Augusta woman Reality Winner accused of taking classified documents

An Augusta woman working for a private contractor at Fort Gordon has been arrested on a charge of removing classified documents that were allegedly mailed to a news outlet.

 

The arrest was announced within hours of Monday’s publication of a classified National Security Agency report by the news site The Intercept saying Russian hackers attacked at least one U.S. voting software supplier days before last year’s presidential election, suggesting election-related hacking penetrated further into U.S. voting systems than previously known.

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The classified report does not say whether the hacking had any effect on election results. But it says Russian military intelligence attacked a U.S. voting software company and sent spear-phishing emails to more than 100 local election officials at the end of October or beginning of November.

U.S. intelligence agencies declined to comment. However, the Justice Department announced Monday it had charged a government contractor in Augusta with leaking a classified report to an online news organization. The report the contractor allegedly leaked is dated May 5, the same date as the document The Intercept posted online.

Reality Leigh Winner, 25, of the 1900 block of Battle Row, was arrested by the FBI at her home Saturday and appeared in U.S. District Court in Augusta on Monday

According to a search warrant affidavit signed by FBI Special Agent Justin Garrick, Winner served in the Air Force for about four years before joining Pluri­bus International Corp. in Feb­ru­ary. She had top security clearance.

On June 1, the government became aware the news outlet had what was thought to be classified documents, according to the affidavit. The document was considered top secret, meaning its release could result in exceptionally grave danger to national security.

Winner was one of six employees with access to the documents and emails with the news outlet were found on her computer, according to court documents.

“Exceptional law enforcement efforts allowed us quickly to identify and arrest the defendant,” said Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein in a press release. “Releasing classified material without authorization threatens our nation’s security and undermines public faith in government. People who are trusted with classified information and pledge to protect it must be held accountable when they violate that obligation.”

According to the complaint, Winner agreed to talk with agents during the execution of the warrant. During that conversation, Winner admitted to intentionally identifying and printing the classified intelligence report at issue despite not having a “need to know” and with knowledge that the report was classified.

Winner further admitted removing the report from her office, retaining it and mailing it from Augusta to the news outlet, which she knew was not authorized to receive or possess the documents, according to the Department of Justice news release.

The document in The In­tercept report said Russian military intelligence “executed cyber espionage operations against a named U.S. company in August 2016 evidently to obtain information on elections-related software and hardware solutions, according to information that became available in April 2017.”

The hackers are believed to have then used data from that operation to create a new email account to launch a spear-phishing campaign targeting U.S. local government organizations, the document said. “Lastly, the actors sent test emails to two non-existent accounts ostensibly associated with absentee balloting, presumably with the purpose of creating those accounts to mimic legitimate services.”

The document did not name any state.

The information in the leaked document seems to go further than the U.S. intelligence agencies’ January assessment of the hacking that occurred.

“Russian intelligence obtained and maintained access to elements of multiple U.S. state or local electoral boards,” the assessment said. The Department of Homeland Security “assesses that the types of systems Russian actors targeted or compromised were not involved in vote tallying.”

The Intercept contacted NSA and the national intelligence director’s office about the document and both agencies asked it not be published. U.S. intelligence officials asked The Intercept to redact certain sections. The Intercept said some material was withheld at U.S. intelligence agencies’ request because it wasn’t “clearly in the public interest.”

The Associated Press could not confirm the authen­ticity of the May 5 NSA document, which The Intercept said it obtained anonymously.

Winner’s attorney, Titus Thomas Nichols, declined to confirm to AP whether she is accused of leaking the NSA report received by The Intercept. He also declined to name the federal agency for which Winner worked.

“My client has no (criminal) history, so it’s not as if she has a pattern of having done anything like this before,” Nichols said in a phone interview Monday. “She is a very good person. All this craziness has happened all of a sudden.”

Asked whether Winner had confessed, Nichols said, “If there is a confession, the government has not shown it to me.”

Associated Press reports were used in this article.

Reach Sandy Hodson at (706) 823-3226 or sandy.hodson@augustachronicle.com.

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