The Justice Department released an indictment of twenty five year-old NSA contractor Reality Winner yesterday, just a few hours after the Intercept posted a story based on a top secret document that described how the NSA believes Russian actors tried to hack into US voting infrastructure. Much is unknown, as the public is made to depend upon the potentially unreliable claims of government prosecutors, while Winner is held in jail without any contact with the public.
What we do know is clear: Winner is accused of serving as a journalistic source for a leading American news outlet about a matter of critical public importance. For this act, she has been charged with violating the Espionage Act—a World War I era law meant for spies—which explicitly forbids the jury from hearing why the defendant acted, and bars them from deciding whether the outcome was to the public’s benefit. This often-condemned law provides no space to distinguish the extraordinary disclosure of inappropriately classified information in the public interest—whistleblowing—from the malicious disclosure of secrets to foreign governments by those motivated by a specific intent to harm to their countrymen.
The prosecution of any journalistic source without due consideration by the jury as to the harm or benefit of the journalistic activity is a fundamental threat to the free press. As long as a law like this remains on the books in a country that values fair trials, it must be resisted.
No matter one’s opinions on the propriety of the charges against her, we should all agree Winner should be released on bail pending trial. Even if you take all the government allegations as true, it’s clear she is neither a threat to public safety nor a flight risk. To hold a citizen incommunicado and indefinitely while awaiting trial for the alleged crime of serving as a journalistic source should outrage us all