Bond was denied Thursday afternoon for Reality Leigh Winner, an Augusta woman who is suspected of leaking a classified document to an online news agency.
Winner, 25, appeared in U.S. District Court in Augusta for a detention hearing Thursday afternoon. She entered a plea of not guilty to the charge of willful retention and transmission of national defense information.
At the conclusion of a nearly three-hour hearing, Magistrate Judge Brian K. Epps ruled in favor of detention, saying Winner could pose a danger to the entire country because of the government’s national security secret she might have shared already and the secrets she might be harboring in her head.
The four factors he had to consider: the type of offense, the weight of the evidence, Winner’s character and the potential danger to the community or the risk of flight, Epps said. Winner, he said, is accused of violating her top secret security clearance to obtain a top secret document that was leaked to a media outfit. The evidence is strong in that she reportedly left a trail of clues behind, she confessed and in a recorded call to her mother from jail, Winner indicated she might have had more than one classified document.
Since February, Winner has worked for a National Security Agency contractor, Pluribus, at Fort Gordon. She took the job after serving for six years in the Air Force where she obtained top secret clearance while working as a linguist, specializing in languages of the Middle East. The indictment, returned Wednesday, accuses Winner of using her position of trust to take a classified document May 9 and mailing it to a news outlet two days later.
Winner was taken into custody Saturday by federal agents who executed a search warrant at her home. An investigation was launched when a reporter with The Intercept reportedly contacted government officials with a classified document that detailed how Russian intelligence attempted to influence last’s year election that sent Donald Trump to the White House.
On Thursday, Winner’s mother and stepfather described the young woman they knew, one who gave up a full scholarship to study engineering at Texas A&M to join the Air Force after graduating from high school. They would pledge their home and the 20 acres of land they own as security for Winner’s bond.
“I know in my heart she would not do anything to jeopardize that,” Gary Davis said of Winner’s release on bond.
She started learning Arabic on her own before she finished high school, a language she loved, said her mother, Billie Winner-Davis. Her friend Ann Demasi, who has known Winner for six years, testified she trusts Winner 100 percent and has never known her to lose control or act violently. She does, Demasi said, have a dry sense of humor and has a tendency to use hyperbole.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Golari painted a picture of another side of Winner, and said “some of the information is downright frightening.” In a call to her mother Sunday night from the Lincoln County jail where she is being held, Winner said she was in trouble because of “those documents,” plural, Golari said. In a phone call to her sister, Winner said she was willing to use the “pretty white girl” in court and that if she didn’t get bond would go nuclear with the media, Golari said.
Winner, the prosecutor said, had notes about software to enter the “dark” web anonymously, to change SIM card on cell phone to use anonymously, and setting up a single-use, burner email account. She wrote, “I want to burn the White House down.” She wrote the names of Taliban leaders, and referred to a Muslim leader’s vision of a fundamental Islamic state as Christ like, Golari said. She wrote of wanting to travel to the Middle East and had researched taking a trip to Israel in the fall, the prosecutor said. She went to Belize for three days in May, and she has access to $30,000 to $35,000 of her own savings and over $12,000 raised by a Go Fund Me page, Golari said.
“Downright frightening?” defense attorney Titus Nichols responded. She once put a flash drive in a work computer, that doesn’t make her a Taliban recruit. She has absolutely no history of violence, and her alleged confession came after being confronted by 10 armed federal agents at her home Saturday, he said. Saying she could be a “pretty white girl” is not evidence she’s a threat to anyone.
“The government is scrapping and crawling to build a mountain out of a mole hill,” Nichols said. They want to deem Winner sinister because as a millennial she freely uses technology, he said.
The judge said, however, he believed the government had made its case that Winner should be held without bond. No one knows what became of the flash drive or what might be on it, and no one knows what secrets she may have in her head, Epps said.
Winner faces a potential penalty of up to 10 years in prison and a fine up to $250,000.
Reach Sandy Hodson at (706) 823-3226 or firstname.lastname@example.org.