Are anonymous sources enough for accusing Putin of meddling in the U.S. election?

The astonishing accusations have been gaining speed all week.

First, the Washington Post, followed a day later by the New York Times, reported the CIA strongly believes the Russian government used cyberespionage to influence the outcome of the U.S. election, helping Donald Trump become the next president.

Greg Miller, part of the reporting team on the story for the Washington Post, told CBC News its story “was based on multiple sources, from multiple parts of government.”

On Wednesday night, NBC News moved the story further, claiming the CIA also believed the action was personally directed by Russian President Vladimir Putin.


U.S. officials told NBC News that Russian President Vladimir Putin orchestrated the U.S. election hacks. The Kremlin has dismissed the allegations and demanded proof. (Alexei Druzhinin/Sputnik via Reuters)

Beyond the implications for the U.S. government, the stories also had another common feature: each relied entirely on anonymous sources.

That detail prompted many in Trump’s party and his transition team to immediately dismiss the claims. Trump himself suggested the lack of on-the-record proof rendered the stories “ridiculous.”

Miller defends the use of anonymous sources, even in a story making such explosive charges, though he concedes he uses them reluctantly.

“In an ideal world, we’d be able to name all our sources and have full transparency to our readers. But that’s not possible, especially in the kind of the reporting that we’re talking about here — national security reporting — on sensitive intelligence assessments that are often classified.”

Yet, Miller also knows reporters everywhere are being challenged by a public that appears increasingly cynical about journalism, to “prove” what is reported is in fact true.

But he says if journalists could only publish so-called “provable truth,” many important stories based on anonymous sources wouldn’t get told.

“Especially in a case like this. I mean, we may never know the extent of Putin’s involvement in this. The CIA may never know,” Miller told CBC’s The Investigators.

“If we were to be held to this sort of standard — evidence, hard evidence that we can lay out for readers in all of these cases — this story might not have run. The American public might not know about this.”

The Investigators with Diana Swain

Also this week on The Investigators: protecting the reporter-source relationship. Conservative Senator Claude Carignan explains why he’s steering a private member’s bill that would help Canadian reporters protect the identity of confidential sources. The Investigators airs Saturday at 9:30 p.m. ET and Sunday at 5:30 p.m. ET on CBC News Network

But he cautions that just because the names of those who leaked the information are kept secret, it doesn’t mean the value of the information is diminished.

“There are not anonymous sources to us, those of us who are reporting this information. These are sources that we know, we can evaluate, we have relationships with in many cases, and we know who they are.”

Could the cover of anonymity allow someone to intentionally feed him false information? Possibly, he says. But anonymity doesn’t necessarily mean the secret source would escape public consequences.

“That is regarded as such a fundamental violation of that reporter-source truth relationship that I think most reporters would regard it as severed at that point, and would feel free to identify that source because of the misleading information that was provided.”

The Investigators with Diana Swain – Greg Miller Interview3:36

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