Before The Intercept even published its bombshell story Monday, proving that Russian hackers sought to interfere in the U.S. election last year, the 25-year-old woman who allegedly provided the classified information to the online news outlet was in federal custody, having been grabbed by agents at her home in Georgia over the weekend after a trip to the grocery store.
Her parents told media that their daughter, a federal contractor with the unusual name of Reality Winner, is, understandably, terrified. She now faces up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine on charges she willfully retained and transmitted national defense information.
If she did it, the federal government certainly has the right — and arguably the duty — to prosecute, even though thinking people should agree that releasing the information was in the public interest, particularly given the penchant of this administration to dismiss claims of Russian interference in November's presidential election, not to mention outright lie on a regular basis. In fact, data leaks may be the best defense against President Trump's alternative facts.
Still, Ms. Winner's case is a cautionary tale for would be leakers and journalists. The risks are extremely high, and both she and The Intercept appear to have been sloppy in their efforts. According to an affidavit in support of a search warrant for Ms. Winner's home and car, the journalists outed her as a potential source when, prior to publication, they told a government agency that the classified material was mailed from Augusta, Ga., where Ms. Winner lives, and they later provided the NSA a copy of the document, which had markers on it that led investigators to determine it had been printed and "hand-carried out of a secure space."
It turns out only six people had ever printed the document; among them was Ms. Winner, who also used her work computer to communicate with The Intercept. (At the time she allegedly handed over the document, she had been on the top-secret-clearance job less than three months.) She was also an outspoken critic of the president, regularly denouncing him via Twitter under the handle @Reezlie; messages posted this year include the hashtags #NotMyWall, #notmypresident and #TrumpIsA[c-word].
Contrast this scenario with that of Thomas Drake, the former NSA employee who was accused under President Obama of felony espionage, dragged through hell, and ultimately convicted of a misdemeanor computer violation.
When he discovered mismanagement and waste within the NSA after 9/11, he tried to blow the whistle through internal channels and communication with Congress. When that got him nowhere, he decided to go to the press in 2005, but only after conducting significant research on the potential consequences — and his information wasn't even classified. He chose a reporter he admired, Siobhan Gorman, who was then working at The Baltimore Sun; set up an encrypted e-mail account and began corresponding with her anonymously for more than a year before revealing his identity in February 2007. He also laid out ground rules for their relationship from the getgo, which included protecting his identity and that he was never to be a story's sole source.
He thought at most he would lose his job for this, and yet the government went after him criminally, eventually charging him with all they had in 2010, after years of negotiations. I covered the case as a reporter as it made its way through federal court, ending in a stunning embarrassment for the Department of Justice, which dropped all 10-counts against him days before trial in June 2011, and accepted a plea bargain, in which Mr. Drake admitted "exceeding the authorized use of a computer."
By then, his world had been turned upside down, his bank account largely drained, and his reputation trashed. Yet he would have done it all over again.
"Accountable government requires people to stand up, and if it means telling truth to power at risk, that's a necessary part," he told me a few months later.
I hope Ms. Winner — and The Intercept — understood what she was in for. While there is honor in sacrificing yourself for the greater good, there's no reason to be rash about it.
Tricia Bishop is The Sun's deputy editorial page editor. Her column runs every other Friday. Her email is email@example.com; Twitter: @triciabishop.
Lessons for would-be leakers from Thomas Drake
Six months after the U.S. Department of Justice dropped its espionage case against former NSA employee Thomas Drake in 2011, I sat down with him for a three-hour interview. He described living under a shadow for years once the government discovered he had been corresponding with a Baltimore Sun reporter beginning in 2005, wearing down his bank account to defend himself against false claims, turning down various plea deals and fearing the eventual public indictment, which came in 2010 — and went a year later after it became clear the government had no case against him. By then, he was working retail at an Apple store in Bethesda, and qualified as indigent in the eyes of the law.
Here are some highlights from the discussion that would-be leakers — and the media itching to assist them — would do well to consider:
On the risk of going public:
"To contact the press, given the nature of this investigation, was fraught with significant peril, any contact. It's one thing if you're the White House, it's one thing if you're the director of the NSA... but for an employee to contact the press in an unauthorized manner — it doesn't matter with classified, unclassified [information] is an administrative violation, so you could be sanctioned, you could be reprimanded, you could lose your job."
On efforts to get him to plead guilty:
"The last thing I was going to do was plea bargain the truth, and the last thing beyond that was to plea bargain to something I didn't do, it didn't matter what the pressure was. If I could be silenced, given my position at the NSA, I was quite senior, it would send an extraordinarily dangerous message."
On the financial cost of defending himself, first privately through negotiations with the Justice Department, then publicly after the indictment, which he had been told could cost as much as $3 million to defend:
"I did not have anymore resources... there were individuals within at least two [law] firms who were willing to take the case on pro bono, they recognized what was at stake for the country, but their firms wouldn't let them. Why? Conflict of interest, they were representing large defense contractors or very well-placed people in government. They didn't want to jeopardize those relationships.... I was now in a place financially where i may qualify as indigent for representation by the federal public defenders' office, that's a formal process. You can imagine how it feels to fill out paperwork in which the court acknowledges that you're now indigent."
On taking a retail job at an Apple store in Bethesda to pay the bills:
"It's one of the silver linings in this whole case... where else could I apply for something part-time that would be another way to anchor some kind of normalcy in my life, and al=lso kind of put me out in the community. I knew I was damaged goods in terms of my company."
On the government's attack on his reputation:
"In the end, when all else had failed, and [prosecutors] were unable to prevail with the judge, and it was just Kafkaesque for me, it truly was a hall of mirrors, when it came to what the prosecution was [doing], they just kept coming up with these novel, these novel approaches. In the end, they went personal, they really went personal... The entire case was always a frame job... There's this whole meme that I was a traitor, I was truly an enemy of the state, I really was, and I was going to be punished. I was going to send the most chilling of messages."
On what he would have done differently:
"I would have never cooperated with the FBI at all under any circumstances."
On personal responsibility:
"The secrecy agreement is not an oath to protect wrongdoing, it's not an oath to cover up. It's not an oath to use secrecy as an excuse.... You're exposed to information that looks like crimes, you're exposed to information that violates Geneva conventions, you're exposed to information that violates lawful orders, you're seeing wrongdoing going on, even if it has the veil of secrecy on it,. What do you do? And you have a conscience, what do you do? ... Look the other way?"
On whether he has regrets:
"There's that Star Trek movie, where [Dr. Spock] sacrificed his life for the crew, and his best friend. Capt. Kirk, is standing outside, 'Spock why did you do this?' The needs of the many or the few outweigh the needs of the one. I say that quite emotionally, I had to consider the future. Was a I willing to take the hit? Yeah, I was... there's an accountability as a public servant to provide for the common defense and the general welfare."
— Tricia Bishop