The GOP wants to distract you with Reality Winner
Posted June 6, 2017 6:48 p.m. EDT
It's a tough time to work in national security and have opinions, or even a conscience. On Monday, a 25-year-old federal contractor named Reality Leigh Winner was arrested for allegedly leaking a top-secret NSA document to The Intercept.
The apparent document, dated a month ago, contains shocking details about an alleged Russian cyberattack on a supplier of US voting software, as well as malicious emails sent to voting officials in an attempt to hack their computers. Unlike previous reports, this one, if accurate, was far more overt in what it revealed, leaving little doubt that the attacks were coordinated by the GRU, the Russian state's military intelligence unit. Winner was charged under the Espionage Act for the leak, and faces up to 10 years in prison.
Depending whom you ask, Winner is either a criminal or a whistleblower. If she is indeed the person behind the leak, then perhaps she's both: someone who felt an understandable moral obligation to release information that is in the public interest, but who also broke the law.
Her case is an important one to follow, and the sloppy missteps by The Intercept offer important lessons for journalists who receive leaked documents and outlets that publish them. But it shouldn't eclipse the bigger picture: that while low-level leakers like Winner become the subjects of large-scale public prosecutions, our own President has a nasty habit of spewing highly classified and sensitive information to boost his own ego and impress his audience.
Beyond this, that same President has time and again complained about and may even have obstructed a thorough investigation into whether a hostile foreign power interfered in our elections.
There are good reasons to have laws against leaks -- the intelligence community needs to be able to do its job, which means protecting its sources and keeping some information out of public view. But over the past two decades, our national security apparatus has grown to a monstrous size, while it has also become less transparent and more difficult for public watchdogs to check in on.
Leaks have long been a regular feature of American government, and they are rarely prosecuted, because, as Malcolm Gladwell details in an essential New Yorker article on national security whistleblowing, their very existence is often beneficial to the administration in charge. Even the Obama administration, which was more aggressive in prosecuting leakers than any before it, didn't bother tracking down the source of, let alone seeking punishment for, the overwhelming majority of leaks.
This administration is a wild card, and the President discomfortingly unpredictable. He has vowed to prosecute more leakers, and Winner may just be paraded as a threat to other would-be purveyors of classified intelligence. Which is why the conversations and reporting on this case must maintain crucial context -- that leaks are common, but prosecutions are not, which suggests the administration is seeking to make a bigger point here. Its message: Leakers will be particularly targeted if the intelligence they give journalists suggests that Russia helped Trump win the election.
This is especially rich, by the way, given that Trump himself disclosed classified intelligence to the Russians, compromising our relationships with some of our most important allies.
All of which makes this leak more understandable: Winner, if she was the leaker, had in her hand a document clearly tying the Russian military intelligence apparatus to direct meddling in the American presidential election, and reasonably believed the administration in power would like to bury it.
She made the mistake of believing the site she anonymously leaked the document to would be careful to not make her identifiable; instead, The Intercept all but gave her away, and she was arrested almost immediately after the story was published. This kind of amateur-hour screwup may, unfortunately, scare others away from coming forward with vital information that sheds light on the darkest corners of our recent history.
Now, the impulse will be to focus on Winner: Did she break the law? Could she have conscientiously blown the whistle any other way? What are her politics and motivations?
This will certainly be the emphasis from the Republican Party, whose members are eager to weasel out of the position they've put themselves in, claiming to be aggressive defenders of the nation while looking away from the growing mound of evidence that our elections were compromised, that members of the Trump campaign, and possibly even the administration, may have been involved, and that the leader of their party is trying to squelch any probes.
We shouldn't take the bait and get distracted by what Winner tweeted about or whose Twitter feeds she followed. Instead, we should retrain our gaze on the issues at hand: A loose-lipped President who is obstructing justice; a hostile foreign power interfering with our democratic system; and a craven, mealy mouthed majority party in Congress doing absolutely nothing because, hey, their guy won, and that seems to matter more than the integrity and security of the United States.
One leak is the least of our problems.
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