Efforts to portray the NSA leaker as a victim as well as a punchline on late-night television won’t wash. She’s just an impotent criminal who deserves to be prosecuted.
When the name of the first person to be prosecuted for leaking national secrets during the Trump administration was released, the late-night comics pounced. Reality Leigh Winner is the name of the 25-year-old contractor for the National Security Agency who is accused of leaking a classified document about Russian hacking to the press. But rather than mock the Air Force vet with the odd name and poor spycraft skills, the comedians employed her as yet another club with which to beat their favorite target: President Donald Trump.
According to Stephen Colbert, the only conclusion to draw from the story was that Trump “is at war with Reality.” Even the more apolitical Jimmy Fallon couldn’t resist cracking that Trump “wasn’t in contact with Reality.” Hysterical.
But even as the professional kibitzers are mining the story for all the puns they can find to pound Trump, a narrative about the leaker is emerging that is more significant than the question of which of the late-night jokes go viral. When it comes to stealing and leaking classified information, Reality Winner may be a rank amateur when compared to someone like Edward Snowden, who turned this kind of theft into an art form. But the emerging effort to paint her as a sympathetic character in the mainstream media has little to do with any concern about her fate and everything to do with the campaign to undermine Trump and to relitigate the 2016 election.
The stories about Winner make her sound like an all-American girl. She served in the U.S. Air Force and subsequently parlayed knowledge of various Asian languages into a post-service job as contractor for the NSA. When not working at a job that required a top-secret security clearance, she taught yoga and posted pictures of cats and favorite quotes on social media.
The upshot of these biographical details points to what is likely to be her defense in the court of public opinion if not in a court of law. We’ll be told Winner is a patriot whose leaking was motivated by the same spirit of public service that led her to join the military. Giving up a classified report about Russian hacking will be portrayed as an effort to get the truth to the American people. And unlike Snowden, whose massive downloads undoubtedly did more damage to U.S. security but who remains in a comfortable Russian exile, Winner is currently sitting in a Georgia jail cell paying the price he evaded with his sophisticated methods and clever escape plan.
Some are already also criticizing The Intercept, the publication that received the document Winner leaked, for its role in unmasking her identity. Apparently it sought to vet the document with the government, and that yielded up clues that betrayed Winner as the culprit. But even if that is true, her effort was so clumsy that it appears investigators would have easily identified her even if the magazine had said nothing.
Dissatisfaction with the outcome of elections is not a license to break the law.
But as Winner’s Twitter feed showed before she shut it down after starting at the NSA earlier this year, she is a fierce left-wing partisan, not a high-minded defender of national security. Winner is a vicious critic of Trump and a supporter of Black Lives Matter. But she’s also a defender of Iran’s government and pledged to “stand with” Tehran in the event of conflict with the U.S. While there is nothing illegal about calling Trump “the orange fascist we let into the White House” or Attorney General Jeff Sessions a “Confederate,” her motivation for leaking was about far-left politics, not blowing the whistle on some government wrongdoing.
Winner and those who share her view that Trump should be thrown out of office have every right to their opinions. But dissatisfaction with the outcome of elections is not a license to break the law. Nor is it a form of political persecution to hold a government employee accountable for violating her oath. That’s something we’re going to need to remember as the case against Winner proceeds at the same time Trump is under siege for his firing of FBI director James Comey amid the ongoing controversy about the Russia-collusion investigation.
It’s one thing when the loyal opposition in a democracy morphs into a “resistance” determined to damn the government and its leader under any and all circumstances. That’s a regrettable development, but its growth is the fault of Trump’s unorthodox behavior and statements and the chaotic circus in the West Wing since he took office as much as it is malevolent intent by the Left. But if those opposed to Trump embrace criminal acts such as the one Winner is charged with committing, it’s more than yet another breach of civility in a political culture that has already gone haywire. It will be a sign that the liberal resistance against Trump is seeking to erase a line that should never be approached, let alone crossed.
Every nation has a right and a duty to protect its national-security secrets. Disagreement with the policies of the government or the outcome of elections is not an excuse for violating laws that are in place to ensure that those secrets are protected. It doesn’t matter that Winner may seem to some to be a more attractive character than Trump or whether, like her, you think ill of the president. While no one seriously disputes that the Russians tried to intervene in 2016, any effort to use her leak to bolster the preposterous claim that the Russians somehow stole the election for Trump will do as much if not more to undermine democracy than anything Vladimir Putin has done.
Repairing the damage done to the fabric of our civic culture, which has been torn apart both by Trump and the “resistance,” won’t be easy. But it must start with a bipartisan consensus that Winner’s alleged actions were beyond the pale and deserve severe punishment. Anything less on the part of liberal critics of Trump will be a blow to the rule of law and cannot be tolerated.
— Jonathan S. Tobin is opinion editor of JNS.org and a contributing writer for National Review Online.