When you log on to a classified computer network, you probably don’t give a second thought to the warning that says you are on a government network and your activity is subject to monitoring. You click straight through. But that caveat is there for an all-too-real reason.
When regularly working with classified information on a secure network, it’s easy to assume that the volume of traffic is so great no one could possibly be watching everything that goes on. Reading classified documents becomes so routine—not to mention that leaks of highly classified information to the press have become so common— it’s easy to forget a cleared professional has a legal responsibility to protect that information.
But on Saturday, 25-year-old intelligence community contractor and former Air Force linguist Reality Leigh Winner learned just how wrong that assumption is when she was arrested for violations of the Espionage Act. Winner became the first person charged with leaking classified information to the press during the Trump Administration.
How Winner Was a Loser
The FBI alleges that Winner accessed a Top Secret intelligence report regarding previously undisclosed Russian spear-phishing attempts prior to the 2016 General Election, printed it, took it home, and mailed it to The Intercept, the online publication that made its name by publishing the documents Edward Snowden stole from the National Security Agency.
The cautionary tale for cleared professionals is not that Winner was caught, but how she was caught.
The FBI’s affidavit shows the extent of the detail contained in the records of who accesses information on these networks, and what they do with it. After receiving Winner’s package, The Intercept showed the document to the intelligence agency in question (reportedly the NSA, although the affidavit does not specify this) to ascertain whether it was genuine.
The agency quickly determined that only six people, including Winner, had printed this document. It then audited the desk computers of these six individuals, which “revealed that Winner had e-mail contact with the [The Intercept],” according to the FBI. Printing the document in question, added to (quite stupidly) communicating with a news outlet from a government computer is more than sufficient probable cause for the arrest.
Other news outlets, like the New York Times, are implying that by showing the government the document it received, The Intercept compromised its source, even though it did not know who the source was. This is journalistic wishful thinking.
Even without sharing the document itself, asking about its contents would have alerted the government to the fact that a very specific piece of intelligence had been compromised. The investigation may have taken a little while longer—we’re talking about days, not weeks—but Winner would have been exposed nonetheless.
Conservative outlets are pouncing on Winner’s social media posts, which have expressed support for the Iranian regime among other liberal causes, attempting to paint her as a “left-wing activist.” She may or may not be that. But she was either extremely careless, or she wanted to get caught. The FBI’s affidavit states that she admitted her role when asked. Perhaps she hasn’t watched enough television police dramas to understand her Miranda rights. It is more likely, sadly, she doesn’t care.
But the fact that she was caught, apparently quite easily, should serve as a warning to others who want to leak secrets to the press: the government is serious when it tells you (as you log on to your computer) that your activity is ‘subject to monitoring’.