One year ago this month, the FBI arrested a decorated Air Force veteran and NSA contractor and charged her under the Espionage Act. This week: an Intercepted special on the case of alleged whistleblower Reality Winner. While Paul Manafort enjoyed the comforts of his Hamptons mansion on house arrest, Winner was denied bond, kept in a jail, and has been subjected to a public smear campaign by Jeff Sessions’s Justice Department. She was the first whistleblower charged under President Trump and her treatment is unprecedented. Former drone technician-turned-whistleblower Lisa Ling talks about the campaign to free Winner. Trevor Timm of Freedom of the Press Foundation breaks down how the government is stripping Winner of her right to a fair trial. The Intercept’s Peter Maass highlights the injustice and hypocrisy of her treatment. Intercept Editor-in-Chief Betsy Reed and reporter Sam Biddle talk about the top secret NSA document she allegedly leaked, the irony of the media silence about Winner’s treatment, and why First Look Media is funding her defense. To support Reality Winner’s legal defense fund, click here.
Come see Intercepted live in Brooklyn, New York, on June 21 with featured guest Seymour Hersh, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. Tickets are now available.
President Donald J. Trump: A letter was given to me by Kim Jong-un. And that letter was a very nice letter. Oh, would you like to see what was in that letter? How much, how much?
[“Stan” by Eminem ft. Dido plays]
DJT: Dear Slim, I wrote you but you still ain’t callin. I left my cell, my pager and my home phone at the bottom. And I sent two letters back in autumn, you must not have got them. There probably was a problem at the post office or something. Sometimes I’ll scribble addresses too sloppy when I jot them. But anyways, fuck it, what’s been up man? How’s your daughter? My girlfriend is pregnant too. I’m about to be a father. If I have a daughter, guess what I’m gonna call her — I’m gonna name her Ivanka.
DJT: I haven’t seen the letter yet. I purposely didn’t open the letter. I may be in for a big surprise, folks!
Jeremy Scahill: This is Intercepted.
JS: I’m Jeremy Scahill, coming to you from the offices of The Intercept in New York City and this is Episode 59 of Intercepted.
Amy Goodman: Former U.S. intelligence contractor, Reality Leigh Winner, who is facing up to ten years in prison on charges she violated the Espionage Act.
CBS News Newscaster: Special Counsel Robert Mueller is accusing former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort of witness tampering. Manafort is facing charges that include money laundering, bank fraud and failing to register as a foreign agent. He has been on house arrest since his arraignment in October.
JS: “This is a tale of two defendants and two systems of justice.” Those are the first words of an essay written by my colleague Peter Maass. These two defendants that he speaks of are former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and accused whistleblower Reality Winner, a highly decorated young Air Force veteran who worked on sensitive U.S. counterterrorism operations. Here’s Peter:
This is a tale of two defendants and two systems of justice.
Christmas was coming, and Paul Manafort wanted to spend the holiday with his extended family in the Hamptons, where he owns a four-acre estate that has 10 bedrooms, a pool, a tennis court, a basketball court, a putting green and a guest cottage. But Manafort was under house arrest in northern Virginia. Suspected of colluding with the Russian government, the former campaign manager for Donald Trump had been indicted on a dozen charges involving conspiracy, money laundering, bank fraud and lying to federal investigators.
A lobbyist who became mysteriously wealthy over the years, Manafort avoided jail by posting $10 million in bond, though he was confined to his luxury condo in Alexandria, Virginia. That’s why, in mid-December, his lawyers asked the judge to make an exception. Manafort’s $2.7 million Virginia home could not provide “adequate accommodations” for his holiday guests, some of whom would have difficulty traveling because of health problems, the lawyers stated. A day later, the judge agreed to the request. Manafort could have his Christmas getaway in the Hamptons.
Hundreds of miles away, another defendant in an eerily related case was not so blessed. Reality Winner, an Air Force veteran and former contractor for the National Security Agency, was sitting in a small-town jail in Lincolnton, Georgia. Arrested a year ago, Winner was accused of leaking an NSA document that showed how Russians tried to hack American voting systems in 2016. The alleged leak — Winner has pleaded not guilty — came at a time when there was far greater doubt than now about Russian attempts to tip the presidential election. Her case is related to Manafort’s in this sense: While Manafort is suspected of aiding the Russian effort, Winner is accused of warning Americans about it.
As Christmas approached, Winner was going nowhere. Even though she has been indicted on just one count of leaking classified information and faces far less prison time than Manafort, the judge in her case decided she was a flight risk and denied her bail. Winner spent the holidays at the Lincolnton jail, which is smaller in its entirety than Manafort’s Hampton’s estate; its exercise yard, hemmed in by razor wire, is shorter than Manafort’s pool. While Manafort was joined by his family, Winner was marooned with a few other inmates. The only cheery news for her was that for the first time since her arrest the previous June, she was able to eat fresh fruit, thanks to a holiday donation from a local church.
I recently asked Winner’s mother, Billie Winner-Davis, for an example of what she regards as inequities in the government’s treatment of her daughter. She laughed and said, “Let’s talk about Paul Manafort.”
Billie Winner-Davis: He gets to go to the Hamptons with his family and travel.
PM: On December 17th, Winner-Davis had turned on her television and learned of Manafort’s holiday plans. “We’re celebrating because [Reality] got a banana,” Winner-Davis recalled. “He got to go to the Hamptons for Christmas. And he’s got multiple charges and could spend the rest of his life in prison.”
JS: That was my colleague Peter Maass reading from his new story: “Reality Winner Has Been in Jail for A Year. Her Prosecution Is Unfair and Unprecedented.” You can find that story at the intercept.com.
We should also note that Paul Manafort now stands accused of witness tampering in the investigation into him, and Robert Mueller may seek to take away his house arrest status and possibly send Manafort to jail.
Today on the program we are going to spend the whole show discussing the case of Reality Winner. This week marks the one-year anniversary of her arrest. She stands charged with violating the Espionage Act for allegedly leaking a top-secret NSA document to a news organization. While the U.S. government has not asserted that the news outlet was The Intercept, or that the document in question was the one published by The Intercept last June, that has been the widely held assumption in much of the media.
The NSA document detailed allegations of cyber-attacks against at least one U.S. voting software supplier and also spearfishing emails that were sent to more than 100 local election officials just days before the November presidential election. That document asserts that these attacks were conducted by the GRU — that’s Russia’s military intelligence service. The NSA document — dated May 5, 2017 — is the most detailed U.S. government account of Russian interference in the election that has come to light. Reality Winner has pleaded not guilty. The Intercept does not know who the source was that anonymously leaked that document. Our parent company, First Look, is helping to finance Reality Winner’s defense, saying that it opposes the extreme use of the Espionage Act to attack whistleblowers and journalistic sources.
Later in the show, we’re going to be talking to The Intercept’s editor-in-chief, Betsy Reed, as well as one of our reporters, Sam Biddle. He was bylined on that story broken last year. Sam has new reporting on this case that he’ll also share with us.
But first I wanted to share with you, our listeners, the text of the Air Force Commendation Medal that was awarded to Reality Winner for meritorious service from November 2012 to December 2013. I’m sharing this because the public has been told almost nothing about who Winner is, what she did and the fact that she was a very respected linguist, cryptologist, analyst for the U.S. military. In fact, she worked on the targeted Kill/Capture program. And here’s what her commendation says:
“Senior Airman Reality L. Winner distinguished herself by meritorious service as Cryptologic Language Analyst… Airman Winner provided over 1,900 hours of enemy intelligence exploitation and assisted in geolocating 120 enemy combatants during 734 airborne sorties. She was selected over 60 of her peers to serve as the subject matter expert of the unit’s medium-altitude support program leading the squadron’s first missions against an emerging threat.”
The commendation also says she facilitated 816 intelligence missions, 3,200 sensitive reports and “removing more than 100 enemies from the battlefield.” That just some of the text from her award for meritorious service.
I share this information with you not because I endorse the program that Reality Winner was working on. I have been very outspoken in my opposition to the global assassination program. But I bring it up because it is astonishing how little coverage her case has received, especially from media outlets who celebrate the military and serve in the military, who also talk nonstop about Russia and the U.S. election.
We’re talking about a decorated military veteran, and if the allegations are true that she blew the whistle on this interference — we’re told that it’s the big story of the political moment — yet the name Reality Winner is almost never mentioned in the news. In fact, because she’s charged under the Espionage Act, she will not be allowed to present any argument in court about her possible motive if she was, in fact, the person who leaked this document. Remember, she’s pled not guilty. The jury would not be allowed to hear almost anything that Winner and her lawyers would reasonably present as a defense. They won’t be able to call key witnesses that her lawyers believe would help her defense. It really is incredible how little coverage her case has gotten.
We’re joined now by two people who have been advocating for Reality Winner and campaigning for her freedom. Lisa Ling is, like Reality Winner, a veteran of the U.S. drone program. She was a noncommissioned officer on drone surveillance systems and she has since emerged as a whistleblower herself, traveling around the world speaking out against the targeted killing program. She’s also featured in the documentary “National Bird.” And Ling is the campaign coordinator for “Stand with Reality.”
And we’re joined by Trevor Timm. He’s the executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation. He’s also co-founder of the “Stand with Reality” campaign, that’s at standwithreality.org. They are raising money for Winner’s legal defense and also awareness about the Espionage Act’s use against sources of journalists. Full disclosure Freedom of the Press Foundation also receives funding from The Intercept’s parent company First Look Media.
Trevor, Lisa, welcome to Intercepted.
Trevor Timm: Thanks for having me.
Lisa Ling: Thanks for having me.
JS: Trevor, you’ve been writing about this case pretty much from the beginning and you’ve covered it also for The Intercept. Lay out the origin of this story and the arrest of Reality Winner.
TT: So in June 2017, The Intercept published a story which contained a leaked NSA document that was classified and in the document it basically alleged that Russian actors had tried to hack election vendors in a variety of states.
A short time later it was announced that Reality Winner had previously been arrested.
CBS Newscaster: 25-year-old Reality Winner has been in federal custody since Saturday. The Air Force veteran faces up to 10 years in prison for allegedly passing a classified document to a news outlet. Winner’s family said she’s not a traitor.
TT: She’s never actually admitted to being the source. The Intercept did not know who the source was. And ever since she’s been in jail.
And she’s been in jail not because she’s been convicted of any crime. She’s actually been in jail awaiting trial. Her original trial was scheduled for October of last year. It’s now been moved to October of this year. And there’s no telling if it will actually happen then, either. She could realistically be in jail for more time pretrial than any sentence that she might receive if she is found guilty of violating the Espionage Act, which she’s charged under.
JS: Lisa, what do we know about how the U.S. government pinpointed Reality Winner and decided to go after her?
LL: I mean, we don’t know. That’s not been — I mean there are things that they’ve said in court documents, but if you read the court documents, it also said that the representatives from the state that were in the courtroom actually told the judge that they were basically untruthful.
JS: Trevor, when you read that FBI affidavit, and, by the way, I should say that the arrest of Reality Winner was announced within minutes of the article being posted by The Intercept. But Trevor, talk about that FBI affidavit and the role that it’s played over the past year in her case.
TT: They are essentially trying to paint Reality Winner as this terrible, scary threat to national security who hates America and may want to essentially flee to Afghanistan or somewhere in the Middle East. They are using comments that she made on social media criticizing the election of Donald Trump, and sarcastically telling one of her friends that she hates America, as a reason to keep her behind bars without bail. The U.S. government literally taught Reality Winner how to speak Pashto and Farsi and now they are using that fact against her in court.
All of these, kind of, disparate facts about Reality that could apply to any millions of Americans — I mean how many millions of Americans said that they hated America after the election of Donald Trump? — and are justifying this pretrial confinement which is actually wholly unprecedented. You know, if you go back and look at almost every single leak case that has happened over the past 15 years, almost all of the defendants have gotten bail.
Yet, Reality is accused of leaking one single document. They do not have any evidence that she has any other documents in her possession. And yet, they consider her some sort of terrifying national security threat that they can’t even let her out of jail, when Paul Manafort, a man with three passports is allowed to not only get out of jail but vacation in the Hamptons over holiday break.
JS: Lisa what do we know about Reality Winner’s background and what she did in the U.S. military?
LL: And this is why I wanted to step forward because she, too, like I did, worked in the drone program and she, too, exactly like I did, wanted to do some good in the world. I mean, I know that because, I mean, there’s a camaraderie between all of us people who worked in that hellish program.
And, so, let’s take my own experience. I went to Afghanistan. I did humanitarian work and that does not make me a terrorist. I, too, had to take a lie detector test. I too joked about, “Wow, I hope I pass.” I mean who hasn’t said something about government policy? Who of us has not complained about what’s going on right now?
And the idea that this is painting a picture of a terrorist. No. This is painting a picture of a conscientious, of a humanitarian, of somebody that cares about other human beings. In fact, wherever this gal has gone, she’s done public service. In fact, including in the jail she’s in now. I mean, I’ve talked to her mom and all she wants to do is to help these people that come into prison that may not have had some fortunate situations in their life or what have you. And to have this person locked up while Manafort walks free to me is just incomprehensible.
JS: Why is the government proceeding in this way with Reality Winner? What’s been stated by the U.S. attorneys or other government sources in the proceedings as to why it’s necessary to deny her bail?
TT: Well, I think we have to look at the general climate, especially around the time that she was arrested. I mean, this was at the beginning of the Trump Administration. They were facing a flurry of leaks from everywhere, from the White House, from the Justice Department, from the FBI, and Donald Trump was tweeting almost daily about the leaks coming out of his White House and how he wanted the Justice Department to crack down hard.
At the same time, you had Jeff Sessions who had just been confirmed into office, a man who has always hated both the press and leakers and whistleblowers, who announced that they were going to take this hard crackdown.
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions: Since January, the department has more than tripled the number of active leak investigations compared to the number pending at the end of the last administration.
TT: Essentially taking the Obama administration’s crackdown on leaks a step further. And Reality Winner is the first person that they have decided to prosecute under the Espionage Act for leaking to journalists. And no doubt they want to make an example of her.
While there’s no, you know, public evidence of this, certainly the Trump administration hates all of the coverage around the Russian collusion or Russian interference investigation, and so this is a way for them to express that. You know, this happened during the Obama administration as well. The Obama administration prosecuted more leakers and sources to the press than all other administrations combined. And so, you know, the Trump Administration can use all of the precedents that were set during the Obama administration to then turn around and use them on Reality Winner and, no doubt, they will use them on others.
JS: Lisa, my colleague, Jim Risen, had a report recently on May 9 and the headline of it was “Senate Report Strongly Implies Russia Hacking Story Was a Public Service, But Whistleblower Reality Winner Remains in Jail.”
Explain what the Senate Intelligence Committee report asserted about the document that Reality Winner is alleged — again, alleged — to have leaked to The Intercept.
LL: They basically want to keep it secret to protect national security, which I think is a mockery. Because, first of all, everything in that document is in the public purview right now because the document itself was in your article. You know, everybody is under the assumption that Reality Winner is going to get a fair jury trial. Well, how can you get a fair jury trial? I mean, classification has gone from being something that protects national interests and all of this, to a very large black hole that hides complete illegality. And, to me, this is a case where it is happening again.
TT: This is a really important point. So let’s go back and look at the timeline for a second. So The Intercept story comes out in June 2017. A few weeks later, NPR reports that state officials in, I believe, North Carolina first hear about attacks on their election infrastructure from reading the article in The Intercept and they were actually quoted as seeming quite miffed that the federal government did not tell them about this at the time.
And so, they then launched their own investigation to see what types of attacks may or may not have occurred. This, so this is obviously information that is in the public interest, regardless of Russia, regardless of your feelings on the Trump administration. Election security is a vital issue.
Now let’s go back to Reality Winner’s potential trial. She will likely not be allowed to tell the jury that what she did was an act of conscience. She will not be able to tell the jury her motive. She won’t be able to tell the jury any potential public benefit that came out from allegedly leaking this document — all of that type of information in trials that deal with the Espionage Act are almost always ruled inadmissible. So the jury will never hear any of this information. All they will hear, likely, is that she gave classified information to somebody that wasn’t entitled to receive it. And we won’t be able to talk about, in court, the fact that this information is in a dozen different news articles. All of this stuff will be hidden from the jury and it will be a travesty that everybody in the world will know this information except for those 12 people who will be judging Reality.
JS: Well and this Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on allegations of Russian interference concluded or asserted the following, and I’m quoting: “many state election officials reported hearing for the first time about the Russian attempts to scan and penetrate state systems from the press or from the public Committee hearing on June 21, 2017.”
So clearly these state officials were not even aware of it. No one made them aware of it, despite the fact there were top-secret documents that indicated that this was an ongoing and active campaign. Reality Winner has tried, as part of her defense, to subpoena witnesses that would be able to speak to the issues raised in this document. But as Trevor says, she’s not to be able to make a defense that this was a leak based on conscience.
But talk about what her defense strategy was with who she was trying to subpoena and what happened.
LL: Well I cannot, you know, I mean I can’t talk about whatever the defense strategy is. But what I can say is that neither can her attorneys. On June 8, as part of the court, proceedings, her attorneys were told, they were essentially silenced. So any information that would be good for the public to know about what is going on — I mean this is, after all, one of the cornerstones of our democratic process, elections, her attorneys will not be able to tell anyone. The judge basically said that the court was not going to be tried in the public space. And those of us who have held security clearance, myself included, understand that hiding things from public purview is common and broad. And while I can’t tell you all kinds of things that I myself saw, because I’m not permitted to, I’m not going to say that those things would not be in the public service and that the public has the right to know. Because the public has the right to know what’s being done in our name.
JS: What has happened as Reality Winner’s defense team has tried to counter the allegations by the U.S. attorney with subpoenaing witnesses or asking for documents to support their defense?
TT: Basically the entire year that Reality Winner’s defense team has been working, there have been all sorts of roadblocks put up against them by the judge, by prosecutors. You know, it was in the news recently that they tried to subpoena 30 or 40 different people including many state and federal agencies. Almost all of those subpoenas were denied. There have been just ridiculous secrecy restrictions that have been put up against them so that it makes it very hard for them to get work done.
Because her lawyers are in multiple states, they can’t actually speak to each other over the phone or via email on anything that may be related to classified information. Because this trial is based on a classified document these lawyers have to travel to a SCIF to speak with each other in person, whereas the prosecutors have a classified email system which they can communicate freely. Lawyers aren’t even allowed to Google articles that have appeared on the front page of The New York Times and The Washington Post that may also contain classified information. They won’t be allowed to talk about those types of articles in open court. Pretty much every ruling, every major ruling, has gone against the defense. The judge has already made it clear that she believes that Reality is some sort of dangerous threat to national security, even though there is no evidence that she has any more documents and that even the one document that she is alleged to have leaked is pretty much all public information at this point. This DHS report that came out just a few weeks ago basically talks about how these election officials were alerted by Reality Winner.
And so, I wish there was better news to report, but it doesn’t look good for Reality’s defense right now.
JS: I remember when this first happened, and we saw that The Intercept article goes up; five minutes later they announced that they had made an arrest in the case. It very much felt like an operation. That it was a coordinated attack on Reality Winner and her character, but also going after The Intercept or journalism in general. And I read that FBI affidavit and felt like this is a political document. This is not objective law enforcement writing the facts, the who, what, when, where, why, how. It was a political document that seemed intent on convicting Reality Winner before the public even knew her name.
And then there’s this leak campaign against her, where the government is leaking parts of the conversations she had once she was arrested. And they’re using those selectively edited comments while she is in custody to build a damaging campaign against her in the court of public opinion. And what shocks me — or saddens me, rather, not shocks me — is that almost every single news organization that has covered this story has not bothered to do basic research on the case. They are repeating every assertion made in a political government document from Trump’s Justice Department which is run by Jeff Sessions. And that part of the story, and this targeting of her through this propaganda campaign, it’s not even discussed.
TT: You know, it’s even worse than that. Not only is all of that true, but some of the information that the FBI released about Reality Winner’s phone calls later, they had to go to the judge and basically admit that they told the court false information. A key fact of the reason the judge originally denied Reality Winner bail was because the judge was relying on FBI descriptions of phone calls that Reality had made while she had been in custody, and they claimed that Winner had discussed having multiple classified documents, plural, beyond the document that she allegedly released.
You know, they didn’t have a transcript of the call at the time. They were only relying on FBI descriptions. And then the judge denied bail, citing this fact and others, and then after the fact the Justice Department went back to the judge and said: Actually, no, that’s not true. She did not say anything about documents, plural.
And so, the judge had already made their decision about bail and once the defense brought this up they then shifted the arguments to Winner’s character, her interest in Internet privacy and her political views, and you know the fact that she has never spoken about, there’s no evidence that she doesn’t have additional documents, now doesn’t matter. So this is just an example of we have evidence that the FBI or some part of the government has blatantly lied about the Reality case.
You know, so I think it’s really unfortunate that many journalists have bought the government line in this case, hook, line, and sinker when we actually have evidence that they’ve lied.
JS: The Intercept has certainly taken a lot of heat from the whistleblower community, from other news organizations, and has been blamed for Reality Winner being arrested. And I want to give both of you a chance to address the way that Reality Winner, if she was indeed a source, was handled and how you see it knowing much more than what was simply on the affidavit.
And what I’m getting at here is: Yes, it may well be the case that The Intercept’s actions resulted in her arrest. It may also be the case that that’s not true and that there was some degree of parallel construction at play, where it was convenient to say, “Oh, it was all of these mistakes The Intercept” made when they found her in a different way, or maybe were doing unauthorized monitoring of her.
So, any and all of that. Lisa, you go first.
LL: Hey, I’ll be real. I mean when I first heard about it, my first thought was, “Damn them.” Right? “How could they let this happen again?” And the bottom line is the same fact holds true for The Intercept as it does for Reality Winner’s attorneys: you all can’t say anything. You are muted — ostensibly silenced — under threat of either Reality spending more time incarcerated or what have you.
The other thing that I want to say, and I want to make perfectly clear, is that Reality Winner pled not guilty. So, regardless of who put this document out into the public purview, right, I mean it doesn’t matter. The fact is that putting that document out into the public purview has been proven to be a public service. The idea that it has been proven to be a public service is not allowed in a courtroom under the Espionage Act.
JS: It’s why Edward Snowden is still in Moscow instead of here going on trial because he’s been told clearly: You will not be able to make your preferred defense here, which would explain the entire context of it.
LL: Let me be clear: Under the Espionage Act, you are not entitled to a fair trial.
JS: Trevor, what do you say to the broader question about what has been alleged regarding The Intercept and Reality Winner’s case? And how do you analyze those questions, Trevor?
LL: Number one, I think it’s clear that The Intercept did make some operational security mistakes. Betsy Reed, the editor-in-chief, has publicly posted about this on The Intercept and talked about how The Intercept is going to do an investigation — hopefully that will be transparent and released to the public. But the other thing is that this case I think makes clear the government has a lot of surveillance capabilities when it comes to government employees who may talk to the press. It is quite likely that Reality may have been caught no matter what The Intercept did or didn’t do.
So I think that issue really should be on the back burner compared to what Reality Winner is facing herself right now. She’s been in jail for a year. She has lost virtually every major ruling in pretrial in front of her judge. She still has to wait many months to face a trial. And the issue that she is alleged to have leaked about is on the front page of every newspaper in the country. Yet her name has been completely forgotten by the press.
I will say this about The Intercept and First Look Media: While I think they did make mistakes when it came to security when publishing this document, they have stepped up and funded Reality Winner’s legal defense, which is not cheap and something that I don’t know if any other news organization has done in the past. But I think it is a legitimately good precedent for First Look Media to set to say that they’re actually going to stand behind this person, even if they still don’t know that this person was their source, because it’s important to recognize that whistleblowers are a vital part of journalism and that the public often won’t know about anything that happens within government if sources aren’t willing to talk to journalists.
JS: As someone who’s now spending every waking hour working on her campaign, what should people know about who Reality Winner is, Lisa?
LL: I want to say about Reality Winner: Again, she’s a patriot. She was an E-3, her rank, when she received an Air Force Commendation Medal. So basically, she was a senior airman. Most people at that rank receive an Achievement Medal, which is a step down from that medal.
So, basically what we’re talking about is a David and Goliath situation. And what the public is getting to know about this is absolutely zero.
JS: Before we let you go, Lisa, I just wanted to ask you to briefly explain your stance and background and why you’re doing this work. Because, as you mentioned, you and Reality Winner both worked on the drone program. And you have become a whistleblower. You were featured in the film — excellent film that I think everyone should see — called “National Bird.” But just briefly explain why you’re doing this and its connection to stances you’ve taken in the past.
LL: I worked in a program, in my worldview, was unforgivable. It was wrong. And when I got out of the military, having experienced the drone program from the inside, I wanted to do humanitarian work. I’m banned from telling the public what actually happened behind those closed doors, but it’s not like I don’t want to. I mean, I want nothing more than the public to know what is being done overseas in their name and what is being hidden from them here in their name. And I know these things because I did hold a clearance, and I was on the other side of that secrecy regime.
What’s true is: When you go to the subway, here in New York, there are signs everywhere: “If you see something, say something.” And it’s whistleblowers that actually do that and they’re persecuted for it. And if Americans don’t find that disturbing, I don’t know why.
JS: Lisa Ling, thank you very much for speaking out and also for joining us here to discuss Reality Winner. Thank you.
LL: Thank you for having me here.
JS: Trevor Timm, thank you very much for joining us on Intercepted.
TT: Thanks so much for having me.
JS: Lisa Ling is a former drone technician turned whistleblower. She is the coordinator of the “Stand with Reality” campaign. Trevor Timm is the executive director of Freedom of the Press Foundation, also a co-founder of standwithreality.org.
JS: The Senate Intelligence Committee released a report last month on its investigation into allegations that Russia interfered in the U.S. electoral process. And the Senate report makes the case that the leak of the top-secret NSA document published last year by The Intercept helped state officials around the nation begin to address the threat of Russian interference into American voting systems. As my colleague Jim Risen wrote: “It is a remarkable and paradoxical assertion from a government that has used the full force of the law to pursue [Reality] Winner for allegedly sharing the document with a news organization.” Jim continues, “The committee’s conclusions offer strong support for the argument that disclosing the document was in the public interest.” Yet the report does not mention Reality Winner’s name, and some on the Intelligence Committee have publicly supported her prosecution. They include the vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Democrat Mark Warner. Listen to Senator Warner the day after the original Intercept story was published last year:
Senator Mark Warner: Well, first of all, it’s very disturbing when any NSA documents are leaked and whoever is the leaker should be pursued to the full extent of the law.
JS: But then he proceeds to analyze its assertions.
MW: But it does show one more example of this concerted Russian effort to interfere in our elections.
JS: And calls for declassification of more documents.
MW: We need to declassify more of that information so that Americans can fully appreciate how broad and far-reaching this Russian attempt to interfere in our most basic democratic process. Not to relitigate 2016, but to make sure that we’re prepared in 2018, because none of these actions from the Russians stopped on Election Day.
JS: That was Virginia Democratic Senator Mark Warner, vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
And we have new reporting from The Intercept’s Sam Biddle that reveals for the first time what these phishing emails looked like, the ones that were used in the attack detailed in this top-secret NSA document published by the Intercept last year. Sam joins me now. Sam, welcome back to Intercepted.
Sam Biddle: Happy to be here.
JS: We are also joined by The Intercept’s editor-in-chief, Betsy Reed. Betsy, thank you as well for being here.
Betsy Reed: Thanks, Jeremy.
JS: So Sam, explain the significance of this story and what you learned.
SB: What was, I think, really striking about the email we published, and it was just a screenshot of an email, it was taken from a warning that an election vendor called VR Systems sent to its customers at the state level.
So these external threats to the integrity of the election system — which I think most people don’t realize is based on a constellation of small businesses, really, that help make electronic voting possible — the threat that they face is actually sort of mundane. I mean you look at this spear-phishing email and it looks like the kind of email that would wind up in your spam filter. There’s nothing very spectacular about it. But really that’s what makes it so devious, is that it was designed to sort of blend in with all the work email these people were getting on a daily basis, and if even one person on the state level whose job it is to ensure that elections happen and happen smoothly, if one person opened up these infected documents that were sent to them, it could have had a catastrophic chain reaction leading up to Election Day.
And it was only days before Election Day that these malicious emails were sent out. But we didn’t know anything about that until last summer — we being the general public. This was a conversation and a threat that was kept pretty close to the chest of the people involved. There were not warnings sent out to the general public. There was not any disclosure in the news media — no official disclosure. And I get not wanting to alarm voters or discourage people from voting in a process they think is going to be sabotaged in some way, but I think that voters, or even people who decide they don’t want to vote, have a right to know what threats they’re facing.
JS: The fact that this document was published by The Intercept last year that showed that the NSA seemed to have a pretty clear understanding of how some of these cyber-attacks were taking place, what happened after The Intercept published that? What have we learned about warnings issued to states or measures that they took as a result of the publication of that information?
BR: There’s still a lot we actually don’t know about that, but we’ve been investigating it and we filed a slew of FOIA requests to try to find out what local election officials knew and when they knew it — how they found out about what had happened just prior to the 2016 election. And it does appear, so far, in large part, they were not alerted to what had happened by the NSA, by the authorities until after the publication of the NSA report in The Intercept. And it appears that an FBI investigation commenced after the publication of the document, which very clearly demonstrates the public interest value of that story.
JS: You would think that Reality Winner would be viewed as a hero by Democrats, particularly Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee or people in liberal media outlets, and yet she’s almost never mentioned at all.
BR: Yeah, I mean the Senate Intelligence Committee just came out with a report in May in which they very clearly implicitly acknowledged the value of that news report in raising the alarm about what had happened and making people aware of the vulnerability of our election system and our infrastructure. But they didn’t name Reality Winner’s name. And, in fact, Mark Warner, who’s the vice chair of that committee, has supported the prosecution and the absolutely deplorable treatment that she’s received in being denied bail and remaining in jail today.
JS: Sam, you know, there’s been a number of interesting vignettes published recently about the internal discussions in the waning days of the Obama administration. Ben Rhodes, who was the deputy national security advisor, has a memoir of his time in the in the White House where he indicates that the Obama administration overwhelmingly misjudged what was going to happen in the election, they had been convinced that Hillary Clinton was going to win, and they also were concerned that if they said too much in the direction of our election system maybe being hacked, or that these penetrations are happening, that it would potentially throw the entire process into serious questions over its legitimacy.
SB: I really don’t buy the notion that warning the public about threats facing the electoral system is tantamount to saying that that system has been sabotaged or is illegitimate. And, in fact, the top-secret NSA report that we published said that they came to no such conclusion that about any actual votes being changed around or being undermined or altered at all. I don’t see why the White House could not have said, leading up to the election, this threat is real at the state level, please be on guard, and maybe the next administration, whoever that may be, should make this a top priority for the country. That said, we have no reason to believe that your vote will not count on Election Day, and you should vote confidently and so forth. And I think something like that would have accomplished both goals. But instead, we got zero.
JS: Betsy, Obama is quoted by Ben Rhodes as answering what Sam is saying there and this is what Obama said: “If I speak up more, Trump will just say it’s rigged.”
BR: Absolutely and, you know, he was right about that. Right? As we now know from the texts exchanged between Julian Assange and Donald Trump, Jr., there was that discussion like they were expecting to lose and yeah, they would have been screaming and yelling about crooked Hillary and the Democrats rigging the election. That’s absolutely true. But that’s really no excuse for Obama to fail to let people know what was going on. In fact, you have to remember, it was in December that he first made his most fulsome public statement about this and he said: Oh, you know, I worked it all out with Vladimir Putin. I told him:
President Barack Obama: In early September, when I saw President Putin in China, I felt that the most effective way to ensure that that didn’t happen was to talk to him directly and tell him to cut it out and they were going to be serious consequences if he didn’t.
BR: The hacking attempts would not affect the actual voting process. Well, look, it turned out that this is exactly what happened. And the American public had to wait for the disclosure of this document, which Reality Winner is accused of leaking — that the much-valued intelligence community report, supported by 17 different intelligence agencies, contained almost no specifics about their claims and, in that, they also claimed that well maybe there was a little bit of messing around with local electoral boards, but you know, don’t worry, the vote tally wasn’t affected. But nowhere did they make clear what had actually gone on.
And I think, at the end of the day, it’s very interesting to think about how politics has completely distorted the handling of this entire issue on both sides. So you had Obama who didn’t do what he had to do because he was gaming it out, thought, you know, well, Hillary’s going to win and we don’t want to be accused of having rigged it and anything we say is going to look political, so we’re not going to really say anything. So that was a failure, because of politics.
And then you have Trump, who is of course, you know, doing everything in his power to obstruct this entire inquiry and has actually used the phrase in a discussion with Jim Comey about, like, wanting a head on a pike to discourage leakers and this leak having to do with Russia is of course, fits exactly into a pattern that he wants to stamp out.
JS: Well, and it’s interesting given how James Comey is celebrated or has been celebrated in the media — huge, exclusive town hall events with multiple networks and lots of interviews. And yet Comey, I think it’s indisputably true, Comey did great damage to Hillary Clinton’s campaign in the waning days of it and yet he’s sort of let off the hook by a lot of people for that. And nobody talks about the fact that you have a young, decorated military veteran, who was a part of extremely sensitive counterterrorism operations, was a linguist in languages that the U.S. military is in dire need of, and she’s the person accused of this, and she’s being held without bail.
Give people a sense of what’s coming next with what you’ve learned going through these documents The Intercept received through Freedom of Information Act.
SB: What strikes all of us, anyone who looks at these documents — they’re mostly emails, internal emails at the state level, is the extent to which this came as a surprise and the people who the story is really about, the people who make sure elections run smoothly, were consuming this news like anyone else on the Internet, passing it along to their coworkers, saying, you know: Wow, have you seen this? This seems like a big deal, but we don’t really know because no one filled us in.
It seems like the people whose job it is to ensure the integrity of elections, literally their job should not be learning about the people trying to undermine their job from a news report. I don’t see how that could be defensible. I mean, I get why intelligence agencies and law enforcement agencies are loathe to share anything with anyone, but if you were going to disclose this to anyone, even if not the public, to not share it with the people running Election Day, I think is grossly irresponsible and that is what my reporting will focus on.
JS: What is the latest on what we know about who was doing these phishing operations?
SB: It’s interesting. The forensic analysis around the phishing emails is still private. I mean this was conducted by the firms that were affected — VR Systems, for one, told us that they conducted what they called a “byte-by-byte” forensic analysis of the attack, the results of which our view are VR Systems’ intellectual property, I guess, because they paid for it. It would be nice if they shared that with the rest of the world, but it’s beside the point, maybe.
I think what’s most striking is the lack of any counter-explanation. You know, you have a lot of great body of circumstantial evidence and forensic analysis pointing to Russia and nothing really pointing at anyone else.
Now look, was it — ?
JS: Well, the Russian government is essentially saying: You can fake fingerprints of anyone around the world. I mean, Lavrov in particular has been chuckling away at this and saying, you know, you guys don’t know the history of the CIA? You don’t know about false flags? You know, I mean, it’s a tactic that they’re using.
SB: It’s definitely a tactic. I think the chuckling kind of gives it away. All the replies in that vein I think have been very cute.
Sergey Lavrov: Everybody in the United States saying that it is Russia. It’s flattering, as I said, but it has nothing to be explained by the facts.
SB: That said, there’s still nothing public pointing to this being an order coming from Vladimir Putin. Look, whether —
BR: Although this document that we’re discussing today contains a very confident attribution of this particular operation that it describes to the GRU.
JS: Russian military intelligence.
SB: Look, it matters and it doesn’t matter. Whether this was an operation that Russian military intelligence did on its own because they thought it would be useful, or whether it came directly from Putin — if you’re showing up on Election Day, does that really matter to you? I don’t think so. I think that’s sort of a finer diplomatic point almost of who within the Russian government was to blame.
BR: One other thing that I think it’s worth keeping in mind is that the particular manner of this attempt at election meddling — it’s not actually clear that they were going in and trying to boost the vote count for Donald Trump. And that, in fact, it does appear that one of their aims was simply to sow chaos and doubt and to create insecurity around the election system. So, I guess I would just say in defense of the Obama administration and their sort of, you know, reticent handling of this whole affair, they were in a very tough spot, right? Because if they loudly denounced Russia at that time for doing this and raised an alarm about the security of the election system, that would actually, in effect, achieve the aim of the meddling which was to create that kind of doubt.
BR: So, they had to walk a very careful line.
JS: I agree with all of that. At the same time, you have what I think is a really key question: Did it actually have any impact on the election, any documentable impact tilting it in favor of Donald Trump?
BR: Yeah, well that we don’t know definitively.
SB: There’s no evidence that it did, but —
JS: I think this is an important point, though, on a technical matter, maybe you can address that Sam. What do we know about the impact of these phishing operations? Like, what happened as a result of this phishing?
SB: We don’t know. And I think that that is deeply, deeply troubling. Because now we’re coming up on two years after the fact, and when I spoke with VR Systems, they said at the same time: Look, nothing bad happened, we haven’t heard anything from any of our customers at the state level, there are no reports that anyone even opened these attachments. But when you really dial in on that language, they aren’t aware of any effects, they aren’t aware of any consequence, they aren’t aware of anyone who clicked on it.
BR: This is their entire business model, you have to keep in mind. Like, they do not want to be admitting that there is some doubt about whether they were severely compromised.
SB: In the same breath as downplaying all of this, they told me that they weren’t even sure exactly who received the email. So, yeah, as far as they know, nothing happened but they cannot give a 100 percent accurate accounting of what happened.
Let’s say no one opened any of the attachments. Let’s say you know no one’s computer got infected at the state level. It was still, I think, a very good practice run. The world has not become better at avoiding phishing emails over the past two years, I can tell you that. These attacks still happen all the time. They’re very, very easy to fall for. And so I think even if this was just sort of a dress rehearsal, you know, there are more elections coming up soon and this will absolutely be useful if GRU or any other intelligence agency wants to do the same thing again in the future.
JS: What about the role of The Intercept in all of this? And we get attacked quite regularly by people saying that we burned a source and, you know, she’s in jail because of mistakes that The Intercept made, but what can you tell people about the position of The Intercept?
BR: Well, it’s one of our most fundamental positions that we oppose the use of the Espionage Act against journalistic sources. Our support for her legal defense, it’s absolutely consistent with the values we were founded on.
And, look, we’ve acknowledged that we made mistakes. There are many things that we’ve said that we wish we had done differently, that we do differently now. And people out there are also harping on the mistakes that she made and saying what a clumsy kind of leaker she was. And I really think that that is fundamentally missing the larger picture here, which is that this is the first leaker prosecuted under the Trump Administration. It’s an unbelievably punitive approach that they’ve taken. She’s already been sitting in jail way longer than any of the other whistleblowers prosecuted under Obama, and certainly that was not, you know, a pretty picture, and set the precedent that Trump is building on. But the fact that this person, alleged to have leaked a document that helped us understand the extent of Russian interference in the Election should be sitting in jail while Paul Manafort — well, eventually he may go to jail because of his witness tampering which Mueller has just discovered, but has been allowed to, you know, spend Christmas holidays in his ten-room Hampton’s mansion, it’s just completely unconscionable. And we are completely committed to supporting her and supporting, you know, all whistleblowers who are facing this kind of treatment from the government.
JS: Most of what the public knows about this case has come from Jeff Sessions’ Justice Department, has come from FBI affidavits that are not fact-checked — the FBI can make all sorts of assertions in those affidavits — and also what seems to be a really malicious attempt to criminalize high-risk investigative journalism.
You know, and I want to make sure that people understand that the U.S. attorney in Reality Winner’s case has also had to retract assertions made by the FBI about Reality Winner that were used to justify denying her bail. This is a political case in every possible way. And Sam Biddle, I want to thank you for your reporting on it.
SB: My pleasure.
JS: Betsy Reed is our editor-in-chief, so she has one last word.
BR: I just keep remembering something that Jim Risen has said repeatedly, from his own experience being at the center of a major prosecution under the Obama administration. It’s that the media covers these cases as if it was a bank robbery. You know? Like, who did what wrong? How did the government find out? Where did you screw up? And that is really not how it should fundamentally be covered. It should be covered as a case of a complete miscarriage of justice, prosecuting a journalistic source under the Espionage Act, someone who did something that is arguably highly patriotic and in the interest of Americans being prosecuted in this way. It’s completely outrageous.
And given also the nature of the Trump-Russia coverage, it’s like every day there’s like the steady drumbeat of new little details. And we’re kind of all addicted to it. It’s like our drip — our daily drip. And we lose the sight of the big picture, which I really think is important to keep in mind here.
JS: Betsy Reed, thank you very much for joining us.
BR: Thanks, Jeremy.
JS: Sam, thanks again.
SB: Any time.
JS: Betsy Reed is the editor-in-chief of The Intercept and Sam Biddle is an investigative reporter. His latest piece is: “Here’s the Email Russian Hackers Used to Try to Break Into State Voting Systems.”
For people who are interested in contributing to Reality Winner’s defense, we will post links on the episode page for this edition of Intercepted.
JS: And that does it for this week’s show.
If you are not yet a sustaining member of Intercepted, log on to theintercept.com/join.
Intercepted is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. We are distributed by Panoply.
Our producer is Jack D’Isidoro and our executive producer is Leital Molad. Laura Flynn is associate producer. Elise Swain is our assistant producer and graphic designer. Emily Kennedy does our transcripts.
Rick Kwan mixed the show. Our music, as always, was composed by DJ Spooky.
Until next week, I’m Jeremy Scahill.