Commentary: Late night jokesters like Stephen Colbert and Seth Myers have had fun with the unusual name of Senior Airman Reality Winner, but there is nothing funny about her legal predicament – for her or for the country.
Last week’s “Desert Sage” column was about the need to think ethically beyond the boundaries of partisan identity. Reality Winner, the first person to be prosecuted by the Trump Administration for removing classified material and sharing it with a news organization, provides a test case.
Winner received a Medal of Commendation from the Air Force for her service, but as a civilian contractor for the National Security Agency she allegedly violated federal law by sharing classified information with news media. The story she exposed is in the national interest: As reported by The Intercept, “Russian military intelligence executed a cyberattack on at least one U.S. voting software supplier and sent spear-phishing emails to more than 100 local election officials just days before last November’s presidential election.” The information was obtained from a classified intelligence report leaked from the National Security Agency. The report shows that Russian intervention into our 2016 elections was more extensive than had previously been confirmed, although the documents present only a single analysis of the evidence.
While verifying the document’s authenticity, The Intercept gave the government clues to the leaker’s identity. She had also contacted them through her work email. Exposed, she was arrested before The Intercept had even published its report.
Does the broader public interest trump the letter of the law? Without a consistent ethical definition of the public interest, this question easily becomes partisan. Democrats none too pleased about leaks under the Obama Administration may feel differently about revelations that damage President Trump.
Senator Tim Kaine, D-VA, tries to have it both ways in a CNN interview Monday night, when he said: “Somebody who leaks documents against the law has to suffer the consequences, but the American public is entitled to know the degree to which Russia invaded the election to take the election away from American voters.” So, the public is “entitled” to know, but the person who makes that information available should still be treated as a criminal. This is ethically incoherent at best. If Democrats then try to use the leaked information to their political advantage, it is craven and gutless.
There has been a spike in leaking under President Trump, in part because under present management the executive branch has run off the rails. Presidents Bush and Obama both pushed back against oversight by Inspectors General of various agencies and sought to make a frightening example out of whistleblowers. For his part, President Trump has fired a U.S. Attorney who was investigating him, an acting Deputy Attorney General who signaled an internal warning about his National Security Advisor (Mike Flynn, who was secretly working as a foreign agent), and an F.B.I. Director who refused to swear personal loyalty or halt an investigation at the president’s request. It gets worse: we are now becoming accustomed to prosecutions of journalists who cover protests on “rioting” charges, and Trump has called for prosecuting journalists who report leaked information, First Amendment be damned. Institutional oversight and expository journalism are under concerted attack by authoritarian forces.
If power is to be held accountable to the people, as it must, we must examine whistleblowing with a clear ethical commitment. Leaks that are in the public interest, made to journalists, are not espionage. We must courageously defend that distinction.
Algernon D’Ammassa writes the Desert Sage column for the Deming Headlight and Sun News papers. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.