A federal contractor in Georgia who previously served in the US Air Force has been charged with leaking classified material to an online news outlet, the Justice Department announced Monday.
A federal official confirmed to BuzzFeed News that the news outlet in question is The Intercept.
Earlier Monday, The Intercept reported that a top-secret National Security Agency document detailed that Russian election-related hacking went further — and happened closer to the 2016 election — than previously acknowledged by the government.
Reality Leigh Winner, 25, was arrested by the FBI at her home on Saturday and appeared in federal court in Augusta on Monday afternoon, DOJ said in a statement.
Her court-appointed lawyer, Titus Nichols, of the Bell & Brigham law firm, told BuzzFeed News on Monday evening that Winner remains in custody currently, but that he will be seeking to have her released at a detention hearing that is scheduled for Thursday.
"My client is really looking forward to resolving this and putting it behind her," he said, noting that he has spoken with her. Asked for more information about the charges, however, he said he didn't have much at this point because "[t]he government hasn't released the evidence."
Winner is a contractor with Pluribus International Corporation who held top secret clearance, according to the Justice Department statement.
"Winner printed and improperly removed classified intelligence reporting, which contained classified national defense information from an intelligence community agency, and unlawfully retained it," DOJ announced in the statement. "Approximately a few days later, Winner unlawfully transmitted by mail the intelligence reporting to an online news outlet."
Winner admitted to FBI agents to "removing the classified intelligence reporting from her office space, retaining it, and mailing it from Augusta, Georgia, to the news outlet, which she knew was not authorized to receive or possess the documents," according to the statement.
Nichols, Winner's lawyer, told BuzzFeed News that he has not been given further information about the purported confession, saying that if it was written down or recorded, "I haven't heard or seen it."
The federal official also told BuzzFeed News an audit is being done to determine if Winner gained unauthorized access to other documents and, if so, whether any details were leaked.
According to the search warrant request affidavit, filed over the weekend, the government asserted, "From January 2013 until her employment with Pluribus International Corporation. WINNER was an active duty member of the U.S. Air Force and held a Top Secret clearance."
A Guardian reporter who spoke with Winner's mother said she is a former US Air Force linguist who speaks Pashto, Farsi, and Dari. Based on her social media accounts, she is a vegan and active weightlifter — and earlier this year, retweeted an Edward Snowden tweet criticizing the Trump administration's attacks on the media.
Government agents identified Winner after the news outlet on May 30 contacted the government agency and subsequently shared the leaked intelligence document, which showed that the pages appeared to be creased after being printed out.
That led investigators to find six people who had printed the documents — of whom Winner was one. Winner also had email contact with the news outlet, although the search warrant affidavit detailed those communications as a podcast transcription service request email and return confirmation email.
According to the search warrant affidavit, a reporter with the news outlet contacted a second government contractor initially to seek verification of the documents. The reporter told the second contractor from where the documents had come — postmarked Augusta, Georgia — and sent a picture of them to the second contractor. On June 1, the second contractor told the agency "of his interaction with the Reporter."
On June 2, the FBI viewed the property where Winner is living in Augusta, Georgia, and on June 3, sought a search warrant. According to the arrest warrant filed on Monday, the FBI spoke with Winner at her home on June 3, where she admitted "printing the classified intelligence reporting at issue" and "mailing it from Augusta, Georgia, to the News Outlet."
In a statement on Tuesday, The Intercept said: "While the FBI’s allegations against Winner have been made public through the release of an affidavit and search warrant, which were unsealed at the government’s request, it is important to keep in mind that these documents contain unproven assertions and speculation designed to serve the government’s agenda and as such warrant skepticism. Winner faces allegations that have not been proven. The same is true of the FBI’s claims about how it came to arrest Winner."
The Intercept added that had "no knowledge of the identity of the person who provided us with the document."
The charges come as the administration makes finding the "leakers" of classified information a key rallying cry. Finding anonymous leakers has been a fixture of President Trump's Twitter feed. The Obama administration, during its eight years, also aggressively investigated and prosecuted leaks.
“Releasing classified material without authorization threatens our nation’s security and undermines public faith in government," Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein said in a statement.
Jason Leopold is a senior investigative reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Los Angeles. He is a 2018 Pulitzer finalist for international reporting, recipient of the IRE 2016 FOI award and a 2016 Newseum Institute National Freedom of Information Hall of Fame inductee.