I had every intention to post something last night concerning the leaked NSA report on Russian election hacking, the oddly named young alleged leaker and the possible motivations behind her action. But I faced a dilemma. Even though the NSA document has been widely published, it is still classified. I no longer hold an active security clearance, but I am still legally bound by the many security agreements I have signed over the years. Technically speaking, I am not supposed to be reading or hearing about this latest leaked NSA report or commenting upon it except in the most circumspect manner. For anyone else here who has signed one of these ubiquitous security agreements at some time in your life, this is something to keep in mind.
On the other hand, I have solemnly sworn to support and defend the Constitution against all enemies. I took this oath before God. I pledged my life and sacred honor. If I ever found myself faced with a decision to go with a solemnly sworn oath before God or my signature on a legal agreement, I certainly hope I would choose my sacred honor and loving God over the penalties of the US legal code, no matter how severe those penalties might be. But more on this later. Here’s my comments on some questions raised by some of our correspondents.
1. Why did Reality Winner have access to this document? Reality probably was first processed for a TS clearance shortly after she began training as an Air Force linguist and before she was assigned to NSA at Fort Meade as a linguist. As such, she was given an account on NSANet. This TS/SCI intranet gives analysts broad access to practically all intelligence information within NSA and across many other IC agencies. This wide ranging access came about because of unexamined advances in information technology and the deliberate decision to eliminate the stove piping of intelligence as a post-9/11 intelligence reform. Very little remains behind the walls of need-to-know besides HUMINT operational data and designated SAPs.
This became a real problem with cyber operations and cyber reporting. This reporting often required detailed and specific data to be of use to network defenders. If these reports were available in the existing intelligence reporting databases, any analyst could access it. When I was setting up my last collection outfit, I was advised by a high level CIA tech dude to make my reporting limited distribution outside the normal reporting system from the git go. Otherwise some bonehead analyst who thought they were a 1337 cyber-sleuth would start investigating from his NIPRNet box and blow the operation. I ended up establishing a reporting system that was technologically decades out of date but still responsive to the needs of my customers. Perhaps a certain amount of stove piping will come back into vogue.
2. Why did a contract linguist have a TS/SCI clearance? Almost every job in the IC requires a TS/SCI clearance as a minimum requirement. Almost every building is a SCIF. This is especially true at the NSA. Even some of the cleaning staff have TS/SCI clearances, but no IT system access. The alternative is to stop over-classifying everything or make due with far fewer TS/SCI cleared personnel. I don’t see either happening anytime soon.
3. Is this a real NSA document? Unless the FBI arrest warrant is also a total fabrication, the document is real. The FBI states so in the warrant. The Intercept also redacted parts of the document at the request of the NSA when it became apparent that it was going to be published. If it was fake, the NSA would have just blown off the Intercept reporter.
Many will continue to insist this document is fake along with every other piece of information about the “Russians tried to hack the election” thing. It’s all part of the vast snowflake conspiracy to get Trump out of office, just like the USG was behind the 9/11 attacks and the Sandy Hook shooting was a hoax perpetrated by Obama in an effort to take all our firearms. I can't help you.
4. Did this and other illegal leaks damage our collection capability? I have no doubt the sum total of information that has been made public concerning the Russian info op has degraded our capabilities to collect against the Russian target. However, I believe Obama’s personal warning to Putin in September 2016, his “red phone” warning to Putin along with the expulsion of 35 Russian officials in December 2016 and the 6 January 2017 DNI report tipped Putin to holes in his commo systems. As soon as I heard our government accuse Putin of being behind the DNC hacks, I knew we were deep in their shit. All that didn’t come about because of the CrowdStrike malware report. The illegal leaks were just icing on the cake.
5. What was Reality Winner thinking? Damned good question. If she thought she was going to be a protected whistle blower, she was hopelessly mistaken. Her stunt will end up costing her ten years of her life. Perhaps she thought she could outfox the NSA and FBI and get away with it. Given her background, she should have known better. She hated Trump and the Republican agenda. Maybe in her naiveté, she thought this small act would help in stopping Trump and the Republicans. That’s hardly seems worth ten years of her life.
There’s another possibility. This may apply to Winner and to the other illegal leakers. There is a real possibility that Russia made a deliberate and concerted effort to disrupt our electoral process in the run up to the 2016 election. Based on my experience with Russian info ops, I believe this happened. I do not know it happened because I don’t have access to the intelligence. I don’t appreciate others trying to give me illegal access to this intelligence. I still have faith in the system to weather this storm and do the right thing.
What the Russians did was not a crime against humanity or an act of war. Compared to what we did to Ukraine, it was elegant and bloodless. No, it was just hardball international politics and I don’t begrudge them for trying. But I do want them to know that any effort to try anything like this again will be quickly discovered and it will cost them more than they hoped to gain.
But Russian info ops do not constitute a crisis requiring illegal leaking of classified information. If Trump and/or those around him colluded with the Russians in the execution of this info op, I want them and the Russians spanked hard. If the Trump administration is actively seeking to suppress the investigation and protect the Russians, I want them spanked. Either of these cases would mean that the reins of power are currently in the hands of enemies of the Constitution. Although I have faith that our system can deal with this possibility, perhaps Winner and other leakers lack this faith. Perhaps, as misguided as this is, they choose to honor their sworn oaths to the Constitution rather than their signature on a legal agreement. It doesn’t matter. If caught and tried they will all probably face prison time… that is unless they are high level muckety-mucks