A U.S. Air Force veteran charged with espionage, allegedly for leaking information about Russian hacking of state election systems in the run-up to the 2016 presidential campaign, has reached a plea deal with the U.S. Justice Department.
After spending a year and 18 days in jail without bond awaiting trial, Reality Winner has agreed to change her not guilty plea to a federal espionage charge, according to the public docket in the Southern District of Georgia.
The docket does not indicate what Winner’s plea will be and what charge she intends to plead to. A plea agreement was filed but isn’t publicly available.
Winner’s mother, Billie Jean Winner-Davis, confirmed Thursday that she understands her daughter intends to enter a guilty plea but does not know any of the details.
“I feel like it’s the only thing she can do at this point,” Winner-Davis said. “She is not going to be able to defend herself in this court, which pretty much tied [her lawyers’] hands. The judge has ruled against them at every turn.”
A plea, she added, “is the only way she can see light at the end of the tunnel.”
A federal grand jury in Augusta indicted Winner on the espionage charge on June 7, 2017. The indictment accused Winner of transferring top secret national defense information to a news media organization.
Winner pleaded not guilty on June 8, 2017—five days after the FBI arrested her at her Augusta home in connection with a document agents claimed was leaked to an online news magazine. The document in question spelled out details of how hackers associated with the Russian government attempted to penetrate state voting systems across the nation and the software and hardware vendors that serviced them.
The federal espionage statute is intended to prevent military secrets from being stolen for use by enemies of the United States.
The Trump administration quickly identified Winner as its first prosecution linked to a media leak.
Two days after Winner was arrested, The Intercept—an online magazine widely identified as the news outlet that received the leaked document—published a story detailing Russian efforts to hack into state voting systems and a redacted version of the document Winner is accused of leaking.
The Intercept said it obtained the information from an anonymous source. Its parent company, First Look Media, has contributed to Winner’s defense.
At the time, Winner was employed as a contractor with Pluribus International Corp., which did contract work for the NSA.
Federal prosecutors doggedly—and successfully—fought to keep Winner locked up until trial, which is scheduled for October, claiming she’s a security risk. Much of the case has been handled under seal because of government allegations that information Winner is accused of leaking would potentially damage national defense or be useful to a foreign enemy.
Winner’s attorneys have challenged whether the document in question truly contained classified national defense information, and have enlisted the nation’s former “classification czar” on Winner’s behalf.
Winner’s lead counsel, Baker Donelson partner Joe Whitley, was on vacation and could not be reached for comment. Winner’s Augusta counsel, Titus Nichols and John Bell of Bell & Brigham were in mediation and could not be reached.
A spokeswoman for Bobby Christine, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Georgia where Winner is being prosecuted, said the U.S. attorney would have no comment and would not release Winner’s plea agreement prior to a plea hearing that has been scheduled for June 26.