The Intercept’s parent company, First Look Media, has taken steps to provide independent support for the legal defense of Reality Winner, the NSA contract employee who was recently arrested in the first instance of the Trump administration using the 100-year-old Espionage Act to prosecute an alleged journalistic source.
Winner, who has pleaded not guilty, is accused of having anonymously mailed a document to The Intercept relating to a federal investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election. The NSA report, which was the basis of a story published by The Intercept on June 5, describes efforts by Russian military intelligence to hack into several states’ voting infrastructure, highlighting vulnerabilities in the U.S. election system and providing vital context for the current debate over Russian interference in the election.
Winner’s legal defense is led by John C. Bell and Titus Nichols of the Augusta-based firm Bell & Brigham. First Look’s Press Freedom Defense Fund, whose mission is to pursue legal fights where key principles of press freedom are at stake, will provide funding for the engagement of an additional law firm to support Bell & Brigham. Belief that it is wrong for journalistic sources to be prosecuted under the Espionage Act is the key principle that moved the Press Freedom Defense Fund to provide support for Winner’s legal defense. With Winner’s consent, First Look’s counsel Baruch Weiss of the firm Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer may support the defense efforts while continuing to represent First Look’s interests.
As a separate grant, based on the same principle, the Press Freedom Defense Fund is providing $50,000 in matching funds to Stand with Reality, a grassroots crowd-funding campaign to support public awareness and legal work around Winner’s case.
We at The Intercept have always opposed the use of the Espionage Act against government whistleblowers. Our stand is unwavering and we would object to the prosecution of Winner under the act even if we had no connection to the materials she is accused of disclosing. The First Amendment, not the Espionage Act, should be the framework for viewing the act of whistleblowing. Following in the steps of the Obama administration, which prosecuted more sources under the act than all previous administrations combined, the Trump Justice Department is wielding that archaic statute designed for punishing spies and traitors against someone who is suspected of contributing newsworthy material to a journalistic organization.
Of course, as the news outlet Winner is accused of leaking to, The Intercept has a unique perspective on her case and a passionate desire to see her receive a fair trial — even though we had no idea who our source was and still have no independent knowledge of the source’s identity. We view the Press Freedom Defense Fund’s support as a critical step to ensure that Winner has the strongest possible defense.
At The Intercept, we have also been carefully examining our own role in Winner’s predicament. Our reporting practices came under immediate scrutiny after the publication of our story as the Trump administration’s DOJ suggested in an unsealed affidavit and search warrant that it had gleaned clues about the leaker’s identity in part from our reporting. An internal review of the reporting of this story has now been completed. The ongoing criminal case prevents us from going into detail, but I can state that, at several points in the editorial process, our practices fell short of the standards to which we hold ourselves for minimizing the risks of source exposure when handling anonymously provided materials.
Like other journalistic outlets, we routinely verify such materials with any individuals or institutions implicated by their disclosure and seek their comment, as we explain on our website. This process carries some risks of source exposure that are impossible to mitigate when dealing with sensitive materials. Nonetheless, it is clear that we should have taken greater precautions to protect the identity of a source who was anonymous even to us.
As the editor-in-chief, I take responsibility for this failure, and for making sure that the internal newsroom issues that contributed to it are resolved. We are conducting a comprehensive analysis of our source protection protocols and will make revisions to ensure that any materials provided to us anonymously are handled in the most secure manner possible. We will ensure that all staff members have rigorous security training and are held to account for any lapses. Our security team will be consistently integrated into the editorial process. We will also provide revised and expanded guidelines for whistleblowers on our website. I am grateful to the entire Intercept staff for committing to this essential task.
It remains core to our mission to ensure that all our journalism is carried out in a manner that honors the risks that whistleblowers take.