Feds: NSA leak suspect wrote of wanting to ‘burn the White House down’

Judge denies bond for Reality Leigh Winner
June 8, 2017 Augusta - Reality Leigh Winner leaves Federal Justice Center after she was denied bond during a hearing on Thursday, June 8, 2017. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM



June 8, 2017 Augusta - Reality Leigh Winner leaves Federal Justice Center after she was denied bond during a hearing on Thursday, June 8, 2017. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Reality Leigh Winner, the suspect in the National Security Agency leak investigation, wrote in a notebook seized by authorities that she wanted to "burn the White House down" and flee overseas, federal prosecutors said Thursday.

She also has had a “persistent” desire to travel to Afghanistan and has researched technology that could be used to cover her digital tracks, the prosecutors said. And during a recent jailhouse phone call to her mother, Winner discussed some “documents” — plural — raising concerns among authorities that she might have gathered other top-secret information beyond the document on Russian election meddling that has already been reported in the news media.

Reality Winner, 25, is accused of “removing classified material from a government facility and mailing it to a news outlet.” She could face up to 10 years in prison if convicted.

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Assistant U.S. attorney Jennifer Solari argued against releasing Winner on bond, adding that prosecutors have not ruled out bringing additional charges against her. The 25-year-old Air Force linguist could still do “exceptionally grave damage to national security,” which “could assist our foreign adversaries,” Solari said.

“We don’t know how much more she knows or how much she remembers,” Solari told U.S. Magistrate Judge Brian Epps.

Epps ultimately denied Winner's release on bond Thursday. He said the nature of the crime, the weight of the evidence, her history and the potential danger to the community weighed against her release.

“Who is she?” he wondered aloud.

Epps also referenced several statements prosecutors attributed to her, including one instance when she allegedly told her mother in a phone call, “Mom, those documents, I screwed up.” And he cited a flash drive prosecutors say she improperly plugged into a top-secret computer — in a sort of test run — while she was still in the Air Force last year.

“We don’t know where that flash drive is today and that concerns me,” he said.

Winner's attorney, Titus Nichols, said she is not a flight risk and should be freed. Her parents and a friend testified she was a straight-A student, that she is an animal lover and that she has no criminal convictions. Her parents said the worst thing she ever did was orchestrate a food fight before her school graduation ceremony, causing her to lose her privilege to walk the stage.

“They have not provided any evidence that she is a threat to anybody,” Nichols said of the prosecutors. “They are scratching and clawing to build a mountain out of a molehill.”

Recorded Jail Conversations

Winner shuffled into the courtroom, shackled at the ankles, handcuffed behind her back, and dressed in orange jail duds with “Inmate” printed in yellow on the chest and back.

She appeared calm and focused, occasionally taking notes in a yellow notepad. Other than looking down and frowning a few times during her parents’ testimony, she hardly reacted, even when the judge said he would keep her locked up until her trial.

She had her blond hair tied and braided tight on top of her head. That became pertinent later when the prosecutor said Winner told her mother in a recorded jail phone conversation that she planned to wear her hair that way to court. She also told her sister from jail that she would play the card of being “pretty, white and cute,” Solari said.

Billie Winner-Davis, the mother of Reality Leigh Winner, arrives at the Federal Justice Center in Augusta for her daughter’s bond hearing on Thursday, June 8, 2017. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM


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The prosecutor also alleged that Winner coached her mother on what to say to the press — that she feared for her life and the lives of her dog and cat while she was being arrested. Her mother, Billie Winner-Davis, testified that she indeed made statements to that effect in interviews with reporters.

“You’ve got to play that angle,” the prosecutor quoted Winner telling her mother.

Winner also allegedly said on a jail phone that if the judge denied her bond, she would “go nuclear with the press,” since “that’s how (Chelsea) Manning got out,” referring to a former Army intelligence analyst at the center of another leak case.

Feds Paint Her As a Turncoat

A federal grand jury has indicted Winner on a single count of “willful retention and transmission of national defense information.” Winner faces up to 10 years in prison and $250,000 in fines, plus up to three years of supervised release and a $100 special assessment. Winner pleaded not guilty to the charge Thursday.

Filed this week, the six-page federal indictment says Winner worked as a federal contractor at a U.S. government agency in Georgia between February and June and had a top-secret security clearance. On about May 9, the indictment says, Winner printed and removed a May 5 report on “intelligence activities by a foreign government directed at targets within the United States.” Two days later, she sent a copy of the report to an online news outlet.

Titus Nichols, attorney for Reality Leigh Winner, arrives at the Federal Justice Center in Augusta for Winner's bond hearing on Thursday, June 8, 2017. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM


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The U.S. Justice Department announced Winner’s arrest Monday, about an hour after The Intercept reported that it had obtained a top-secret NSA report about Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election. The intelligence report says Russian military intelligence officials tried to hack into the U.S. voting system just before last November’s election.

In addition to her passport, the FBI has seized from Winner's Augusta home some notebooks, documents, computers and four cellphones. Winner is now being held at the Lincoln County Jail, located about 40 miles northwest of Augusta.

The prosecutors were aggressive in painting her as a turncoat who’d been hiding a dark side from her family, plotting for months to steal sensitive documents from the government for which she worked. They said her handwritten notes fawned over Taliban leaders and expressed wanting to live in places such as Jordan and Mexico.

Prosecutors said she had written in a notebook seized by the FBI, “I want to burn the White House down,” adding she would then flee to a country such as Nepal or to Kurdish territory.

They said she most wanted to travel to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Above one notation in her notebook about a 12-month contract job that would have sent her to Afghanistan, according to prosecutors, she wrote in all caps, “THIS IS YOUR CHANCE.”

Solari, the prosecutor, brought up that fugitive WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has praised Winner, and that her supporters have started a GoFundMe page to raise cash for her. She called the evidence prosecutors have gathered "downright frightening."

‘Young, Intelligent, Idealistic, a Veteran’

Nichols, Winner’s attorney, pushed back against what he said was an insinuation by the government that Winner wanted to leave the country and join the Taliban, assailing her for computer skills that are common among millennials. Her other attorney, John Bell, spoke mockingly of the prosecutors’ contentions that because she had three guns in her home and knows how to switch SIM cards in cellphones, she is somehow a threat to society.

Anne Demasi, a friend who met Winner in 2011 during her time in linguistics training in Monterey, Calif., said Winner has “a very dry sense of humor.” Bell asked Demasi if her friend might write something down humorously that she didn’t mean literally. Demasi responded: “Absolutely.”

Gary Davis, stepfather of Reality Leigh Winner, says the depiction of Winner through social media is not an “an accurate portrayal of my daughter." Winner, who lives in Augusta, Ga., is accused of leaking national security information on Russia hac

Joshua Lowther, a criminal defense attorney in Atlanta, said it’s clear the government is trying to send a message with Winner’s prosecution. The case is the first leak trial under the Trump administration, and the president has called for crackdowns on leakers amid rampant disclosures of sensitive material related to the Russia scandal. In Winner’s case, he said, the government faces a young and intelligent Air Force veteran who could be sympathetic to a jury.

Lowther said one of Winner’s potential defenses is to highlight her history of service to the country, including in the decision to leak material she believed the public needed to know.

“She’s young, intelligent, idealistic and a veteran,” said Lowther, who added the defense’s strategy could be that: “Everything she’s ever done has been for the good of the country, and that appears to be what she was trying to do now.”

Edward MacMahon, a veteran criminal defense lawyer versed in national security cases, said Winner “fits into the pattern” of the Justice Department throwing the book at lower-level employees who leak information, while higher-level officials, such as former CIA Director Gen. David Petraeus and retired Marine Corps Gen. James Cartwright, avoided lengthy prison sentences by pleading to lesser charges.

“I can assure you the Justice Department will ask for jail time,” MacMahon said. “The Espionage Act is a serious felony.”

Don’t Have To Prove Actual Harm

Though the case is slated to be tried in federal court in Augusta, it will be directed from Washington by the Counterintelligence and Export Control Section of the Justice Department's National Security Division.

“Nobody wants to be a defendant in an espionage case, that’s for sure,” MacMahon said. “The government will put enormous resources into trying this case.”

» MORE: Gallery of NSA leak suspect’s bond hearing

MacMahon said prosecutors will attempt to prove that Winner had access to the classified material, gave it to persons without that access, and that they can exclude other possible suspects. Prosecutors also do not have to prove the leak caused harm to the nation, he said.

“They don’t have to prove actual harm, they only have to prove the possibility of harm,” he said. “It’s been challenged in court as vague, but no court has ever overturned a conviction from it.”

Kenneth Geers, a senior fellow at the international affairs think tank Atlantic Council and a former NSA and Defense Department analyst, said if the facts are as alleged, it appears Winner acted out of conscience in revealing the document to The Intercept. Geers said this latest leak isn’t likely to be damaging to the NSA, unless adversaries are able to determine sources and methods of intelligence gathering as a result.