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U.S. Contractor Charged With Media Leak of Top-Secret Data

Updated on
  • Arrest announced after news site reported on Russian hackers
  • President Trump had vowed to crack down on leakers to media

A former U.S. Air Force linguist was charged with passing a top-secret document to the media in the first arrest of its kind since President Donald Trump vowed to crack down on government workers who illegally leak information.

Espionage charges against Reality Leigh Winner, 25, who worked for government contractor Pluribus International Corp., were announced by the U.S. Justice Department on Monday, shortly after the online news outlet The Intercept published what it said was a National Security Agency report detailing Russian hacking efforts in the days before the 2016 election.

The Trump White House has been plagued by leaks on everything from the president’s private conversations with other world leaders to his reference to former FBI director James Comey as a "nut job.” Trump has urged prosecutors to find and bring charges against those disclosing secret information, tweeting on May 16 that he has been “asking Director Comey & others, from the beginning of my administration, to find the LEAKERS in the intelligence community.”

Winner, who was arrested by FBI agents Saturday, is accused of printing and removing the classified data, including “national defense information," from an unidentified intelligence community agency on May 9 and mailing it to an online news outlet days later. The news site also wasn’t identified by the government in Winner’s arrest warrant.

She has been assigned to a U.S. government facility in Augusta, Georgia, since about Feb. 13 and had top-secret security clearance, prosecutors said. Prior to joining Pluribus, Winner served for six years as an airman with the U.S. Air Force, working as a linguist at Fort Meade, Maryland, said her lawyer, Titus Nichols. Fort Meade is also where the NSA is based.

On June 1, the U.S. agency notified the FBI that it had been contacted by the news outlet on May 30 regarding an upcoming story. The news outlet told U.S. agency officials “it was in possession of what it believed to be a classified document authored by the U.S Government Agency" and later provided a copy of the document.

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‘Grave Damage’

The leaked material was marked with a warning that release of the data “could reasonably result in exceptionally grave damage to the national security," according to the FBI’s arrest warrant.  

Federal agents reviewed the material provided by the news outlet and determined that it appears to be folded or creased, suggesting it had been printed out and carried out by hand out of a secure space, according to the FBI. 

On the day of her arrest, Winner admitted to FBI agents that she leaked the information to the news outlet, knowing "the contents of the reporting could be used to the injury of the United States and to the advantage of a foreign nation," according to the warrant.

The Intercept

Winner was arrested two days before the publication of The Intercept report, although the news outlet said it had contacted the NSA and the Director of National Intelligence before the story went out.

Officials asked the website not to publish or report on the document, but after the Intercept declined the request they asked that some information be redacted, according to the news report. The Intercept said it agreed to withhold material that clearly wasn’t in the public interest. Intercept said its story was based on “a highly classified intelligence report" that had been provided anonymously to the group and had been “independently authenticated."

Winner made an initial appearance Monday before a federal magistrate in Augusta and is scheduled to have a bond hearing on Thursday, Nichols, said in an interview Monday.

Nichols said he couldn’t confirm news reports that his client had leaked top-secret data from the NSA to The Intercept.

“At this stage, all I can say is that my client has no prior criminal history,” he said. “We look forward to getting involved in the case so my client can put this behind her."

Pluribus International, which is based in Alexandria, Virginia, specializes in providing support services to the federal government’s defense, security and intelligence communities, according to the company’s website. The company provides “leading edge capabilities" in cyber, electronic warfare and computer network attack, the website says.

The published report said the NSA has determined Russian military intelligence executed a cyber-attack on at least one U.S. voting software supplier and also sent phishing emails to more than 100 local election officials just days before the November presidential election.

The Intercept also said Russian hackers, specifically the Russian General Staff Main Intelligence Directorate, or GRU, may have penetrated further into U.S. voting systems than previously known, including executing cyber-espionage to get information from a U.S. company last August about elections-related software and hardware.

Pluribus is owned by Nathan McCarry, who’s also the chief executive officer, according to his LinkedIn page.

Pluribus representatives didn’t immediately respond after regular business hours to phone and email messages seeking comment on Winner.

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