National Security Agency whistleblower Reality Winner, who was charged with violating the Espionage Act when she released an NSA report on alleged Russian hacking of voter registration systems, will accept a plea agreement.
Winner is scheduled to formally change her plea to guilty on June 26 in a federal court in Augusta, Georgia.
“Given the time and circumstances and the nature of the Espionage [Act] charge, I believe that this was the only way that she could receive a fair sentence,” Billie Winner-Davis stated. “I still disagree strongly with the use of the Espionage [Act] charge against citizens like Reality.”
Her mother suggested the Espionage Act charge prevented Winner from explaining her actions to a jury, which made it difficult for her to “receive a fair trial,” as well as fair treatment in court.
Winner was a contractor and linguist who worked for the NSA. She was arrested on June 3, 2017, after several FBI agents raided her home in Augusta, interrogated her, and obtained what the government saw as a confession that she disclosed the report to The Intercept.
Her attorneys filed a motion in court that argued her rights were violated because the agents never informed her she had a right to remain silent.
A federal appeals court argued, “Winner may have a reason to flee, as she does not have any confidence in the government which has accused her of serious criminal conduct.”
NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake and CIA whistleblowers John Kiriakou and Jeffrey Sterling were not held in pretrial detention, even though they were each initially charged with violating the Espionage Act.
“ It’s disgraceful that she’s been kept in prison for more than a year,” Kiriakou told Shadowproof. “It’s actually unprecedented in cases like this. Every other national security defendant who has been identified as a whistleblower in the last decade was either released on their own recognizance or released under very favorable bail terms. The fact that she was kept incarcerated for a year is unfair and was unnecessary. ”
Keeping her in jail was a way for the government to apply pressure so that she would accept a plea agreement and not go to trial in October.
It was well-known that Winner would have an uphill struggle to defend herself in court. Under President Barack Obama’s administration, leak prosecutions intensified the government’s ability to wield the Espionage Act as a strict liability offense, which means there is very little the government has to prove beyond the fact that an unauthorized disclosure occurred.
Prosecutors typically insist that they do not have to prove the disclosure of “classified intelligence reporting” could threaten or did threaten “national security.”
One avenue Winner’s defense had available to challenge the Espionage Act charge was to force prosecutors to prove it related to “national defense information” or that the information was “closely held,” as these are elements of the offense. However, the judge rejected 40 out of 41 subpoenas for records from states and cybersecurity companies, which greatly hindered her potential defense.
Winner could face anywhere from a 13 months to 57 months in prison when sentenced. However, she has already been in jail for more than 12 months and that would likely count as time served.
She faced up to ten years in prison if she did not accept a deal.
Kiriakou contended, “Reality Winner had no choice but to take a plea deal. The criminal justice system is so stacked against defendants that almost no defendant can afford to risk a long prison sentence knowing that the federal government wins more than 98 percent of its cases. She took this plea to mitigate damage as best she could. ”
This is the second plea deal obtained by President Donald Trump’s administration. Former FBI agent Terry Albury pled guilty to violating the Espionage Act in April.
President Barack Obama’s administration prosecuted more individuals with the Espionage Act than all previous presidential administration combined. Trump’s administration seems committed to continuing and expanding this tactic used to clamp down on the free flow of information.
“The Trump administration has signaled its clear intent to continue the Obama-era practice of aggressively punishing low-level leaks that embarrass the government with Espionage Act charges, while allowing top officials to leak with impunity when it serves their interests,” argued Nathan Fuller, a campaigner with the Courage Foundation, which has supported Winner. “Without a plea, Reality could have faced a decade in prison in the prime of her life.”
“Reality’s case and forced plea highlight the urgent need to overhaul or do away with the Espionage Act, a World War I-era law meant for spies and traitors, not journalists’ sources,” Fuller added.
“I do believe that whatever Reality did or did not do she acted with good intentions,” Winner-Davis concluded. “I know that she will accept full responsibility for any wrongdoing and that she is ready and willing to face the consequences.”
“I ask for continued support for her. She will need your continued support and belief in her as she continues this battle.”
*For more, the announcement from the Courage Foundation can be found here.