Former NSA contractor Reality Winner pled guilty to one count of violating the Espionage Act when she disclosed an NSA report that claimed Russian hackers targeted United States voter registration systems in the 2016 election.
The guilty plea was part of a change of plea hearing in federal court in Augusta, Georgia, and the result of a plea agreement with prosecutors.
Under the plea agreement, the government agreed to offer her 63 months in prison. That is five years and three months. The maximum sentence for a violation of the Espionage Act is 10 years.
The length of time in the agreement is extraordinary. Former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling went to trial for a leak, and he was convicted of seven counts of violating the Espionage Act. His sentence was 42 months in prison.
Former CIA officer John Kiriakou was initially charged with Espionage Act violations for a leak, and he accepted a plea agreement. The sentence was 30 months in prison.
“This sentence is unusually long, and it’s not in keeping with precedent,” Kiriakou reacted. “I’m sorry she’s having to go through this.”
Judge Randal Hall did not issue a sentence. He announced a process, where a U.S. probationary officer will conduct a sentencing investigation. The officer will submit a report to the judge. He will determine whether to accept the plea agreement.
A sentencing hearing will be scheduled in the next month or two, and at the hearing, Winner will be able to make a statement to the court. She will also be able to have character witnesses present.
Additional terms of the plea agreement include three years of supervised release after prison, which is fairly standard.
Remarkably, Winner waived her interest in property that was seized by FBI agents during a raid on her house on June 3, 2017. That means as part of the agreement electronics equipment (computers, phones, etc.) will not be returned.
There is no public interest defense available to accused leakers under the Espionage Act, a World War I-era law that the Justice Department has increasingly relied upon to aggressively prosecute unauthorized disclosures, including from sources to the press.
Winner, who is 26 years-old, was brought into the second-floor courtroom in an orange jumpsuit with “inmate” in yellow letters on her back. Her handcuffs were taken off, and for most of the hearing, she stood with her back to the gallery while the judge went through the process of entering her guilty plea.
At one point, as the judge asked her whether she was mentally competent to enter the plea, Winner informed the court she was suffering from an eating disorder and depression and was taking medication. This appeared to be part of the toll a year of imprisonment has taken upon her.
Winner made an official statement toward the end of the hearing, where she acknowledged the elements of the charged offense. It was part of a requirement that she tell the judge in her own words what she did. The statement was very similar to what the prosecution presented as the facts of the case to the judge.
Jennifer Solari, the government prosecutor, called Special Agent Justin Garrick to the stand to present what happened when Winner disclosed the report to The Intercept.
Garrick said he became aware of the disclosure when a representative of the news media outlet contacted the government agency (understood to be the NSA) to verify the authenticity of the report Winner disclosed. She sent the Intercept a hard copy in the mail through the U.S. Postal Service.
The special agent contended the contents of the report were reviewed, and it contained material that if if disclosed would cause “grave damage” to “national security.”
Her defense had hoped to challenge this claim by the government and submitted 41 subpoenas to the court for information that would have been useful to her defense, if she proceeded to trial. However, the court rejected 40 of the subpoenas.
Billie Winner-Davis, who is Reality’s mother, stated last week, “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.”
“I still disagree strongly with the use of the Espionage [Act] charge against citizens like Reality.”
Her mother contended 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.
Naomi Colvin, the director of the Courage Foundation, which has supported Winner, declared, “The Espionage Act is a draconian, World War I-era law that equates whistleblowing with treason, and journalism with spying. It is beyond question that Reality’s disclosure of attacks on the integrity of elections was in the public interest: the U.S. media has discussed little else for the past two years.”
“That the Espionage Act has forced yet another conscientious public servant into guaranteed prison time should make clear the urgency for reform,” Colvin added. They extended their love and support to Winner and her family.
Winner was in the Air Force for six years. She is a linguist, who is fluent in Pashto, Farsi, and Dari. She took a job at a government facility in Georgia in 2017, where she worked as a contractor for the NSA.
She has been in confinement since her arrest, with prosecutors, a federal judge, and an appeals court all contending she “hates” America so she must remain in jail. This was primarily a result of interpreting text messages in the worst possible way to justify prosecutors keeping her in jail.
A trial date was postponed at least twice before she accepted a plea agreement.
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. Donald Trump’s presidential administration has committed itself to zealously prosecuting even more leaks than Obama’s administration.
Keeping Winner 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.