Air Force Vet Charged With Leaking NSA Docs On Russian Election Hacking

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NSA HQ
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A 25-year-old Air Force veteran and federal contractor was arrested at her home in Augusta, Georgia, on June 3 and charged with leaking classified material to a digital news outlet, the Department of Justice announced on June 5.


Reality Leigh Winner, a contractor with the analytics and engineering firm Pluribus International Corporation, allegedly “printed and improperly removed classified intelligence reporting, which contained classified national defense information from an intelligence community agency, and unlawfully retained it.”

Winner reportedly served as a linguist in the Air Force during her time in service, and is fluent in Pashto, Farsi, and Dari, according to a Guardian reporter. She maintained a top secret clearance after her time in the service, according to an FBI search warrant request.

An Air Force source told Task & Purpose that Winner enlisted in the service in 2013, serving as an airman first class with the 94th Intelligence Squadron at Fort Meade, Maryland, until earlier this year when she separated. The squadron did not return repeated requests from Task & Purpose for confirmation.

The classified intelligence, which Winner allegedly mailed to news site The Intercept, includes a top-secret National Security Agency report that details a cyberattack conducted by Russian military intelligence against voting software firms, government employees, and election administrators and observers in the days before the 2016 presidential election.

The documents alleged that the GRU, Russia’s military intel agency, hacked “at least one U.S. voting software supplier and sent spear-phishing emails to more than 100 local election officials just days before last November’s presidential election.” (“Spear-fishing,” for the uninitiated, refers to tricking targets into opening documents containing malware, subsequently giving control of their computers to hackers.)

The Intercept characterized the trove as “the most detailed U.S. government account of Russian interference in the election that has yet come to light."

The Justice Department announced Winner’s arrest and charges hours after The Intercept published the NSA report, sparking concerns over operational security for whistleblowers. The search warrant request indicates that FBI identified Winner as the alleged leaker after The Intercept provided federal officials with a copy of the document ahead of the story’s publication.

Investigators “examined the document shared by the News Outlet and determined the pages of the intelligence reporting appeared to be folded and/or creased, suggesting they had been printed and hand-carried out of a secured space,” the warrant request reads. “[The FBI] conducted an internal audit to determine who accessed the intelligence reporting since its publication … [and] determined that six individuals printed this reporting. These six individuals included Winner.”

When confronted by FBI agents on June 3, Winner admitted to printing out the classified information, leaving her office with it, and intentionally mailing it to The Intercept, despite knowing the consequences, according to the arrest warrant.

“Releasing classified material without authorization threatens our nation’s security and undermines public faith in government,” Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said in a statement. “People who are trusted with classified information and pledge to protect it must be held accountable when they violate that obligation.”

Sarah Sicard contributed reporting.

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