Reality Winner, a 25-year-old National Security Agency contractor, may be the first casualty in the Trump administration’s promised war on leakers. Winner was arrested over the weekend for allegedly leaking top secret information to a news organization, the Justice Department said Monday.
The announcement came hours after The Intercept published a series of NSA documents claiming Russian hackers attempted to infiltrate a U.S. voting software supplier and more than 100 local election officials before the election. “The Intercept has no knowledge of the identity of the source,” it said in a statement.
Winner had been a government contractor with top secret clearance at a Georgia facility since February, according to the DOJ. A signed affidavit from FBI Special Agent Justin Garrick says Winner printed out a classified report on May 9 of this year and mailed it to an online news outlet several days later. NBC reported that outlet was The Intercept, a claim that a spokesperson for the outlet did not dispute.
Winner’s mother, Billie Winner-Davis, told The Daily Beast even after the DOJ announcement that her family still was not sure why Winner had been arrested.
“I don’t know what they’re alleging,” she said, asking for specifics from the DOJ’s press release. “What do you know?”
Winner-Davis said the allegations against her daughter were vague when they spoke Sunday.
“I don’t know who she might have sent it to,” she said. “[DOJ] were very vague. They said she mishandled and released documents that she shouldn’t have, but we had no idea what it pertained to or who.”
The most her daughter talked about was her pets.
“She called us yesterday night. She asked if we could help out with relocating her cat and dog,” Winner-Davis said.
Winner-Davis said her daughter never talked about her work, and her family did not know the specifics of her recently acquired job as a government contractor. Winner-Davis added that her daughter, while quiet about her job, was outspoken about her beliefs.
“She’s very passionate. Very passionate about her views and things like that, but she’s never to my knowledge been active in politics or any of that,” said Winner-Davis.
On Twitter, Reality Winner expressed frequent dissatisfaction with President Donald Trump’s policies and retweeted a joke about government leaks, as well as a tweet by whistleblower Edward Snowden.
In recent months, she frequently tweeted at Trump. “have you ever even met an Iranian?” she responded to Trump when he tweeted that immigrants coming from seven Muslim-majority countries were “SO DANGEROUS.”
She tweeted “#RESISTANCE” after the U.S. Department of Agriculture began blacking out public information. Immediately after Trump’s election, she took to Twitter to voice her disappointment. “I listened to you daily, and your podcast kept me sane,” she wrote at the FiveThirtyEight podcast on Nov. 9, 2016. “What the heck #betrayed #disillusioned.” She tweeted Sen. Bernie Sanders’ statement calling Trump racist and xenophobic immediately after.
On election night, she tweeted, “Well. People suck.”
Winner is a U.S. Air Force veteran. As a parting gift in November, she wrote, her colleagues gave her a signed and framed photograph of Anderson Cooper, which she showed off in a Facebook post.
“Thank you for your service,” her colleagues wrote on the picture.
It is unclear when Winner might be able to seek bond, her mother said.
“She has a hearing on Thursday about that,” Winner-Davis said.
Garrick’s affidavit indicates that Winner’s arrest was speedy—just a few weeks after she allegedly leaked the report—because she printed out the document and sent an email to The Intercept.
When reporters received the document in the mail, they asked for comment from the intelligence agency that produced it (presumably the National Security Agency, or NSA). And they showed the agency a copy of the document. The copy had visible creases, according to the affidavit, indicating someone printed it out before giving it to the reporters. Investigators found that only six people had printed the report. Of those six, only one had had contact with the news outlet that ultimately published it, according to the affidavit: Winner.
Garrick wrote that he went to Winner’s home in Augusta, Georgia, on June 3, and she acknowledged to him that she mailed the report to the media outlet.
Mark Zaid, a national security lawyer who frequently handles classified matters, told The Daily Beast that Winner is not a whistleblower.
“It is titillating for everyone with respect to political bent as to whether the elections were stolen, perhaps,” he said. “But it has absolutely nothing to do with any waste, fraud, abuse, or—more importantly—illegal U.S. government conduct to justify leaking it.”
Zaid added that Winner also likely would have faced charges under the previous administration and that her arrest doesn’t necessarily portend a crackdown on whistleblowers.
“I think the Obama administration would have prosecuted this same case without hesitation,” he said. “It’s not a partisan political prosecution. It is a case that upholds the lawful obligations that those who have access to classified information adhere to every single day.”
Patrick Toomey, an attorney at the ACLU’s National Security Project, took a different view and said the arrest could be a cause for concern.
“Leaks to journalists occur every day, as they have for decades, and are a vital source of information for the public in our democracy,” he said. “It would be deeply troubling if this prosecution marked the beginning of a draconian crackdown on leaks to the press by the Trump administration.”
Classified leaks have rattled the Trump administration since before the president was inaugurated, and he has promised to find the leakers. Trump surrogates frequently refer to them as the “Deep State.” And political appointees at the Justice Department are eager to prosecute leakers.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions has made numerous public comments about his support of leak prosecutions, and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein worked on the successful leak-related prosecution of James Cartwright, a former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
But the Obama administration set the precedent, prosecuting more leakers than all other administrations put together.