Arrest in NSA news leak fuels debate on source protection

June 7, 2017 by Rob Lever
National Security Agency contractor Reality Winner is accused of leaking secret documents to a news organization

It was a major scoop for The Intercept— documents suggesting a concerted Russian effort to hack US election systems—but the online news site is drawing fire in media circles following the arrest of the alleged source of the leak.

The Intercept, the investigative arm of the First Look Media organization created by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, is being criticized for sharing information which may have led to the arrest this week of National Security Agency contractor Reality Leigh Winner.

Winner, 25, was arrested and accused of mailing classified NSA documents to "a news outlet," according to the US Justice Department, which said an investigation showed she had printed and shared the investigative report.

Did the news organization unwittingly provide clues to the government that led authorities to Winner? Some media analysts say the journalists were careless at best.

Some of the harshest criticism came from Washington Post reporter Barton Gellman, who called the case a "catastrophic failure of source protection" and argued that The Intercept "made egregious mistakes that doomed its source."

"It handed USG (US government) a color copy of original doc & told a clearance-holding contractor the doc was mailed from Augusta. Where source lived," tweeted Gellman, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner who was part of a team reporting from documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

Jake Swearingen, a technology writer for New York Magazine, said Winner made her own missteps by printing the documents in a way that could be tracked and mailing them to The Intercept.

But Swearingen added that The Intercept may have sealed Winner's fate by showing the to a government official as part of an effort to verify its authenticity.

"It's quite reasonable for The Intercept to seek confirmation," Swearingen wrote. "But revealing the Augusta, Georgia, postmark to the third-party source clearly helped the government build its case."

The Intercept said in a statement the NSA document "was provided to us completely anonymously" and added that "we have no knowledge of the identity of the person who provided us with the document."

The news organization, which is headed by investigative reporter Glenn Greenwald, who was part of the team that first published the Snowden documents, cautioned against drawing any conclusions from FBI assertions on how it tracked Winner.

"Winner faces allegations that have not been proven. The same is true of the FBI's claims about how it came to arrest Winner," the statement said.

An undated social media picture of Reality Leigh Winner, who is accused of giving top-secret documents to a news organization

Connecting the dots

Robert Graham of Errata Security said Winner may have been tracked by nearly invisible dots from the printer used that can determine who used the machine.

"Because the NSA logs all printing jobs on its printers, it can use this to match up precisely who printed the document," Graham said in a blog post.

"When they print things out, they includes these invisible dots, so documents can be tracked," Graham wrote, calling it "a violation of our (constitutional) rights."

Dan Gillmor, an Arizona State University journalism professor who blogs about media, said the case calls for more scrutiny.

"Hoping @theintercept will do a thorough self-examination of its source protection, or lack of it—and make results loudly public."

Some were less charitable.

John Kiriakou, a former CIA analyst who went to jail after leaking information on US torture and waterboarding, tweeted "@theintercept should be ashamed of itself. (Reporter) Matthew Cole burns yet another source. It makes your entire organization untrustworthy."

WikiLeaks, the organization which is a conduit for secret documents, said it was offering a $10,000 reward "for information leading to the public exposure & termination of this 'reporter.'"

Others said the focusing on the role of the distracts from the more question of whether the leak related to an important public issue.

Snowden, who has been given asylum in Russia and is also facing prosecution for divulging secret documents, said it is inappropriate to use the Espionage Act to prosecute "whistleblowers" who reveal important news to media.

"The prosecution of any journalistic source without due consideration by the jury as to the harm or benefit of the journalistic activity is a fundamental threat to the free press," Snowden said in a blog post.

Dan Kennedy, a Northeastern University journalism professor, said most of leaked information understand they will eventually face consequences.

Winner "does have an argument to make that what she did was in the public interest, but I don't know if she can convince a jury of that," Kennedy said.

Explore further: US contractor arrested after leak of Russia hacking report (Update)

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9 comments

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rderkis
3.7 / 5 (3) Jun 07, 2017
Jail for life would be appropriate! I bet it would wipe that smile off her face. :-) TRATOR!
ForFreeMinds
3 / 5 (2) Jun 07, 2017
IMHO, unless a government employee is leaking secrets showing government corruption, they should be responsible for it. What good are they doing otherwise? She just let our enemies know what we've found out about them.
rderkis
3 / 5 (2) Jun 07, 2017
leaking secrets showing government corruption


Not that I disagree with you in the slightest but how would/could a classified document show government corruption, unless it was maybe about a investigation into that corruption or a talk explaining why that corruption should be kept secret in the interest of nation security?
Either way a lowly non elected government employee should not be leaking it to the press. If under those circumstances they went to their senator or other high ranking representative, that could be understood.

It is TREASON!
barakn
1 / 5 (2) Jun 07, 2017
Unless laws have changed significantly since i was last paying attention, she's innocent until proven guilty by a jury of her peers. And should any of you land in trouble, hopefully you'll enjoy the same benefit.
rderkis
3 / 5 (2) Jun 08, 2017
she's innocent until proven guilty by a jury of her peers.

I have to ask why would you waste your time posting somthing so obvious?
By the way "The sun looks bright!"
TheGhostofOtto1923
not rated yet Jun 15, 2017
Unless laws have changed significantly since i was last paying attention, she's innocent until proven guilty
Unfortunately for an alarming number of americans your declaration ends with 'shes innocent'. Ditto for manning and snowden.
contact darkwebs

https://www.youtu...rvblgGP0
MR166
5 / 5 (1) Jun 15, 2017
This brings up the added question of what type of people are our top security agencies hiring. If people like the above have top security clearance what about the real spies and how many of them are hidden in the agencies?
rderkis
3 / 5 (2) Jun 15, 2017
Unless laws have changed significantly since i was last paying attention, she's innocent until proven guilty by a jury of her peers.


Wow, your so smart! I never knew the jury had to PROVE someone guilty!
I thought they just had to FIND someone guilty.

Well everyone of you freedom loving citizens, this goes for President Trump also. Or perhaps you don't really believe "innocent until FOUND guilty by a jury of his peers"
rderkis
1 / 5 (1) Jun 15, 2017
Unless laws have changed significantly since i was last paying attention, she's innocent until proven guilty by a jury of her peers.


Wow, your so smart! I never knew the JURY had to PROVE someone guilty!
I thought they just had to FIND someone guilty.

Well everyone of you freedom loving citizens, this goes for President Trump also. Or perhaps you don't really believe "innocent until FOUND guilty by a jury of his peers"

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