President Trump has reportedly taken to blaming Attorney General Jeff Sessions for many of his self-inflicted problems, but the Justice Department’s latest move may change his tune (at least temporarily). Administration officials have complained for months that the only White House scandal Americans should be focused on is the never-ending stream of leaks to the press, and now Trump’s Justice Department has brought its first criminal leak case.
On Monday evening, the Intercept published what appears to be a May 5 intelligence report from the National Security Agency that describes two cyberattacks carried out by Russian government hackers against employees of a company that provides technical support to state voting agencies, which occurred shortly before the 2016 election. (The Intercept’s Sam Biddle noted, “There’s nothing in the NSA report indicating the actual voting machines or vote tabulations were compromised” — though this certainly opens up a whole new dimension in the ongoing investigation into Russia’s election meddling and potential contact with the Trump campaign.)
About an hour after the report was published, the Justice Department announced that 25-year-old Reality Leigh Winner, a government contractor, has been charged with taking classified material from a government facility and mailing it to a news outlet. Here’s what we know about the case so far.
Winner is a contractor with Pluribus International Corporation, working in a U.S. government facility in Georgia, according to the criminal complaint. She’s been working in that location since mid-February and had top-secret clearance.
The Intercept is not named in the complaint, but it says the government became aware of the breach when a news outlet reached out to an unnamed government agency about an upcoming story in late May. According to the search warrant affidavit, a reporter tried to verify the document with a government contractor with whom he had a previous relationship. The reporter texted photos of the report on May 24, saying he received it in the mail, and it was postmarked “Augusta, Georgia.” The contractor initially told the reporter the document appeared to be fake, but they reported the interaction to the government agency anyway. The reporter later informed the contractor that an official at the agency had verified the documents.
Investigators noted that the pages were creased, which suggested they were printed out, then carried out of a secure facility and sent to the media outlet. An internal probe determined only six people had printed the document, including Winner. The employees’ desk computers were searched, and investigators found Winner was the only one who had email contact with the news outlet in question.
The email contact described in the search warrant affidavit has nothing to do with the document. It says Winner used her private Gmail address to request a podcast transcript, and the news outlet responded to confirm her subscription.
“As we reported in the story, the NSA document was provided to us anonymously,” Vivian Siu, the Intercept’s director of communications, told CNN. “The Intercept has no knowledge of the identity of the source,” Siu said.
FBI agents arrested Winner at her home on Saturday, June 3. The complaint says that as agents were searching her home, Winner admitted to intentionally printing out the classified report, taking it out of the facility, and mailing it to an online news outlet a few days later.
“Exceptional law enforcement efforts allowed us quickly to identify and arrest the defendant,” Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said in a statement. “Releasing classified material without authorization threatens our nation’s security and undermines public faith in government. People who are trusted with classified information and pledge to protect it must be held accountable when they violate that obligation.”
The Charges Against Winner
Winner was charged under the Espionage Act and faces up to ten years in prison for leaking classified information. According to the New York Times, conventional leak cases usually result in prison terms of one to three years. Electronic data has made it easier to trace leaks, and the Obama administration prosecuted nine or ten leak-related cases, which is double the number of cases brought by all previous administrations.
Winner appeared in court on Monday but has yet to enter a plea. Her court-appointed attorney, Titus Nichols, said she remains in jail pending a detention hearing set for Thursday in Augusta. He expects the government will want to keep her behind bars until the trial, but he said she should be released. “She has no criminal history; it’s not as if she’s a threat to anyone,’’ he said.
Winner’s mother, Billie Winner-Davis, spoke to several news outlets. She told The Guardian that her daughter was born in Texas in 1991 and raised in the small suburb of Kingsville, which is about 40 miles from Corpus Christi. She has one sister who is studying for a PhD in pharmacology.
Winner was an active-duty member of the Air Force from January 2013 until she began working for Pluribus International in February. Her mother said she worked as a linguist for the Air Force and speaks Farsi, Dari, and Pashto.
Winner-Davis seemed confused by the charges and unsure of what to make of her daughter’s alleged actions. She said when Winner called her family on Sunday she asked for help relocating her cat and dog, but didn’t say much about her situation. Winner-Davis described her daughter’s mood as “touch and go.”
“I think she’s trying to be brave for me,” Winner-Davis said. “I don’t think she’s seeing a light at the end of the tunnel.”
Winner-Davis told the Daily Beast that her daughter is “very passionate about her views” but wasn’t very politically active.
“I never thought this would be something she would do,” Winner-Davis said. “I mean, she has expressed to me that she is not a fan of Trump – but she’s not someone who would go and riot or picket.”
She said Winner did not discuss her job, and never expressed support for other famous leakers like Edward Snowden. “She’s never ever given me any kind of indication that she was in favor of that at all,” her mother said. “I don’t know how to explain it.”
However, on her social-media accounts, Winner did make it very clear that she was unhappy with the White House’s current occupant. On Election Night, she tweeted under the name Sara Winners “Well. People Suck.” She made frequent use of the #notmypresident hashtag and shared various left-leaning tweets.
Winner discussed politics on Facebook as well, between posts about her pets and her rigorous workout routine. “On a positive note, this Tuesday when we become the United States of the Russian Federation, Olympic lifting will be the national sport,” she joked a day before the election.
Reaction to Winner's Arrest
By Tuesday morning, Winner’s Facebook page was riddled with abusive remarks, with commenters calling her “traitor” and far worse.
Winner’s attorney, Titus Nichols, said, “She’s just been caught in the middle of something bigger than her.”
Virginia senator Tim Kaine, who was Hillary Clinton’s running mate, said on CNN that people who leak classified information should be prosecuted, but Americans also need to know more about Russia’s election meddling.
“Somebody who leaks documents against laws has got to suffer the consequences” Kaine said. “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.”
ACLU attorney Patrick Toomey put Winner’s alleged leak in a more positive light. “Leaks to journalists occur every day, as they have for decades, and are a vital source of information for the public in our democracy,” he told the Huffington Post. “It would be deeply troubling if this prosecution marked the beginning of a draconian crackdown on leaks to the press by the Trump administration.”