Reality Winner Seeks to Use Trump’s Denials of Russian Hacking in Her Defense

Last week, Reality Winner had a hearing on her bid to get her interview with the FBI thrown out because they didn’t issue her a Miranda warning (Kevin Gosztola covered and discussed it on Democracy Now). Given the precedents on Miranda, I think that bid is unlikely to succeed.

But there is a tack her defense is taking that, as far as I’ve seen, has gotten no notice, one that is far more interesting. Winner is seeking to use Trump’s comments denying that the Russians hacked the election to argue the document she is accused of leaking to The Intercept isn’t actually National Defense Information, the standard the government has to prove to secure an Espionage conviction.

In her discovery requests, Winner asked for three (entirely redacted) categories of documents “reflecting statements made by high-ranking governmental officials regarding information contained in the document,” all of which were denied (see PDF 87).

A discovery appeal submitted in January (but only released on February 13) makes clear that Winner’s defense attorneys are going to argue that the intelligence in the report she is accused of leaking cannot be National Defense Information because the President’s statements would be taken to suggest the intelligence is not true.

However, high-ranking government officials, including the President of the United States, have made statements undermining and/or contradicting that contention. 44 That, is of great import because, if the information in the Document is inaccurate (as the President and other high-ranking officials have said), it cannot be NDI. While the defense may seek to capture some of this information in the public domain, 45 it cannot capture statements made privately by these high-ranking officials.

Bill Leonard, the former head of the federal classification authority, ISOO, who has served as expert witness on two other cases involving Espionage charges, laid out the logic of the argument this way (PDF 102-3)

[T]here are governmental actors, including high-level governmental actors (such as the President of the United States), that have made conflicting and/or contradicting statements in comparison to the Government’s position here. In other words, these high-level governmental officials have made statements undermining the veracity of the information contained in the Document, which would impact whether the Document actually contains “national defense information” because, if inaccurate, the Government’s contention that its disclosure could harm the national security of the United States would be severely undermined. Indeed, the President is the highest level of authority in our classification system and has virtually unrestricted access to information in our intelligence system. He is, therefore, in the best position to know the particulars of any piece of intelligence, including its sensitivity and its veracity. Consequently, records reflecting statements made by high-ranking governmental officials, including and in particular, the President of the United States, relating to the information contained in the Document (including statements contradicting the truth or veracity of the information at issue) are highly relevant and are critical to the determination of whether or not it is closely held and/or whether or not its disclosure would potentially damage the national security.

There are a number of other challenges the government is facing with this case (not least that — as I’ve pointed out — similar information has been leaked to the press without any apparent prosecution arising from it).

But Trump’s self-interested denials are the most interesting. After all, he cannot admit that Russia affected the election, because he has staked so much on the claim that that will lessen his legitimacy (not to mention any risk such an admission exposes him to in the Mueller investigation). As Leonard notes, the entire classification system is built on presidential authority, and if he says something isn’t true, it will seriously undermine any claim a prosecutor can make at trial that Winner leaked true National Defense Information.

Effectively, some prosecutor will be in a position of having to point out what we all know, that the President is a liar. Given Trump’s propensity towards rage-induced firings, I imagine the government would like to avoid this pickle.

In 2004, the White House Considered FISA’s Exclusivity Provision to Be Top Secret

As I have noted before, there are a number of paragraphs in the May 6, 2004 Goldsmith memo authorizing warrantless wiretapping that appear to be badly overclassified. Not only were many of the same paragraphs printed, almost verbatim, in unclassified fashion, in the White Paper released in January 2006. But many of those paragraphs contain nothing more than discussions of published statute.

Now, I hope to do a follow-up to this post on whether I’m right about this overclassification. But thus far, in asking around, no one outside of government has been able to see the logic behind the classification markings on some of these paragraphs, and the people who should know were unable to explain it.

The Overclassification of the March 13, 2003 Torture Memo

Now, I’m not just talking outtamyarse about the possibility that this is overclassified; the Bush Administration has a history of improper classification. It was a particular issue with the March 14, 2003 Yoo DOD Torture Memo. Here’s how former head of Information Security Oversight Office Bill Leonard described the classification of the memo at Russ Feingold’s 2008 secret law hearing:

The March 14, 2003, memorandum on interrogation of enemy combatants was written by DoJ’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) to the General Counsel of the DoD. By virtue of the memorandum’s classification markings, the American people were initially denied access to it. Only after the document was declassified were my fellow citizens and I able to review it for the first time. Upon doing so, I was profoundly disappointed because this memorandum represents one of the worst abuses of the classification process that I had seen during my career, including the past five years when I had the authority to access more classified information than almost any other person in the Executive branch. The memorandum is purely a legal analysis – it is not operational in nature. Its author was quoted as describing it as “near boilerplate.”! To learn that such a document was classified had the same effect on me as waking up one morning and learning that after all these years, there is a “secret” Article to the Constitution that the American people do not even know about.

Here are Leonard’s specific complaints about the memo:

In this instance, the OLC memo did not contain the identity of the official who designated this information as classified in the first instance, even though this is a fundamental requirement of the President’s classification system. In addition, the memo contained neither declassification instructions nor a concise reason for classification, likewise basic requirements. Equally disturbing, the official who designated this memo as classified did not fulfill the clear requirement to indicate which portions are classified and which portions are unclassified, leading the reader to question whether this official truly believes a discussion of patently unclassified issues such as the President’s Commander-in-Chief authorities or a discussion of the applicability to enemy combatants of the Fifth or Eighth Amendment would cause identifiable harm to our national security. Furthermore, it is exceedingly irregular that this memorandum was declassified by DoD even though it was written, and presumably classified, by DoJ.

Mind you, the Goldsmith memo is not as bad as the March 2003 memo. As we’ll see, every single paragraph includes a classification mark (though I believe some–if not many–of those are specious). But like the March 2003 memo, this one does not describe who classified it, when it could be declassified, nor a reason for declassification. And as I explained, the people who should be able to offer an explanation (like DOJ) are unable to.

When Feingold asked about the improper classification of the March 2003 memo (see PDF 53-54), DOJ explained,

Because none of the attorneys who participated in preparing the March 2003 memorandum remains at the Department of Justice, no current DOJ employees have first-hand knowledge of the circumstances surrounding the classification of that memorandum. We have consulted the Acting General Counsel of the Department of Defense and understand from him that the memorandum was classified under the authority of DoD using that agency’s classification authority because the memorandum related to the guidance of a DoD working group charged with developing recommendations of the Secretary of Defense concerning a range of possible interrogation techniques for use with alien unlawful combatant detained at Guantanamo Bay.

In other words, they claimed the memo was classified under derivative classification of the DOD Detainee Working Group.

Derivative of the Original White House Authorizations

That background helps us at least surmise what is claimed to have happened with this memo.  It says on its front page it was,

Derived from: “Presidential Authorization for Specified Electronic Surveillance Activities During a Limited Period to Detect and Prevent Acts of Terrorism Within the United States,” dated Oct. 4, 2001, and subsequent related Presidential authorizations [at least one line redacted]

In other words, this memo tells us it was derived from the original White House authorization of October 4, 2001 (note, not the John Yoo memo authorizing the program from the same date). From that, it’s a safe bet that, given that OLC is not a classification originator (that is, Jack Goldsmith couldn’t have classified this memo without violating the sometimes-pixie-dusted EO on classification), the White House (you know, someone like Dick Cheney?) must have classified this document as the originator of the documents of which it was a derivative.

Which brings us to what I believe to be either arbitrary, or badly manipulative, determinations of which paragraphs are classified.

Let’s start with one of my favorite examples. Page 20, footnote 17 reads, in its entirety,

17 See also 50 U.S.C. 1810 (providing for civil liability as well). (TS//SI[redacted]//NF)

Someone in government–almost certainly someone in the White House–claimed in 2004 that the mere citation of one clause of the FISA legislation and the admission that its plain language meant violation of FISA called for (in addition to the criminal penalties described in the body of the text, also classified Top Secret) civil penalties was Top Secret and compartmented.

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Did Somebody Improperly Make Torture a Special Access Program?

I wanted to take one last look at the Panetta declaration, this time with respect to what it says about classifying torture (also see Mary’s long comment and pmorlan’s comment on this topic).

NSC Officials Made This a Special Access Program, Not Director of CIA

Panetta tells a funny story about how (but not when) the torture program became a special access program.

Section 6.1(kk) of the Executive Order defines a "special access program" as "a program established for a special class of classified information that imposes safeguarding and access requirements that exceed those normally required for information at the same classification level." Section 4.5 of the Order specifies the U.S. Government officials who may create a special access program. This section further provides that for special access programs pertaining to intelligence activities (including special activities, but not including military operations, strategic, and tactical programs), or intelligence sources or methods, this function shall be exercised by the Director of the CIA.


Officials at the National Security Council, (NSC) determined that in light of the extraordinary circumstances affecting the vital interests of the United States and the senstivity of the activities contemplated in the CIA terrorist detention and interrogation program, it was essential to limit access to the information in the program. NSC officials established a special access program governing access to information relating to the CIA terrorist detention and interrogation program. As the executive agent for implementing the terrorist detention and interrogation program, the CIA is responsible for limiting access to such information in accordance with the NSC’s direction. [my emphasis]

See the funny bit? The first paragraph says the Director of the CIA "shall" "exercise" the function of creating special access programs pertaining to intelligence. But then the very next paragraph says "NSC officials established a special access program." One paragraph says the Director of CIA has to do it, but the next paragraph admits someone else did it. 

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Tom Davis Supports Waxman’s Demand for Cheney’s Interview Materials

Retiring GOP Congressman Tom Davis must have accepted that we’ll soon have a Democrat in the White House. He has joined Henry Waxman in declaring Bush’s (Mukasey’s, really) invocation of executive privilege with regards to the Cheney interview notes in the CIA Leak Case to be improper.

 On a bipartisan basis, the Committee finds that the President’s assertion of executive privilege over the report of the Vice President’s interview was legally unprecedented and an inappropriate use of executive privilege. The assertion of executive privilege prevents the Committee from having access to a complete set of records and thus results in the Committee’s inability to assess fully the actions of the Vice President.

Mind you, I don’t know what effect this report will have. As we’ve seen with the US Attorney subpoenas, the White House can stall anything until the end of the Administration (and until Bush pre-emptively pardons Cheney and Libby for outing a CIA spy). At which point–given the way the polls are headed–Obama’s new AG could turn over the Cheney interview materials. 

I’m most curious about Davis’ cooperation on this, but not Waxman’s demand that DOJ unredact the reports the Committee already has (these redactions include references to both Bush and Cheney), because I believe Davis was party to the Administration’s second firewall on the CIA Leak Case–the Cheney claim that he could (and presumably did) insta-declassify Plame’s identity all by himself.

When the Oversight Committee had a hearing on CIA Leak Case, remember, Davis went to some length to try to get Bill Leonard to state that both the President and the Vice President had authority to declassify at will. 

And, after the country’s head of Information Security, Bill Leonard, asserted at the Waxman hearing that the President has absolute authority to declassify things, Congressman Tom Davis tried to sneak such authority for the Vice President into the Congressional Record:

Davis: Mr. Leonard, let me ask. Does the President or the Vice President have the authority to declassify on the spot?

Leonard: As I mentioned earlier, Mr. Davis, the President’s authority in this area is absolute, pursuant to the Constitution, …

Davis: So they can do it on the spot. Can they declassify for limited purposes?

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Just Making It Up on Classification

A number of you have pointed to smintheus’ excellent post on Bush’s new classification, Controlled Unclassified Information.

On Friday afternoon, with George Bush in Texas for his daughter’s wedding, the White House finally released its new Executive Branch rules for designating and disseminating what used to be known as "sensitive" information. The most common term in the past for such material has been "Sensitive But Unclassified" (SBU), though there was an alphabet soup of competing classifications in various agencies. In part, the new rules create a uniform standard across the Executive by replacing SBU etc. with a new classification, "Controlled Unclassified Information" (CUI).

The Friday memo states that its purpose "is to standardize practices and thereby improve the sharing of information, not to classify or declassify new or additional information." The initial impetus for change came in a December 2005 memo in which Bush called for a new policy for information sharing between agencies. The alphabet soup of "sensitive" designations too often played into the hands of officials who sought to hoard information rather than to share it.


Though the material to be regulated is nominally "unclassified", this new system is in fact a much more sweeping program for keeping information secret than the ostensibly higher grades of secrecy for "classified" material. And at the same time, the system for designating "unclassified" information is in significant ways far less regulated than for "classified" information. This new memo represents the opposite of reform.

I agree with smintheus that this classification is simply an invitation for bureaucratic games that result in less information sharing rather than more.

But at the same time, with the increasing evidence that it doesn’t matter what Bush says the classification guidelines are, key players in his Administration will just do as they please anyway, I’m not sure the CUI is the worst of our worries.

Consider the example offered by Bill Leonard in his statement for Russ Feingold’s April 29 30 [thanks selise] hearing on Secret Law. Leonard focused most of his attention on the improper classification of the Yoo Torture Memo authorizing the military to torture; he offered quite a striking soundbite about the memo:

To learn that such a document was classified had the same effect on me as waking up one morning and learning that after all these years, there is a "secret" Article to the Constitution that the American people do not even know about.

But I found the details of Leonard’s discussion even more interesting. Read more

Surely They’ll Resort to Pixie Dust on This

MadDog linked to this while I was away at the dentist, but since I’m a big fan of both Secrecy News and of Bill Leonard, I wanted to highlight it in a post of its own.

Bill Leonard, who until Cheney chased him away last December, was the person overseeing the Information Security Oversight Office (making him one of the top people in the government overseeing the use of classification and declassification). He confirms what we’ve been saying: the classification surrounding the Torture Memo was improper.

“The disappointment I feel with respect to the abuse of the classification system in this instance is profound,” said Mr. Leonard, who recently retired as director of the Information Security Oversight Office, which reports to the President on classification and declassification policy.

“The document in question (pdf) is purely a legal analysis,” he said, and it contains “nothing which would justify classification.”

Beyond that crucial fact, the binding technical requirements of classification were ignored.

Thus, he explained: There were no portion markings, identifying which paragraphs were classified at what level. The original classifier was not identified on the cover page by name or position. The duration of classification was not given. A concise basis for classification was not specified. Yet all of these are explicitly required by the President’s executive order on classification.

“It is not even apparent that [John] Yoo [who authored the memo] had original classification authority,” Mr. Leonard said.

“All too often, government officials simply assert classification. To enjoy the legal safeguards of the classification system, you need to do more than that. Those basic, elemental steps were not followed in this instance.”

“Also, for the Department of Defense to declassify a Department of Justice document,” as in this case, “is highly irregular,” Mr. Leonard said.

(The DoD declassifier mistakenly cited “Executive Order 1958″ on the cover page of the declassified memorandum. The correct citation is “Executive Order 12958, as amended.”)

Violations of classification policy pale in comparison to the policy deviations authorized by the Justice Department memo, which was ultimately rescinded. Nevertheless, such classification violations are significant because they enabled the Administration to pursue its interrogation policies without independent scrutiny or accountability.

“To learn that such a document is classified has the same effect for me as waking up one morning and learning that after all these years there is a ’secret’ Article IV to the Constitution that the American people did not even know about,” said Mr. Leonard. [my emphasis]

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How DOJ Put Off Confessing To Their Pixie Dust

After folks noted this footnote from Steven Aftergood’s request that the Office of Professional Responsibility look into the Pixie Dust* surrounding Executive Order 13292 and Dick Cheney’s claims to be a Fourth Branch…

2 A copy of the OLC letter is attached, and may also be found online here: . The July 20, 2007 letter did not become public until December 11, 2007 when it was published by Marcy Wheeler on her blog Empty Wheel ( One day later, the document was released to me under the Freedom of Information Act by OLC.

…we got into a discussion of the chronology behind OLC’s rather remarkable timing in their response to Aftergood. So I asked Aftergood for some clarification. This is what he said regarding the OLC’s insta-FOIA response on December 12:

You published the doc on December 11, and I followed with this later that day.

OLC finally responded to my FOIA request by letter dated December 12. They never denied my request, but they certainly took their sweet time.

So apparently OLC noticed that Aftergood already had the document, so they finally decided they could give it to him. Nice to see they respect the FOIA process so thoroughly.

But I’m at least as interested in what went on before that. Aftergood explains: Read more

Steven Aftergood Takes on Pixie Dust

Oh this ought to be fun.

You’ll recall that when I was in my week-long Pixie Dust* tizzie last year, I was the first to reveal the purported resolution of Cheney’s Fourth Branch stand-off with Bill Leonard and Henry Waxman.

Finally, when Bill Leonard of ISOO appealed to DOJ for a ruling on Cheney’s refusal to submit to the plain text meaning of Bush’s EO, he was told (six months later) that the EO had turned to Pixie Dust. Specifically, he was told four years after the fact that President Bush did not intend for OVP to be an agency under the EO.

On July 12, 2007, the Counsel to the President wrote a letter to Congress stating that "[t]he President has asked me to confirm to you that … the Office of the Vice President … is not an ‘agency’ for purposes of the Order." … That statement on behalf of the President resolves the question you presented to the Attorney General. Therefore, the Department of Justice will not be providing an opinion addressing this question.

Poof! Four years after Cheney stopped reporting his classification activities, three years after NA tried to do the original inspection, Bush got around to telling Bill Leonard that the plain text of the EO doesn’t mean what it appears to mean. And Bush only told Leonard that news via Fred Fielding via Sam Brownback via Steven Bradbury. It took Congress threatening to withdraw funding from OVP before the President decided to tell the guy whose job it is that the EO at the center of his mandate doesn’t mean what it appears to mean–and what he has understood it to mean for all the years he has done the job.

But Steven Aftergood isn’t satisfied with that resolution. In particular, he’s not happy with Steven Bradbury’s snotty refusal to provide a ruling on the underlying conflict, as is mandated by the Executive Order (unless, of course, that, too, has been turned to Pixie Dust).

Attorneys at the Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel violated the executive order on classification and damaged oversight of the secrecy system last year when they refused to process a request from the Information Security Oversight Office for an interpretation of the order, according to a complaint filed yesterday (pdf) by the Federation of American Scientists Project on Government Secrecy.

Last January, J.William Leonard, the Director of the Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO), wrote to the Attorney General seeking an opinion on the applicability of classification oversight requirements to the Office of the Vice President after that Office ceased to cooperate with ISOO oversight.

But in July, Steven G. Bradbury of the Office of Legal Counsel wrote back that the Justice Department "will not be providing an opinion addressing this question."

By refusing to provide an opinion, Mr. Bradbury appears to have violated the President’s executive order, which requires that "the Attorney General… shall render an interpretation" of any disputed matter when requested by ISOO. A response is not optional, and yet no response was provided. Read more

Bush Turned His EO on Classified Information into Pixie Dust, Too

Yesterday, I expanded on the reasons why the OLC opinion holding that Presidents aren’t bound by their own Executive Orders is so scary. It means that every Executive Order may have been turned to Pixie Dust by the President–and we’d never know it.

Unless, of course, there were persistent, unpunished violations of what we believed to be the Executive Order. If there were an Executive Order that the Executive branch was publicly flouting, we might assume that Bush had turned that EO, too, into Pixie Dust.

And that is apparently what happened with EO 12958. It governs the treatment of classified information: what can be classified, when it should be declassified, what records one should keep of classification and declassification, and who can declassify classified information, and how classified information should be protected.

It’s an EO that Vice President Cheney has had epic difficulties with.

In 2003, for example, Vice President Cheney (and the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board) stopped providing the National Archives with data describing his office’s classification and declassification activities. No explanation, he just stopped doing so.

Then, in 2004, the National Archives prepared to do an inspection of OVP, as it is mandated to do. Yet OVP refused to let the NA conduct the inspection.

Finally, when Bill Leonard of ISOO appealed to DOJ for a ruling on Cheney’s refusal to submit to the plain text meaning of Bush’s EO, he was told (six months later) that the EO had turned to Pixie Dust. Specifically, he was told four years after the fact that President Bush did not intend for OVP to be an agency under the EO.

On July 12, 2007, the Counsel to the President wrote a letter to Congress stating that "[t]he President has asked me to confirm to you that … the Office of the Vice President … is not an ‘agency’ for purposes of the Order." … That statement on behalf of the President resolves the question you presented to the Attorney General. Therefore, the Department of Justice will not be providing an opinion addressing this question.

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