After a year of duking it out in federal court over allegations that she leaked top-secret government intelligence, former National Security Agency contractor Reality Winner has agreed to a plea deal.
“I do know that she has always been ready and willing to accept responsibility for any wrongdoing, and that she will accept the consequences,” her mother, Billie Winner-Davis, told The Atlanta-Journal Constitution on Thursday.
Documents show the agreement was received by the court on Thursday after an 18-minute conference call on Wednesday with U.S. Magistrate Judge Brian Epps.
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Winner-Davis, who has maintained a social media presence highlighting her daughter’s case, said she has spoken only briefly to Reality’s attorneys about the change in plea, and only in guarded terms. She said she did not know what charges her daughter would plead to or what the negotiated punishment would be.
Charged under the federal Espionage Act, Winner faced 10 years in prison and $250,000 in fines. Her trial had been scheduled for Oct. 15.
Winner, a 26-year-old former U.S. Air Force linguist who grew up in rural Texas, is accused of leaking a top-secret government report about Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election. At the time, she worked as an NSA contractor at Fort Gordon, near Augusta. The Intercept, the online news outlet that allegedly received the document, has since admitted some fault in its handling of the leaked report, which court records say led investigators to Winner’s door.
Winner’s case has attracted international attention, garnering impassioned support from the left and rebuke from the right. Since her arrest, her family and an assortment of support groups have waged a protracted battle in the court of public opinion, speaking out to news reporters, penning articles in The Intercept, and operating the site StandWithReality.org.
Earlier this month, the federal judge who would have presided in her case admonished attorneys not to speak publicly about the case after a billboard went up in the Augusta suburbs portraying Winner as an imprisoned hero and the federal government as her oppressor.
Winner-Davis speculated that the Espionage Act — which takes only the underlying act of leaking into account, not motive or mitigating circumstances — was too difficult to fight. Her daughter’s legal team suffered one defeat after another in rulings handed down by the judge, and Epps declined to release Winner from jail while her charges were pending.
“I’m not happy about it,” Winner-Davis said of the plea deal. “I still feel like the espionage charge is wrong. I feel like it’s harsh. I feel like it doesn’t allow a defendant to defend themselves.”
Whatever happens in court next week, she said she will continue to fight to clear her daughter’s name: “Regardless of what she’s been charged with, she’s not a traitor to this country.”
One of Winner’s attorneys, Titus Nichols, declined to comment other than to confirm a change of plea hearing is scheduled for Tuesday. A federal prosecutor also declined to comment.
This will mark the second guilty plea in Trump’s anti-leak drive. In April, former FBI Special Agent Terry Albury pleaded guilty to one count of making an unauthorized disclosure of national defense information and one count of unlawful retention of national defense information. He faces a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison per count.
Under President Barack Obama’s administration, leak cases often ended with pleas to minor offenses. A former NSA official in 2011 pleaded guilty in Maryland to one misdemeanor count of exceeding his authorized use of an NSA computer. The Justice Department agreed to drop 10 more serious previous criminal charges against Thomas Drake, who was sentenced to probation. He was accused of discussing classified information with a Baltimore Sun newspaper reporter. That reporter wrote stories about problems with NSA’s secret surveillance programs.
In 2012, former CIA officer/counter-terrorism official John Kiriakou pleaded guilty to a single charge of disclosing classified information to a journalist. He was sentenced to 30 months in prison after being accused of identifying an undercover operative involved in the use of waterboarding during the Bush administration. He says he was sent to prison for revealing torture.
In 2015, retired Gen. and former CIA director David H. Petraeus pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of mishandling classified materials and was sentenced to 2 years of probation and a $100,000 fine. He admitted giving handwritten journals with classified information to his mistress and then lying about it to the FBI. He had been charged with felonies but refused to plead guilty.
In 2016, Gen. James E. Cartwright, who was vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his discussions with reporters about Iran’s nuclear program. Obama pardoned him in January 2017, just before Trump took office.