Reality Leigh Winner: The Whistleblower We Didn’t Want

It’s a story as old as the 21st century: A young NSA contractor with more access to classified information than they probably should have had leaks that information to the press, believing the public has a right to know that which their elected officials would never allow to see the light of day. That leaker’s identity is then revealed, the idealistic millennial facing a loss of liberty for doing that which they believed was a civic duty.

“In any other circumstances this would be an earthquake,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill, the top Democrat on the Homeland Security Committee.

But this story is missing that next crucial step: the leaker being lauded — controversially, but nonetheless — for their courage and assigned the label “whistleblower” by those who typically defend such people. Reality Leigh Winner is not Edward Snowden, it seems, outside of the bipartisan condemnation both have received (McCaskill herself condemned the leak, while right-wing media declares Winner a traitor). And while it’s still early, it appears this NSA contractor, who leaked a report documenting Russian efforts to hack local U.S. election officials, won’t be getting the book-and-a-movie hero treatment.

Winner, 25, was arrested June 6 just hours after The Intercept published a story on a top-secret NSA report it obtained detailing alleged efforts by Russian military intelligence to hack “a U.S. voting software supplier and more than 100 local election officials in the days before voters went to the polls” in November 2016, per The Washington Post.

“I think they’re going to try to make an example out of her because of the political climate right now,” said Reality’s father, Billie Winner-Davis.

 

That the Russian government was, allegedly, attempting to tamper with the infrastructure of the 2016 election itself — beyond just deploying “active measures” like selective leaks and partisan disinformation — wasn’t itself breaking news. It was reported last year that the FBI had spotted attempts to compromise voter registration databases, with U.S. intelligence officials attributing the intrusions to Moscow. But as Bloomberg added reported on June 13, the cyberattacks were “far more widespread” than publicly revealed, affecting “a total of 39 states.”

That’s a big revelation, “buttressed by a classified National Security Agency document recently disclosed by the Intercept.” Winner apparently believed the U.S. public has a right to know if the integrity of its elections has been compromised by a foreign government at a time when the campaign of a U.S. president — who rejects charges of Russian interference in the election as “fake news” from sore-loser Democrats — is being investigated for possibly colluding with that government.

But it’s not just Trump and his reactionary allies who suspect this Russia stuff is fake news.

As ABC News noted, on the March 22 edition of The Intercept’s podcast, Intercepted, founding editor Jeremy Scahill discussed “tremendous amount of hysterics” and “premature conclusions being drawn around all of this Russia stuff.”

“We still haven’t seen any evidence for it,” commented Glenn Greenwald, another founding editor.

We don’t know if Winner listened to that particular episode, but according to the federal complaint, she leaked the NSA report on Russian hacking, to one of the most prominently skeptical outlets, after emailing The Intercept and requesting “transcripts of a podcast.” (Scahill and Greenwald confirmed the FBI’s assertion that transcripts were requested, but said it was for another episode, with the former expanding on that in another podcast, calling her treatment “horrid”).

It makes sense that a woman with access to top-secret evidence of Russian electoral interference might think that evidence would be buried, given who is president, and a desire to share that evidence with the still-skeptical would explain Winner’s alleged decision to go to The Intercept and not a major newspaper.

But that lingering skepticism also explains why Winner is no hero — no Snowden — in the eyes of the skeptics. When the story first broke, Scahill, for example, stressed the need for caution, highlighting a section of The Intercept’s story noting the leaked report “does not show the underlying ‘raw’ intelligence on which the analysis is based.” Greenwald, likewise, said that while journalism “requires that document be published… Rationality requires it be read skeptically.”

“If the NSA asserts something, that’s proof enough for me,” he added, sarcastically, referring to the leaked report on Russia — skepticism not apparent with respect to NSA PowerPoint presentations on the agency’s surveillance capabilities. “They never lie or err[.] Rationality is about blind belief in official conclusions.”

Since Winner’s indictment, both Greenwald and Scahill have largely kept quiet on the matter. The outlet itself did respond in a June 6 statement, however, saying it had “no knowledge of the identity of the person who provided us with the document” (the government claims Winner was identified as the leaker after an Intercept reporter shared the NSA document with an intelligence official, revealing that it had been printed out).

On June 13, Greenwald and Schahill broke their silence, revealing that while their colleagues have been limited in what they can say, “We do not face these same constraints.” They then go on to identify several victims of Trump’s Department of Justice: themselves. Reporters, they wrote, had accepted “unproven FBI claims in a contested criminal case as Truth,” though in doing so they confirmed the FBI’s widely reported claim: that someone “appeared to request transcripts of a podcast” (it was ABC, not the FBI, that suggested one of those transcripts may have been for the episode in which the two discussed “all of this Russia stuff”).

Missing from the statement, which comments directly on the FBI’s alleged chain of events, is any comment on the FBI’s arrest (and the Trump Department of Justice’s detention) of an alleged NSA leaker. That’s a curious omission given that, by their own admission, there are no constraints on what they can say, or what emergency defense funds they can publicize.

Given the void, one is left with speculation: that a commentator like Greenwald, who believes there’s a “deep state,” “military-industrial complex” “war” against a “duly elected” president — fought with weaponized leaks about things the president and his staff have said and done, centering on this Russia stuff — is perhaps not convinced this deep state-adjacent leaker is a whistleblower at all.

What’s important for readers to know, to The Intercept’s founding editors, is that their publication’s alleged source was not motivated by their Russia skepticism, or at least not spurred by the transcript of one recorded expression of it. What’s conspicuously lacking is that express solidarity with a woman — source or not — who is accused of, and facing prison time for, releasing a report that revealed no raw intelligence or intelligence-gathering methods but demonstrated, for the skeptics, that at least the U.S. intelligence community’s internal assessments track with its public statements.

But that, again, may be unwelcome for those who have devoted a year to a nothing-to-see-here line. Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder who fled Sweden after being accused of sexual assault, hinted at that conflict when he nonetheless declared that, “Alleged NSA whistleblower Reality Leigh Winner must be supported.”

“It doesn’t matter why she did it,” he added, “or the quality [of] the report.”

To some it does. Liberal activist David Swanson, for instance, was skeptical Winner’s alleged revelations would convince any skeptics. “Hey, @theintercept, you want proof? I’ve got your . . . um, vague evidence-free ‘assessments.’ Take that!” Winner, as some see it, risked and lost her liberty to leak a report that — the NSA internally lying to itself, presumably in the hopes a leak would happen — only furthers a deep-state push for a new Cold War.

Evan Greer, a campaigner with the group Fight for the Future, believes something else may be at play. “There is something extremely gendered about the way Reality Leigh Winner has been treated by the media and public vs. Edward Snowden,” she posted on Twitter. While many are focused on blame or exculpation for her arrest, “where’s the [conversation] about how Reality is brave as fuck [and] took a tremendous risk to expose something she thought the public needed to know?”

That conversation has been buried before it could begin by those with the platforms capable of starting it. In these times, we not only need more whistleblowers, but a new and better commitment to defending them, not waiting for the pundits once on the front lines to lead the charge again. Young idealists can do more than just leak what older generations wish to hide; they can and will lead the fights to which others, for reasons of dated ideology or ego, are unwilling to contribute.

They seem to get that.

“To hold a citizen incommunicado and indefinitely while awaiting trial for the alleged crime of serving as a journalistic source should outrage us all,” said Edward Snowden, 33, in a statement that was ignored by those to whom he leaked.

Charles Davis is a writer in Los Angeles, California.

Joel Beinin on labor movements in Tunisia and Egypt

Joel Beinin has been a major figure in Middle East studies for several decades. He has been involved with the Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP) since the 1970s and remains a contributing editor to its magazine, Middle East Report. He and Joe Stork assembled the cri de coeur Political Islam: Essays from Middle East Report. Beinin’s MERIP author page reads like a one-man archive of leftist thinking about the Middle East over the last 30 years.

He is Professor of Middle East History at Stanford University and series editor of Stanford Studies in Middle Eastern and Islamic Societies and Cultures. In 2002 he served as president of the Middle East Studies Association of North America (MESA). From 2006 to 2008 he served as Director of Middle East Studies and Professor of History at the American University in Cairo (AUC). Continue reading “Joel Beinin on labor movements in Tunisia and Egypt”

A dizzying abundance of events this coming week

There’s never a shortage of rich cultural programming in a cosmopolis like Chicago, but the coming week presents an absolute frenzy…

 

Monday, April 3 at 6:00 PM

Joel Beinin discusses his book Workers and Thieves: Labor Movements and Popular Uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt — at the Evanston Public Library (in partnership with Northwestern University’s Middle East and North African Studies Program)

details

 

Wednesday, April 5 at 6:00 PM

Mustafa Akyol discusses his book The Islamic Jesus: How the King of the Jews Became a Prophet of the Muslims — at Bookends & Beginnings in Evanston

details

 

 

Continue reading “A dizzying abundance of events this coming week”

Statement by Syrian Civil Society Organizations on Ceasefire Agreement and UNSC Resolution 2336

The Syrian civil society organizations followed closely the recent developments and discussions regarding the ceasefire agreement signed by opposition armed groups and the Syrian regime mediated by Russia and Turkey as endorsed by UN Security Council Resolution 2336.

The signatories welcome any serious and credible ceasefire agreement as it will spare our people further blood, killing, and destruction. Such an agreement should be a prelude to a credible political process that will lead to the realization of the Syrian people’s aspirations in freedom, justice, and dignity.

For such an agreement to acquire the necessary seriousness and credibility, it shall: Continue reading “Statement by Syrian Civil Society Organizations on Ceasefire Agreement and UNSC Resolution 2336”

Syria and the Left: A Call to Arms

As the world’s imperial powers unify against Syrians, we offer suggestions for how those in the West can demonstrate solidarity with the besieged

by Charles Davis, Loubna Mrie, and Kareem Chehayeb

THE last year has been one of the worst in history for Syrians, whose country continues to be torn apart by dictatorship, the Islamic State, various rebel groups, and both U.S. and Russian imperialism. As the regime has solidified its grip on Aleppo–one of the last urban strongholds of opposition forces–the Islamic State continues to be a significant force in the country, as shown by its recapture of the ancient town of Palmyra.

The rise of Donald Trump and his desire to openly work alongside Russia and the Syrian regime as part of an escalated war on terror demands change with respect to how the Western left engages the issue of Syria. Some have spent years downplaying or even openly denying the well-documented suffering of Syrians, dismissing such reports as part of a ploy by Clintonites and liberal interventionists seeking to sell the world a no-fly zone that hasn’t come. The presidential election has all but settled this policy debate; moving forward, the left now needs to figure out how it can organize on behalf of those whom the world has united against. Rehashing the past while displaced Syrians are bombed and deported would be a historical dereliction.

Refugees need to be supported wherever they are, and imperial designs for the partition of their homeland–as well as the normalization of a hereditary regime that has killed hundreds of thousands–must be opposed. Meaningful solidarity could take a number of forms that the global left should pursue immediately, lest it continues to fail Syrians as it has for the last half decade.

Continue reading “Syria and the Left: A Call to Arms”

To “leftist” admirers of Assad’s Syria

By Farouk Mardam-Bey

As a Syrian who has always identified politically with the left, I am particularly appalled by those men and women who call themselves left-wingers — and are therefore supposed to stand in solidarity with struggles for justice worldwide — and yet openly support the regime of the Assads, father and son, who are chiefly responsible for the Syrian disaster.

Following four months of intense bombardment by the Russian air force, Bashar Al-Assad’s army, along with Shiite militias hailing from everywhere and mobilized by the Iranian mullahs, have now finished ‘liberating’ Eastern Aleppo. Liberated from whom? From its inhabitants. More than 250,000 inhabitants were forced to flee their own city to escape massacres, as had the people of Zabadani and Daraya before them, and as will many more Syrians if systematic social and sectarian ‘cleansing’ continues in their country under the cover of a massive media disinformation campaign.

That in Syria itself wealthy residents of Aleppo, belonging to all religious sects, rejoice over having been rid of the “scum” — meaning the poor classes who populated Eastern Aleppo — is not surprising at all. We are accustomed to it: the arrogance of dominant classes is universal.

Continue reading “To “leftist” admirers of Assad’s Syria”

Greece is no place for refuge

It has been nine months since the introduction of the EU-Turkey deal, under which refugees arriving on Greek islands face the threat of deportation back to Turkey. Since then, thousands of refugees have been stuck in inhumane conditions, in camps lacking basic resources like heat and electricity, as they await to have their asylum requests processed. With the arrival of winter, the situation continues to deteriorate.

Meanwhile, UNHCR and the EU’s aid department (ECHO) have been accused of mismanaging millions in emergency funding earmarked for upgrading shelters, leaving thousands sleeping in freezing conditions in camps across Greece. On Chios, refugees have begun to protest against these intolerable conditions. ‘We all are fighting this battle with the leaders of Europe’s non-humanists. Yes, we are now one team fighting the lies and hatred, racism and the enslavement of human beings and the imprisonment of freedom,’ writes Mohammed, a refugee from Deir ez-Zor.

The following commentary, originally published in Politico last week, was written in response to the European Commission’s proposal to resume ‘Dublin transfers’ back to Greece.    

By John-Mark Philo & Ludek Stavinoha

In the same week as the world marked Human Rights Day, the European Commission announced its plans to resume the so-called “Dublin transfers” of refugees back to Greece. If the recommendation is adopted at Thursday’s meeting of European leaders in Brussels, EU member countries will be able to start returning refugees who arrive on their territory back to the country of their first entry into the European Union, wherever that may be.

Continue reading “Greece is no place for refuge”