Welcome to the new world of whistle-blowing. Disclosing government secrets, even with a huge public interest attached to their airing, is now a high crime against the state.
Just to be clear, I side with the truth-tellers, no matter how many years in prison they get from the governments they expose. In Winner’s case, she has been indicted on a single count of illegally retaining and transmitting national defence information. She allegedly leaked a classified NSA document to the online news organization The Intercept.
The document Ms. Winner is reputed to have leaked documented that Russian hackers had targeted a U.S. voting systems software manufacturer before last year’s presidential election.
Why is this so important? Because it takes the Russian interference story in the presidential election beyond the hacking of the Democratic National Committee. According to the document, the Russian General Staff Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) was responsible for the hack into VR Systems, a Florida vendor of electronic voting services.
If one were looking for watershed moments in the slow decline of democracy, the fate of this idealistic 25-year-old provides one. From the moment Ms. Winner decided to make public the details of Russian hacking into a U.S. electoral software manufacturer, she became latest Donald Trump’s whipping girl.
I am here to whip back.
Before authorities slapped an orange jump suit on the young NSA contractor with a Top Secret security clearance, the Trump administration was vowing to make an example of her. With Trump himself the target of a number of leaks from the intelligence community over his presidential campaign team’s links to the Russians, the President now wants Americans to view leaking as something akin to treason.
Trump’s latest unprincipled backflip is enough to make the dogs weep. This is the same Donald Trump who declared his “love” for Wikileaks and its founder Julian Assange during the recent presidential election. It was Trump who said that the important thing was not the act of leaking stolen information about the Clinton campaign — including the purloined emails of campaign chair John Podesta. To Trump, the important thing was the content of those leaked emails.
In other words, Trump couldn’t have cared less back then that all of these communications were illegally obtained. Worse, we should all remember that Trump himself urged the Russians to hack more of Clinton’s emails, more than 30,000 of them.
If you want to talk about treason, that is a much better starting point than Ms. Winner’s actions.
Why would a U.S. presidential candidate urge a notoriously hostile nation to hack the private information of his political rival to gain a benefit at the polls in a so-called democratic election?
Trump is a hypocrite
Trump is a hypocrite, but a hypocrite with immense power. In the end, he will go after Ms. Winner as some kind of modern-day Benedict Arnold. He will forget all about the deadly contradictions in his position, including his own White House strategic leaks. He will also forget that leaking, despite all the harrumphing from the security establishment, is actually very much part of the American way of keeping its governments — federal, state and municipal — and other public institutions honest.
As Malcolm Gladwell wrote in the New Yorker, although the Espionage Act has been around since 1917, there have only been a dozen prosecutions under the statute. One of the reasons for that is that leaking is the form of communications Americans rely on (at least they used to), when a strong government becomes a dark government.
History shows that truly patriotic Americans on the inside of the system have consistently corrected the record when their government decides to lie to its people, or behave in an unconstitutional way. The winner in these circumstances is the ordinary citizen.
Consider the example of the way the National Security Agency was able to persuade Verizon, one of the largest wireless cellphone providers in the United States, to turn over all its phone records to the intelligence behemoth. The NSA used Section 215 of the Patriot Act as its authorization for this staggering data grab. That information in the form of a top secret authorization was leaked to various newspapers, including The Guardian and the Washington Post.
It touched off a national debate over privacy rights that ended in court in the United States. A federal judge ruled in 2015 that the NSA had violated the spirit of the Patriot Act. Did the leaker, Edward Snowden violate the terms of his employment as an NSA contractor? Without a doubt. Did the public benefit? Absolutely.
Step into the time machine. Back in 1971, Daniel Ellsberg was an analyst at the RAND corporation when he became privy to a secret history of the war in Vietnam. Then Secretary of Defence, Robert McNamara, had commissioned 36 historians to produce the 7,000 page secret work. McNamara then severely restricted access to this devastating report.
After slogging through this shadow history, Ellsberg concluded that successive U.S. governments had not only lied to the American people about the war, but that the generals themselves thought that it was costly and pointless. The New York Times won a Pulitzer Prize by publishing Ellsberg’s leaked information in what the world would come to know as the Pentagon Papers.
That scamp Nixon
Nixon tried to prosecute Ellsberg, but the case was thrown out because the president’s operatives broke into the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist to steal his medical records.
Informed by the Pentagon Papers, and other influential sources, America turned against the Vietnam War. Ellsberg remains an iconic figure of American patriotism. And oh yes, he did violate the terms of his employment with the RAND corporation — the price of getting the truth out.
When leaking turned to hacking, and Xerox machines gave way to thumb drives, there would be very few Bob Woodwards, Carl Bernsteins, or Daniel Ellsbergs. They would be replaced by a new, and qualitatively different class of whistle-blower. These people did not leak a killer document or two, but digital mountains of classified and highly embarrassing secret communications.
Chelsea Manning, a U.S. army intelligence analyst, handed over more than three-quarters of a million documents to Wikileaks. Manning’s disclosure rocked the U.S. security and diplomatic establishments and the world when Julian Assange published them. To this day, some observers believe that it was Manning’s release of secret diplomatic cables that sparked the Arab Spring.
But far from being seen as a patriot, someone in the mould of a Daniel Ellsberg, Manning was depicted in most of the press as an embittered traitor. The former intelligence analyst was charged under the Espionage Act and sentenced to 35 years in prison at Fort Leavenworth.
At the end of his term, President Obama commuted Manning’s sentence. The former soldier was released in 2017 after serving seven years behind bars for making public many, many inconvenient truths.
The other two new-age flooders, Julian Assange and Edward Snowden, remain men in limbo. Although a rape charge against Assange has been dropped by Swedish authorities, he continues to be sequestered in the embassy of Ecuador in London. The fact that he is still there is proof that he knows that there are several governments, particularly the U.S., that would love to prosecute him (or maybe worse).
Snowden took more considered approach
Snowden, the NSA contractor who used a web-crawler to “touch” more than a million and a half classified documents, documents he later provided to various newspapers, remains a guest in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Oliver Stone has freed him in a movie, but that to date is his only liberation.
Unlike Assange, who releases raw documents, Snowden insisted that the newspapers he showered with information “curate” the material he provided. In other words, he wanted them do their own work to corroborate what he gave them. It is a distinction lost on the current U.S. administration. It was a responsible approach, but nonetheless, the Trumpians still want his head.
Public opinion remains wildly divided on Snowden. Trump’s current director of the CIA, Mike Pompeo, thinks Snowden should be tried under the Espionage Act, and if found guilty, executed. Ellsberg, on the other hand, thinks that the young American should be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Death or the Nobel Prize, that’s quite a spread.
Which brings me back to Reality Winner. She is an old style leaker — allegedly upset by the lies her government continues to spew publicly about Russia, and in possession of some information to catch them out.
The liar in this case is Trump himself, who has stood on his head to downplay all Russian election tampering stories as “fake news.” Winner set the record straight with her leak, and joined the 17 U.S. intelligence agencies who agreed with her that Russia interfered in the 2016 federal presidential election to Trump’s advantage. Except it just wasn’t the DNC. It was electoral machines.
Did Winner break the terms of her service as a NSA contractor working with Pluribus International Corp. in releasing the classified document? If proven out, then yes, unreservedly. Did the American people benefit? Absolutely.
Every day, Trumpian mouthpieces Sean Spicer and Elizabeth Huckabee are paid big money to go on TV and lie to the country in the name of the President. Ms. Winner is looking at 10 years in prison for sharing the truth with her countrymen at considerable personal risk.
What is wrong with this picture?
Author: Michael Harris