The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) on Monday charged Reality Leigh Winner, a 25-year-old federal contractor based in Augusta, Georgia, with illegally handling and leaking top secret national security information to the news media. Winner was an employee of Pluribus International, a contractor with a presence at Fort Gordon in Augusta, the site of a large National Security Agency (NSA) facility.
“Winner was arrested by the FBI at her home on Saturday, June 3, and appeared in federal court in Augusta this afternoon,” DOJ confirmed in a press release late Monday afternoon.
According to a criminal affidavit signed by Federal Bureau of Investigation special agent Justin C. Garrick, Winner allegedly accessed the top secret information after it was published internally by the federal government on May 5, 2017. On May 9, Winner printed the information and removed it from the government facility and mailed it several days later to an online news outlet.
“The intelligence reporting is classified at the Top Secret level, indicating that its unauthorized disclosure could reasonably result in
exceptionally grave damage to the national security,” the affidavit noted.
While the government has not yet confirmed which news outlet was the recipient of the leak, it appears that the charges are related to a report published on Monday by The Intercept, an online outlet with a long history of seeking and publishing illegally leaked national security information. Several details of the top secret report shared by The Intercept, including the information’s source and the original date of its publication, match details noted in the FBI affidavit supporting charges against Winner. Ironically, The Intercept’s ham-fisted handling of the leaked information may have led directly to the identification and arrest of the media organization’s source.
The affidavit suggests that investigators were only able to hunt down the culprit as a result of the news outlet’s handling of the information she allegedly provided. Rather than seeking to confirm only the contents of the trafficked information, the outlet apparently provided the actual documents to the federal government for review.
After examining the documents, investigators then queried federal databases to determine who had accessed the files. Of the six individuals who had accessed the information, only one individual was found to have communicated with the news outlet that received the illegally leaked information. According to Garrick, the FBI special agent, that individual was Reality Leigh Winner.
“The U.S. Goverment Agency examined the document shared by the News Outlet and determined the pages of the intelligence reporting appeared to be folded and/or creased, suggesting they had been printed and hand-carried out of a secured space,” the affidavit claimed. “The U.S. Government Agency determined that six individuals printed this reporting. WINNER was one of these six individuals.”
“A further audit of the six individuals’ desk computers revealed that WINNER had e-mail contact with the News Outlet,” the affidavit alleged. “The audit did not reveal that any of the other individuals had e-mail contact with the News Outlet.”
Social media accounts that appear to belong to the suspect include posts and pictures trumpeting her left-of-center political views. In one post, the owner of the account wrote that “CLIMATE CHANGE is the biggest threat facing us all.” In another, the author claimed that being angry about flag burning was “white privilege at its finest.”
The DOJ press release announcing the charges claimed that Winner admitted to illegally accessing and removing the top secret information and deliberately providing it to the media.
“Winner admitted intentionally identifying and printing the classified intelligence reporting at issue despite not having a ‘need to know,’ and with knowledge that the intelligence reporting was classified,” the release stated. “Winner further admitted removing the classified intelligence reporting from her office space, retaining it, and mailing it from Augusta, Georgia, to the news outlet, which she knew was not authorized to receive or possess the documents.”
If convicted, Winner could face up to 10 years in prison.