The arrest last Monday in Augusta of 25-year-old Reality Leigh Winner for allegedly passing top-secret government documents to an online news site says as much about the government’s ineptitude in handing out security clearances as it does her stupidity in thinking she could get away with it.
Winner’s case is not unlike that of Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning, the former Army private first class who gave Wikileaks nearly a quarter-million classified documents.
Or that of Washington Navy Yard shooter Aaron Alexis, who gunned down 15 people, killing 12 of them, in 2013.
Or one that occurred in my family some years back.
None of these people — and undoubtedly thousands like them — should ever have been given or been permitted to hold high-level security clearances.
There are two major issues here. The first is that the government hands out far too many security clearances to far too many people who should not have them. The second is that the government has too many “secrets” that, in fact, are not worthy of the label.
Let’s take the second issue first.
Although government officials and the anti-First Amendment faux patriots on the right are in high dudgeon over Winner’s actions, I have no major concerns with the release of that information or much of what Manning and Edward Snowden, another serial leaker, did.
In regards to Winner’s disclosures, we know that the Russians know that we know that they know how to hack our computer systems and latch onto information we consider sensitive or secret.
The problem here is that when government is involved, it thinks that everything it does is either sensitive or secret. That was brought home about 25 years ago when I was researching the book “White Tigers,” about covert, behind-the-lines operations during the Korean War. I kept running into “Classified” and “Top Secret” roadblocks while searching for information about specific events.
My co-author, retired Army Col. Ben Malcom of Fayetteville, and I decided to file Freedom of Information Act requests for information that had been classified for more than 40 years. Much of the information we sought was eventually declassified. We were told that it had remained classified for so long simply because no one had asked it for to be declassified.
As the movie “Secrets” points out, the government has “too many secrets” that are not necessarily “secret.” Those items that are truly top secret should remain so, particularly as they pertain to recent sources and methods or the lives of those taking significant risks to gather intelligence.
Then there’s the issue of who should and should not get or be allowed to obtain and then retain top-level security clearances. With Manning and Alexis, their questionable behavior should have disqualified them from having access to classified material.
With Winner it was political and, as it turns out, her own intelligence, or lack thereof. That she thought she could get away with what she did, whatever her motives, speaks to a significant lack of functionality in what my drill instructor at Parris Island used to refer to as her “brain housing group.”
Did she not know how easy it is to track when documents are printed and who printed them, especially if you work for the National Security Agency? She even used her NSA computer to search for the documents, leaving a trail even the most inept investigator could follow.
Hello! McFly! Is anybody home?
It looks like the government has been handing out top secret clearances to just about anyone who can fog a mirror.
It does so because it has turned over the vetting of many of those seeking clearances to private contractors whose primary interest is quantity over quality. That was especially true in the rush to add people to support government efforts to combat terrorism in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
By some estimates, as many as 5 million people in the U.S. hold security clearances of some sort. Private contractors conduct about 70 percent of background checks and it is obvious they don’t really do much checking before recommending someone for a security clearance.
Whoever did Manning’s background check missed a number of early warning signs about her psychological instability, and not just because of her gender confusion.
Winner, an Air Force veteran with Arabic and Farsi language skills, continued to work with classified information even though she never hid her dislike for President Donald Trump in her online posts.
According to published reports, she referred to him as an “orange fascist.” She also used “#NeverMyPresident #Resist” in her online posts, one of which referred to “The United States of the Russian Federation” in the wake of Trump’s election.
That is just the kind of person you want handling the nation’s secrets.
Investigations conducted after Alexis’ deadly rampage in Washington revealed “31 percent of background investigations of prospective or current defense employees conducted by the Office of Personnel Management (frequently through private contractors) are assessed as ‘incomplete or inadequate,’” according to The Washington Post.
Such was the case some years back with a woman who was dating a family member. She was a self-confessed opioid abuser as a teen, before opioid abuse became the thing to do, but managed to sneak past all the screens and enlist in the Army at a time it had lowered its standards to beef up after 9/11.
Somehow, she was granted a security clearance and got a job as an intelligence analyst. When she tired of the Army after a few years, she got pregnant and received an early release from active duty.
Motherhood did not appeal to her so she decided to try to get back into the intelligence analysis field. Among the references she listed on her application for a top secret clearance were me, my wife and the family member she was dating. We were fully expecting a visit or phone call from the FBI or someone seeking to verify information about her bad credit, numerous unpaid debts, lack of truthfulness and questionable behavior around children.
But, it never happened. We never heard a word from anyone
She was granted a Top Secret clearance without any serious vetting and went to work for a private contractor doing top secret government work. She continued to hold that clearance despite frequent job changes and worsening credit while returning to opioid abuse.
She eventually abandoned her young son, left her analyst’s job and moved to Europe, where hopefully she no longer has access to classified U.S. government material.
If the government wants its secrets to remain secret, it needs to give security clearances to only those people who have a modicum of intelligence and who have been thoroughly and properly vetted.
Otherwise, we are likely to see more Reality Leigh Winners out there whose personal political ideology and lack of intelligence trump their duty to the country and its citizens.
Ron Martz is Marine Corps veteran (1965-68), journalist and former educator. He lives in Northeast Georgia and provides a monthly Viewpoint commentary.