President Donald Trump has declared war on government leakers, but it will be a difficult one for this administration, or any administration, to win.
The Justice Department arrested one culprit Monday who allegedly leaked secrets to The Intercept, but there are millions of people with access to classified government information, and most actually work as contractors outside the government. Trying to catch them all would be like trying to patch the Titanic with plywood.
The suspect nabbed over the weekend by the FBI is Reality Leigh Winner, a 25-year-old Georgia-based NSA contractor working for the firm Pluribus International. She allegedly printed out a copy of a classified NSA report on Russian efforts to penetrate the U.S. election system that later ended up in the press.
Also on Monday, the Intercept published the contents of the leak detailing the efforts — some successful — of Russian intelligence services to hack U.S. voting systems in Florida during the 2016 election. The Justice Department says that Winner confessed to the leak in an interview on Saturday.
But Winner is one of about 4 million people in the U.S. with access to classified information, according to a 2015 National Counterintelligence and Security Center report, and one of about 5.1 million civilian and military employees and contractors “eligible” for security.
It’s the sprawling network of contractors in the intelligence community, in particular, that poses a problem for the feds’ efforts to crack down on leaks. Journalist Tim Shorrock has estimated that 80 percent of people working for intelligence agencies are contractors, and that 800,000 of the 4 million security-cleared U.S. citizens are employed as contractors.
Contractors aren’t subject to the same strict scrutiny that standard government employees are, and many of the most significant intelligence leaks of the past decade have been traced back to contract workers. These include Edward Snowden in 2013 (he worked for Booz Allen Hamilton) and Harold Martin in October 2016 (also Booz Allen). More recently, investigators have reportedly questioned CIA contractors over a WikiLeaks dump of classified CIA hacking materials.
So while President Trump has talked a big game about targeting the leakers, many of whom, the White House charges, are disgruntled Obama administration holdovers, the Winner arrest seems to be in spirit with the Obama-era approach to the problem.
Under Obama, the federal government used the 1917 Espionage Act to target whistleblowers more than all other administrations combined, as part of an unprecedented crackdown on leaks. But given the amount of classified material making its way into the news lately, it looks like the leakers are winning the war.