Some people have a fixed, principled stance on intelligence leaks—transparency in government is always for the good, for example, or releasing classified intelligence is never appropriate. But for most of us, the difference between a courageous whistle-blower—who risks their career and freedom to expose some dark secret the government doesn’t want us to know—and a leaker—who undermines national security, may put people at risk and gives comfort to our adversaries—is a subjective one. Most people celebrate the release of information they want to see released and condemn leaks that reveal stuff that they don’t want revealed. It usually comes down to partisanship or ideology. You can call that hypocrisy, or you can chalk it up to human nature; it is what it is.
In the days following The Intercept’s report revealing that the NSA had evidence that Russian military intelligence “executed a cyberattack on at least one US voting software supplier and sent spear-phishing emails to more than 100 local election officials just days before last November’s presidential election,” the debate over whether Reality Leigh Winner, the 25-year-old NSA contractor who allegedly sent the document to The Intercept—and was arrested only minutes after the piece was published—is a hero or a traitor seems muted compared to the noisy disagreements that followed Chelsea Manning’s or Edward Snowden’s revelations.
That may be because of her lack of tradecraft, her own failure to protect herself as a source. While The Intercept has come under fire—from people like veteran national-security reporter Barton Gellman—for its role in Winner’s swift apprehension, Winner herself was one of only six people who had access to the document, and she alone had e-mailed The Intercept from her work computer. Gellman tweeted that Winner “would have been lead suspect no matter what.”
But whatever mistakes she made in handling the documents, the public interest value of the material that Winner is accused of revealing seems obvious. Coming just days after Vladimir Putin hinted that Russia had hacked the election but then claimed that it could have been the work of “patriots” unaffiliated with the Russian government, The Intercept reported the first direct link to the GRU, the Russian military intelligence agency.
And legal scholar Claire Finkelstein, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Ethics and the Rule of Law, explains that “what’s significant about this report is that we have moved from an awareness of Russian covert operations, some of which was the kind of thing that intelligence communities engage with all the time, to something that looks more like a cyber-attack.
“It was designed to provide the Russians with techniques, information and the ability to directly manipulate election registration systems, and could have impacted the outcome of the 2016 presidential election,” says Finkelstein. “Whether they accomplished this or not, is another question. And most experts are not claiming that it changed the vote results. But I think the emphasis on results is overblown because the fact is that if they didn’t impact the results of this election, they might do so the next time.”