What Does The Intercept’s NSA Leak Say About Russian Vote Hacking?

With Reality Winner sentenced to five years behind bars, The Intercept’s Jim Risen joins Aaron Maté to discuss the NSA leaker’s harsh sentence and what the document she revealed actually says. Is there solid evidence of Russian vote hacking?

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Story Transcript

AARON MATE: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Mate.

NSA leaker Reality Winner was recently sentenced to five years in prison for sending a top secret NSA document to the Intercept. The document accuses Russian military intelligence of a cyber operation targeting the U.S. voting system. Reality Winner’s prison sentence is the longest ever for a media leak in a federal U.S. case. And among many issues, her case has renewed concerns about the selective and harsh prosecution of some government leakers but not others. In a statement, the Intercept said Winner was, quote: “prosecuted with bishops resolve under the Espionage Act,” which it calls, quote: “an attack on the First Amendment that will one day be judged harshly by history,” unquote.

Well, joining me is Jim Risen. He’s the Intercept’s senior national security correspondent, and director of First Look Media’s Press Freedom Defense Fund, which supported Reality Winner’s defense. Welcome, Jim. The issue of the prosecution of government leakers has been an issue that you’ve been close to for some time. Talk about the prosecution of Reality Winner, and how it fits into the concerns you’ve been raising for a while about who gets prosecuted, who doesn’t, and how they’re treated by the justice system.

JIM RISEN: Yeah, I think her case is one of the biggest miscarriages of justice that we’ve seen in recent times. If you look at the allegations that have been brought by the government, and you have to remember that there was never a trial in this case, so they’re still just allegations, she was accused of disclosing one document to a news organization. And that one document was about Russian efforts; Russian intelligence efforts to hack into U.S. voting systems at the state level.

Now, since that, since her arrest on that in last year, the U.S. Senate has issued a report saying that that the Department of Homeland Security failed to adequately warn state officials around the country about the threat from Russian cyberhacking of voting systems. And the report, the Senate report went on to say that it was really only press disclosures that notified the state-level officials of the danger and the threat from Russian cyber attacks. That means while the Justice Department has gone after Reality Winner, the U.S. Senate and Congress have identified what she did as a public service. What she has been accused of doing is something that is to warn the American people about what everyone now in the United States now thinks is one of the biggest threats to the national security of the United States, which is Russian intervention in the election system.

And so by calling out and blowing the whistle on that, the Trump administration has cracked down on her and sending her to jail while all the people who are actually involved in Russian collusion, collusion with Russia, are still free. So that- there’s that. And then there’s the, as you pointed out, the horrible lack of proportion in the sentencing between her and other leakers. And I think the most egregious example was that of David Petraeus, the CIA director who leaked highly classified information to his mistress, who was supposedly writing something for him. And he got no jail time whatsoever. He was put on probation, and that was it. And the only people who are sentenced to jail for leaking are low-level officials, most of whom leak because they are upset or frustrated at bad policies or illegal activity. And it’s really only the high-level leakers who often leak for personal advantage or to help with political agendas. They get away with it.

AARON MATE: OK, Jim. So I have no disagreement with what you say there about the double standards at play in terms of the selective prosecution, and also just the harsh treatment in thise case. Five years. Let me ask you, though, what you’re also talking about there speaks to what the document actually contains. You say that it alerted the country to a Russian threat, to national security, a Russian effort to attack voting systems. Let me ask you, do you think that the document itself actually substantiates that?

JIM RISEN: Well, I mean, it shows that the U.S. intelligence community, specifically the NSA, had intelligence about that. That there was, I mean, you can you can debate whether or not the U.S. intelligence community knows what it’s doing. And I’ll be happy to do that, because I’ve been a critic of U.S. intelligence for 20 years.

But what it did say was that the U.S. intelligence, namely the NSA, had evidence that GRU hackers were attempting to hack into a contractor for voting systems that were used by the state level, and also trying to hack personally into state election officials around the country. Now, that is something, frankly, that should not have been classified. That should have been a public warning issued by the U.S. intelligence community to states around the country. And for the most part, those kind of things usually are, you know, the government does warn people about cyber attacks.

But this- to me the fact that they went after somebody for disclosing a document that all it did was warn state officials that they should be on guard against Russian cyberattacks, is ridiculous. Because as I said, the Senate Judiciary Committee in a report earlier this year pointed out specifically that the failures of the government, the federal government, to warn state officials of this, and that it is only these press disclosures that finally alerted state officials to the threat. And that’s to me the definition of a public service act of whistleblowing.

AARON MATE: Right. So I, I would agree that the intent was a public service. She obviously had this document that she thought which showed that the Russians are meddling in U.S. voting systems, and she wanted to alert the public. Especially a website like the Intercept, which has been associated with challenging that through the writings of Glenn Greenwald. But when you say the document shows the NSA has evidence- let’s go through the document, because I don’t think it shows that. And this is where I think Intercept did not fully explain to readers what the document actually said. And the reason why I think this is important. It’s because this document is the only actual public evidence we have so far that attributes voting hacking attempts to the Russian government. And it’s been the basis for a lot of fear about that alleged Russian hacking since.

So if you look at the document, there’s a legend- and I want to explain it to viewers. And you can’t see this, Jim, because you’re on the phone with us. But for viewers for watching, we’re going to put it up. So there is a legend. And there are different color codes. So there is a gray line for contextual information. A yellow line for analyst judgment, and a green line for confirmed information. And when you look at the actual attribution on the document in terms of its basis for achieving this to the Russian government, the Russian government attribution does not get a green line for confirmed information. It first gets a yellow line, saying it’s probably within the GRU. But that’s an analyst judgment of that fact that it’s probably within the GRU. It’s not confirmed information. And then furthermore, then there’s a gray line for contextual information, linking the cyber actor that this analyst judgment says is probably within the GRU. Then the gray line links the GRU to this actor that the allegedly carried out the spearphishing attempts.

So if anything, the document itself shows that the NSA, at least according to this document, is not even sure, does not have confirmed information it’s the GRU. It’s simply the judgment of one analyst. And I’m wondering if based on that you are open the possibility that the significance of this document has been inflated.

JIM RISEN: I disagree with you on this point. I think that you can always debate the evidentiary basis for U.S. intelligence reporting. [Inaudible] a skeptic, moreso than probably anybody else in journalism, about U.S. intelligence reports over the years. But I think the fact remains that this was an important document for the public to know about, and for U.S. election officials to know about to make an informed and educated decision on how they go forward and how they take protections for U.S. election systems.

Now, you can, you can debate endlessly whether or not, you know, the U.S. has sufficient evidence of Russian cyberattacks. And I’m not, you know, maybe it’s been overblown. But I tend to think it hasn’t been in this case because there’s so much evidence today of Russian efforts to intervene in the U.S. election in 2016 that I think this was part of that. And so you know, I just- I think it’s, it was an important thing for, it was an important public service to warn U.S. officials and the public about this. And you know, you can still debate whether or not the Russian cyberoffensive against the United States has been overblown. But I think it’s still important for American state level officials to know about the potential threat.

AARON MATE: There’s no argument there. But I’m worried there about conflating two issues. There’s the issue of whether this is a public service to alert voting officials and states about potential malignant actors, which is of course a public service. And any leak is really a public service. I mean, it’s great. But the question is, does- the problem that I have here is when this document is adduced, as has been done by the Intercept and many outlets to prove or to substantiate claims that there was a Russian government hacking attempt, when the document itself shows that this is not just only one analyst judgment. They’re not confirmed information. But that even attributing to the GRU, the Russian military intelligence, is done contextually. So it’s even a lower grade than one analyst judgment. And so if anything, it proves, I think, actually, the thin evidentiary basis for all these claims, which you seem to be taking on face value, that the Russian government was meddling in the U.S. election.

JIM RISEN: You know, I, as I said, I’ve been a skeptic about U.S. intelligence for a long time. And I am also able to hold two competing thoughts in my head at one time. One is that I know institutionally the CIA, the NSA, and other intelligence agencies make lots of mistakes. I also know that sometimes they get things right. And so I am able to parse things myself and look at the evidence on a case-by-case basis. And I don’t hold a view one way or the other that everything the NSA or the CIA says is true, or that everything they say is false.

AARON MATE: Jim, what I’m doing, I think, is doing- Jim, I think I’m doing- I’m parsing exactly the document itself. I never made a categorical statement about what is true or not about the CIA. Or of course everything should be evaluated.

So I’m saying in this case, in the case where a document was produced to substantiate claims of Russian meddling, the document itself shows that it’s one analyst judgment. And even there, the attribution-.

JIM RISEN: I think I heard you the first couple times you said that.

AARON MATE: It’s contextual. So what I’m saying is- okay.

JIM RISEN: I heard you before. So we just disagree on this point. So I think it was an important document to be published, it was an important document to be written about. It was a public service to have it disclosed. I don’t think it’s the last word on the issue of Russian cyberattacks on the U.S. I think there will be- we need more evidence one way or the other to prove what’s really going on. And I don’t think anybody has said that this is the last word on it. So I’m open to more evidence.

AARON MATE: No, it’s certainly not. It’s been the basis for it. And that’s my concern with the reliance on it, because again, as I’ve said now several times, the document itself I think shows just how thin the evidentiary basis is. Let me also-

JIM RISEN: Well, I don’t think that’s correct. I think you’re saying that this was the end all and be all of all evidence. And I don’t think anyone is saying that.

AARON MATE: I’m not saying that, no. Would you agree that this document has been the basis for all subsequent reporting about, in terms of-

JIM RISEN: No, it’s not.

AARON MATE: Well, in terms of subsequent-.

JIM RISEN: There’s been a lot of other, there’s been a lot of other reporting on Russian cyberattacks on U.S. election systems.

AARON MATE: But would you agree it’s the only public evidence of an NSA document that attributes this to Russia’s [meddling]?

JIM RISEN: Yeah, that was that was the significance of the document, and it’s why it was published in the Intercept, because it was an important document.

AARON MATE: And what I’m saying is-.

JIM RISEN: I think what you’re arguing is that we should hold back information if we don’t think it’s complete.

AARON MATE: OK. Jim, you’re not getting my point. I think the Intercept should have published it. But instead of a headline talking about how this is about Russia hacking into U.S. elections, I think the headline should have been the NSA itself is unsure of the evidence about Russia hacking the elections, because it’s right there on the document.

JIM RISEN: Well, I think that’s your opinion of how the headline should have been written, which is fine. You can write a letter to the editor and complain about the headline.

AARON MATE: Well, I’m talking to you now. And you know the distinction on the document, because you’re familiar with it, the distinction between confirmed information analyst judgment-.

JIM RISEN: And I’m not sure what the point of this argument about is, really, frankly. So unless you want to talk about something else, I’m think I’m done.

AARON MATE: OK. Well, I’ve certainly made my point. I guess one other piece of evidence on this document that I found interesting was that in terms of this spearphishing attempt- which is different, by the way, than hacking is normally known as. It’s about impersonating someone to try to steal their credentials. The fake emails that the suspected Russian hackers used were to impersonate this company VR Systems- by the way, which denies that they were ever successful penetrated. Anyway, it was [email protected] And also [email protected] So the impersonated emails used by these hackers try to fool the systems, and then also state election boards, was using the [email protected] Which does not seem to me, does not seem to me to be very sophisticated.

JIM RISEN: Yeah, okay. So are you, like, a, one of the people who doesn’t believe that there is any evidence that Russia’s intervened in the U.S. election?

AARON MATE: I’m one of the people who is skeptical of accepting U.S. intelligence community claims about evidence. And that’s why I think-.

JIM RISEN: Well, that’s fine. That’s a completely different debate and discussion than I thought you wanted to have, which is fine. But it’s not something I have the time or the interest in pursuing right now. I thought you wanted to talk about why I thought Reality Winner, what she did was a public service.

AARON MATE: We agree it was a public service. There’s no debate there.

JIM RISEN: Okay, very good.

AARON MATE: And I think you’ve articulated that, Jim Risen. Are you still there?

JIM RISEN: OK. Well, good.

AARON MATE: So let me ask you- let me ask you also, then, about the handling of the document itself, because there has been criticism-

JIM RISEN: Well, I’m not going to get into that. I think we’re, I think we’re done. Thanks.

AARON MATE: OK. Well, that was Jim Risen, the national security correspondent of the Intercept, and I guess we have to leave it there. I’m Aaron Mate for The Real News.