How The Intercept inadvertently gave the FBI evidence leading to an NSA-leaker’s swift arrest

A post shared by Reezle Winner (@reezlie) on


It’s unusual for a major intelligence leak to be reported at almost the same time as the leaker gets arrested — but that’s what happened to NSA contractor Reality Leigh Winner after she leaked a top-secret document to The Intercept.

Whenever a whistleblower gets arrested, this is bound to have a chilling effect on the prospects for future leaks.

In its handling of this NSA document, reporters for The Intercept might have naively thought they were not putting their source in jeopardy because they didn’t know their source’s identity. What they apparently didn’t realize was that by sharing the document in the form in which they had received it, they were revealing information that helped investigators quickly identify and arrest Winner.

Anyone who decides to leak classified information needs to fully understand the risks they are taking and it is the individual who is ultimately responsible for protecting their own security.

At the same time, journalists who handle leaked information need to have adequate knowledge about data security — knowledge that the staff at The Intercept appear to be lacking.

The Washington Post reports: Winner was arrested Saturday. When FBI agents questioned her at her home, she admitted “removing the classified intelligence reporting from her office space, retaining it, and mailing it from Augusta, Georgia, to the news outlet,” court documents read. She remains in jail pending a detention hearing. Her lawyer declined to comment on the charges.

After the charges were announced Monday, some cybersecurity experts remarked on the apparent ease with which investigators were able to trace the leak back to Winner. Some went so far as to say the Intercept had “outed” her by posting copies of the document online. The Intercept said the materials were submitted anonymously.

According to Rob Graham, who writes for the blog Errata Security, the Intercept’s scanned images of the intelligence report contained tracking dots — small, barely visible yellow dots that show “exactly when and where documents, any document, is printed.” Nearly all modern color printers feature such tracking markers, which are used to identify a printer’s serial number and the date and time a page was printed. [Continue reading…]

So far, The Intercept has not acknowledged its role in Winner’s arrest.

Just to be clear, since Winner was arrested before The Intercept published the document, the lead the FBI used came as a result of the document being shared beforehand. “It started on May 30, when the news outlet showed authorities the printed materials and asked them to comment, according to the affidavit,” the Washington Post reported.

Given Winner’s field of expertise, it’s not surprising she didn’t understand well enough how to cover her tracks.

CNN reports: — Winner was a linguist in the US Air Force in Maryland who speaks Pashto, Farsi and Dari, her mother, Billie Winner said.

— She was raised in Kingsville, Texas, and served in the Air Force in Columbia, Maryland. Her mother confirmed she was a federal contractor in Augusta but did not know the nature of her work, or if she had contracted for the NSA.

— Winner is an athlete who loves animals, her mother said, through tears.

— She also said her daughter wasn’t especially political and hadn’t ever praised past leakers like Edward Snowden to her.

— “She’s never ever given me any kind of indication that she was in favor of that at all,” her mother said. “I don’t know how to explain it.”

— Winner spent six years in the military, said Titus Nichols, her court-appointed attorney. [Continue reading…]

Hopefully a jury will recognize that at this time there are many ways in which Americans believe they are called to serve their country — there seems little doubt that this is exactly what Winner felt she was doing.

The Intercept can’t correct the mistakes they already made, but at the very least I think Pierre Omidyar should establish and generously contribute towards a legal defense fund for Winner.

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