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Reality Winner receives record-setting prison sentence

Former government contractor gets five years, three months behind bars

Augusta -- Reality Winner on Thursday received a record-setting prison sentence — five years and three months behind bars — for leaking a top-secret government report about Russian meddling in the 2016 election. 

“I sincerely apologize and take full responsibility for my actions,” the former National Security Agency contractor told Chief U.S. District Court Judge J. Randal Hall in a federal court in Augusta. “In particular, I want to apologize to my family.” 

» PREVIOUSLY: Reality Winner pleads guilty in NSA leak case

Bobby Christine, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Georgia, told reporters after the sentence hearing that the government had determined Winner’s actions “caused exceptionally grave damage to U.S. national security.” 

“That harm,” he said, “included but was not limited to impairing the ability of the United States to acquire foreign intelligence information similar to the information disclosed.” 

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“Make no mistake, this was not a victimless crime,” he also said. “Winner’s purposeful violation put our nation’s security at risk, not in a speculative way or hypothetical way but in a very real way, a very direct way.” 

Like the judge in the case, Christine said Winner’s sentence is meant to serve as a deterrent. 

“Winner will serve a term of incarceration that will give pause to others who are entrusted with our country’s sensitive national security information and would consider compromising it,” he said. “Anyone else who may think of committing such an egregious and damaging wrong should think both of the prison sentence imposed today and the very real damage done.”

» WHO IS REALITY WINNER?: A closer look at the former NSA contractor

Aug 23, 2018 - Augusta - Reality Winner, who pleaded guilty in June to leaking top-secret government documents about Russian meddling in the 2016 election, arrived to be to be sentenced in a federal court in Augusta on Aug. 23. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com (Bob Andres/Bob Andres)

Winner faced up to 10 years in prison for her crime. But her plea deal with prosecutors called 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. Both Winner’s attorneys and the prosecutors urged Hall to agree to the sentence spelled out in her plea deal. 

“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 avoiding a trial would prevent them from having to reveal sensitive government information in court. 

“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. 

The 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. 

Her plea agreement calls for her to serve five years and three months behind bars, though she will be sentenced at a later date.

Winner, 26, the prosecutors said, 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. 

The Press Freedom Defense Fund, which provides legal support to journalists and whistleblowers and is a program of The Intercept’s parent company, called Winner’s sentence “completely unjust.” 

“Demonstrating her passion for her country, she heroically — at great personal risk — alerted fellow Americans to vital information that Russia had tampered with the 2016 U.S. elections,” said the Press Freedom Defense Fund, which helped with the appeal of whistleblower Chelsea Manning, a former soldier convicted of violating the Espionage Act. “Her selfless act makes her a true patriot, not a criminal.”

Winner asked that she be detained at the Federal Medical Center Carswell near Fort Worth, Texas, saying 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 in court papers that 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.” 

The judge said Thursday he would recommend to the Bureau of Prisons that Winner be held at Federal Medical Center Carswell.

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