Reality Winner, a former NSA contractor accused of leaking classified documents to the Intercept last year, was sentenced Thursday to 63 months in prison. It’s the longest-ever prison sentence for someone convicted of leaking government information to the media.
The 26-year-old was arrested in June of 2017 after leaking a report that detailed an attempt by Russian intelligence to hack into voting machine software in the days before the 2016 election. She later admitted to printing the classified report and smuggling it out of her office in her pantyhose. She then mailed it to the Intercept, which published its story on the report on June 5.
A year after her arrest, Winner pleaded guilty to one count of violating the Espionage Act, telling a Georgia court, “All of my actions I did willfully, meaning I did so of my own free will.” A former Air Force linguist who was honorably discharged in 2016, Winner faced as many as ten years in prison, but prosecutors agreed to a shorter sentence to avoid a trial that “would compound the exceptionally grave harm to national security already caused by the defendant,” they said in court papers filed this week.
Winner’s lawyers argued for leniency. “She’s a good person,” attorney John Bell said. “Someone who didn’t understand the magnitude of what she was doing.” She also offered her own “profuse” apology in court Thursday, saying she takes “full responsibility” for the “undeniable mistake I made.”
But the government was determined to make an example out of Winner in hopes of stopping future leaks.
In a statement, Assistant Attorney General for National Security John Demers praised the Justice Department for prosecuting Winner, who he said “schemed to take and disclose classified information she had sworn to protect.” He added: “I hope their success will deter others from similar unlawful action in the future.”
Others have defended Winner for what they see as a noble act. “Reality Winner is a whistleblower who alerted the public about a critical threat to election security,” Freedom of the Press Foundation executive director Trevor Timm said in a statement. “Winner performed a public service by alerting the public and state officials to dangerous vulnerabilities in election infrastructure, and it’s shameful the Justice Department would seek any prison time for her doing so — let alone the longest sentence for such an act in history. ”