Reality Leigh Winner was charged with allegedly leaking a top secret report to the website The Intercept.
Photo: Reality Leigh Winner's Instagram
Photo: Reality Leigh Winner's Instagram

What we know about the alleged NSA leak by Reality Winner

Monday’s arrest of a 25-year-old federal contractor charged with allegedly leaking top-secret information has led to several questions about how it all happened.

Reality Leigh Winner, who worked in Augusta, was charged with allegedly leaking top-secret National Security Agency documents to the media. Her arrest came as The Intercept published a story about Russia’s interference in last year’s presidential election.

According to The Intercept, the NSA report says Russian military intelligence officials executed a cyberattack on a U.S. voting software supplier and sent spear-phishing emails to more than 100 local election officials days before the election.

There are many remaining questions in the alleged leaking incident, including what it all means for the future of election security in this country.

Here’s what we know so far:

What is Pluribus?

A little-known company was thrust into national view after Winner’s alleged leak.

Winner worked as a contractor for Pluribus International Corp. at a U.S. government facility.  

The company’s website appeared to be down Tuesday, but internet archives have a recent version saved. The site says the company, founded in 2004, is based in Alexandria, Va., and specializes in “high quality analytical, operational, engineering and program management support” to the U.S. government. Its clients include agencies in federal defense, security, military and intelligence.

Pluribus supports its clients with contractors at locations across the country, in Europe and in Asia, the site says. It offers contractors with expertise in translation, intelligence, counterintelligence and counterterrorism.

The company, which reports $100 million annual revenue, bills itself as a small business, “which enables us to provide dedicated and responsive support to our customers.”

Winner had been working at the company almost four months and had a top-secret security clearance.

What is The Intercept, the website that published the leaked NSA report?

The Intercept is a 3-year-old online publication focused on national security and surveillance. It was founded in 2014 by journalists Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras and Jeremy Scahill. Poitras and Greenwald had previously published stories in British newspaper The Guardian based on confidential information leaked by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.

The Intercept was started partially as a platform for more reporting based on Snowden’s leaks. The site’s reporting has since expanded to topics including American military drone strike programs, climate change and technology.

What is spear-phishing, Russia’s alleged voter hacking technique?

Spear-phishing is a type of cyberattack, similar to phishing, but targeted toward a specific individual or entity, according to The Associated Press. Compare it to phishing, which is a broader form of online fraud that aims to steal things such as credit card numbers, Social Security numbers, user IDs and passwords.

Spear-phishing often uses email to get personal credentials such as login information or other sensitive materials.

The NSA report that Winner is accused of leaking to The Intercept alleged that Russian military intelligence officials sent spear-phishing emails to more than 100 local voting officials in the days leading up to the election.

Reality Leigh Winner met with staff of U.S. Sen. David Perdue months before her arrest.
Photo: Reality Leigh Winner's Instagram

How was the link revealed?

Winner’s arrest Monday coincided with The Intercept’s story describing the Russian hacking techniques. A search warrant filed in federal court in Georgia shows it took only a few days for investigators to target Winner as the alleged source of the leak.

On May 30, The Intercept showed authorities the printed top-secret documents and asked for comment. An internal audit showed that six people, including Winner, had printed out the materials after they were published at the beginning of the month.

Investigators said they searched her computer and found that she had emailed the news outlet in March from a personal account asking for transcripts of a podcast. The computer review also showed that on May 9 she searched the NSA’s classified system using search terms that led to the report, which she printed that day. The NSA told the FBI about the leak on June 1. FBI agents staked out Winner’s house in Augusta the next day. She was arrested Saturday and admitted to leaking the document. She remains in jail pending a detention hearing.

How was Georgia affected by election probing mentioned in the leaked NSA report? 

According to the state officials, it wasn’t.

Russia’s interference detailed in the report came after the U.S. Homeland Security Department in September warned of unidentified hackers possibly targeting voter registration systems in more than 20 states before the presidential election. Georgia was not one of those states.

Georgia’s Secretary of State office conducts its own testing and scanning of its voter systems using house staff and private vendors. It contracts with a security vendor to block and report threats, and a backup of the statewide voter registration system is updated every few seconds. In the event of a breach or crash, officials estimate the database would be back up and running in about 30 minutes.

What type of access did Winner have to Georgia officials?

Months before her arrest Monday, Winner met with members of U.S. Sen. David Perdue’s staff. She posted a selfie outside the senator’s Atlanta office on Valentine’s Day.

A Perdue spokeswoman confirmed Tuesday that his office staff met with Winner in February to discuss “environmental issues.” The office does not ask about employment in routine meetings with constituents, and that Winner’s work as a federal contractor didn’t come up.

In a social post, Winner told a friend that her time with Perdue’s staff, which she called a “private 30 minute meeting,” went “really well.”

Winner said she also told Perdue staffers that senators should “not be afraid to directly state when our president or his cabinet tell outright lies.” She said her suggestion was “well heard.”

AJC staff writers Kristina Torres, Tamar Hallerman and Janel Davis, along with Derek Hawkins of The Washington Post, contributed to this report.

Federal Contractor Arrested For Leaking ‘Top Secret’ Russia Document

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