WASHINGTON ― A government contractor in Georgia was arrested this weekend after a classified National Security Agency report was leaked on an alleged cyberattack attempt by Russian military intelligence officers on a voting software company and local election officials.
Reality Leigh Winner, a 25-year-old federal contractor for Pluribus International Corp. who had a top secret security clearance and was working at a government agency, was arrested by FBI agents Saturday at her home in Augusta, Georgia, according to the Justice Department.
The Intercept published a story Monday on a highly classified May 5 intelligence report the outlet had received anonymously that “analyzes intelligence very recently acquired by the agency about a months-long Russian intelligence cyber effort against elements of the U.S. election and voting infrastructure.”
The Justice Department announced Winner’s arrest hours after The Intercept story was published. While it did not name The Intercept or the NSA, the details included in an affidavit from an FBI agent leave little doubt the case revolves around the disclosure of the May 5 NSA report that The Intercept published online.
The affidavit states that an “Intelligence Community Agency” was contacted by a “News Outlet” about an upcoming story on May 30. The news outlet gave the agency a copy of the May 5 document, and the agency “determined the pages of the intelligence reporting appeared to be folded and/or creased, suggesting they had been printed out and hand-carried out of a secure place,” the affidavit states. The copy of the May 5 report published by The Intercept shows creases that make it appear it was folded to fit into a letter-sized envelope.
The NSA conducted an internal audit and determined that six people had printed the May 5 report. The agency audited six desktop computers and found that Winner “had email contact” with the news outlet and that no others had communicated with the publication.
Winner, who had worked for Pluribus since February, reportedly admitted to government agents Saturday that she had printed the report, removed it from her office and mailed it to the news outlet from Augusta. Winner also allegedly “acknowledged that she was aware of the contents of the intelligence reporting and that she knew the contents of the reporting could be used to the injury of the United States and to the advantage of a foreign nation,” the FBI affidavit said.
Winner, an Air Force veteran, has been an outspoken critic of the Trump administration on Twitter, tagging the president’s Twitter account in multiple messages.
Winner’s mother, Billie Winner-Davis, told Guardian reporter Jon Swaine that she is a former U.S. Air Force linguist who speaks Pashto, Farsi and Dari. But she was not able to provide any insight into her daughter’s arrest.
“I don’t know who she might have sent it to,” Winner’s mother told The Daily Beast in an interview, adding that Justice Department officials “were very vague.”
“They said she mishandled and released documents that she shouldn’t have, but we had no idea what it pertained to or who.
“She called us yesterday night. She asked if we could help out with relocating her cat and dog,” she said.
The Intercept indicated it does not know who sent the document but was able to independently authenticate it.
“As we reported in the story, the NSA document was provided to us anonymously,” Ryan Grim, the Washington bureau chief of The Intercept, said in an email. “The Intercept has no knowledge of the identity of the source.” (Grim is HuffPost’s former Washington bureau chief.)
Notably, the quote included in the DOJ press release on the case comes from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein rather than Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who had recused himself from cases involving Russia and the 2016 campaign.
“Exceptional law enforcement efforts allowed us quickly to identify and arrest the defendant,” Rosenstein’s statement said. “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.”
“Leaks to journalists occur every day, as they have for decades, and are a vital source of information for the public in our democracy,” said ACLU attorney Patrick Toomey. “It would be deeply troubling if this prosecution marked the beginning of a draconian crackdown on leaks to the press by the Trump administration.”