Leaker to Iranian foreign minister: "We stand with you"

Do social media and security clearances go together? Er … maybe not, especially if the person who holds the clearance ever has to show up in court. Following up on an article in the Daily Beast about Reality Sara Winner, the woman arrested by the FBI for transmitting Top Secret information to The Intercept, Twitchy discovered that the would-be whistleblower has a rather odd set of loyalties. Almost exactly four months ago, Winner sent a message of solidarity to Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif:

Yeeeaaaahhhh … that’s not a good look for a whistleblower claim. People claiming a whistleblower defense have to posture themselves as patriots with a higher call of duty, which doesn’t exactly mesh with blowing kisses to the mullahs’ diplomatic mouthpiece. Iran’s government routinely declares “death to America” as part of its appeal to the Iranian masses, and was responsible for a significant share of the deaths of US military personnel in Iraq during the war. The US government assumes — insists, actually — that its cleared personnel would choose the United States in any conflict with another nation. Anyone with access to classified information, especially intelligence at the TS level, would have to be an idiot to publicly express such a sentiment, and then commit a serious security breach of that information.

Then again, a lack of serious intellect appears to be the running thread in this caper. The affidavit for Winner’s arrest showed that it didn’t exactly take Inspector Harry Callahan to crack the case on this leak, because it was an Inspector Clouseau operation on both ends of it:

12. On June I, 2017, the FBI was notified by the U.S. Government Agency that the U.S. Government Agency had been contacted by the News Outlet on May 30, 2017, regarding an upcoming story. The News Outlet informed the U.S. Government Agency that it was in possession of what it believed to be a classified document authored by the U.S. Government Agency. The News Outlet provided the U.S. Government Agency with a copy of this document. Subsequent analysis by the U.S. Government Agency confirmed that the document in the News Outlet’s possession is the intelligence reporting. The intelligence reporting is classified at the Top Secret level, indicating that its unauthorized disclosure could reasonably result in exceptionally grave damage to the national security, and is marked as such. The U.S. Government Agency has since confirmed that the reporting contains information that was classified at that level at the time that the reporting was published on or about May 5, 2017, and that such information currently remains classified at that level.

13. The U.S. Government Agency examined the document shared by the News Outlet and determined the pages of the intelligence reporting appeared to be folded and/or creased, suggesting they had been printed and hand-carried out of a secured space.

14. The U.S. Government Agency conducted an internal audit to determine who accessed the intelligence reporting since its publication. The U.S. Government Agency determined that six individuals printed this reporting. WINNER was one of these six individuals.

To recap: the reporters inadvertently gave the feds all the clues they needed by showing them the document (rather than just describing/characterizing it), and exposed their source. But wait — there’s even more bungling! Winner made it even easier for the FBI to narrow it down to her by apparently e-mailing the reporters from her work station:

A further audit of the six individuals’ desk computers revealed that WINNER had e-mail contact with the News Outlet. The audit did not reveal that any of the other individuals had e-mail contact with the News Outlet.

In other words, the FBI didn’t have to unravel an ingenious plot by master criminals. It looks a lot more like someone with a political animus impulsively choosing to disclose materials in order to damage a political figure, a conclusion helped along in no small part by Winner’s own public statements on Twitter. As nat-sec attorney Mark Zaid explains to the Daily Beast, that will make a whistleblower defense a pretty tough sell — especially since the material released had nothing to do with government wrongdoing:

“It is titillating for everyone with respect to political bent as to whether the elections were stolen, perhaps,” he said. “But it has absolutely nothing to do with any waste, fraud, abuse, or—more importantly—illegal U.S. government conduct to justify leaking it.”

Zaid added that Winner also likely would have faced charges under the previous administration and that her arrest doesn’t necessarily portend a crackdown on whistleblowers.

“I think the Obama administration would have prosecuted this same case without hesitation,” he said. “It’s not a partisan political prosecution. It is a case that upholds the lawful obligations that those who have access to classified information adhere to every single day.”

In fact, this is precisely why laws like the Espionage Act (18 USC 793 being a part of it) are in place. The nation places its trust in cleared personnel to be stewards of critical information, and to put the nation’s interests above their own political and pecuniary desires. We cannot tolerate people accessing our nation’s most sensitive data and exploiting it for their own purposes. This goes beyond mishandling classified information, in degree if not in statute.

This case looks singular in another way. People cheered when the FBI proved able to capture a leaker in real time, but don’t get too excited. Most leakers won’t be this foolish, and most media outlets won’t prove so inept at protecting sources, even when those sources really don’t deserve to be protected.