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Whistleblowers Shouldn’t Be Prosecuted Like Spies: Greenwald on Alleged NSA Leaker Reality Winner

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The parent company of The Intercept—First Look Media—has announced that it will provide support for the legal defense of Reality Leigh Winner, the NSA contractor who stands accused of leaking a top-secret document to The Intercept. She faces up to 10 years in prison, if convicted. Winner, who remains in jail, was charged for allegedly leaking a top-secret document showing how Russian military intelligence attempted to hack into several states’ voting infrastructure. The Intercept’s handling of the story faced widespread scrutiny. The Department of Justice claimed in an affidavit and search warrant that it caught the leaker in part by actions taken by The Intercept. We speak with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Glenn Greenwald, co-founder of The Intercept.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Earlier this week, the parent company of The Intercept, First Look Media, announced it will provide support for the legal defense of Reality Leigh Winner. She’s the NSA contractor who pleaded not guilty in June to charges she leaked a top-secret document to The Intercept. Winner, who remains in jail, was charged for allegedly leaking a top-secret document showing how Russian military intelligence attempted to hack into several states’ voting infrastructure. She faces up to 10 years in prison, if convicted.

AMY GOODMAN: The Intercept's handling of the story faced widespread scrutiny. The Department of Justice claimed in an affidavit and search warrant that it caught the leaker in part by actions taken by The Intercept. Earlier this week, The Intercept's editor-in-chief, Betsy Reed, said the organization has done an internal review.

BETSY REED: An internal review of the reporting of the story has now been completed. The ongoing criminal case prevents us from going into detail, but I can state that, at several points in the editorial process, our practices fell short of the standards to which we hold ourselves for minimizing the risks of source exposure when handling anonymously provided materials. Like other journalistic outlets, we routinely verify such materials with any individuals or institutions implicated by them, and we seek their comment. This process carries some risks of source exposure that are impossible to mitigate when dealing with sensitive materials. Nonetheless, it is clear that we should have taken greater precautions to protect the identity of a source who was anonymous even to us. As the editor-in-chief, I take responsibility for this failure and for making sure that the internal newsroom issues that contributed to it are resolved. We are conducting a comprehensive analysis of our source protection protocols, and we’ll make revisions to ensure that any materials provided to us anonymously are handled in the most secure manner possible. It remains core to our mission to ensure that all our journalism is carried out in a manner that honors the risks that whistleblowers take.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Betsy Reed, editor-in-chief of The Intercept, speaking on the Intercepted podcast. Still with us, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Glenn Greenwald, co-founder of The Intercept. Talk about the latest. According to the Justice Department, Reality Winner goes to trial in the fall. Talk about what your organization is doing.

GLENN GREENWALD: So, this idea of prosecuting sources and whistleblowers, people who provide newsworthy information to journalists, which is what Reality Winner is accused of doing, the idea of prosecuting them as spies under the Espionage Act is something that really began to accelerate under the Obama administration. The Obama Justice Department prosecuted more sources under that law than all previous administrations combined—in fact, almost three times as much. And this is now the practice that the Trump Justice Department is continuing by prosecuting this person alleged to have provided clearly newsworthy information to The Intercept. And this is something that ought to disturb everybody who believes in a free press and who believes in just prosecutions.

So, in the past, we have always supported whistleblowers and sources. We raised over $100,000 for Chelsea Manning’s legal defense. We’ve obviously supported Edward Snowden and Thomas Drake and others. And we’re certainly going to do everything that we can in this case to support Reality Winner, even though we have no idea whether or not she actually is the source for this story. Obviously, we are constrained, because we are involved in the story, because we’re the ones who she—who the government accuses of having leaked to us. And so, it’s very difficult for us to say anything beyond what Betsy Reed said, which is, we certainly made mistakes on our handling of the story, but are really constrained to say more.

The one thing that I would just suggest, though, is that everything known publicly about this story, about what she did, about what we did, comes from the Trump Justice Department and from the FBI, the claims that they made in the context of a criminal case. And so, I would just urge everybody not to treat those claims as though they’re the unvarnished truth. Reality Winner has pleaded not guilty. There’s going to be a trial. There are things in the FBI’s affidavits that are unproven or untrue. And so, while we certainly made mistakes, as Betsy Reed said, I think it’s really important to apply skepticism to the claims of the Trump Justice Department, of all people.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Glenn, can you comment on your recent piece on Rachel Maddow about a fake NSA document—you’ve said, the title—which raises several key questions? The article dealt with this episode on Maddow’s show last week.

RACHEL MADDOW: Heads up, everybody. This is what I mean by an inside-out scoop. Somebody, for some reason, appears to be shopping a fairly convincing fake NSA document that purports to directly implicate somebody from the Trump campaign in working with the Russians on their attack on the election. It is a forgery. Let me caveat that: It is either a forgery, or every single national security official we consulted about this story is wrong about it.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, Glenn Greenwald, that’s Rachel Maddow. Can you talk about what you discussed in your piece and what mistakes—how they believed this obviously forged document?

GLENN GREENWALD: Right. So, Rachel spent the first 21 minutes of her show rather breathlessly touting this extraordinarily fascinating story that she called an exclusive. And in that introduction that you just played and many times throughout the segment, she depicted this forged document that she received as being this masterfully crafted, highly sophisticated fake, because she strongly implied over and over that the person who forged this document came from the Trump administration in an attempt to trick her into running a story that ended up being fake. The reality is that we’ve spoken with the person who actually did the forgery. He sent that same document to BuzzFeed. BuzzFeed went online and said, “We got the same document as Maddow.” There was actually one small difference, but they said, “We got the same document as Maddow, and we instantly realized it was a joke.” It was an obvious fake that nobody would have ever taken seriously. So, to the extent that Rachel was making the point that media outlets should be careful when somebody anonymously sends them a document that’s top-secret, that they have to be careful to authenticate it because it might be fake, that’s a perfectly fine point to make, I guess. But I think that all news outlets already knew that, already know that they have to be careful with documents that they get sent to them in the mail when authenticating them. I don’t we needed 21 minutes of Rachel saying that.

I think the concern that we had about the story was that she strongly implied that whoever got this document and forged it got it before we actually published it online. She was saying that the metadata of the document shows that whoever created the forgery, based on the document that we published, got it prior to our publication of it, which would have meant that only someone in the Trump government or, presumably, The Intercept could have been the one to have forged it and sent it to her. And that was just a misreading of the metadata. The metadata actually shows that whoever sent it to her got it directly from our site once we published it. And, in fact, the person who forged it said he took it from our site, put it into a Photoshop program, and it took him all of 10 minutes to just erase our text and enter the text that he actually erased. And we published the document so everyone can see it. So, it’s a valid warning from Maddow to make sure that we authenticate documents, as journalists, that we get sent in the mail, but I don’t think it merited the strong innuendo that this is some highly sophisticated operation on the part of some high-level Trump official to trick the media into publishing false stories.

AMY GOODMAN: So, just to be clear, because it’s hard for people to follow all this, when you talk about metadata, you’re talking about the document you posted online from an anonymous source, which many are saying was Reality Winner, talking about voter information that was leaked, that that piece of paper that showed where it came from—and this is the whole controversy around The Intercept posting the original online—this forger took and then replaced the words on the document with some—something he wanted to see if he could get out there, that he did in, as you said, all of 10 minutes.

GLENN GREENWALD: Right. So, he took The Intercept document, once we published it, erased the actual text but kept the format, so it would look like a top-secret NSA document, and he entered some really cartoonish kind of text about how the NSA heard the Trump campaign manager talking to the Russians about how to hack John Podesta’s emails or how to distribute those emails to WikiLeaks—basically, what would be collusion—and also having the NSA purport to have heard the Trump campaign manager say that the videotape from the dossier, the Steele dossier, was actually authentic. I mean, it was just—it would be the biggest story ever, but it was so obviously fabricated.

And the confusion came because the date and time on the document that Rachel got was a few hours before we published. So that made her think whoever got this document got it before we published. And the confusion was that the date and time on the document is not the date and time that we published it, but the date and time that we uploaded it to the internet, which matched perfectly the date and time on the document that we published. So it was clear that the person who sent it to her didn’t get it before we published and didn’t have special access, but got it when we put it online. That was the primary point of that article.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Glenn, very quickly, before we conclude, Betsy Reed says, and you said, as well, that an internal review has been conducted at The Intercept to see how the identity of the alleged leaker was revealed. So, what did the internal review show about what mistakes The Intercept made?

GLENN GREENWALD: I mean, I wish more than anything we could take that internal review and put it online. The problem is, is that lawyers, our lawyers and others, have warned that if we disclose information about the internal processes of our reporting, there is a risk that the government could use some of that information, or try to use it, to bolster their prosecution of Reality Winner. And the last thing we want to do or should do is say anything or do anything that further jeopardizes this person, who, if the accusations against her are correct, was simply acting as a person of conscience trying to disclose to the public information that she felt was newsworthy and that was newsworthy. So we’re not going to do that.

AMY GOODMAN: Glenn Greenwald, we want to thank you so much for being with us, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, founder—co-founder of The Intercept.

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