  At first glance, this seems good: unions are usually at odds with employer managers.  There is tension during contract negotiation, union grievances, heated meetings about policy, etc.  The motivation may be animosity toward EPA secretary.  It could be revenge from a prior grievance.  It could be ideology: transparency serves democracy.  There are several motivation models dating to the Second World War, and a few new ones post 9/11.

Now, in private sector source operations and government operations, there are no ethics to prohibit lying, cheating, stealing, blackmailing, threatening, and killing.  It is open season on motivating people to cooperate.  But, and we have learned this the hard way, journalists have ethics; they follow a code and follow it well.  They cannot offer money or materials, coerce or compromise sources, or swindle and cheat and steal.

That nobility in journalism leaves two primary motivators: ego and ideology.  Hopefully the Times sought Davenport not only for placement, access, and exposure, but because he was assessed to be motivated in some way to help the Times report on the EPA.  Does O'Grady need praise, or a challenge to prove his worth?  Or is he an environmentalists looking to help criticize the current EPA leadership?  A thorough assessment of potential source has to have this line of inquiry.  Because essentially the Times targeted O'Grady.


Pitching is part of the collection job, in defense and law enforcement and in journalism, as we see at the Times.  The working method is find someone with placement, access, exposure, and motivation.  Motivators for sources in journalism are most likely going to be ego and ideology.  All things considered, for that loose requirement about intentionally avoiding transparency, we would have sought a GS-9-12, or GS-13 in some management capacity at EPA, with access to many communications, and placement in group linked to Secretary, who is motivated to leak that kind of information.  Preparation time to find such a source would be approximately 3-6 months.  That might be slower than soliciting AFGE workers by email, but the return would be more substantial.