Contractor charged with leaking classified NSA info on Russian hacking
(CNN) — The Justice Department announced charges Monday against a federal contractor with Top Secret security clearance, after she allegedly leaked classified information to an online media outlet.
Reality Leigh Winner, 25, a contractor with Pluribus International Corporation in Georgia, is accused of “removing classified material from a government facility and mailing it to a news outlet,” according to a federal complaint.
CNN is told by sources that the document Winner allegedly leaked is the same one used as the basis for the article published Monday by The Intercept, detailing a classified National Security Agency memo. The NSA report, dated May 5, provides details of a 2016 Russian military intelligence cyberattack on a US voting software supplier, though there is no evidence that any votes were affected by the hack.
A US official confirmed to CNN that The Intercept’s document is a genuine, classified NSA document.
US intelligence officials tell CNN that the information has not changed the January 2017 Intelligence Community Assessment, which found: “Russian intelligence obtained and maintained access to elements of multiple US state or local electoral boards. DHS assesses that the types of systems Russian actors targeted or compromised were not involved in vote tallying.”
Prosecutors say when confronted with the allegations, Winner admitted to intentionally leaking the classified document — and she was arrested June 3 in Augusta, Georgia.
An internal audit revealed Winner was one of six people who printed the document, but the only one who had email contact with the news outlet, according to the complaint. It further states that the intelligence agency was subsequently contacted by the news outlet on May 30 regarding an upcoming story, saying it was in possession of what appeared to be a classified document.
The Intercept’s director of communications Vivian Siu told CNN the document was provided anonymously.
“As we reported in the story, the NSA document was provided to us anonymously. The Intercept has no knowledge of the identity of the source,” Siu 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,” Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said in a statement Monday.
Winner faces up to 10 years in prison for leaking classified information. Winner’s court-appointed attorney, Titus Nichols, said a detention hearing will take place on Thursday in Augusta, where the judge will determine whether to release her on bond. Winner did not enter a plea in her initial appearance Monday.
Last month Attorney General Jeff Sessions slammed leaks in the wake of the Manchester attacks, saying: “We have already initiated appropriate steps to address these rampant leaks that undermine our national security.”
Winner’s mother said that her daughter is “touch and go” in an interview with CNN on Monday.
“I think she’s trying to be brave for me,” Billie Winner said. “I don’t think she’s seeing a light at the end of the tunnel.”
She also said her daughter wasn’t especially political and had not ever praised past leakers like Edward Snowden, to her knowledge. “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.”
Nichols told CNN that Winner spent six years in the military, speaks Farsi and Pashtun, and has been with her current company since 2017. He added that he has not received any evidence from the government about the arrest warrant and case files, and hasn’t seen evidence of a relationship between his client and the reporter.
“She’s just been caught in the middle of something bigger than her,” Nichols said.
Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, the former Democratic vice presidential candidate, said on CNN’s “Erin Burnett OutFront” that people who leak classified information should face the full force of the law, but added that Americans need to know much more about alleged Russian attempts to influence the election.
“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.”
Kaine noted he knew of no evidence that showed Russia affected machine voting totals and said he was referring to intelligence assessments that Russia had acted to influence the election.
In October 2016, CNN reported that federal investigators believe Russian hackers were behind cyberattacks on a contractor for Florida’s election system that may have exposed the personal data of Florida voters, according to US officials briefed on the probe. The hack of the Florida contractor came on the heels of hacks in Illinois, in which personal data of tens of thousands of voters may have been stolen, and one in Arizona, in which investigators believe the data of voters was likely exposed.
The October information appears to be part of what is contained in the new NSA document, but the document contains additional details.
Most significantly, as CNN reported at the time, and The Intercept also reports Monday based on the this document, that there is still no evidence any votes were affected by Russian hacking.
In a tweet Monday, WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange called on the public to support Winner, adding that the young woman is “accused of courage in trying to help us know.”