NSA contractor accused of leaking classified report on Russian interference pleads guilty

Reality L. Winner was arrested last June and accused of sharing a classified report about Russian interference in the 2016 election with the news media.
Reality L. Winner was arrested last June and accused of sharing a classified report about Russian interference in the 2016 election with the news media.PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - Reality L. Winner, a former Air Force linguist who was the first person prosecuted by the Trump administration on charges of leaking classified information, pleaded guilty on Tuesday (June 26) as part of an agreement with prosecutors that calls for a sentence of 63 months in prison.

Winner, who entered her plea in US District Court in Augusta, Georgia, was arrested last June and accused of sharing a classified report about Russian interference in the 2016 election with the news media.

Winner, who is now 26, has been jailed since her arrest. Her decision to plead guilty to one felony count allows the government both to avoid a complex trial that had been scheduled for October and to notch a victory in the Trump administration's aggressive pursuit of leakers.

"All of my actions I did willfully, meaning I did so of my own free will," Winner said in court on Tuesday.

Winner, who was honorably discharged from the Air Force in 2016, was working as a contractor for the National Security Agency (NSA) when she obtained a copy of a report that described hacks by a Russian intelligence service against local election officials and a company that sold software related to voter registration.

The Intercept, an online news outlet that a prosecutor said Winner admired, published a copy of the top secret report shortly before Winner's arrest was made public. The report described two cyberattacks by Russia's military intelligence unit, the GRU - one in August against a company that sells voter registration-related software and another, a few days before the election, against 122 local election officials.

At a detention hearing last year, prosecutor Jennifer G. Solari said that Winner had been "mad about some things she had seen in the media and she wanted to set the facts right".

An FBI affidavit made public when she was arrested last year said there was a visible crease mark on the file, a scan of which The Intercept had provided to the government while trying to authenticate it. That prompted investigators to surmise it was a printout.

Audit trails showed six people had printed copies, but only one - Winner - had used a work computer to send emails to The Intercept. A search warrant application said she had found the report by plugging keywords into the NSA's system that fell outside her normal work duties.

Moreover, while the FBI did not mention it in court filings, computer security experts noted that the printer appeared to leave barely visible microdots on the printout identifying the serial number of the printer and the date and time of the printing: 6.20am, May 9, 2017.

Once rare, leak cases have become much more common in the 21st century, in part because of such electronic trails. Depending on how they are counted, the Obama administration brought nine or 10 leak-related prosecutions - about twice as many as were brought under all previous presidencies combined.

The Justice Department prosecuted Winner under the Espionage Act, a World War I-era law that criminalises the unauthorised disclosure of national security secrets that could be used to harm the US or aid a foreign adversary. Defendants facing such charges are not permitted to argued to a jury during trial that they should vote to acquit because the disclosure was in the public interest.

Winner's prosecution galvanised transparency advocates, who mounted a publicity campaign in her support that even included a billboard in Augusta, the east Georgia city where Winner lived at the time of her arrest. They were particularly infuriated by a judge's ruling that she be held until her trial.

"They're just coming down on her so tough," Mrs Billie Winner-Davis, Winner's mother, said in an interview after Tuesday's plea hearing was scheduled.

"I can only think that it's because she was the very first one: the one they wanted to make an example out of, the one they wanted to nail to the door as a message to others."

Still, Mrs Winner-Davis said of her daughter's willingness to plead guilty: "She wouldn't have made this decision if she wasn't ready to accept the consequences and to accept responsibility."

Winner is the second person known to have reached a plea agreement with the Trump administration to resolve a leak prosecution. Terry J. Albury, a former FBI agent, pleaded guilty in April, but prosecutors in that case have signalled that they will ask that he serve 46 to 57 months in prison.

The Justice Department has brought at least two other leak-related cases under the Trump administration.

Earlier this month, James Wolfe, former Senate Intelligence Committee staffer, was arrested and charged with lying to the FBI about his contacts with reporters, including a New York Times reporter with whom he had a personal relationship and whose phone records the department secretly seized, during a leak investigation; Wolfe has not been charged with leaking classified information, however. He has pleaded not guilty.

Also this month, Joshua A. Schulte, a former CIA software engineer, was charged with violating the Espionage Act and other laws based on accusations that he sent a stolen archive of documents and electronic tools related to the agency's hacking operations to WikiLeaks, which dubbed them the Vault 7 leak. Schulte had already been facing child pornography charges.

A judge must still decide whether to approve Winner's sentence after reviewing a report that prosecutors will present. But prosecutors' recommendation of more than five years in prison - followed by three years of supervised release - was unusually harsh for a leak case.

For most of US history, people accused of leaking to the news media were not prosecuted at all. In the flurry of cases that have arisen during the 21st century, most convicted defendants were sentenced to one to 3 1/2 years.

One - Chelsea Manning, who was convicted at a military court-martial for sending large archives of military and diplomatic documents to WikiLeaks - was sentenced to 35 years in prison, but served only about seven years because President Barack Obama commuted the remainder of her sentence.

Winner's mother, who has spoken with Winner regularly since the arrest, suggested that they both feared how she would be perceived going forward.

"She said she wants the world to know that she does love her country and she is a patriot," she said. "I don't want her to go down in history as a traitor to her country."