Member Newsletter Preview: What It’s Like To Cover Whistleblower Prosecution Under Trump
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In August or September, NSA whistleblower Reality Winner will be sentenced in federal court in Augusta, Georgia. She will likely be sentenced to more than 5 years in prison.
Kevin Gosztola has traveled to report on Winner’s case and expects to attend her sentencing. As a show of gratitude to members who have helped fund his trips, he writes about his experience covering the case.
The United States government’s prosecution of Reality Winner has unfolded in a federal courthouse in downtown Augusta. The courthouse is a bit like a fortress. It is gated with two checkpoints for visitors and media.
I attended court in late February, when Winner had a hearing on a motion to have statements she made to the FBI suppressed. I also was present at the July 26 hearing, when she accepted a plea agreement.
With no official press credential, I did not know if I would have trouble gaining access to the courtroom. Security at courthouses can make life difficult for journalists associated with alternative or independent media outlets. However, both times the security was accommodating and helped me sign in to sit with the press.
The hearing in February took place on the first floor of the courthouse. I immediately noticed the size of the gallery had only four rows. In one row, there were guests of the prosecution. Another row had guests of the defense. A third row had supporters, and then a back row was where press sat. I recognized this would limit the number of supporters in the room.
Generally, the part of the courtroom with the judge’s bench, the jury box, and the defense and prosecution tables were ordinary and very similar to what I observed while covering the military case against Chelsea Manning.
Winner pled guilty in a different courtroom on the second floor. This room was more gaudy. A teal pattern covered part of the walls. There were hanging lights. There was a giant portrait of George Washington on one of the walls, and there was slightly more space available for the public and press.
Definitely, more press were in attendance at the plea hearing, but each time it has been surprising to see how little interest there is among national media in this leak prosecution or whistleblower case. All of the major cable news networks and news organizations spend an inordinate amount of time hyping worst case scenarios about President Donald Trump and how he is possibly under the influence of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Yet, they are not interested in this case.
It makes very little sense. Winner’s supporters recognize that the NSA report she disclosed to The Intercept contained allegations that voter registration systems were targeted by Russian hackers. A recent indictment of several Russians from Special Counsel Robert Mueller would seem to suggest that information en par with what she revealed forms the backbone for Mueller’s case. So why don’t they send reporters to cover the case?
What Winner disclosed is much more simple and finite than what Manning or NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed. The scale of the information is not even comparable. She was only charged with one violation of the Espionage Act. Nevertheless, I struggle with the reality that the U.S. press lacks interest in the first major Espionage Act case under Trump.
This case represents an escalation of President Barack Obama’s war on whistleblowers, and for all the proclamations about the need to stand up for press freedom, here we have an example of the government aggressively prosecuting a source but there is little concern from the press.
On one hand, I like to believe that my reporting can break through and gain a wide readership. I want to believe a handful of people from outlets, like Shadowproof, The Intercept, a news wire service, and local news media, is enough to get the story of this case out to the public. But then that excuses the press, who would rather endlessly pontificate on air about what Trump’s antics mean for national security than cover a case involving someone who was appropriately concerned about potential risks to national security from hackers.
There are no phones or computers allowed in the federal courthouse. While the U.S. military has found ways to accommodate technology routinely used by the press, court security officers and the judges at this courthouse would rather administer cases as if it is the 19th Century.
Which meant after proceedings on June 26 I ran about a mile to my hotel room. I quickly logged on and ten to fifteen minutes later provided reports that I was able to instantly put out when I covered Manning’s case. I then focused on producing my report on the day’s proceedings and missed out on any press conferences or interactions between Winner’s parents, supporters, defense attorneys, and prosecutors.
I didn’t miss too much. In this case, the defense attorneys do not speak to press. They do not make statements because the prosecutors will go to the court and argue the defense is violating a local criminal rule governing publicity. The rule is intended for protecting the rights of the defendant, but they twist it ever so slightly to control what is said to the public about this case. And then, because prosecutors are able to discourage the defense from speaking about the case, they too are silent.
Augusta has provided a remarkable setting for this national security whistleblower case. It is a city in a region heavily populated with residents employed by the U.S. military or security contractors. The city is building a state-of-the-art cyber command center that will interface with the NSA and military. We can expect training and operations involving not only defensive but also offensive cyber warfare operations against Russia will go on there.