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Reality Winner could get record-setting sentence in NSA leak case

Reality Winner, who pleaded guilty in June to leaking a top-secret government report about Russian meddling in the 2016 election, could receive a record-setting prison term when she is sentenced in a federal court in Augusta Thursday, court records show.

The former National Security Agency contractor faces up to 10 years in prison. But her plea deal with prosecutors calls for her to serve five years and three months behind bars. That is longer than anyone else has been sentenced for an “unauthorized disclosure to the media,” federal prosecutors said in a court filing this month.

The prosecutors are urging Chief U.S. District Court Judge J. Randal Hall to agree to the sentence spelled out in her plea deal. If the judge instead moves to give her a longer sentence, Winner, 26, could withdraw her guilty plea and go to trial.


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“The government advises the court that despite the agreed-upon sentence being below the applicable guidelines range, it would be the longest sentence served by a federal defendant for an unauthorized disclosure to the media,” the prosecutors said in their court filing.

The prosecutors added that avoiding a trial would prevent them from having to reveal sensitive government information in court.

Reality Winner, charged with leaking a top-secret government document to a news outlet, walks into the federal courthouse in Augusta, Ga., Tuesday, June 26, 2018. (Michael Holahan/The Augusta Chronicle via AP) (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

“The agreement reflects a fair resolution of the defendant’s criminal culpability, especially when balanced against the further harm to the national security that would likely result from a trial,” the prosecutors said.

Prosecutors also cited several other similar federal cases in which defendants received shorter prison sentences. In 2013, former FBI bomb technician Donald Sachtleben was sentenced to 43 months in prison for leaking classified information to the Associated Press about a foiled bomb plot in Yemen. That same year, former CIA officer John Kiriakou was given a 30-month sentence for revealing to a freelance journalist the identity of an undercover CIA agent. Two years later, former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling got a 42-month sentence for leaking to The New York Times classified information about a secret operation to disrupt Iran’s nuclear weapons program.

Winner, the prosecutors said, harmed national security last year when she mailed a copy of a NSA document to The Intercept, an online publication. The Intercept published an article based on the report, saying Russian military intelligence sent spear-phishing emails to more than 100 local election officials and launched a cyberattack against a Florida-based voting software supplier that contracts in eight states.

Whistleblower Support Network paid more than $1,000 for this billboard to remain up for a month on Washington Road near Augusta. “The way Reality Leigh Winner is being treated is a matter of vital public interest,” the group said in a statement. “This case is important to the American people.” LAMAR OUTDOOR ADVERTISING (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Last week, Winner’s attorneys filed court papers in support of having her detained at the Federal Medical Center Carswell near Fort Worth, Texas. That would place her nearer to her family in Kingsville, Texas, and allow her to get help with her bulimia, an eating disorder. Joel Sickler, a criminologist working with Winner’s attorneys, noted Winner is a U.S. Air Force veteran with no other criminal convictions. She has already spent more than a year behind bars at the Lincoln County Jail outside of Augusta.

“In my opinion,” Sickler wrote, “it would be extremely helpful for Ms. Winner if she were designated to a facility close to her family in Texas, as it would assist with her adjustment to the conditions of confinement, and later, it would be beneficial as she transitions to pre-release at a halfway house.”

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