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.

Russia Is Not Iraq (and Neither Was Syria)

With right-wing authoritarians ruling in Moscow and Washington, leftists should find it easy to oppose these evil empires — but some, poisoned by pre-election contrarianism, are too busy what-abouting their evils and conflating legitimate fears of demonstrable collusion with bigoted, liberal hysteria.

“If you look, for example, at the agency that has led the way in pushing these allegations about Russia, which is the CIA…. The CIA was very aggressively in favor of Hillary Clinton’s victory. And there’s a lot of different reasons for that, but I think the primary one is that the CIA proxy war in Syria is something that Hillary Clinton had promised not just to support, but to escalate.”

— Glenn Greenwald on Democracy Now!

One thing  we really ought to sneak up on with a cloth soaked in ether, nudge into a ditch on the side of the trading route and leave behind for dead in 2016 is the notion, pushed by a social media left and libertarian fellow travelers poisoned by brand-conscious contrarianism, that Donald J. Trump — reminder: right-wing authoritarian scumbag — is a victim of liberal McCarthyist red-baiting over his fondness for a kleptocrat in Russia whose intelligence agencies worked as an arm of the Republican billionaire’s opposition research team. And buried with this notion, in a lead-lined coffin incapable of penetration by a WiFi signal, we ought to lay the accompanying dogma that to express concern about this budding geopolitical realignment (and the clear and present evidence that of course the Russian state had an interest in aiding the election of an avowed ally, and indeed did) is the product of a decidedly normie faith in the CIA that — betcha didn’t know — was wrong about Iraq.

One might have thought the alarming spectacle of an actually-going-to-be-president Trump, and his continued, open embrace of a foreign war criminal, would wake the sophists of the left from their intellectual slumber, but paradigms, like Russia as a universally loathed official enemy and Hillary as the next U.S. president, are awful hard to kick. And so the trite response to the unsurprising revelations of the Russian state’s perfectly sensible partisan hacking operations is itself lacking in shock value. This was to be expected from a left that’s only frame of reference appears to the be the 2003 invasion of Iraq, supported by the likes of Glenn Greenwald, and which long ago decided to serve penance for the crimes of the U.S. empire by reflexively countering indictments of others’ crimes with something moderately less rank than outright apologism: increasingly stale reminders that the U.S., also, meddles and bombs.

What’s lacking in the response to Russian intelligence operations — different from the U.S. variety only in that the hacked information was selectively made public — is any attempt at a counter narrative: If not them, then who? No, bumper-sticker leftism requires the centering of the U.S. for the purposes of battle-tested talking points, like: If not us, then who cares? We’ve got plenty for which to atone, mister. It’s a leftism divorced from the trials of reality and the difficulties of grappling with multiple poles of power as they actually exist in a world from which a certain brand of “left” (“pseudo-” if one prefers that to mocking quote marks) has retreated, preferring the smugness of a contrarian subculture and a reactionary (and boring) anti-liberalism with its self-satisfied truisms to truly independent socialist critique.

Another Iran, Not Iraq

The truth is Russia is not Iraq, nor is evidence that Moscow hacked and disseminated information that helped a friend akin to saying Baghdad had WMDs — and neither claim, true or not, could possibly justify U.S. militarism. The claims are dissimilar in another respect: The intelligence in the lead-up to Iraq was manufactured from the top down by political appointees that accused the CIA of housing liberals who just didn’t get that the intelligence its agents had discarded as unreliable or fake could, in fact, be useful to its boss, Dick Cheney. Today, we witness the spectacle of the CIA and the FBI and the NSA all concurring on a matter that President Barack Obama reportedly sought to delay addressing until after Trump’s election, and which (badump) doesn’t ingratiate the intelligence community to the next man that community will call “dad,” and who will have the power to dismantle it.

If there’s a historic parallel, it’s not Iraq, but Iran: As with Russia’s hacking, it was also the U.S. intelligence community’s consensus that Iran was not building nuclear weapons, a finding that didn’t please the “real men” in the Bush administration who wanted to follow up the bombing of Baghdad with airstrikes on Tehran.

But that said, did you know (I bet you didn’t) that there were, in fact, no WMDs in Iraq? It’s a reference that is damning, on the surface, for those unfamiliar with how the U.S. came to invade that country, and so those who prefer their politics superficial will return to it time and again, just as they do a narrative on Syria, the next Iraq that wasn’t.

Appearing on Democracy Now!, The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald helpfully united both Russia and Syria in the “next Iraq” take we didn’t know we wanted but which we, as inhabitants of an evil empire, totally deserve. Asked why revelations of Russian responsibility were coming out now, Greenwald suggested we were on the road to Damascus. “There’s a lot of different reasons,” Greenwald said, “but I think the primary one is that the CIA proxy war in Syria is something that Hillary Clinton had promised not just to support, but to escalate.” The CIA, Greenwald maintained, “is attempting to undermine and subvert Trump because they never wanted him to be president in the first place, and now they’re trying to weaken and subvert his agenda, that they oppose.”

Trump, in other words, poses a challenge to the deep state because he threatened to pursue the same policy as his predecessor: regime preservation, not change, with Obama even pursuing a deal with Russia to jointly bomb Syria together. Greenwald, who failed to recognize the latter’s joint bombing plans until it was useful to deploy against liberal “Russophobic” hysterics, is here seeking to salvage his pre-election take that Trump has a “non-interventionist mindset” by portraying his non-interventionism as under assault by the deep state; when the bombs do inevitably fall, then, they can then be spun as the spoils of that deep state’s victory against a president “they never wanted.” And so, even post-November, harping on liberals and their intelligence allies as the greater evil can continue to be the woke call despite a proto-fascist’s assumption of power. Hillary, after all, would have started World War III for Jabhat al-Nusra, and it doesn’t take supporting Trump to oppose that!

End this, please. A new year and a new U.S. head of state requires more from the ironically detached left than the cock-sure scumbaggery of vapid owns of liberals and asinine comparisons to earlier , more easily understood times that only demonstrate one’s inability to accept that times change and alliances shift.

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Whatever This Is, I’m Against It

Whatever the reasons — likes and shares or an intellectual laziness that prevents them from abandoning old paradigms — it is disappointing and sad that many old comrades cannot abide their analysis, proven woke and true in the mid-2000s, being affected by new developments, like Russia no longer being red and non-U.S. imperialisms having eclipsed the American empire’s body count in the 21st century. We sneer at Democratic elites’ unwillingness to own their failures, and that perhaps explains the unwillingness to concede the reality of Russian hacking lest we excuse those failings, but the left’s most confident pundits have, like the liberals they deride, fallen into the comfortable habit of preaching to their own social media cluster, where possessing superior politics, in the abstract, is a license for not having to grapple with the world through anything but the comfortably distorting prism of ahistorical slogans.

The world, as it exists, is defined by a resurgent threat of fascism that a swathe of the left is content to challenge by blaming everyone and everything but itself, a self-defeating and self-satisfied impotence — literally nothing a leftist says or does matters because the left doesn’t hold power which is totally not its own fault in any fashion — absolving the savviest from having to wake up and notice that the Russian state is objectively bad, even if liberals say it too, and that the right-wing authoritarian who rules from Moscow is about to have an ally in Washington that his intelligence services helped elect. Instead of retreating to the comfort of takes we knew to be true in an earlier, more innocent time, when the laughter of children wasn’t at plausible risk of being extinguished by an unhinged megalomaniac with a greater-than-zero chance of firing off some nukes because he finds that laughter annoying, the left should consider that rejecting Moscow and Washington alike was leftists’ proudest moment, and that we live in a time when both empires are set to work in concert, with Syria likely to be the first testing grounds for this alliance — making it all the more easy and refreshingly unproblematic to oppose them both.

Let’s do that, not whatever it is Greenwald and his imitators think they’re doing.

Charles Davis is a journalist based in Los Angeles.

The Passion of Bradley Manning

Essayist, lawyer, and PULSE contributor Chase Madar’s much-awaited book The Passion of Bradley Manning: The Story of the Suspect behind the Largest Security Breach in U.S. History is out this month from O/R Books.

The following is an excerpt from Kelly B. Vlahos’ recent review of the book at Antiwar.com:

It might be too easy to invoke Manning as martyr two days after Palm Sunday, when Christians observe the betrayal, humiliation and crucifixion of Jesus Christ two thousand years ago. While it is not our intention to compare Manning to the Christian Son of God, who according to Gospel, rose from the dead, humanity’s sins forgiven, on Easter Sunday, author Chase Madar lays out a deft argument that Manning has indeed sacrificed everything for his country’s sins in his aptly entitled new book, The Passion of Bradley Manning.

“I wanted to write a full-out defense of his alleged deeds — a political and moral defense,” Madar told Antiwar.com in a recent interview. And he has. As Madar points out, there are “many people in history who have died and sacrificed for their cause.” The Passion makes an industrious case that Manning did what he did for a cause: to give the people the information they need and deserve about what their government is doing in their name. Transparency — Robin Hood style.

“What I find remarkable and praiseworthy is, he was not — despite having this terrible time getting bullied and messed with constantly — leaking these things to get revenge,” Madar said. “He was a true believer in patriotic duty and military service, I think. If you look at the chat logs, he was very clear about his motives for leaking, that this was what the public should know, so that we as a country could make better decisions.”

Continue reading “The Passion of Bradley Manning”

The Terrible Beauty of Wikileaks

The following appears in The Arabs Are Alive, edited by Ziauddin Sardar and Robin Yassin-Kassab. 

On 7 December 2010, Tunisian despot Zine el Abidine Ben Ali’s regime blocked internet access to the Beirut daily Al-Akhbar for publishing a US embassy cable which painted the dictator, his wife and her family in a deeply unflattering light. In the July 2009 cable, US ambassador Robert Godec had accused Ben Ali’s regime of having ‘lost touch with the Tunisian people…[tolerating] no advice or criticism whether domestic or international,’ and of increasingly relying ‘on the police for control and focus on preserving power.’ The cable mentioned the growing ‘corruption in the inner circle,’ particularly around first lady Leila Trabelsi and her family, whom it said the Tunisians ‘intensely dislike, even hate.’ It finally concluded that ‘anger is growing at Tunisia’s high unemployment and regional inequities. As a consequence, the risks to the regime’s long-term stability are increasing.’

Ten days later in Sidi Bouzid, 26-year-old street vendor Muhammad Bouazizi immolated himself in front of the local municipality building after his vegetable cart was confiscated by Faida Hamdi, a female municipal official who had then slapped him, spat in his face, and insulted his dead father. Anguished friends and sympathizers soon took to the streets to protest, and Youtube, Facebook and Twitter helped spread the fire further—the long deferred anger of the Tunisians had finally erupted. On 4 January 2011, when Bouazizi succumbed to his wounds, the 5,000 mourners at his funeral were heard chanting, ‘Farewell, Mohammed, we will avenge you. We weep for you today. We will make those who caused your death weep.’ Ten days later, as the protests reached a crescendo, Ben Ali and his wife hoarded their loot and decamped to Saudi Arabia. Some suggested that Wikileaks had drawn first blood.

Continue reading “The Terrible Beauty of Wikileaks”