News & Politics

How Did Reality Winner Get a Security Clearance?

There is no question, really none at all, that the story of Reality Leigh Winner (née Sarah, it seems) being arrested for leaking an NSA report is a shoo-in for being one of the five out-and-out goofiest news stories of 2017. There are a whole lot of questions to be answered yet.

We do know that the way she got the report to The Intercept was just about too stupid to be true. She printed the report, photographed it with her cell phone, and then exchanged emails from her work account with the staff at The Intercept, before mailing the photos of the report to them, also from her work account. Then The Intercept shared the document with the NSA to confirm it. When the FBI looked her up, according to the arrest affidavit, she admitted to being the one who sent the document.

As far as I can see, the only way she could have been more blatant about wanting to be arrested would have been to call a press conference to announce the Intercept story in front of the FBI building in D.C.

There will be plenty more to say about this in the coming weeks, I am quite sure, starting with explaining what that NSA report actually says. (Spoiler: no, it does not say that the Russians “hacked the election,” no matter what MSNBC says.) But there’s at least one question that’s being asked a lot that we can clear up: How did someone who likes Black Lives Matter and hates Trump get a security clearance?

Winner had just separated from the Air Force, where she had been a cryptographic linguist. According to the stories, she’s fluent in Farsi (Persian), Pashto, and Dari, which are the major languages spoken in Afghanistan. Without giving away any secrets whatsoever, that means she was translating intercepted communications from Afghanistan, for consumption first by the NSA, and then passed along to the CIA. (We know this because NSA intercepts and processes communications, while the CIA analyzes communications.)

From this, in turn, we know she had a top-secret clearance with some kind of extended background investigation. She then separated from the Air Force and took a job shortly afterward with government contractor Pluribus International.

Clearances like that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to process, not to mention many months; they don’t just cancel the clearance and then re-investigate. Instead, her employer got some agency, probably the NSA, to sponsor extending her clearance, and there she was, easy-peasy.

Of course, we also know — now — that she was a pretty hard-core fashionable Black Lives Matter Media Matters Bernie-Sanders-is-too-conservative liberal. Many people have asked how she could keep her clearance then.

The answer to that is that basically, your clearance doesn’t depend on your politics. You have the same constitutional rights as anyone else, even if you have a super clearance.

Which is the way we want it. If that weren’t true, if your clearance depended on agreeing politically with whoever the current president is, then some large number of cleared personnel would lose their clearances — and their jobs, and a vital constitutional right to vote their consciences — every four or eight years. Imagine if, when Obama took over from George W, Bush, not only all the political appointees, but everyone in government had to give up their jobs and be vetted for their political opinions.

It works that way in a lot of banana republics. It’s not the way it works — or should work — in the United States.