With Reality Winner Sentenced, Does The Intercept Owe Answers?

Reality Winner has been sentenced to five years for leaking an NSA document to The Intercept alleging a Russian cyber-operation targeting the U.S. voting system. Shadowproof’s Kevin Gosztola joins Aaron Maté to discuss major questions surrounding The Intercept’s handling of Reality Winner’s document.

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Story Transcript

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

We are continuing with Kevin Gosztola. He is managing editor of Shadowproof.com. He has been covering the case of NSA whistleblower Reality Winner from the beginning and he was there on Thursday at her sentencing, her being sentenced to five years in prison. So, in part one of this discussion, Kevin, we addressed both the harsh treatment of Reality Winner, which many people call draconian, her receiving the longest ever sentence for a media source in federal court history. And we also discussed the double standards here, where low-level people like her get harshly treated and then high-level officials like David Petraeus and Leon Panetta get a slap on the wrist if any slap at all.

Now, in part two though, I want to discuss a different issue, which is both how The Intercept, the media outlet that published Reality Winner’s leak, how they’ve handled her case and may have played a role in outing her. And then also, the merits of the document itself, because this document has been the basis for widespread talk of Russian hacking U.S. voting systems. But I think that it’s been wildly blown out of proportion, which we’ll get to. But first, I want to go to the issue of The Intercept and how they’ve handled Reality Winner.

So, let me go to a clip of James Risen. He is a senior correspondent at The Intercept and you actually appeared with him this morning on the show, Democracy Now!, and he was asked about how The Intercept is handling classified documents from sources in the aftermath of the Reality Winner experience.

AMY GOODMAN: And has it changed how The Intercept receives and then reveals documents, having placed that document then online, The Intercept did?

JAMES RISEN: Well, I think— I can’t really discuss how we handle things internally. But I think it’s safe to say that this has been an important— this was important for us, because it really, as I said, was an important and great story. I think the idea that The Intercept— we receive, actually, quite a bit of anonymous information, and we continue to receive a lot of documents and other information from a number of sources anonymously and from people who are named. And so, we’re going to continue to always try to deal with that in the best way possible.

AARON MATE: So, that’s James Risen, senior correspondent at The Intercept, speaking on Democracy Now! today. So, Kevin, The Intercept has funded Reality Winner’s legal defense and has spoken out pretty forcefully about her harsh treatment. But in my opinion, they have not accounted for how, for their role in her getting caught. Now, they haven’t had the chance to fully explain it yet, perhaps they’ve been waiting until her sentencing. So, perhaps that will emerge. But so far, and from what I heard from James Risen today, there hasn’t been a thorough accounting. What can you tell us about how The Intercept handled the leak that they got from Reality Winner, and how that may have led to the to the government finding her out and putting her in prison?

KEVIN GOSZTOLA: So, just to address what James Risen was saying- and I think that this is going to fuel a contentious debate, but it has to be had because it’s with the eye toward having a robust investigative journalism environment that sources can turn to. And definitely, the Intercept is supposedly a critical part of this. So, anyone in government wants to know that they’re not going to have the same fate as Reality Winner if possible. And I don’t know that The Intercept can guarantee that they’re going to be able to keep sources free of the Insider Threat Program or any other tools being able to detect a source. But they definitely can do harm mitigation and should.

And so, I believe that James Risen actually probably should have addressed the question more fully, because I don’t think that Amy Goodman on Democracy Now! was asking just only about how they get their sources and how they accept submissions and what they do with sources. I think what is most important to the story of Reality Winner’s case is how they went about verifying the documents, how they go about trying to make sure that what they have is material that is worthy of publication.

And so, you have two reporters at least, Matthew Cole and Richard Esposito, who were involved in working on this document. And these reporters are going to an NSA contractor, they inform this NSA contractor that the document was mailed from Augusta. That’s the number one problem. They send a copy of the document that still has metadata on the document so that it’s able- so that the people who are there are able to then go back and link it to the universe of people who viewed this document, this NSA report. The NSA report was only accessed by six people, and I think it was only one person who printed off the document. And so, that becomes an issue because automatically, the government can name that person who smuggled the document out of the facility at Fort Gordon. So, it didn’t take long at all.

In fact, if we go back to the chain of events, I believe that just about the time that this report was put out, you had an immediate announcement very, very soon after that reality winner was arrested. And so, it was pretty clear that something was going on here that just wasn’t the standard as far as The Intercept goes. And if we go back to Edward Snowden’s case, I think Glenn Greenwald wrote a lot about how The Guardian and other outlets were maybe going too far in their conversations with representatives of the government, maybe revealing too many details about the nature of those documents in ways that were not comfortable for him because they were going to perhaps out Edward Snowden and make it easier for them to identify who that person was before he came forward and revealed that he was the source of the disclosures.

AARON MATE: Kevin, so I just want to have this right in terms of what The Intercept failed to do and what they’ve failed to so far, I think, account for aside for some vague statements. So, they didn’t remove some metadata, right, from the document in trying to, in their attempt to verify it with the NSA. And then, they also didn’t remove some yellow dots, some markings that identified where the document may have come from?

KEVIN GOSZTOLA: Yes, yeah that’s correct. And so, you have all of this available for finding the source of the disclosure.

AARON MATE: Right, okay. And now, just to say, we’ve invited James Risen to come on The Real News to discuss this, perhaps because, again, because the case has been ongoing, they’ve been silent. But I agree with you that it’s a discussion that needs to be had. And I think also what has to be discussed is the nature of the document itself in terms of what it actually revealed, because I think it’s been overblown and has been used for as part of this effort to accuse Russia of a sweeping hacking interference operation when I don’t think the document itself shows that. Those accusations against Russia might be true, but I don’t think the document itself substantiates really anything. But first, let me go to James Risen, because he has a different view. And this is what he said earlier on Democracy Now! today.

JAMES RISEN: I think it’s a real good case of press freedom because what she did or what she is alleged to have done, as I said earlier, is a public service. And it really was one of the few moments in the last year and a half where the American people got a clear warning that their election systems were being hacked by the Russians. It was no longer just a hack of the Democratic Committee’s e-mails. This was a direct hack of the American election system. The Russians were attempting to change voting patterns by getting into voting machines. And the United States government had failed to adequately warn anyone that that was going on until this document was released.

AARON MATE: So, that’s James Risen, speaking to Democracy Now! today. James Risen is an Intercept senior correspondent. Kevin, I don’t know how James Risen comes to this interpretation of the document. I don’t- it doesn’t, in my opinion, doesn’t have any relation to what the document actually shows and I hope to be able to discuss this with him here on The Real News. What the document actually shows is a spear phishing attempt, which is a pretty standard hacker operation where you basically impersonate someone and then send e-mails to people trying to get them to log in with their credentials and then trying to use that to then possibly break into voting systems.

The company that was targeted by this, VR Systems, says in fact that the impersonators were not even successful. So, in terms of what Risen says there about hacking into voting systems, it doesn’t even show that. And not only does it not even show that, but it doesn’t even- the document itself, if you look at it, and this has been missed in a lot of the reporting, it doesn’t even show any confirmed information that it was the Russian government or Russian military intelligence. In fact, it says the opposite. If you look at it, there is a legend in the bottom left and there is a green line there which means- the green line means confirmed information.

There’s also a yellow line which stands for analyst judgment. And if you look above that at the upper left, where they attribute this spear phishing attempt to the GRU, to the Russian GRU, the line is not green for confirmed information, the line is yellow for analyst judgment. So basically, this document that supposedly says the Russian military intelligence is responsible for spear phishing is not based on any confirmed information, as it explicitly says. It’s based on one analyst judgment. That’s something that The Intercept and not really highlight in its original piece and has not highlighted since.

And the problem with that is that this document is really actually the only public evidence we have so far of any kind of Russian government hacking attempt. It was actually cited, or it mirrors and is probably relied on, in Robert Mueller’s indictment of Russian military officers. But because this document alleges that and because The Intercept, I think, overhyped what it actually says, and because The Intercept has a reputation for being adversarial and doing serious national security journalism, I think it’s helped spread this panic about Russia that, as this document shows, is not based on concrete evidence. Kevin, your thoughts?

KEVIN GOSZTOLA: So, I think there are two issues here, and I will get back to what you’re saying. But I think first and foremost is you want to believe that the whistleblower made a disclosure that is valuable and in the public interest because they’re putting themselves on the line, they made a risk. And so, you have to accept that she read the document and she believed that what she was reading said that Russians are hacking our election systems or were targeting our election systems, and so, let’s get this out into the media.

And then, what journalists do, and what James Risen and The Intercept and others are supposed to do and what you’re doing, is you look at the document more closely and you analyze it and you provide context and you find out what the real truth is and you find out where reality actually is. And I’m not making stupid puns here, but that’s what you do with the document. And so, it’s still an act of whistleblowing to release that document. But now, to our conversation, what we’re talking about, because we’re doing journalism and talking about the content of this document, is I agree with you that it’s a view of an analyst.

It does not conclude that there is Russian interference in the election. It suggests, maybe strongly, that voter registration systems are vulnerable to spear phishing attacks and that that’s something to be concerned about. But then, I don’t think we shouldn’t jump and make leaps and start talking about this within the context of a Russia investigation, within the context of all the issues swirling around the Trump investigation, because I think that what we’re seeing here is an election security issue that is just a facet of our systems that states don’t take seriously. We even had, in the last week or two, an effort that was going on to pass an election security bill. And it wasn’t going smoothly, it struggled.

And so, that’s something that people should be addressing as a systemic problem and not just unique to the personality of Donald Trump. And so, I have a problem with- and it’s been something that I’ve dealt with the whole time that I’ve been covering this case, I have a problem with taking this document and using it as some kind of evidence of, I’ll call it Russiagate for lack of a better term, and then it doesn’t because it’s basically, like you say, the view of an analyst saying that the voter registration systems were vulnerable to the spear phishing attack. But it does not amount to proving a kind of conspiracy between Donald Trump and Russian hackers, or it doesn’t amount to showing that this is how Russian hackers will manipulate our elections.

AARON MATE: And I want to give you an indication of why I’m skeptical that this was Russian military intelligence aside from the fact that the analyst who wrote this report, it’s just their judgment, not even confirmed information as the, again, the document specifies. But so, in their attempts to impersonate this company, this voting company, VR Systems, the hackers wrote these fake emails from VR Systems in their attempts to falsely portray themselves as VR Systems as [email protected] So, you’d think if the Russian military intelligence was trying to impersonate VR Systems, they’d be a bit more sophisticated in trying to steal, trying to mask their email address in an actual @vrsystems.com domain instead of @gmail.com, which is a pretty big give-away that these are not sophisticated hackers.

And by the way, I’ve been doing some reporting on this and I’m not done it yet, but there are other explanations for what all this alleged hacking and scanning activity in voting databases has been. State officials in federal hearings have spoken about it and federal officials have spoken about it as well, that actually, sofome of the stuff in places like Arizona and Illinois, which are believed to be actually associated with the same incident that this Reality Winner NSA document is talking about, could have been the work of cyber criminals because cyber criminals are out there trying to steal people’s personal information to then sell for commercial purposes. And all of this attribution to the Russian government has been pretty murky and I think that’s amplified by what we see directly on the NSA document itself.

So, Kevin, we’re are going to wrap, but I want to give you the final word. What Reality Winner faces now, her mother spoke about how Reality Winter has had some mental health issues, has grappled with depression. She’s looking now at five years in prison. What kinds of conditions does she face and what can be done to support her?

KEVIN GOSZTOLA: Yeah, well can I just put a quick emphasis on what you just said there? Because I think it’s important for people to recognize that we just had in this news, this story about the Democratic National Committee of Michigan talking about how they were hacked by Russians. And it was completely bogus. It did not happen as far as the DNC committee was concerned. But the media ran with it and they hyped it up. And I’m very concerned that going into the 2018 midterm elections here, that this is going to empower authorities to talk about our elections in ways that do diminish and target people who engage in dissent, that it’s going to be used to change the way we talk about politics and undermine any sorts of conversations that you and me would like to have.

So, importantly for Reality Winner, she’s going to the Federal Medical Center, or would like to go to the Federal Medical Center in Fort Worth, Texas. It’s closer to her family. Her family is from Kingsville, Texas. This would be good if the Bureau of Prisons honors the recommendation, but the Bureau of Prisons does not always honor recommendations when the judge even signs off on them and says a defendant should be placed in this facility. But the hope is that she would not go to a facility like the one in Hazelton, West Virginia, where habitual violent offenders might go, or that she wouldn’t end up in a facility in Colorado, which would be very, very far and would force her family to have to fly on an airplane anytime they wanted to visit her.

And so, if she goes to this facility, she’ll be close to her family. And the other thing is that she does suffer from depression after her father died in December 2016 just a few months before she decided to disclose the document, and then she suffers from Bulemia, which is something she’s struggled for a large part of her life and she’s looking to get some treatment. And prisons aren’t a good place for medical treatment ever, but this facility is particularly set up to help defendants who have problems, who have health issues. And so, she will be detained in a facility that isn’t just a straight up prison, it’s a federal medical center. And hopefully, she can get some kind of help over the duration of this harsh sentence.

AARON MATE: Kevin Gosztola, managing editor of Shadowproof.com, Has been covering the case of Reality Winter from the beginning. Thank you so much.

KEVIN GOSZTOLA: Thanks for having me.

AARON MATE: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.