Trump's First Leak Arrest: An Old War on Leakers, Not a New War on the Press

Imprisoning people who reveal top-secret reports has become business as usual. Should it be?


Reality Winner

A woman with the improbable name of Reality Winner, a 25-year-old employee of a private contracting firm in Georgia, has been arrested for leaking a top secret report to the press. It's the first arrest for a leak under President Donald Trump's administration.

The outlet involved appears to be The Intercept, which yesterday published a top-secret National Security Agency (NSA) report. The document offers more details on a claim that officials had already made public in a much more circumspect fashion: They believe sources within Russia connected to the government did attempt to hack into voting systems within the United States. According to The Intercept, the NSA has learned

that Russian government hackers, part of a team with a "cyber espionage mandate specifically directed at U.S. and foreign elections," focused on parts of the system directly connected to the voter registration process, including a private sector manufacturer of devices that maintain and verify the voter rolls. Some of the company's devices are advertised as having wireless internet and Bluetooth connectivity, which could have provided an ideal staging point for further malicious actions.

The report provides no evidence that hackers altered election outcomes. It also doesn't seem to implicate Trump or his campaign in any way. Nonetheless, much of the reaction to the arrest has put an emphasis on tracking through Winner's social media accounts to pin down her political positions. The Daily Caller dug up various progressive positions and criticisms of Trump on her Facebook page, for example, as did Fox News.

The facts that Winner hates Trump and supported Bernie Sanders shouldn't immediately mark her as a national security risk, though there are some on Twitter who seem to think that Winner's political views are themselves evidence of "treason." (The reverse is also true: Some tweeters seem to believe that Winner is some sort of hero simply because she shares their distaste for the president.) At this point, "What does this mean for Trump?" has become the default question in these debates; there seems to be much less interest in asking whether the public should have the right to be informed about the NSA report's contents.

On one hand, this doesn't really look like whistleblowing. Edward Snowden revealed what he believed to be massive, widespread violations of Americans' privacy. Winner decided to reveal the contents of a report that doesn't appear to show any wrongdoing by Trump aides or his campaign.

On the other hand, it's worthwhile to question how much of the information from the NSA really should have been kept "top secret." We can't assume that whatever decisions officials use to classify information is appropriate or that Winner should be prosecuted for violating protocol absent of any analysis of harm. As David Frum of The Atlantic tweets:

While Trump's ascent to the presidency has sparked fears of an attack on the freedom of the press, this arrest is business as usual. Under President Barack Obama, leakers like Winner were prosecuted too; this doesn't appear to be any different than that. Any other administration would have probably responded exactly the way Trump's did here. Whether that's how we want our government to behave when secret information is leaked is another question entirely.

Meanwhile, the FBI says it was able to catch Winner partly due to technical information gleaned from the NSA's communications with The Intercept prior to the story's publication, meaning the media outlet didn't adequately protect Winner from being found out. If true, this case could discourage further leaks to The Intercept, or even further leaks in general. The Intercept has responded with a rather vague call for skepticism toward the government's claims.