Hey Intercept, Something Is Very Wrong With Reality Winner and the NSA Leak

An NSA document purporting to show Russian military hacker attempts to access a Florida company which makes voter registration software is sent anonymously to The Intercept. A low-level NSA contractor, Reality Winner, above, is arrested almost immediately. What’s wrong with this picture? A lot.

Who Benefits?

Start with the question of who benefits – cui bono – same as detectives do when assessing a crime.

  • Trump looks bad as another trickle of information comes out connecting something Russian to something 2016 election. Intelligence community (IC) looks like they are onto something, a day or so before ousted FBI Director James Comey testifies before Congress on related matters.
  • The Intercept looks like it contributed to burning a source. Which potential leaker is going to them in the future? If potential leakers are made to think twice, another win for the IC.
  • The FBI made an arrest right away, nearly simultaneous to the publication, with the formal charges coming barely an hour after The Intercept published. The bust is sure thing according to the very publicly released information. No Ed Snowden hiding out in Russia this time. IC looks good here.
  • More evidence is now in the public domain that the Russians are after our election process. Seems as if the IC has been right all along.

What Happened is… Curious and Curiouser…

Now let’s look at what we know so far about how this happened.

A 25-year-old improbably-named Reality Winner leaves behind a trail long and wide on social media of anti-Trump stuff, including proclaiming herself a member of The Resistance. Never mind, she takes her Top Secret clearance with her out of the Air Force (she had been stationed with the military’s 94th Intelligence Squadron out of Fort Meade, Maryland, co-located with the NSA’s headquarters) and scores a job with an NSA contractor. Despite the lessons of too-much-access the Snowden episode should have taught the NSA, Winner apparently enjoys all sorts of classified documents – her Air Force expertise was in Afghan matters, so it is unclear why she would have access to info on Russia hacking of U.S. domestic companies.

Within only about 90 days of starting her new job, she prints out the one (and only one apparently, why not more?) document in question and mails it to The Intercept. She also uses her work computer inside an NSA facility to write to the Intercept twice about this same time.

Winner has a clearance. She was trained as a Dari, Pashto, and Farsi linguist by the Air Force. She knows how classified stuff works. She has been told repeatedly, as all persons with a clearance are, that her computer, email, printing, and phone are monitored. She mailed the document from Augusta, Georgia, the city where she lives and where the NSA facility is located. She practiced no tradecraft, did nothing to hide her actions and many things to call attention to them. It is very, very unclear why she took the actions she did under those circumstances.

The Document

The Intercept meanwhile drops by their friendly neighborhood NSA contact and shows them the document. NSA very publicly confirms the veracity of the document (unusual in itself, officially the Snowden and Manning documents remain unconfirmed) and then makes sure the open-courtdocument filed is not sealed and includes the information on how the spooks know the leaked doc was printed inside the NSA facility. Winner went on to make a full confession to the FBI. The upshot? This document is not a plant. The NSA wants you to very much know it is real. The Russians certainly are messing with our election.

But funny thing. While the leaked NSA document seems to be a big deal, at least to the general public, it sort of isn’t. It shows one piece of analysis suggesting but not confirming the GRU, Russian military intelligence, tried to steal some credentials and gain access to a private company. No US sources and methods, or raw technical intel, are revealed, the crown jewel stuff. There is no evidence the hack accomplished anything at all, never mind anything nefarious. The hack took place months ago and ran its course, meaning the Russian operation was already dead. The Russians were running a run-of-the-mill spearfishing attack, potentially effective, but nothing especially sophisticated. You get similar stuff all the time trying to harvest your credit card information. The leaked document looks like a big deal but isn’t.

Another issue. The Intercept has a lot of very smart people working for it, people with real-world intelligence and tradecraft experience. People who know about microdot encoding on printed documents, one of the tells here, and people who know they don’t show their whole hand when asking the NSA for a comment. The Intercept journalist volunteered to an NSA contracting company that the envelope received was postmarked to Augusta, where Winner lived and worked. Like Reality Winner and her own security training, it is very, very unclear why the Intercept took the actions it did under those circumstances.

So For Now…

So, look, what we know about this story may represent .01% of the whole picture, and that tiny sliver of visible information is only what the government has chosen to reveal. And sometimes a coincidence is just a coincidence. Sometimes smart people make dumb mistakes.

But that’s not the way you place your bets, especially when dealing with the IC who are good at these kinds of games. At this very early stage I’m going to say there are too many coincidences and too many mistakes to simple shrug it all off. Too many of the benefits in this have accrued on the side of the IC than is typical when a real whistleblower shares classified documents with a journalist.

If it frightens you that I invoke the question of the Deep State using journalists to smear the President, just forget I said anything. But if we’re willing to believe the Russians somehow successfully manipulated our entire society to elect their favored candidate, then we can at least ask a few questions.

Otherwise, if anyone hears Winner’s lawyer use the word “patsy,” let me know, OK?

BONUS: Matt Cole, one of The Intercept journalists credited to this story, was also involved in the outing of source CIA officer John Kiriakou in connection with CIA torture claims. Small world!

Peter Van Buren blew the whistle on State Department waste and mismanagement during Iraqi reconstruction in his first book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. His latest book is Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99 Percent. Reprinted from the his blog with permission.

  • CJ

    Certainly a lot of food for thought, Peter. Thanks.

  • Nater

    Or, you could just use Occam’s Razor here: Anti-Trump govt. employee who isn’t terribly bright thinks she’s found a smoking gun, copies it and sends it to The Intercept. Her contact at The Intercept is a moron and accidentally helps get her pinched. NSA is willing to acknowledge that the document is real because, quite simply, they don’t like Trump. No big conspiracy. The end.

    • grok

      When someone invokes ‘Occam’s Razor’ under such circumstances — I generally take them for an obtuse apologist for the other side.

      • Nater

        I’m no fan of the Deep State. But I do risk analysis for a living, so I’m just playing the odds here. A conspiracy is certainly possible, but not probable.

        • grok

          I see the result of a lot of ‘risk analysis’ online. Not too impressive, frankly — when you get into the political, and away from the purely technical…

          Where we have to choose between possible vs. probable, experience — both personal and historical — comes to the fore.

          Experience sez that this is far too much of a coinky-dink. Not just my opinion.

    • hjmaiere

      As part of a curious afterthought, the article refers to an incident that demonstrated that revealing the fact that government agents conducted torture is treated by the government as more of a crime than the torture itself.

      What does Occam’s Razor say now?

    • Hadley V. Baxendale

      Your explanation is too complicated to invoke persuasively Occam’s Razor.

      • Nater

        What the simpler explanation, then?

        • MvGuy

          Simple is a good idea. Don’t ever trust simple people, organizations or people involved with simple minded, BRAIN DEAD unMINDFULNESS in dealing with the ENEMY of everything we hold holy. SORRY state of tradecraft…. Child-like naivety, Retarded since of danger and ponsibility.. Stupid beyond belief…. No words can convey the depth of this event..

    • MvGuy

      Like using a hammer and chissel to do eye surgery…would you ever trust them again…???????

  • plebeian_secession

    the document was dated May 5 which suggests creation date, months after the purported incident. And the Intercept receives it on May 9.

  • Lysander

    Damnit, I liked the Intercept! Not as much as Antiwar but still, there are so few outlets. I’ll just have to tune the BS meter a little.

    • MvGuy

      Who in their RIGHT MIND would EVER trust GG and the intercept again…

      Time for gg to say something QUICK about this incident, or lose the trust of ALL of US…

      OUCH….. This is the worst…thing I can think of, as long as their is consensus that the gobbermint has some modicum of verasity, they will manipulate us like small children….

      Is there ANTHING GG can say to restore your trust, or my trust…?????

      NOT LIKELY 4 ME,……

      • Lysander

        The thing about being a liar and a fraud is that you’re not one–everyone gets that mantle once–until you are; and you never get to go back. In the USSR “the Truth” and “the News” were the names of newspapers. In the USSA our liars are not so bold.

  • JanD

    Interesting theory. Alternative would be that Reality Winner is actually as naive and careless as the name suggests. And Intercept surprisingly clumsy in all of this. Hard one but like Nater posted a few hours ago, I’d go for Occam’s Razor combined with a little experience with the “type” as well as there being some indication that The Intercept have indeed a few ambitious twats working there lately. A conspiracy, while not impossible, does seem to over-complicate it and opens up way more questions on why involving Winner at all.

    • MvGuy

      Or maybe just an unforced error by naive Hillary child played to the MAX to breath life into dying election hack legend in ongoing attempts to deligitamize Trump…. Deep state at its most odious werk.

  • Yeah…IT wise, there’s definitely somethin fishy going on here. Nevermind the boneheaded printer issue. What kind of NSA facility did she work in, again?

  • LALiberty32

    The entire event is a psyop. Just depends on your perspective of its effectiveness.

  • Wiirute_Guthoma

    Either Winner was a willing player in the conspiracy, in the which end her end will be happily ever after, or she was a pawn, a victim of entrapment. They profiled her anti-Trumpism and came up with the perfect mark.

    Or it’s one helluva coincidence like 2 planes striking WTC in 2001.

    • JanD

      A pawn is possibility. Guiding her access to the documents, perhaps getting her worked up a bit and then the trap snapped close. Multiple purposes: leak adding to anti-Russia scare, more doubts about elections, more faith in intelligence collection, making example of whistle blower and make the Intercept eat crow. So many advantages for the NSA or Deep State together, typically the hallmarks of PSYOP..

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  • ron

    Spot on, Peter. This “incident” smelled like week old fish as soon as it was published.

  • rivahmitch

    But Winners release of the document IS a big deal. Execute the bitch for treason.

  • Mike W

    Perhaps, given the manner in which the Intercept received the document, they may have thought they were being set up by Winner and the NSA, and decided to play it safe and “turn her in,” rather than get caught with classified information in their possession. What is more interesting is the missing thumb drive checked out to Winner, and the fact that the secure PCs even allowed thumb drives.

  • LaryB

    If this document was used as bait Ms. Winner took it hook line and sinker. Considering her military career she certainly should have been able to recognize that there was actually not much to this story so why would a supposedly intelligence woman take the risk? It certainly appears that something else is going on behind the scene’s but what or why remains to be seen.

  • KeepOnLearning

    Doesn’t it make you, me and all the rest of this “basket of gullibiles” feel a little gaslighted to see that the LOWEST possible pawn on the sub-game board is the one being flogged in public when cushy GS-15s are blithely ignored for leaking dozens of documents? (Unless the press is lying to us, and they have bupkus.)

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  • I would agree with this assessment. Winner, I think, was on some 11-9 frustration situation, still angry about the election outcome, and this was form of revenge. Sadly, she never once sat and asked about implications or jail-time. On the maturity scale….one to ten….I’d give her a max of a three. She’ll have ten years in some prison to think about the act and the remaining future ahead. Sadly, she will likely give up ten good years of her life and have almost no access to computers or social media.

  • Garry Compton

    Well Sherlock, maybe the Russians were just watching our elections to see which Rats they would have to deal with in the future. Or maybe they wanted to know – exactly- who was doing all the ” real hacking” . Did any Americans ever figure out who did the Coup in Kiev yet – PS – it wasn’t the Russians.

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  • MvGuy

    Forget whether or not it was all a set up, taking the unlaundered document to the spooks who work 24/7 to lie cheat and steal the trillions of our tax dollars to keep the deadly game going… IS UNFORGIVABLE…….. As in NEVER AGAIN!!

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