Young woman in US election leak case faces day in court

A US intelligence contractor pleaded not guilty on Thursday to a charge of leaking a classified report on Russian election interference to a media outlet.
Reality Leigh Winner allegedly sent a classified report to the news media.
Reality Leigh Winner allegedly sent a classified report to the news media.PHOTO: FACEBOOK

WASHINGTON (AFP) - The 25-year-old intelligence contractor accused of leaking a top secret report on Russian meddling in the US election appears on social media as a smiling young nature lover with an abiding aversion to President Donald Trump.

But a US judge at a hearing on Thursday (June 8) will weigh the risks of freeing Reality Winner, a former air force linguist with an otherwise unblemished record, pending trial.

"The important thing is, don't rush into deciding what is true or not true," her court-appointed lawyer Titus Nichols said on Wednesday.

"The important thing is making sure she receives a fair trial."

"My biggest fear in all of this, is that she's not going to get a fair trial," her mother Billie Winner-Davis said Tuesday in a CNN interview. "She's going to be made an example of."

Winner's case is the latest in a string of cases involving breaches at the National Security Agency, a super secret code-breaking agency still smarting from Edward Snowden's 2013 disclosures of its global surveillance programmes.

Her swift arrest on Saturday by FBI agents - even before the document she allegedly stole was posted on news website The Intercept - follows Trump's bitter complaints about leaks from US probes into Russia's attempt to tilt the 2016 election in his favour.

The document that Winner allegedly leaked was a report detailing attempts by hackers from Russian military intelligence to penetrate a company that sells voter registration software as well as local election officials.

STRONG CASE

The case against Winner, who worked for NSA contractor Pluribus International Corporation in August, Georgia, appears formidable.

The FBI, in an affidavit, said she admitted to printing the classified report, taking it out of her office and mailing it to "the News Outlet," a reference to The Intercept.

What led investigators to Winner was an audit that revealed she was one of only six people who had printed the report, and the only one who had had e-mail contact with The Intercept.

Nichols said it was "premature" to discuss the merits of the government's case.

Since her arrest, Winner has emerged as an otherwise ordinary young woman who like many Americans took out her dislike of the Republican president on social media.

"Well. People suck. #ElectionNight," she wrote under the handle @Reezlie after Trump won the November election.

In February, in the wake of Trump issuing his ban on travellers from several Muslim majority nations, she said: "the most dangerous entry to this country was the orange fascist we let into the white house."

She retweeted a Snowden tweet in February about Trump's "false claims" against the news media.

IN THE MIDDLE OF SOMETHING BIGGER

Other postings on Instagram and Facebook showed she doted on her cat and a dog, liked to cook vegetarian dishes and taught yoga in her free time.

In a selfie taken during her last vacation, she is seen at the top of a Mayan pyramid in Belize.

Shortly after graduating from high school in Kingsville, Texas, where she was a strong tennis and track and field competitor, she opted for military service.

Winner spent much of that six year career as an air force linguist in Maryland.

In February, she began working Pluribus International Corporation.

Her mother has said Winner was a specialist in Pashto, Farsi and Dari, languages spoken in Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan.

Nichols, her attorney, said his client has "just been caught in the middle of something bigger than her."

CHARGED ATMOSPHERE

US intelligence agencies and their contractors are full of recent graduates who are computer, encryption and foreign language wizards.

Despite their limited professional experience, many are entrusted with handling data containing national security secrets.

But those mishandling or leaking classified information face stiff prison sentences if caught.

In the charged atmosphere in Washington, where an embattled Trump fired FBI director James Comey last month and has demanded Russia probe leakers be rooted out, some Republicans were quick to condemn Winner.

"They should put handcuffs on a person like that and they should go to jail," thundered Republican Representative Jason Chaffetz.

Deputy White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders roundly denounced Winner's "treasonous acts."

She added that Winner's leak "just shows how big a bullet we dodged by electing Trump."

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has also weighed in, praising Winner as a young woman "accused of courage in trying to help us know."

"She's a young woman against the wall for talking to the press," he added.

"It doesn't matter why she did it or the quality the report. Acts of non-elite sources communicating knowledge should be strongly encouraged."