In a federal courthouse in Augusta today, former intelligence contractor Reality Winner accepted a plea agreement for a single charge of espionage, in exchange for a sentence of 63 months in prison and three years of supervised release. The plea agreement is still tentative, pending a pre-sentencing investigation ordered by the court. Winner has already spent over a year in prison, and would be due for release in 2023.
Winner was arrested in June 2017, just days after The Intercept published a secret NSA report on Russian efforts to hack the 2016 election. Winner served in the Air Force for six years, and was working as an intelligence contractor at the time of her arrest. She held a top secret clearance.
“The cards were stacked against her.”
The NSA’s election report, which was verified by The Intercept and published with voluntary redactions, detailed an attempt to hack a supplier of US election software and more than 100 election officials in the months leading up to the 2016 election. There’s no indication that the attacks succeeded in compromising vote tallies, although the attackers were able to maintain significant access to electoral boards.
The report attributes the efforts to Russia’s GRU intelligence agency, and remains the strongest public evidence of Russian efforts to compromise US election infrastructure. Shortly after the election, a report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence linked hacks on the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign to a similar effort by the Russian government, although no source evidence was disclosed in the report. President Trump has consistently denied that Russia interfered in the election, and has made no effort to protect against similar interference in future elections.
According to the defense, Winner’s plea decision was heavily influenced by the nature of the Espionage Act, which considers only the willful nature of the disclosure and its impact on national security. No defense can be made for disclosures in the public interest, so any testimony would have been dismissed by the court as irrelevant. The same restriction has been cited by Edward Snowden’s supporters as a concern for any potential trial.
“The cards were stacked again at her and she couldn’t defend herself against the Espionage charge,” Winner’s mother said in a statement. “We need to work toward reforming laws so that the Espionage Act is not leveraged against our citizens.”