By Jesselyn Radack
Reality Winner, the 25-year-old Air Force veteran and NSA contractor charged with mailing classified material to a news outlet, is a classic whistleblower. She hasn’t claimed that mantle, which is understandable given America’s love-hate relationship with whistleblowers. They are alternately celebrated and denounced, depending on who has the microphone and who has the power.
A whistleblower is a current or former employee who reveals what she reasonably believes evidences fraud, waste, abuse, illegality, or a danger to public health and safety. The individual can disclose their concerns to their superiors, Congress, an interest group representative, or the media. Unfortunately, often nothing gets fixed when employees report internally; in fact, they often become the target of any investigation that ensues. This is especially true in the Intelligence Community, where whistleblowers lack strong protection from retaliation. It is easier to shoot the messenger than listen to the message. And the message here is one that has been contested by the President of the United States: that Russia tried – strenuously – to hack our presidential election.
When you can’t shoot the messenger—many whistleblowers like Edward Snowden and Thomas Drake had unassailable personal and professional records—those in power will then go after a subsidiary issue: how the leak occurred. In the case of Reality Winner, she has been criticized for mailing the information from her hometown post office in Augusta, Georgia. She has been criticized for using snail-mail, instead of a whistleblower submission system like SecureDrop. (Here it is worth noting that whistleblowers who have blown the whistle over encrypted channels have sometimes faced added charges for obstruction of justice.) She has been criticized for her choice of the media outlet to which to leak.
Her undoing, however, was not because of her choices. Whistleblowers face a panoply of hard choices—whether to complain internally or go public, whether to report anonymously or identify themselves, whether to protect their colleagues from their life-altering decision or put them in the position of being witnesses. There is no right answer. As a general matter, whistleblowers try to call out wrongdoing while sustaining the least damage to themselves, their families, and their colleagues.
The most successful whistleblowers—from Daniel Ellsberg to Edward Snowden—have gone to the media, which brings the benefits of speed, objectivity and investigative resources. When Reality Winner picked this and true path that I and so many other whistleblowers have taken, I doubt she was thinking about how it could land her in jail. I am quite confident she was more concerned about correcting the public and historical record, and giving the truth a fighting chance in a political landscape increasingly overrun with lies. Many whistleblowers pay a very high price. Chelsea Manning was tortured and imprisoned. Thomas Drake faced life in prison and was left bankrupt and blacklisted. What the government has never managed to take away, however, is their integrity or their voices. And despite their ordeals, the whistleblowers who have suffered the most have often amplified their voices once it was safe to do so. They have continued to advocate for the causes they believe and against the injustices they faced: surveillance reform, ending torture, accountability for war crimes. The least we can do is protect them.
(Jesselyn Radack is a national security and human rights attorney who heads the “Whistleblower & Source Protection” project at ExposeFacts. Twitter: @jesselynradack)
Whistleblowers Welcome at ExposeFacts.org.
Launched by the Institute for Public Accuracy in June 2014, ExposeFacts.org represents a new approach for encouraging whistleblowers to disclose information that citizens need to make truly informed decisions in a democracy. From the outset, our message is clear: “Whistleblowers Welcome at ExposeFacts.org.”
ExposeFacts aims to shed light on concealed activities that are relevant to human rights, corporate malfeasance, the environment, civil liberties and war. At a time when key provisions of the First, Fourth and Fifth Amendments are under assault, we are standing up for a free press, privacy, transparency and due process as we seek to reveal official information—whether governmental or corporate—that the public has a right to know.
While no software can provide an ironclad guarantee of confidentiality, ExposeFacts—assisted by the Freedom of the Press Foundation and its “SecureDrop” whistleblower submission system—is utilizing the latest technology on behalf of anonymity for anyone submitting materials via the ExposeFacts.org website. As journalists we are committed to the goal of protecting the identity of every source who wishes to remain anonymous. …
Edward Snowden On Trump Administration’s Arrest Of An Alleged Journalistic Source
By Edward Snowden
President, Freedom of the Press Foundation (6/6/17)
The Justice Department released an indictment of twenty five year-old NSA contractor Reality Winner yesterday, just a few hours after the Intercept posted a story based on a top secret document that described how the NSA believes Russian actors tried to hack into US voting infrastructure. Much is unknown, as the public is made to depend upon the potentially unreliable claims of government prosecutors, while Winner is held in jail without any contact with the public.
She has been charged with violating the Espionage Act which explicitly forbids the jury from hearing why the defendant acted, and bars them from deciding whether the outcome was to the public’s benefit.
What we do know is clear: Winner is accused of serving as a journalistic source for a leading American news outlet about a matter of critical public importance. For this act, she has been charged with violating the Espionage Act—a World War I era law meant for spies—which explicitly forbids the jury from hearing why the defendant acted, and bars them from deciding whether the outcome was to the public’s benefit. This often-condemned law provides no space to distinguish the extraordinary disclosure of inappropriately classified information in the public interest—whistleblowing—from the malicious disclosure of secrets to foreign governments by those motivated by a specific intent to harm to their countrymen.
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. As long as a law like this remains on the books in a country that values fair trials, it must be resisted.
No matter one’s opinions on the propriety of the charges against her, we should all agree Winner should be released on bail pending trial. Even if you take all the government allegations as true, it’s clear she is neither a threat to public safety nor a flight risk. To hold a citizen incommunicado and indefinitely while awaiting trial for the alleged crime of serving as a journalistic source should outrage us all.
Learn More About The Freedom of Press Foundation – News, Views & Security Tools For Sharing Information, HERE.
NSA Contractor Charged for Leak After Intercept Exposé Reveals Russian Cyberattack of 2016 Election
A military intelligence contractor has been arrested and charged with leaking a top-secret NSA report to the media that reveals Russian military intelligence conducted a cyberattack on at least one U.S. voting software company just days before last November’s presidential election. The charges were announced after The Intercept published part of the NSA report on Monday. It is the first criminal leak case under President Trump. We speak with security technologists Bruce Schneier and Jake Williams, who is a former member of the NSA’s Tailored Access Operations hacking team.