U.S. Air Force veteran Reality Winner—the first person prosecuted by the Trump administration for leaking government information—pleaded guilty Tuesday to espionage for leaking a classified document detailing Russian efforts to hack into state election systems to an online news magazine.
“She pled guilty to willful retention and transmission of national defense information,” said Billie Jean Winner-Davis.
Winner’s lead defense attorney, Baker Donelson partner and former general counsel of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Joe Whitley, said in a written statement after Winner’s plea, “She has taken this matter seriously, and has made a very difficult decision that will no doubt impact the rest of her life.”
“Obviously, her final sentencing is still pending, and she has a number of conditions and restrictions in her plea agreement that she is committed to honoring,” Whitley said. “However, Reality wishes to thank the numerous individuals and organizations who have supported her through this process.”
Winner, jailed without bond since her arrest more than a year ago at her Augusta, Georgia, home, pleaded guilty as part of a deal with federal prosecutors, who recommended a 63-month sentence followed by three years of supervised release, Winner-Davis said.
Federal prosecutors branded Winner a security risk, in part because of her fluency in Middle Eastern languages she had acquired while in military training.
Judge Randal Hall of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Georgia did not sentence Winner Tuesday, saying he needed time to carefully review Winner’s plea agreement, Winner-Davis said. The judge also said he would rely on a presentencing investigation that has not yet been done.
Winner-Davis said her daughter acknowledged in open court that she had a top-level security clearance and had been trained in the safekeeping of confidential information, her mother said. Winner had left the military and was working with an NSA contractor in Augusta when she was arrested.
Winner-Davis said her daughter admitted she had reviewed the document in question, printed it and mailed it to “an entity” that Winner-Davis said was not identified in court. That media outlet has been widely reported as The Intercept, which published an article based on the document just two days after Winner’s arrest.
Winner-Davis said her daughter acknowledged as part of her plea that “what she did was wrong.”
Winner-Davis said that she was relieved the hearing is over and the case against her daughter has been resolved. “Now we can begin to look for a future where, before, we couldn’t see a way forward,” she said.
Winner-Davis also said her daughter had always been willing to accept responsibility for what she did. But neither mother nor daughter believed the document she was accused of leaking rose to the level of espionage.
“We were just trying to see if we could fight the espionage charge,” she said. “What we know from her FBI interview, she came clean. She told them that she did it.”
Integral to the espionage charge is the nature of the document in question and whether it included designated “national defense information.” Such information includes matters that directly or may reasonably be connected with the defense of the United States against its enemies and, if disclosed, would potentially damage national defense or be useful to a foreign enemy. Such information must also be closely held and not available to the general public.
The document Winner is accused of leaking included specifics on attempts by Russian intelligence operatives in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election to hack state election systems through a voter registration-themed spear-phishing campaign, according to The Intercept, which published a story based on the leaked document two days after Winner’s arrest.
The Intercept also published a redacted version of the document, which provided specifics on how hackers attempted to infiltrate election systems by posing as an electronic voting vendor. Ten months before Winner was arrested, that information was already being circulated by the FBI. But federal prosecutors with the U.S. Justice Department’s National Security Division used the espionage charge and claims that the document constituted national defense information to convene secret hearings, seal court pleadings and restrict Winner’s defense on where and how they could review or talk about information related to her defense without prior approval of a government classification officer.
The “national defense” designation also required that anyone associated with Winner’s defense hold a government security clearance. A sweeping protective order handed down by U.S. Magistrate Judge Brian Epps last year cloaked a number of court pleadings—and some hearing—in secrecy. That secrecy extended to information attorneys were not sure was classified or had reason to believe might be derived from or reference classified information, even published news reports and other public sources. Anyone who violated the court order faced criminal prosecution.
Winner’s defense team had challenged the FBI interrogation and agents’ decision not to read Winner her Miranda rights before questioning her at length.
Federal prosecutors have acknowledged that the FBI did not deliver a Miranda warning but argued that Winner voluntarily talked as nearly a dozen agents swarmed her home last year. That constitutional challenge was not resolved before Winner entered her plea.