The Current

Is media responsible for protecting identity of whistleblowers?

News outlet The Intercept has been criticized for compromising the identity of alleged NSA whistleblower Reality Winner.
Reality Winner is the first person the Trump administration has charged with leaking classified information since the U.S. president took office in January. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

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This week, the U.S. Justice Department charged a young woman named Reality Leigh Winner for allegedly removing classified material and mailing it to The Intercept, the news outlet that published leaked documents from whistleblower Edward Snowden in 2014.

The 25-year-old was a contractor working for a company contracted to the NSA. She is accused of printing out classified documents linking the GRU — the Russian military intelligence unit — to cyber attacks on U.S. voting software. 

Her arrest is the first arrest linked to leaking since President Trump took office and it has raised questions about the responsibility news organizations have in safeguarding the identity of whistleblowers.

Former CIA analyst Melvin Goodman was amazed at the "amateur nature" of Winner's role and the way The Intercept released the information.

"To deal so casually with this material show they put her at tremendous risk, and for her part, I think she was naive about what she could do … without really understanding who was receiving this material and what they were likely to do with it," he tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

Unlike Snowden who set out ground rules on how his leaked documents should be used, Goodman says Winner didn't because she was unfamiliar with the political world and the Trump administration's "zealous campaign" against leakers.

Goodman worries Winner's arrest will dissuade other whistleblowers from coming forward for fear of repercussions under the current government. 

"You're taking great chances when you do leak classified information, particularly in this Trumpian age that we're in now." 

Harvey Cashore, a CBC investigative journalist, believes it's every journalist's worst nightmare that a source's identity could be compromised.

"That's why we try so hard to be really, really careful with our sources that we want to protect," he says.

According to Cashore, whistleblowers are "true public servants … who are truly concerned about what's happening in their organizations."

When they put their livelihoods at risk to leak documents to news organizations, journalists have a duty to do everything they can to protect them, says Cashore.

"We as journalists depend on the information ... democracy depends on that information."

Although Winner is being charged under the Espionage Act, Goodman says there is no evidence that she was trying to harm the interests of the U.S. 

"To me, she's in many ways a classic whistleblower who sees that she's trying to fill in information that the American public needs."

Listen to this segment at the top of the web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Ines Colabrese, Sarah Evans and Samira Mohyeddin.