Is alleged NSA leaker a hero or villain? A patriot or scoundrel?
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An intelligence contractor named Reality Leigh Winner has been charged with leaking a highly-classified NSA report detailing attempts by Russian intelligence services to penetrate electoral systems to affect the vote in the 2016 elections. It is fair and fitting to ask: Is she a hero, villain, patriot or scoundrel?

No matter is more important to defending our democracy than whether or not our president and commander in chief was elected by covert action from an enemy nation, and whether or not there was collusion or coordination between the Trump campaign and forces working with Russian intelligence.

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What this latest leak suggests, assuming the leaked document is legitimate, is that Russian intelligence was more focused and more aggressive than previously reported in trying tamper with the actual vote itself.

 

Let's be clear: The leaked document does not include evidence that there was significant Russian impact on the voting itself, only that the Russians sought to have such impact. Other documents that were not leaked, or other evidence that will later be obtained, may prove whether or not Russian intelligence succeeded in tampering with the vote itself. Most intelligence analysts believe it is unlikely but should be fully investigated.

Given the full range of things we know and recognizing what we do not yet know, should Ms. Winner be considered a hero, villain, patriot or scoundrel?

First, I always have and always will condemn and oppose the leaking of classified information. It is against the law, and leaking classified information runs a substantial risk of harming our national security.

While leaking classified information is inherently wrong, it should be emphasized that the leaker usually does not know or understand how a leak of one bit of information can help foreign intelligence services find other information that endangers American sources and methods and thereby harms our security.

On the matter of whether Ms. Winner is a hero or villain if the allegations against her are true, I would call her a villain, not a hero.

At the same time, to be fair, when President Trump apparently leaked classified information about the war against terrorists to the Russian foreign minister and the Russian ambassador, he should be counted as a villain as well.

It appears from public sources that the Trump leak, while it may be legal if one believes a president has the authority to unilaterally leak anything, did extreme damage by compromising an important intelligence source of an American ally who provided invaluable information against terrorists.

On the matter of whether Ms. Winner is a patriot or scoundrel, if the allegations against her are proven true, she appears to be a patriot who is intensely interested in protecting the integrity of American elections from corruption caused by an enemy intelligence service.

She should not be called a scoundrel if the allegations are true. She apparently did not seek money, power or any other personal gain by leaking the classified information. She sought to do what she believed was right for our country, even if what she did was wrong in practice.

The most important issue today is whether there is more classified information that is not yet public about the degree of Russian success in penetrating our voting systems. If so, I would propose it be declassified and made public immediately. The Russians already know this information, so why shouldn't Americans?

As for Ms. Winner, if the allegations against her are proven true, I would label her both a villain and a patriot, a strange combination to be sure, but these are strange times, and who knows what news we might learn next?

Brent Budowsky was an aide to former Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D-Texas) and Rep. Bill Alexander (D-Ark.), then-chief deputy majority whip of the House. He holds an LL.M. in international financial law from the London School of Economics.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.