Accused leaker’s social posts not enough to shake top secret clearance

Reality Leigh Winner spent months unleashing a tirade of social media posts calling the president of the United States, among other things, an “orange fascist.”

But were her political rantings enough to remove her from a position that gave her access to classified National Security Agency material?

The answer apparently is no.

» JUST IN: Grand jury indicts Augusta contractor in NSA leak case

As the security and intelligence communities try to come to terms with the 25-year-old contractor charged with leaking a classified report about Russian hacking to a media outlet, they see a young woman who, for all practical purposes, flew beneath the radar that would identify someone as a potential risk.

Winner’s posts deriding President Trump likely wouldn’t trigger interest from NSA personnel unless someone complained, experts said. And even if someone did, deciding whether to take some sort of action would be a difficult call, they said.

"People in the intelligence community still have a First Amendment right," said Charles McCullough III, who served as the inspector general for U.S. intelligence agencies during the last five years of the Obama administration. "You don't check that at the door."

McCullough, one of the first to raise questions about Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server while she was secretary of state, said it would probably take a violation of the Hatch Act, the federal law that bars government employees from participating in certain political activities, for someone's political ideology to attract attention.

Winner was working for a Virginia-based company, Pluribus International, in an NSA building on the Fort Gordon army post in Augusta. She had access to a computer with classified material because she had a top secret security clearance.

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Credit: Hyosub Shin

A linguist who speaks Arabic and Farsi, Winner began working in the facility, known as the "back hall," in February after serving in the Air Force for six years. The fact that she had a top secret clearance means she underwent a thorough vetting that included the government's 127-page questionnaire for national security positions — form SF86 — and scrutiny from investigators.

Moreover, because she was working in an NSA facility, she would have received additional scrutiny from that agency’s operatives, including a polygraph exam that could have delved into personality issues.

Had there been red flags, the NSA process likely would have noticed them, experts said.

“The polygraph should’ve picked up something,” said Christopher Burgess, a former CIA officer who writes about national security issues.

With her language skills and a military background, Winner would be a valuable asset for a contractor working with the NSA, and her age wouldn’t have been a deterrent for an agency that has increasingly relied on young analysts and translators.

"They're hiring a lot of young people, and sometimes you get folks who don't really think things out," said John Berry, a Virginia attorney who has represented intelligence employees dealing with security clearance issues. "They're in the phase of their life where idealism overrides rational thought."

`A certain ideological bent’

According to the government, Winner printed the secret intelligence report, ferreted it out of the building and mailed it to The Intercept, an online publication that focuses on national security. The document was unrelated to her job duties, according to the government's search warrant affidavit.

McCullough, now a partner in a Washington, D.C., law firm, said Winner could have obtained the document any number of ways. With her security clearance, she would have had the ability to view even classified material unrelated to her work as long as access wasn’t limited to certain individuals in a compartmentalized space, he said.

“Who knows how she got hold of it,” he said. “But it’s not inconceivable she had access through her job.”

In an extensive interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, McCullough said Winner appears to be an unusual leaker, someone who may think she’s a whistleblower but really isn’t, because her cause is simply to show the public what information the government possesses.

"From what I've read, she was of a certain ideological bent," he said. "So you could see how somebody with that mind could conjure up some sort of fantasy that what they're doing is in the name of all that's righteous and good, but they're woefully mistaken."

Burgess, the ex-CIA agent, said the fact that Winner was able to leave the building with a copy of a classified report raises questions about the facility itself.

“Every individual is subject to an exit inspection,” he said. “Clearly, that wasn’t happening in this case, and if it was, it wasn’t working.”

The NSA declined to answer questions about Winner and Pluribus.

In an email to the AJC, the company’s president, Dan Robinson, said: “Pluribus has no comment at this time, nor do we intend to comment going forward.”

The company enjoys a good reputation in defense and intelligence circles and its executives and owners can be described as patriots, said a person with knowledge of Pluribus who asked not to be identified.

The person, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on behalf of the firm, said Pluribus, like its competitors, predominantly hires people with existing security clearances from prior roles with national security agencies, the military or other federal contractors.

Winner’s skill set would have fit into any of the company’s services, including human intelligence, signals intelligence, geo-spatial intelligence and counterintelligence, the source said.

A five-year window

With Trump’s election, Winner’s political leanings were clear from posts on Twitter and Facebook that were available for anyone to see.

On election night, she tweeted: “Well. People suck.”

When Trump tweeted on Feb. 11, after a judge blocked his travel ban, that 77 percent of the refugees allowed into the U.S. come from seven "suspect" countries, Winner responded by saying "the most dangerous entry to this country was the orange fascist we let into the White House."

Acknowledging the significance of information that can be gleaned from social media, in May 2016 then-Director of National Intelligence James Clapper issued a directive stating the government would check the public posts of federal employees and contractors applying and re-applying for security clearances.

However, security clearances last for five years, and Winner wasn’t due to be vetted again until 2018. On top of that, there is a clearance backlog that has put some investigations on hold for years.

"So once you're cleared, if you become motivated to (break the law), you still have five years before they're going to start to re-investigate or re-polygraph," McCullough said. "And there's such a backlog that some people are waiting 10 years."

McCullough said security personnel within an intelligence agency can investigate social media posts even when a clearance isn’t due to be reaffirmed. However, it’s hard to see anything coming of it unless an inside threat is identified, he said.

"If it was like Kathy Griffin holding a fake head of Donald Trump, security might look at that from a psychological standpoint," he said. "But just something purely political, unless it violates the Hatch Act or some other rule, they wouldn't normally chase that down."

About security clearances

Because unauthorized disclosure of classified information can damage national security and put lives at risk, members of the military, civilian employees of the federal government and contractor employees are allowed to access such information only after receiving security clearances. There are three levels of security clearances for civilians:

  • Confidential: When unauthorized disclosure could damage national security.
  • Secret: When unauthorized disclosure could cause serious damage to national security.
  • Top secret: When unauthorized disclosure could cause exceptionally grave damage to national security.

In addition to these levels, some classified information may be given extra protection. This extremely sensitive information is referred to as Sensitive Compartmented Information or Special Access Programs.

To receive a security clearance, individuals must complete an extensive questionnaire that focuses on factors such as a person’s credit history, criminal record, emotional stability and alcohol and drug use. They then undergo an investigation aimed at identifying any potential security risks.

Sources: Reports by the General Accountability Office and Congress