Owner of The Intercept assisting accused NSA leaker’s legal defense

A federal grand jury has indicted Reality Winner, 25, on a single count of “willful retention and transmission of national defense information.” She 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. She has pleaded not guilty to the charge. Lincoln County (Ga.) Sheriff’s Office

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Credit: Hyosub Shin

A federal grand jury has indicted Reality Winner, 25, on a single count of “willful retention and transmission of national defense information.” She 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. She has pleaded not guilty to the charge. Lincoln County (Ga.) Sheriff’s Office

The arrest of a National Security Agency contractor on an espionage charge last month had the world asking, who is Reality Winner?

Court documents have shown how her identity became known in the first place: In trying to confirm a top-secret NSA report on the Russian government’s attempts to hack into U.S. election systems, a news outlet essentially led federal investigators to her as the source of the leaked information.

The Intercept, an online outlet specializing in national security coverage, on Tuesday admitted some fault in handling the leaked report, with its parent company announcing that it will be assisting in Winner's legal defense.

"The ongoing criminal case prevents us from going into detail," Intercept editor-in-chief Betsy Reed wrote online, "but I can state that, at several points in the editorial process, our practices fell short of the standards to which we hold ourselves for minimizing the risks of source exposure when handling anonymously provided materials."

The announcement Tuesday further tied Winner to The Intercept’s June report summarizing an attempt by Russian security services to hack a Florida-based election software provider. The report said the Russians planned to use that information to attempt to access the voter registration systems of several local governments. It became yet another development in a still-unfolding narrative about Russian interference in last year’s election.

As The Intercept was announcing its support of Winner on Tuesday, emails released by Donald Trump Jr. revealed he and others met with a Kremlin-connected lawyer after being told that the Russian government wanted to help his father’s campaign.

One way The Intercept's parent company, First Look Media, plans to help Winner is by providing $50,000 in matching funds to Stand with Reality, a nonprofit campaign to raise money to support Winner's case.

“I certainly don’t know if she leaked that document,” said Rainey Reitman, one of the co-founders of the campaign. “But if she did, she is a whistleblower and a hero and shouldn’t be in prison. And I think a lot of people feel the same way.”

First Look’s Press Freedom Defense Fund will also help pay for an additional law firm to support Winner, Reed wrote. First Look is also offering the expertise of its own attorney, Baruch Weiss of Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer, who has extensive experience with Espionage Act cases.

Winner is already being represented by the Augusta firm of Bell & Brigham.

In making Tuesday’s announcement, The Intercept did not say that Winner was the leaker. “We had no idea who our source was and still have no independent knowledge of the source’s identity,” Reed wrote. But she said, “We would object to the prosecution of Winner under the act even if we had no connection to the materials she is accused of disclosing.”

Previously, the Press Freedom Defense Fund helped with the appeal of whistleblower Chelsea Manning, a former soldier convicted of violating the Espionage Act.

Though he won’t be Winner’s attorney and said he doesn’t know what her defense will be, Weiss believes the real issue is whether the information she allegedly provided was potentially damaging to national security, as opposed to just being deemed classified.

“Based on the information that the government has tracing this to her,” Weiss said, “I think the defense is going to be that what she disclosed doesn’t meet the definition of the statute. And even if it does, it was newsworthy, First Amendment-protected.”

While federal prosecutors contend that Winner confessed to leaking the document, she has pleaded not guilty. Winner's mother, Billie Winner-Davis, remains conflicted about whether her daughter, who bashed Trump on social media, went so far as to risk her freedom in order to leak a report on election meddling.

“I don’t know if she did this or not. And then, if she did do it, I don’t know why she would do this,” Winner-Davis said. “I would give anything to be able to be in a room with her, and have it totally private, so that I could ask her definitely, but I can’t do that ever right now.”

In past interviews, Winner-Davis has said she believes her daughter is innocent and that someone may have set her up.

Winner is the first person being prosecuted by the Trump administration on charges of leaking classified information. The Intercept came under fire after her arrest when a search warrant affidavit laid out how the news outlet may have tipped off the federal government to her identity.

For one, the outlet provided federal officials with a copy of the original NSA document, which had watermark information that may have made it easier for investigators to trace it. The affidavit said the pages appeared “folded and/or creased, suggesting they had been printed and hand-carried out of a secured space.”

The affidavit also says a reporter told a government contractor the package came through the mail with an Augusta postmark, and that he believed it was sent by someone at the NSA facility there. Federal investigators quickly identified six people who had printed the materials, including Winner, and found she had email contact with the news agency, in one case seeking a podcast transcript.

In her online piece, The Intercept’s editor in chief took responsibility for “this failure.”

“Like other journalistic outlets, we routinely verify such materials with any individuals or institutions implicated by their disclosure and seek their comment, as we explain on our website,” Reed wrote. “This process carries some risks of source exposure that are impossible to mitigate when dealing with sensitive materials.

“Nonetheless, it is clear that we should have taken greater precautions to protect the identity of a source who was anonymous even to us.”

A federal grand jury has indicted Winner, 25, on a single count of “willful retention and transmission of national defense information.” She faces up to 10 years in prison and $250,000 in fines. Last month, a federal judge denied bond for her after prosecutors portrayed her as sympathetic to terrorists and possibly planning to flee the country. She remains in the Lincoln County jail.

Her trial has been set for Oct. 23 in Augusta.

A former Air Force linguist, Winner began work this year as a federal contractor in Augusta and had a top-secret security clearance.

The Stand with Reality campaign, which was announced Monday, was founded by three people: Reitman, who leads the advocacy team for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties group; Jeff Paterson, project director of Courage to Resist, which assists military war resisters; and Trevor Timm, cofounder of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, which helps defend journalists’ rights.

“We are concerned about Reality’s case because it would chill investigative journalism to go after her with these really egregious charges,” Reitman said, adding the leaked NSA document “belongs in the public view. It was important to understanding a larger political moment around our election and the security of that election and how and when outside forces could impact that.”

Paterson said Winner “is being zealously overprosecuted. If she is the person who released those documents, sure she should be fired. But she is being held without bail … painted as a terrorist sympathizer, which is outrageous.”

James Durham, acting U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Georgia, did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday afternoon. Winner’s defense attorneys, John Bell and Titus Nichols, also did not respond to a request for comment Thursday afternoon. But a thank you note from Nichols is included on the Stand with Reality website.

“It is refreshing to know that so many people that Ms. Winner has never known have come together to offer their support and prayers for her,” he wrote in part.