The day after NBC News aired an exclusive interview with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and just days before former FBI Director James Comey’s highly anticipated testimony on his investigation into potential Trump administration collusion with Russia, another sensational storyline related to Russian meddling in the U.S. election emerged June 5 — this one threatening to engulf prominent alternative media voices in an internecine battle.
The controversy erupted after the Intercept (the national security news site owned by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar and edited by Glenn Greenwald, Betsy Reed, and Jeremy Scahill) published an apparently top secret document and an article about it, which described it as “the most detailed U.S. government account of Russian interference in the election that has yet come to light.” Just about an hour later, the Justice Department announced charges against a National Security Agency contractor employee, Reality Leigh Winner, 25, who was arrested over the weekend, according to the DoJ’s press release.
The leaked document itself, dated May 5, 2017, describes an operation by the Russian intelligence agency known as the GRU that involved sending “spear-phishing” emails to over 100 election officials just days before the election. “The report indicates that Russian hacking may have penetrated further into U.S. voting systems than was previously understood,” the Intercept‘s reporters noted. (Though as some may recall, we were reassured in the fall by numerous media reports that the decentralization of U.S. elections made them nearly un-hackable, and that rather than changing actual vote tallies, Russia reportedly aimed merely “to create a perception that the results are in question, and to undermine confidence in American democracy,” as a reporter for The Hill put it).
“While the document provides a rare window into the NSA’s understanding of the mechanics of Russian hacking,” the Intercept also pointed out, however, “it does not show the underlying ‘raw’ intelligence on which the analysis is based. A U.S. intelligence officer who declined to be identified cautioned against drawing too big a conclusion from the document because a single analysis is not necessarily definitive.”
On the surface, it appears that Winner was caught due to a combination of mistakes on both her part and that of the Intercept‘s reporters, four of whose names appear on the story about the Winner document. Winner reportedly emailed the Intercept twice using a Gmail account on her work computer, and later printed out the document she sent to the news outlet through the postal service using a printer at her job at an NSA contractor firm. She also included a return address in Augusta, Georgia, in the letter, which was apparently mailed anonymously.
From this account, Winner seems to have clearly made some sloppy errors in the operational security of her leaking attempt. Yet the Intercept reporters also seem to have dropped the ball. They reportedly sent copies of the Winner document to both the NSA and a source working for Winner’s employer, Pluribus International Corporation, who they also told about the document’s origin in Augusta, Georgia. Based on that information and the copy of the document, the NSA was able to determine it was a scanned printout that had been folded into an envelope, and from there identify the printer it came from, and ultimately Winner as the leaker.
“The pattern of yellow dots left by the printer is visible on the image when displayed on any high-quality computer screen, especially if slightly tweaked for color. The pattern can be manually inserted in a matrix found on the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s website,” notes Michael Hiltzik of the L.A. Times, “which will produce the decoded information — printer model, serial number, and date and time of print.”
In the wake of Winner’s arrest, the Intercept has faced intense criticism. Julian Assange, founder of rival publisher of government secrets Wikileaks, has offered a $10,000 reward “for information leading to the public exposure & termination” of the Intercept reporter who sent the Winner document to the NSA. “Acts of non-elite sources communicating knowledge should be strongly encouraged,” Assange wrote on Twitter, and Winner “must be supported.”
Of course, if you believe some of what you hear in the media, such as the Washington Post‘s story last year based on a report from the shadowy anonymous group PropOrNot, then you may view Wikileaks as one of many “routine peddlers of Russian propaganda” and Assange as little more than a “useful idiot” for the Kremlin. The Intercept‘s Greenwald, however, has come to Assange’s defense as recently as April.
For its own part, the Intercept has released a short statement on the DoJ’s announcement of Winner’s arrest, which asserts that the top secret document “was provided to us completely anonymously.” It also notes that while the Intercept had no knowledge of the document provider’s identity, the U.S. government has identified Winner as the leaker.
“While the FBI’s allegations against Winner have been made public through the release of an affidavit and search warrant, which were unsealed at the government’s request, it is important to keep in mind that these documents contain unproven assertions and speculation designed to serve the government’s agenda and as such warrant skepticism,” the statement notes. “Winner faces allegations that have not been proven. The same is true of the FBI’s claims about how it came to arrest Winner.”
Indeed, while the Justice Department claims Winner confessed to leaking the document when confronted at her home and arrested, the reality of the situation is less clear.
“My client is innocent until proven guilty and we plan to enter a plea of not guilty,” Winner’s attorney, Titus Nichols, reportedly said Wednesday. He also reportedly said that “if there is a confession, the government has not shown it to me.” Winner’s mother Billie Winner-Davis, meanwhile, said her daughter told her “that she was scared she was going to be … they were going to make her disappear.”
Despite her somewhat understandable fear, it seems unlikely that Reality Winner will disappear any time soon. We’ll probably be hearing quite a bit about her, actually, as her case continues to unfold. Many details of her life and background have already been published, in fact, in the wake of her arrest, and it’s worth taking a look at some of them to get a clearer picture of her predicament.
The “improbably-named” Reality Winner, as former State Department foreign service officer Peter Van Buren describes her, reportedly got her top-secret security clearance while serving in the Air Force, where she was stationed at Fort Meade, Maryland (alongside NSA headquarters) as a “cryptologic language analyst” specializing in Pashto, Farsi and Dari, which are widely used in Afghanistan and Iran.
Winner reportedly left the Air Force in December 2016, before taking a job with contractor Pluribus at an NSA facility in Augusta in February. Yet it is somewhat unclear how Winner, who was reportedly active in left-wing politics (to a greater degree, certainly, than is common in the intelligence community), was able to retain her clearance.
“Winner leaves behind a trail long and wide on social media of anti-Trump stuff, including proclaiming herself a member of The Resistance,” Van Buren notes. “Never mind, she takes her Top Secret clearance with her out of the Air Force […] and scores a job with an NSA contractor. Despite the lessons of too-much-access the Snowden episode should have taught the NSA, Winner apparently enjoys all sorts of classified documents – her Air Force expertise was in Afghan matters, so it is unclear why she would have access to info on Russia hacking of U.S. domestic companies.
“Within only about 90 days of starting her new job, she prints out the one (and only one apparently, why not more?) document in question and mails it to The Intercept. She also uses her work computer inside an NSA facility to write to the Intercept twice about this same time.”
Though Van Buren, along with media outlets (including this one, earlier in this article) and the Justice Department, have been quick to point to Winner’s emails to the Intercept as a clue that led to her arrest, however, there is more to the story. In an interview Wednesday, Winner’s stepfather, Gary Davis, questioned the phrasing of the DoJ affidavit and its implications.
“It mentions that she had emailed The Intercept. She had emailed The Intercept to request a transcript of a podcast that had to do with climate change,” Davis reportedly said. “Her second email to The Intercept was a follow-up, to find out what the status of her request (for the podcast) was. They are alleging that somehow this is connected and it’s just not.”
Davis also reportedly added, somewhat bluntly, that “what has been put out by the government isn’t the complete story and it’s serving the government’s interests and what they are alleging.”
In the same interview with Winner’s parents, her mother, Billie Winner-Davis, similarly expressed skepticism about the emerging narrative surrounding her daughter. “Nothing matches for me at this point,” Winner-Davis reportedly said. “She’s not in the Russian world, so why would she go looking for something and how would she know to look for something?” She added that “we just ask that people not judge her, that we let all of the facts and the truth come out before people make up their minds. She hasn’t been convicted of anything as of this point.”
Other pieces of the Reality Winner story don’t seem to add up. As Van Buren points out, Winner presumably “knows how classified stuff works. She has been told repeatedly, as all persons with a clearance are, that her computer, email, printing, and phone are monitored. She mailed the document from Augusta, Georgia, the city where she lives and where the NSA facility is located. She practiced no tradecraft, did nothing to hide her actions and many things to call attention to them. It is very, very unclear why she took the actions she did under those circumstances.”
In his recent interview with NBC’s Megyn Kelly (formerly of Fox News) Russian President Putin said “I haven’t seen even once, any direct proof of Russian interference in the presidential election in the United States.” This conforms to his recent statement (whether believable or not) that election meddling attributed to the Russian government may have been carried out by private “patriotic” hackers.
Yet Putin went further in his interview with Kelly, suggesting elements within the U.S. government could have spoofed various hacking attempts themselves.
“Hackers can be anywhere,” Putin said. “They can be in Russia, in Asia, even in America, Latin America. They can even be hackers, by the way, in the United States, who very skillfully and professionally shifted the blame, as we say, onto Russia. Could you accept that in the midst of a political battle, by some calculations, it was convenient for them to release this information, so they released it, calling out Russia. Can you imagine something like that? I can.”
Kelly was widely criticized for her performance in the Putin interview. Following that interview, publication of the Intercept‘s story, and Winner’s arrest Monday, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s top Democrat, Mark Warner of Virginia, said he doesn’t think Russia “got into changing actual voting outcomes,” but that “the extent of the attacks is much broader than has been reported so far,” including in the Intercept‘s June 5 report. Former Federal Bureau of Investigation director Comey, meanwhile, has in sworn testimony accused President Donald Trump of “lies, plain and simple” about his leadership of the FBI.
Comey, now infamous for his “October surprise” announcement of a re-opened investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private email server, may be grandstanding a bit here in the media spotlight. If there is anything that is safe to say at this point about the investigations into Russian meddling in the U.S. election, alleged collusion with the Trump administration, or the Reality Winner leak case, it is that nothing about these topics is plain and simple — particularly separating the truth from the lies. How everything will shake out in the end, it seems, remains anybody’s guess.