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News Analysis: When Spies Hack Journalism

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To make a Democratic opposition report on Mr. Trump look alluring, Russian operatives added a “Confidential” stamp to its cover before sharing it. Dumping real documents hacked from the Bradley Foundation, based in Milwaukee, the Russians added a forged letter indicating that the foundation had made an illegal $150 million donation to the Clinton campaign.

Fortunately, the forger was ignorant of American politics: The Bradley Foundation is a conservative group that would have no interest in supporting a Democrat, even if it were legal. “It was crazy on its face,” said Rick Graber, the foundation’s president.

More insidious was an episode last year in which hackers, possibly working for Russian or Ukrainian intelligence, released thousands of personal text messages of a daughter of Paul Manafort, Mr. Trump’s former campaign manager. The texts appeared to be genuine, and attached to one was a blackmail letter addressed to Mr. Manafort, purportedly from a prominent Ukrainian journalist and member of Parliament, Serhiy A. Leshchenko.

Mr. Leshchenko insisted that the letter was a fake and shared technical details with The New York Times that strongly supported that conclusion. But his supposed extortion attempt was reported in the United States, Ukraine and Russia, marring his reputation.

Future fabrications will be far more difficult to debunk, including so-called deep fakes, audio and video clips of, say, politicians saying or doing things they never said or did. Intelligence agencies no doubt will be the first to master such tricks.

Amid such diabolical possibilities, journalists will have to tread carefully. They can turn to forensic sleuths to test the authenticity and trace the source of leaked material. They can include, high up in every story, a discussion of the likely source of the material and the source’s probable motive. If a leak appears designed to tilt an election, they can point that out, and report aggressively on the other side to minimize the imbalance.

Despite the hazards, the imperative to publish scoops is likely to prevail. Far from being wary of leaks, most news outlets are inviting them like never before.

In recent years, The Times and many other outlets have added to their web pages a “secure drop” that can offer leakers total anonymity. That may be a crucial attraction for a whistle-blower deep inside an American institution, but it will also protect a hacker sitting in Moscow or Beijing. The reporter may never be the wiser.


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