- Jeremy Redmon The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
A 25-year-old federal contractor in Augusta has been charged with sending to the news media a top-secret government report about Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election, the Trump administration’s first such criminal leak case.
The government announced Reality Leigh Winner’s arrest Monday, about an hour after The Intercept reported that it had obtained a top-secret National Security Agency report about Russia’s interference. The NSA report, according to The Intercept, 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 last November’s presidential election.
Former FBI Director James Comey is expected to testify Thursday before a Senate panel that is probing Russia’s interference in the presidential election. Comey was fired last month amid an FBI investigation into possible ties between Russia and Donald Trump’s campaign.
In announcing the charge against Winner, the U.S. Justice Department did not identify the classified material — which was dated on or about May 5 — or the news outlet. But The Intercept reported the NSA document it received anonymously was dated May 5.
Trump has railed against leaks from his government, calling for a Justice Department investigation. While Winner’s mother, Billie Winner-Davis, described her as no fan of the president, she added, “she’s not an activist.”
Winner is a contractor with Pluribus International Corporation and is assigned to a U.S. government facility in Georgia, where she has held a top-secret clearance, according to the U.S. Justice Department. The government started investigating her after the news outlet contacted it on Tuesday about an upcoming story concerning the intelligence materials.
The news outlet provided federal officials a copy of the classified information. Federal investigators said the pages appeared “folded and/or creased, suggesting they had been printed and hand-carried out of a secured space.” They quickly identified six people who had printed the materials, including Winner, and found she had email contact with the news agency.
While the Justice Department did not identify the material Winner allegedly mailed the news outlet, it did disclose it is classified at the “Top Secret level, indicating that its unauthorized disclosure could reasonably result in exceptionally grave damage to the national security, and is marked as such.”
Winner’s attorney, Titus Nichols, said she is a U.S. Air Force veteran with no criminal convictions. Winner’s last station with the Air Force was at Fort Meade in Maryland, where the NSA is located. She was still in federal custody Monday, Nichols said, and a court hearing about her detention is set for Thursday. Nichols plans to argue for her release.
“We look forward to getting the evidence and reviewing it and working hard to resolve this matter so my client can put it behind her and so she can go back on with her life,” he said. “She is a good person.”
Monday, Winner-Davis, 51, of Kingsville, Texas, said she spoke to her daughter by phone after she was arrested Saturday.
“She was just in shock,” she said. “She was very quiet. She was scared.”
While Trump is “not her man,” Winner-Davis said, “she hasn’t gone to any riots or marches.” Her daughter was involved with an organization called Athletes Serving Athletes, and she would run with disabled children, helping them along. She also loves to paint and sketch and is fond of drawing Jesus Christ. Her photos on social media show her to be a fitness buff who enjoyed yoga and weightlifting.
“Reality is a beautiful person,” she said. “She’s kind and caring.”
Winner’s posts on Facebook and Twitter have been decidedly anti-Trump. She appeared to be acting on her strong political opinions, even recently visiting the office of a Republican U.S. senator. A Feb. 14 post on Facebook showed her standing outside the downtown Atlanta district office of U.S. Sen. David Perdue. She wrote, “A great American once told us to go out and have conversations with one another.”
One person posted a comment asking her how it went. She responded that she got a “private 30-minute meeting,” not specifying with whom, and said Perdue’s “state policy director is going to send me email updates on some of my concerns regarding climate change and what the state of Georgia is doing to reduce dependency on fossil fuels.
“I was able to draw the parallel between the 2011 interview of President Bashar al Assad claiming utter ignorance of the human rights violations his citizens were protesting,” Winner wrote, “to Trump’s statement last week that the White House hadn’t received any calls about the DAPL (Dakota Access Pipeline), nor were there any protests before last week. They got the message.”
Since the news of her arrest broke, other Facebook users have hijacked many of her posts with angry messages. Below the post about her visit to Perdue’s office, someone wrote, “Hope they toss you in Ft. Leavenworth for the better part of a half century. You are a TRAITOR to your country and the Govt. should absolutely make an example out of you!”
Other recent comments: “Leakers wear prison sneakers” and “Enjoy life in prison you traitor.” Under a photo of Winner doing a pull-up someone posted: “Looks like you’ll have fun lifting weights in prison for the next 10-20 years.”
A few people offered messages of support, such as, “Hey girl we need to send you money for your defense fund.”
If convicted of the charge of “gathering, transmitting or losing defense information,” Winner could face up to 10 years in prison, court records show.
“Exceptional law enforcement efforts allowed us quickly to identify and arrest the defendant,” Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said in a prepared statement. “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.”
Winner-Davis said she feels like she’s in a “whirlwind.” She traveled to Augusta and saw her daughter in court Monday but could not talk to her. They just exchanged glances.
“It’s hard not to cry,” she said.
Staff writers Johnny Edwards and Craig Schneider contributed to this story.