Reality Leigh Winner, 25, was arrested this weekend after apparently providing a "top secret" document to an online news outlet. The Justice Department announced Winner’s arrest shortly after The Intercept published a story on Russian hacking which referenced an NSA report dated May 5th.
While the DOJ did not specify whether Winner was being charged in connection with the story, the facts certainly point to that conclusion. The affidavit supporting her arrest said the report she leaked was dated “on or about” May 5th.
In fact, the NSA asked The Intercept not to publish the report and US intelligence officials asked the website to redact particular sections.
According to the leaked report, Russian intelligence “executed cyber espionage operations against a named US company in August 2016 evidently to obtain information on election-related software and hardware solutions, according to information that became available in April 2017.”
It is believed that the hackers used data from that operation to send “spear-phishing” emails to over 100 local elections officials and created accounts to mimic services associated with absentee balloting. However, there is no evidence the actual votes were affected by the cyber-attack.
Winner was hired in February 2017 by Pluribus International Corporation. She worked at a US government facility in Georgia and had TOP SECRET security clearance.
FBI agent Justin Garrick, who interviewed Winner on Saturday, says she "admitted intentionally identifying and printing the classified intelligence reporting at issue” and mailing it to a news outlet. Winner's attorney says she has not confessed. He made this comment regarding the arrest, "My client is innocent until proven guilty and we plan to enter a plea of not guilty."
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange expressed support for Winner Monday on Twitter. "Alleged NSA whistleblower Reality Leigh Winner must be supported. She is a young woman accused of courage in trying to help up know."
Virginia Senator Tim Kaine (D) understands Winner's motivation but says she must be punished. “Somebody who leaks documents against laws has got to suffer the consequences. But the American public is also entitled to know the degree to which Russia invaded the election to take the election away from American voters.”
House Oversight Committee Chairman Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) praised the arrest and criticized federal agencies for failing to protect sensitive information. “When you have classified information, you cannot put that out there just because you think it would be a good idea. I want people in handcuff and I want to see people behind bars.”
Billie Winner-Davis, Winner’s mother, claimed her daughter "would not jeopardize anybody's safety" and was "terrified" when she returned to her home in Augusta on Saturday to find federal agents waiting for her. "Her words to me was that she was scared she was going to be ... they were going to make her disappear."
Winner-Davis also said, despite the allegations, she remains "a proud mom ... I have every reason to be proud of that girl."
"I can't ever call her a traitor or even believe that," she added. "No, that is not Reality. That's not her."
Winner faces up to 10 years in prison for a single charge of “gathering, transmitting, or losing defense information.”
Winner isn’t the first individual charged with releasing information to the press. This case yet again raises the question, where is the line between informing the masses of governmental wrong doing and potentially dangerous leaks of classified information.
NSA leaker Edward Snowden said the case against Winner is a threat to free press. Snowden also stated that the Espionage Act left no room to consider the public benefit of the information leaked as opposed to leaking information with the intent to harm the country.
"This often-condemned law provides no space to distinguish the extraordinary disclosure of inappropriately classified information in the public interest — whistleblowing — from the malicious disclosure of secrets to foreign governments by those motivated by a specific intent to harm to their countrymen," Snowden wrote on the Freedom of the Press Foundation website.