The US government is springing a lot of leaks these days. Over the course of the past few months, high-ranking national security officials such as National Security Agency Director Mike Rogers, former FBI Director James Comey and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper have been called before Congress and grilled over what some see as a concerted effort to undermine the Trump administration by leaking classified material relating to the ongoing investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
The debate over leaking by members of the national security and intelligence communities came to a head last week with headlines detailing a National Security Agency document leaked by a 25-year-old contractor named Reality Winner. As first reported by the Intercept, the document described two separate Russian cyberattacks prior to the 2016 US election. According to the report, the NSA believes Russia’s military intelligence service, GRU, attempted to both “obtain information on elections-related software and hardware solutions” from a voter registration software company and hack into the email account of 122 local election officials. Winner was promptly arrested and brought up on federal charges on June 5.
Some argue that Winner is a whistleblower and a hero. Trump’s bete noir Rosie O’Donnell has reportedly donated $1 million to Winner’s defense fund, calling her a “brave young patriot.” But Winner is neither a whistleblower nor a hero—and giving her undeserved accolades will only further encourage potentially dangerous leaks.
A whistleblower is, by definition, someone who releases information about corruption, criminality or malfeasance within the US government that the government is not acting to address. But Winner wasn’t “blowing the whistle” on government wrongdoing. All she did was leak highly classified information about legitimate government activity. She was simply trying to promote her own partisan political agenda by selectively leaking two examples of Russian hacking simply to “prove” what she (and many others) believe: that Russia helped Trump steal the election. This might also explain why Winner leaked information pertaining only to Russia and not, say, Israel, China, Turkey or Brazil which are all leading state sponsors (along with the United States and Russia) of cyber espionage.
Nevertheless, the document Winner leaked hardly provides the conclusive “slum dunk” evidence many are hoping for. The Intercept admits as much, writing that there is “no indication that the cyber attacks had any effect on the outcome of the election” and that “the NSA isn’t sure if any officials at the local level were infected with the Russian malware.” Former State Department official Peter van Buren observes, “There is no evidence the hack accomplished anything at all, never mind anything nefarious. The hack took place months ago and ran its course, meaning the Russian operation was already dead.”
Cybersecurity expert Jeffrey Carr points out that the NSA graphic embedded within the Intercept article shows, “the line connecting the operators to the GRU is one that represents ‘Analyst judgment.’ That means this wasn’t a communications intercept directly from the computer of a GRU employee.”
So once again, as with the allegations that Russia interfered in the election, we have an analytical judgment from an American intelligence agency, but no actual proof.
The information provided by Winner is yet another in a series of leaks that have sought to embarrass Trump by insinuating that the president is illegitimate because he allegedly colluded with Russia in order to defeat Hillary Clinton. The volume and content of the leaks, which NSA Director Mike Rogers and former FBI Director James Comey have said are illegal and are deeply concerning, raise serious questions about the intent of these leakers, who are violating the law in order to discredit a president who was, in fact, fairly elected.
It’s certainly understandable that Trump disgusts many within the US intelligence and national security agencies, given his disrespectful appearance before CIA’s Memorial Wall of Agency heroes in January, his reported carelessness with sensitive material, and his history of making wild and unsubstantiated. But holding a grudge is no excuse for those entrusted with high-level security clearances to leak classified information to reporters.
In the end, the endless parade of anonymous “current and former government officials” who are seeking, via a torrent of leaks, to force Trump’s removal from office should remember that they don’t get to decide who is president. In America, we have elections for that.