Accused leaker Reality Leigh Winner pleaded not guilty again Thursday to providing classified information to an online news outlet and her defense team signaled they will fight to get as much information as they can to aid her defense in the face of heavy security restrictions.
Winner entered U.S District Court in Augusta heavily shackled and accompanied by two U.S. Marshals. She wore a rumpled orange jumpsuit with “inmate” stamped on the back and her blond hair was woven in tight braids across her head. She barked out a clear, “Not guilty” to the superceding indictment she faced in the case. She is still accused of a single count of illegally retaining and transmitting classified information to the online news outlet The Intercept.
The new indictment was almost exactly the same as the preceding one except it provided a more specific date for the offense, May 9, said assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Solari. Winner, who had a classified security clearance, was working for National Security Agency contractor Pluribus. She was arrested June 3 and has been held without bond since then.
She has been charged under the Espionage Act but defense attorney John Bell said that was normally applied to people who disclosed military secrets such as “movement of troops and ships and stuff like that” and how that would apply to this case “frankly puzzles me.” He cited a case from the 1940s “that involved a real German spy” who had been recruited to do things like take photos of defense plants from the outside and count trucks leaving a factory. Charges were were ultimately dismissed in that case “because all of the information was in the public domain,” Bell said, and this case could be like that.
A big issue in the Winner case is the amount of classified information that could be part of the prosecution or part of the defense, and what the government is allowed to withhold or redact when it complies with defense requests for information. U.S. Magistrate Judge Brian K. Epps said there could be a “fundamental disagreement” on what each side thinks is relevant to the case and on information that the defense is entitled to but urged both sides to work more together to save time and be more efficient.
Defense attorney Joe Whitley asked that the defense get more access to conferences where the government is meeting alone with Epps to discuss what is going to be redacted or withheld and has more of “an advantage in this case than we do because of that opportunity.” The defense will be filing a motion with the court in about three weeks to make a similar presentation alone to Epps about elements of the defense. Whitley said Winner’s attorneys are prepared to “do everything we can” to get the information they need for her defense.
“We don’t want to be fighting this case with one hand tied behind our back,” he said.
Epps said he would try to limit the number of one-party conferences, known as ex-parte meetings, and to do as much as he can in open court but he also has to abide by the law and what previous courts have ruled about the use of classified information in cases such as this. Her defense attorneys need security clearances just to view some of the evidence in the case and it can only be viewed in a specially secured room known as a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility
The Intercept is paying for part of Winner’s defense and two of her new attorneys have gotten or are eligible to get security clearance to begin reviewing the case evidence and four others are still undergoing a background check by the FBI, said Carli Rodriguez, a security specialist with the court. There is a secured room being set up in Augusta for the defense with a classified phone line and Winner’s defense team will be able to meet with her in that room, she said. Other arrangements for secure line with defense attorneys in other cities would need to be coordinated with local offices of the FBI, Rodriguez said.
A trial will be set for early March unless extraordinary circumstances require further delay. A tentative trial date had been set for the week of Oct. 23.
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