Leakers take big risks to get Trump-Russia news to public
Originally published in California Publisher, Summer 2017.
By Jason M. Shepard
The impact of investigative journalism has been on proud display during the first months of Donald Trump’s presidency, but the administration’s first arrest of an alleged leaker is a cautionary tale.
As Trump downplayed Russia’s influence in his 2016 campaign and tightened press access in new and troubling ways, leaks from government insiders during the first months of the Trump presidency have been vital for journalists and the public.
Somedays, it’s hard to keep up with bombshell stories and scoops in the New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN, POLITICO and others.
Many leaks clearly came from Trump’s aides and allies. Trump has long been a leaker himself, of course, even masquerading as his own spokesman using the alias John Miller and John Barron, as the Washington Post reported.
During the 2016 campaign, Trump praised Wikileaks for publishing illegally leaked emails from Hillary Clinton’s campaign and encouraged Russia to hack and leak more.
But Trump is not happy with all leaks. Some he labels as “fake news” while also demanding that his Justice Department prosecute the leakers. He told FBI director James Comey, before he fired him, to jail journalists if necessary to unmask the leakers, according to a leak to CNN.
It took less than five months for Trump to get his first arrest of a leaker — a 25-year-old Air Force veteran living in Augusta, Ga., named Reality Winner.
What happens to Winner will be an important precedent for the future of the Trump administration’s leak plugging.
Winner is accused of leaking information that outlines conclusive evidence of Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. elections.
On June 5, The Intercept website published a bombshell story outlining Russian attempts to infiltrate U.S. elections systems using phishing tactics to gain passwords and access to voting software systems.
The story drew from a leaked intelligence report described as the “most detailed U.S. government account of Russian interference in the election that has yet come to light,” the website reported.
But within hours of publication, the news shifted from the contents of the report to the arrest of the alleged leaker.
The Justice Department announced that Winner, 25, had been arrested days earlier, charged with violating the Espionage Act of 1917.
Winner is an Air Force veteran and worked as a linguist for Pluribus International Corp., a government contractor in Augusta, Ga., that does work for the National Security Agency, at the time of the leak.
The evidence linking Winner to the leaked document seems clear.
After reporters for The Intercept sought verification of the document from government officials, the officials notified the FBI. Investigators traced the leak to Winner using internal auditing systems and Winner’s computer browsing and email history, according to an FBI affidavit.
Winner admitted to printing and mailing the document to a news organization after being confronted by FBI agents, the affidavit alleged. She is being held in federal prison without bail. Prosecutors say evidence exists that Winner mishandled other classified information.
Some immediately said The Intercept was sloppy in its practices to protect confidential and anonymous sources.
The Intercept “knows a lot about this stuff — they have arguably the best operational security experts in journalism over there,” investigative reporter Barton Gellman told the New York Times. “So it’s baffling that they didn’t make use of them.”
The Intercept acknowledged missteps. Editor Betsy Reed wrote, “at several points in the editorial process, our practices fell short of the standards to which we hold ourselves for minimizing the risks of source exposure when handling anonymously provided materials.”
Winner’s parents have defended her as a patriot in several interviews, and a nonprofit coalition called Stand With Reality is helping raise money for her legal defense.
“The document Winner is alleged to have given The Intercept is vital for understanding how U.S. election systems are seriously vulnerable to hacking,” Jeff Paterson, Courage to Resist project director and co-founder of Stand With Reality, said in a press release. “It is absurd that the government is charging her under the draconian Espionage Act rather than helping states fix our country’s election security.”
First Look Media, the non-profit publisher of The Intercept founded by ebay Founder Pierre Omidyar in 2013, is one of the first major donors.
Leaks by government officials, perhaps more than any other source, have helped journalists and the public learn about the inner workings of the Trump campaign and first months in office. Some of them have been highly sensitive, and almost certainly illegal.
“We’ve never seen this kind of leaking. It’s almost as if people think they have a right to violate the law, and this has got to end, and probably it will take some convictions to put an end to it,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in March on Fox New’s “The O’Reilly Factor.”
In Trump’s first 126 days in office, at least 125 published news stories included leaked information potentially damaging to national security, according to a June report by the Republican chairman of U.S. Senate’s Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.
More than half of the stories appeared in the New York Times or the Washington Post, according to the study, titled State Secrets: How an Avalanche of Media Leaks is Harming National Security.
The majority of leaks identified by the study concerned Russian probes, “with many revealing closely-held information such as intelligence community intercepts, FBI interviews and intelligence, grand jury subpoenas, and even the working of a secret surveillance court,” the report said.
“President Trump and his administration have faced apparent leaks on nearly a daily basis, potentially imperiling national security at a time of growing threats at home and abroad,” the study concluded. “The commander-in-chief needs to be able to effectively manage U.S. security, intelligence operations and foreign relations without worrying that his most private meetings, calls and deliberations will be outed for the entire world to see.”
The report is 23 pages; a table listing the name of every bylined reporter whose stories included leaked information spans 10 of the pages.
The crackdown is already being felt. Government employees across the bureaucracy report a tightening of controls for access to sensitive information, and national security employees said communications systems are monitored for evidence of contact with journalists, according to POLITICO.
Clearly, some of the leakers have been motivated by a desire to correct the public record after Trump or his top aides gave false statements.
Like with Watergate and the famed “Deep Throat” source who fed Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein inside information, the “drip” of news from leakers has become a centerpiece of the Trump-Russia story.
Woodward described the motivations of Deep Throat in his 2005 book, The Secret Man: The Story of Watergate’s Deep Throat, that unmasked Deep Throat as Mark Felt, the FBI’s second-in-command at the time of the Watergate scandal.
“Felt had believed he was protecting the Bureau by finding a way, clandestine as it was, to push some of the information from the FBI interviews and files out to the public, to help build public and political pressure to make the president and his men answerable,” Woodward wrote.
Felt acted because he worried that the investigation into Watergate “wasn’t going anywhere until it was public,” Woodward wrote.
Leaks have long been essential in informing the American public of government affairs. This is especially important in counteracting Trump’s “post-truth” and anti-free press posturing.
Leaks can’t happen without leakers. What happens to Reality Winner may portend the fate of other leakers in the Trump era, and by extension, the extent to which we may learn the truth about his presidency.
Jason M. Shepard, Ph.D., is chair of the Department of Communications at California State University, Fullerton. His primary research expertise is in media law, and he teaches courses in journalism, and media law, history and ethics. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @jasonmshepard.