(ABC News) — Reality Winner, a government contractor accused of leaking top secret National Security Agency intelligence on Russia’s alleged interference in last year’s election, was arrested on Monday, according to court documents filed in the case.
Within hours of the arrest, the Department of Justice announced she had been charged with removing classified material from the government facility where she worked and mailing it to a news outlet. She could now face 10 years in prison.
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A source with knowledge of the matter later confirmed to ABC News that the charges stemmed from a May 5, 2017, intelligence document published on Monday by The Intercept, an online news organization best known for its publication and coverage of leaked documents on government activities provided by Edward Snowden.
Winner of Augusta, Georgia, is a contractor with Pluribus International Corporation, authorities said. She had been working at an unidentified government facility in Georgia “since on or about Feb. 13” and held a top secret security clearance, according to authorities.
She is a former Air Force linguist who speaks Pashto, Farsi and Dari, according to her attorney, and had recently worked as a yoga instructor at Oh Yeah Yoga in Augusta.
“She is still in federal custody and we have a detention hearing on Thursday to determine if she’ll be released before trial,” her attorney, Titus Thomas Nichols, told ABC News in a statement Monday night. “She’s a good person with no criminal history who is caught in a political whirlwind.”
Winner’s mother, Billie Winner-Davis, described her as a “very passionate” person who was outspoken about her beliefs.
“Very passionate about her views and things like that, but she’s never to my knowledge been active in politics or any of that,” Winner-Davis told The Daily Beast on Monday.
How the alleged leak started
On March 22, The Intercept hosted a podcast online looking at, among other things, the public outcry over Russia’s alleged collusion with associates of President Donald Trump and the Kremlin’s alleged interference in last year’s presidential election.
Host Jeremy Scahill said “there is a tremendous amount of hysterics” and “a lot of premature conclusions being drawn around all of this Russia stuff,” but “there’s not a lot of hard evidence to back it up.”
Appearing as a guest on the podcast, Intercept reporter Glenn Greenwald agreed, saying that while “it’s very possible” Russia was behind election-related hacks last year, “we still haven’t seen any evidence for it.”
Little more than a week later, Winner allegedly used a Gmail account to contact The Intercept, and she “appeared to request transcripts of a podcast,” court documents said.
More than a month later, the NSA secretly issued the classified document now at the center of the leak case. And within days, Winner allegedly found it, printed it out and mailed it to The Intercept.
How it all came to light
On May 30, three weeks after Winner allegedly printed the classified document, The Intercept contacted the U.S. government, likely through the NSA, to discuss an upcoming story based on the intelligence document it had obtained. The Intercept even shared a copy of the document with government officials, who confirmed that it was indeed classified at the top secret level, “indicating that its unauthorized disclosure could reasonably result in exceptionally grave damage to the national security,” the affidavit said.
Two days later, the FBI was notified of the matter and initiated an investigation to determine the source of the leak.
Further analysis of the documents showed that they “appeared to be folded and/or creased, suggesting they had been printed and hand-carried out of a secure space,” according to the affidavit.
Winner was one of just six individuals who had printed the intelligence document, according to an internal audit of the agency that housed the report. The audit also revealed that Winner was the only individual of the group that had email contact with the news outlet.
FBI agent Justin Garrick said in the affidavit filed with the court that he interviewed Winner at her home on Saturday and that she “admitted intentionally identifying and printing the classified intelligence reporting at issue” and sent it to a news outlet.
The news outlet was not identified in the charging documents, but a source with knowledge of the matter confirmed that the charges were connected to The Intercept’s Monday report titled: “Top-Secret NSA report details Russian hacking effort days before 2016 election.”
The potential impact
As stated above, the leaked document has provided the public with the most detailed account yet of how Russian hackers targeted American election systems.
The Intercept posted a redacted classified NSA document, detailing how Russian hackers allegedly infiltrated outside vendors dealing with voter-related information ahead of last year’s presidential election.
The document said Russian military intelligence “executed cyber espionage operations against a named U.S. company in August 2016 evidently to obtain information on elections-related software and hardware solutions, according to information that became available in April 2017.”