Reporting On Leaked Documents Is Not A Crime

Jun 9, 2017

These days, the barrage of news coming from Washington DC includes a lot that's being leaked to the media via anonymous sources. President Donald Trump and a number of lawmakers are saying the leaks are not just dangerous - they're illegal.

And now, there's been an arrest.

The FBI is saying that 25-year-old Air Force veteran Reality Leigh Winner leaked a classified NSA document to an online magazine called “The Intercept.” The allegations claim that Winner, who works for a private defense contractor in Augusta, Ga., was one of six people to access and print out the document related to possible attempts by the Russians to interfere with the 2016 presidential election.

Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies said while the charges against Winner may or may not be proven, journalists are not breaking the law by reporting on the information they receive.

“The press is protected by the Constitution,” she said. “The press is supposed to be the fourth estate, which is a check and balance on government.”

McBride was critical that Winner’s identity may have been revealed in part by reporters at the Intercept, which was co-founded by Glen Greenwald, a journalist best known for his reporting on the documents leaked by another former government contractor - Edward Snowden.

Reports show that in authenticating the document mailed anonymously to the publication, reporters may have provided clues leading to Winner, McBride said.

“Its entire reason for being is to cover national security. So, protecting people who leak information is a core part of their business strategy,” she said. “I think they fell down on this one.”

She adds that Winner’s arrest will likely deter people from wanting to be whistleblowers. And that, she said, isn’t good for democracy.

“This is significant. It was whistleblowers or leakers who told us there were no 'Weapons of Mass Destruction' in Iraq, that the CIA was running a series of secret prisons where they were torturing suspects,” she said. “We get a lot of information about some of the most powerful and abusive things that our government does through...leaks or whistleblowers.”