The questions U.S. Magistrate Judge Brian K. Epps must answer for himself are two-fold in Reality Leigh Winner’s bond request – can he be reasonably assured the woman accused of espionage will appear for every court hearing, and is she a danger to national security.
At the conclusion of a hearing Friday that stretched over five hours, Epps said he wanted time to ponder these questions. He said he would issue a written decision next week.
Meanwhile, Winner, 25, will remain in the Lincoln County jail where she has been held since her June 3 arrest. That was the day federal agents searched Winner’s home and vehicle and talked to her about what she allegedly did on May 9 – take a top secret document from her National Security Agency contractor job at Fort Gordon and leak to a media outlet the next day.
Winner, who served six years in the Air Force as a linguist specializing in languages of the Middle East, began working for Pluribus International at Fort Gordon on Feb. 9. Two days earlier, FBI Special Agent Justin Garrick testified, she was looking at a list of media outlets that offered information on how to leak documents.
What she did in between February and May shows Winner was working to create a covert communications package, Garrick said. In the search of her home and electronics, agents found notes about how to change the SIM card in a phone, which would make her call history unsearchable, how to set up a Tor network connection, which would allow her to be online anonymously, and information about an email site that lets people email anonymously.
She researched about Middle Eastern countries and the Taliban. She had notes about foreign targets being followed by U.S. intelligence – information she would have only learned because of her top security clearance, Garrick testified.
But on cross-examination Garrick conceded there is nothing illegal about trying to protect your identity online, nor is it suspicious that someone whose work concerned the Middle East would research and study information about the region and the people who live there.
Winner’s sister, Brittany Winner, testified that the government’s use of their instant messages wasn’t proof of her intent to cause harm to her country. They both have a weird sense of humor and hyperbole was supposed to be safe between them. Reality saying she was going to flunk her polygraph if asked if she had ever plotted against her government was a joke, Brittany Winner testified on cross-examination. If she had said it in person you would have seen her roll her eyes, Brittany Winner said.
Her sister is creative, super smart, caring and loving, Brittany Winner said. She feels strongly that people had a duty to honor and protect the Earth. She studied various religions of the world, and very much wants to serve as a humanitarian in the Middle East to help people. “She wanted to make a difference in a good way.”
Reality Winner’s mother, Billie Winner-Davis, testified that she took early retirement and moved to Augusta last weekend to support her daughter.
But Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Solari argued that Winner’s family only sees the good side of her. While the government wasn’t trying to say there isn’t a good side to Winner, the evidence has exposed an “alternative Reality” – a woman with details of terrorist targets, a desire to go to countries which wouldn’t be inclined to send her back, one who admitted what she had done, and a woman who was willing to place her judgment over her country’s.
Defense attorney John Bell countered that the government only has innuendo and suspicion about a woman who served her country and was honorably discharged and didn’t have a criminal record. “We have a tree hugger here,” Bell said. At the most, the government has one document, one incident. What might happen is not a standard to judge the right to bail, he said.
The judge said that while he normally issues a decision about bond immediately, he wanted to think about the evidence and statements from both sides before making one. The issue will be, has the government proven “by a preponderance of the evidence” that there are no conditions he could impose to be reasonable assured that Winner will not flee. The second part of the equation is, has the government proven with “clear and convincing” evidence that Winner would be a danger to national security, Epps said.
Reach Sandy Hodson at (706) 823-3226 or email@example.com.