Potential sentencing for Reality Leigh Winner could depend on what investigators uncover

If Reality Leigh Winner is convicted of willful retention and transmission of national defense information for leaking a classified document about Russian efforts to affect the presidential election last fall, any potential sentence probably depends on what federal investigators find in the coming weeks or months.


At Thursday’s detention hearing, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Solari said, forensic examinations of Winner’s electronic devices is underway. But Winner’s writings in notebooks were used by the prosecutor to paint Winner as a potential danger to national security, a woman who may have access and copied an unknown number of classified documents, and a woman whose writings indicate she longs to travel in the Middle East.

FULL COVERAGE: Reality Leigh Winner

The evidence that led to Wednesday’s indictment of Winner accuses her of violating her top secret security clearance to copy a classified document that could reasonably harm national security, and pass it along to a media outlet. The Department of Justice announced Winner’s arrest Monday, the same day The Intercept published an article based on a classified document that analyzed Russian intelligence attempts to influence the election.

If that document is the extent of Winner’s possible actions, it seems pretty benign, said Augusta area criminal defense attorney Pete Theodocion. The public was already aware of the possibility of Russia’s meddling and it seemed the kind of information that the public should know and would have eventually, he said. It doesn’t seem to endanger any intelligence gathering methods or endanger any life, Theodocion said.

However, perceived anti-American leanings might be an easy way for prosecutors to portray her as a threat to the country. Although it’s not a crime to write in a journal, once you’re in the cross-hairs they are going to use everything to seek a maximum sentence, Theodocion said. Winner’s writings reportedly praised a Muslim leader’s vision of a fundamental Islamic state.

Augusta-area attorney Jacque Hawk said he thinks any potential sentence will depend on what - if anything - investigators find that is evidence Winner may have access to other classified material. If there is more, he would urge federal prosecutors to re-indict and charge her with every possible criminal act.

“Then yes, you’re going to get hammered,” he said.

But if it’s just a 25-year-old woman trying to color public opinion by doing something stupid, that’s different, Hawk said. He believes the judge will look at who Winner is and what was the purpose of what she is accused of.

The crime Winner faces is punishable for up to 10 years and a fine of up to $250,000. Rarely do federal sentencing guidelines recommend the maximum sentence. Since the guidelines are only advisory, a judge is free to fashion his own sentence and he can, with stated objective reasons, impose a sentence above or below the federal guideline range.

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

1973: Daniel Ellsberg and Anthony Russo stood trial on charges that included espionage for leaking the Pentagon Papers, a document that outlined the history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Charges dismissed when prosecutors learned a secret White House team broke into the office of Ellisberg’s psychiatrist in attempt to find information to discredit Ellsberg. The Supreme Court ruled that the government could not prevent the New York Times from publishing stories about the Pentagon Papers.

1985: Samuel Morison, intelligence analyst, was convicted of espionage and sentenced to 24 months in prison for sending secret satellite photographs of Soviet aircraft to Jane’s Fighting Ships, a reference book. President Clinton pardoned Morison in 2001.

2005: Larry Franklin pleaded guilty to several espionage charges for leaking intelligence about Iran to Israel lobbyists. He was initially sentenced to 13 years in prison but it was reduced to 10 months with 100 hour of community service.

2008: Thomas Tamm was working as an attorney with the Department of Justice when he leaked President George W. Bush’s warrantless wire-taping program. He was not prosecuted.

2009: Shamai Leibowitz, a FBI lawyer, pleaded guilty to disclosing secret FBI documents, transcripts of conversation intercepted at foreign embassies. He was sentenced to 20 months in prison.

2010: Thomas Drake, a National Security Agency contractor, was indicted on multiple charges of espionage for revealing the Trailblazer Project, an intelligence gathering program previously deemed hugely expensive and ineffective. The charges were dropped in exchange for Drake’s plea to a misdemeanor offense of exceeding authorized use of a computer.

2013: Chelsea Manning was an Army soldier who leaked hundreds of thousands of document to Wikileaks. Prosecuted for numerous charges of espionage and aiding and abetting the enemy, Manning was convicted and sentenced to 35 years in prison. President Obama commuted her sentenced and she was released last month.

2013: Former FBI agent and contractor Donald Sachtleben pleaded guilty to revealing national security information for disclosing to the Associated press details of a failed attempt by al-Quaeda to detonate an underwear bomb. He was sentenced to 43 months in prison.

2013: Former CIA agent and National Secuirty Agency private contractor Edward Snowden was charged under the espionage act for alleging funneling thousands of documents about government surveillance operations. Snowden fled the country and is reportedly living in Russia.

2013: John Kiriakou, a CIA analyst and officer, revealed the CIA use of torture. He was sentenced to 30 months in prison.

2014: Stephen Kim, a state department advisor, disclosed information about North Korea’s plans to test nuclear bomb. He was sentenced to 13 months in prison.

2015: Jeffrey Sterling, CIA agent, was convicted of espionage in release of information about an operation aimed at Iran’s nuclear program. He was sentenced to 42 months in prison.

2015: Former CIA Director and four-star Gen. David Petraeus pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of mishandling classified material, according to national media accounts, personal notebooks containing information about secret codes, names of covert officers and war strategy. He was sentenced to two years probation.

2016: Former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff James Cartwight pleaded guilty to lying to federal investigators about his communication with media reporters about Iran’s nuclear program. Prosecutors sought two years in prison but President Obama issued Cartwright a pardon in January.

--Staff Research