Reality Winner profile is a beautiful portrait of a brilliant, principled patriot who messed up

Originally published at:


Snowden stands out from Winner and Manning because he understood that idealism is not enough. If you’re going to blow the whistle on a state security organisation you have to make a plan of action and then discipline yourself to follow it. For Winner to proceed on the assumption that her jailhouse calls would not be recorded and that the recordings’ contents would not be twisted around by the state indicates that, for all the good she did, she did not fully consider what her former employer would be willing to do to her.

The media outlets that receive these documents should take the time to brief their whistleblowing sources about best practises for handling what can be expected to happen after publication. The people at “The Intercept” were very familiar with such practises from Snowden, but apparently didn’t share that information with Winner.


“They took her words,” says Billie, lifting her glasses, closing her eyes, pressing her fingertips to her brows, “and they twisted them around.”

As a parent, I haven’t the words for what this family must be going through, please if you can send some cash for her defense.


Because defendants being portrayed in a sympathetic way isn’t something that defense teams ever try for.
… yeah.


Great article and profile. I always felt she was unnecessarily and unfairly crucified for what she did - and I put a lot of blame on The Intercept for screwing the pooch so badly here and being directly responsible for her swift capture.

Reality was an almost comically mature adolescent, intellectually adept, impatient with her peers, with a compulsive drive to improve herself

One of us!


Max Hastings makes some interesting points in his book The Secret War; one is that intelligence is much less useful than its practitioners like to think because acting on it may tell the other side that you have it. Another is that outside a real war, intelligence does not attract the brightest people because they tend to have other priorities. It takes actually running the risk of being invaded by the Nazis and being sent to a concentration camp to get academics and engineers to focus on the other side’s secrets.
Given this, I suspect that the result of the Snowden/Winner/Manning cases will be that in the US and the UK the technical calibre of recruits to the TLAs and FLAs will go down. Why join an organisation that will imprison you if you have an attack of ethics when you can earn so much more in finance or the higher reaches of IT? Winner has shown what happens to idealists who believe that the State is essentially benign with a few bad actors. She doesn’t seem to have read Terry Pratchett’s words (via Havelock Vetinari, addressed to that other (but more cynical) idealist Vimes), that the great majority of people are evil* but some of them are on different sides.

*Edit - present company, but of course not me, excepted.


Snowden did more prep… and lives in semi-house-arrest permanently as a result. The real lesson on repeat is that doing a patriotic act in the US will get you destroyed, and the bulk of the people you serve will laugh and keep on truckin’. You don’t make a dent this way, in anything other than yourself. Safety is in dropping any shred of patriotism and letting the system eat the people it “serves.” And the actual terrorist types who want to do violent attacks… Ha! If there are any who aren’t false-flag, engineered by pressure from the state, they serve as helpful “seeeee, we gotta spend more on military intrusion over there” and “seeeeee, we need to spy on everyone” justifications.

The answer is not in attacking the state, and the answer is not in exposing the state’s misdeeds. I just don’t know what the answer is, unfortunately… but I’m glad I lack the patriotism to gamble any of my safety in exploring it.


It beats federal prison, or being stuck in an embassy building for years on end. But, yes, prep or no prep there’s always a price to pay for going up against the security apparatus when it starts betraying its stated mission. I’m glad someone is doing it.


“Look, I only say I hate America three times a day. I’m no radical.”



When government officials leak information they consider their leaking as acceptable. They often do it to lie and shape a narrative. When the rank and file leak information the person revealing the information find themselves in deep trouble. What Winner released helped all Americans which makes what is happening to her that much more cruel.

Winner needs money and emotional support. When she gets out she will need time to recover followed by meaningful work.

Ms. Winner is another casualty on the war in truth. This is an old struggle involving crimes of the powerful against the weak.


Also, it should go without saying, but always remember and always tell others, never ever under any circumstances confess to any form of law enforcement (most especially the FBI). If you want to confess to a crime, do it through your lawyer. Not only will LE gladly lie about what precisely you say to them, but anything you tell them you automatically lose the right to present in your own defense. Say it with me, “Am I under arrest? I want to talk to my lawyer.” Anything other than “you’re under arrest” or “you’re free to go” should be met with absolute silence.


That’s not really accurate, for a few reasons.

First, Snowden prepared himself. He knew what he was doing, where he was going, and while the plan had some flaws - like trusting Julian Assange, resulting in Snowden now being essentially under house arrest in Russia - he still put in a lot of time and effort, and it got him breathing room to get out rather than get nicked.

Second, The Intercept didn’t handle the Snowden leaks. The Guardian handled the Snowden leaks - and while Greenwald was employed by The Guardian, and was the primary point of contact for Snowden, he had a team of experienced journalists and Editors backing him up and keeping him in line, all of whom were very experienced in source handling and protection. The Guardian has never burned a source, and it’s not because of luck.

And third point, which is going to result in some very angry people in this comment section - It’s not Ms Winner’s fault. The Intercept Failed Ms Winner in a number of ways, and ways that are literally 101 type stuff of source protection, and it is absolutely their fault that she’s in jail right now - not that it would be impossible for her to be in jail without them, but regardless, because their actions led directly to her arrest. And I’m pretty sure they did it for ideological reasons.

(This bit gets long, so skip it if you don’t care to know, folks.)

I’ll give you the short version of what went wrong, with a little commentary from a professional journalist experienced in these matters. (Hi!)

First, we have to understand her motivation - Ms Winner was a big fan of The Intercept. And a large part of her motivation for leaking these documents was because she thought Glenn Greenwald was an important journalist, and with a big voice and great skill, but who was mistaken on his rejection of the Russia issue, due to what she knew from working with classified information inside the NSA. An episode of the Intercept’s podcast featuring Glenn was apparently the tipping point. It should be noted, Glenn still refuses the Russia election interference story, despite mounting evidence.

Second, we have who it was assigned to. Mike Cole and Richard Esposito, who are famous for - drumroll please - Burning their source for the CIA torture disclosures, John Kiriakou, who went on to spend two years in prison because of Cole’s incompetence. It also resulted in his wife having to resign from her job as one of the CIA’s top Iran specialists, resulting in the family having to live on food stamps for months, and nearly losing their home. So, mistakes happen, but you really have to wonder, why did they hand the story to the guy whose biggest CV notable was getting a confidential source tried for espionage through his carelessness?

Third, we have their sloppy, negligent practices. They received the leak, and what did they do? They tried to verify them, so far so good. How did they try to verify them? Well, they only provided copies, along with the time and location they were posted from and the report number to a fucking clearance-holding NSA contractor who, as expected, immediately snitched. Contractors with clearance literally have a lifetime legal obligation to report leaks and any information they get that comes along with it, this is not a secret.

Now, you might be thinking, “But how do you verify, if you don’t send them your information?” The answer is easy, and literally any half-decent journalist knows it - you discuss the information you have, and describe it, giving as few concrete details as possible. You should never, ever EVER give confidential information about a leak to a verifying parting with a vested interest in taking down the person that leaked it.

Of course, this isn’t the end of it. After all, the NSA contractor didn’t give those documents to the USG, so they could investigate them. No, The Intercept themselves did that, providing full-colour exact reproduction copies and the other information they had to the “US government Agency” when asked, according to the FBI investigation documents.

You might have noted, I keep saying “Full Colour Exact Reproduction” - because that’s important, and like half of you already know why, but here it is for the folk who snuck in late to the back row - Microdots and print identification. This is not new information, and it’s been standard practice to always re-type documents before publication or even sharing with law enforcement if necessary, to protect your sources.

In fact, that’s a practice so old in the journalism world, it pre-dates computers - it used to be that you’d re-type, because documents could be identified by the Typewriter they were written on having unique imperfections, like a fingerprint, and concerns about watermarking either in the paper, or in the formatting. And this isn’t new information to the public, either! The EFF put a video online about microdots in 2008, and british tech site The Register was posting about them in 2005.

The microdots on the copied documents provided the exact printer, meaning they could then trivially find when that document(remember, they shared the report number) had been printed on that printer, and by whom. There are also some quirks in the formatting that lead some infosec experts to believe that they were also format-fingerprinted.

With all the information Greenwald and co willingly handed over to the authorities pre-publication, identifying and arresting Ms Winner was trivial.

On top of that, yeah, they have a page that advises leakers on what to do - which is absurdly sparse, and Ms Winner appears to have followed to the letter, barring her only contact with them months ago, to subscribe to a newsletter, and ask for a transcript of a podcast. Meaning, if they hadn’t fucked up, chances are pretty high - not perfect, but pretty high - she’d have gotten away clean. If you are an organization encouraging people to break the law - and yeah, leaking is against the law, even if it’s the right thing to do - you owe them assistance to help assess the risks and challenges, as well as giving them basic self-protection techniques. The Intercept does not - or at least at the time, did not - do this.

Fourth: I think it was almost certainly ideologically motivated. Glenn worked at The Guardian, and he’d have to be the thickest bastard in the world to have not picked up the basics of source protection there. Ditto that for many of his employees - they have some accomplished people on staff, who have been in the game long enough that they should know the basics of source protection. And, on top of that, even if they had questions, or were unsure of how to proceed, they had two world class Infosec and Opsec experts on staff at the time - Morgan Marquis-Boire(Who no longer works there, and side note, also a known rapist even at the time), and Micah Lee.

And yet, somehow, they made mistakes that literally a first year J-school student knows to avoid. And it just happened to be about a topic that Glenn Greenwald and co have been on the record trashing, that he thinks is a fiction. The same people who are known to have done things like spike stories when the result wasn’t what they wanted, and who have published Just-asking-questions/Just-saying-but-not-saying style conspiracy theories about people they don’t like because said person was mates with Clinton.

I’m not saying they intentionally burned Ms Winner - I’m obviously heavily critical of them, but even I don’t think they’re that shitty and unprincipled - but I do think that it’s highly likely, due to their past behavior, that they refused to take the leak seriously when investigating, and treated it and their source with almost criminal negligence because they expected it to be either a fake or a bait, and then hurriedly published when the investigation their actions resulted in an FBI investigation that verified the documents as real, as a knock-on effect.

In short - Never, ever trust The Intercept. Never leak to them, and if you really must, speak to people who can protect you first - because if you don’t, there’s a good chance you’ll end up with your fat in the fire, and Greenwald washing his hands of you and/or any responsibility for your incarceration. Just ask Reality Winner.


It is a rather big house though. It spans 11 time zones.
I wouldn’t want to live there, but it beats a federal prison.


Basically, you’re agreeing with me (former professional journalist, by the way) unless you think that Greenwald (author of “No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State”) and Scahill didn’t know the details of how well Snowden prepared to be this extraordinary kind of whistleblower.

I read the LA Times story and agree that they also bungled things on the level of basic source protection. Like you, I’m pointing out that any outlet – especially one like this – should provide a source with a proper guide to the extra measures that are needed with a whistleblower against an intelligence agency. Suggest strongly they read a few books about Snowden, at the very least.

Greenwald is not a journalist I trust whether it comes to best practises or motivations, and by extension that taints my view of the trustworthiness of The Intercept. That said, it wasn’t like Winner was unfamiliar with Snowden’s story, either. There’s a level of naivete at work on her part, too; for example, her assumption that the prosecutors wouldn’t record her jailhouse conversations and use them against her had nothing to do with The Intercept but a lot to do with misplaced trust based on idealism.


Yes, but I would add that I also forgot to cut the quote. Originally, I was saying something rather different that built on most of what you said, but then it just all got away from me, so I dropped the opening and about a paragraph of detail, but forgot to drop the first line and quote with it. That’s what I get for lax proofreading, little bit embarrassing, I’ll be honest. I’m sorry, when writing stuff personally instead of professionally, I occasionally make the accidental strong argument for why editors and copyeditors exist.

Also, hi! You should check out the absolute carpet bombing of VICE happening at the moment, it’s a goddamned massacre, and a lot of professional bad blood is being spilled not just on the floor, but all around the place like an episode of Dexter.

I agree - though I would say there’s a good chance she wouldn’t be there if The Intercept hadn’t dicked her over real bad - she’s definitely foolish to think that they wouldn’t record her in jail. And I think, a little foolish to have thought that just following the steps outlaid by The Intercept on their leakers page would protect her, when they didn’t cover many aspects of her situation, like access controlled documents and microdots. I don’t expect them to exactly give a perfect how-to guide, but that’s basic stuff.

I wouldn’t either. I don’t give personal details, but suffice it to say I did get my start in the English press, know some people, and I’ve heard a few…tales that shouldn’t be told out of school, let’s say. At least, not in a BB comment section.


In the same way it’s clear that a number of Soviet citizens in the 1930s thought they were safe from the NKVD because Stalin wouldn’t allow it to behave badly. Right up till they were purged.


Thank you for your very detailed post outlining the many mistakes made by The Intercept. My already shaky opinion of them really plummeted after this whole incident.


This was my take-away from the story: that the Intercept intentionally outed Ms. Winner. Your arguments for why they might have done this ring true. If true then Glenn Greenwald is a poor excuse for a human being.


Misplaced faith in the American justice system is arguably its own greatest weapon against the American people on whom it has turned. Honest people want to believe in honest cops.

[Removed because frankly @churba’s excellent post said it much better.]

I don’t see why that would make people here angry.


…because I’m sure there are lots of fans of the The Intercept on here.