Contractor named Reality Winner is charged after leak of top-secret NSA document about Russia hacking US election
NSA report depicts an operation tied closely to Moscow’s GRU intelligence directorate
A US federal contractor has been arrested in connection with a classified NSA report on Russian election interference published by the online publication The Intercept.
According to the top-secret document, Russian military intelligence conducted a cyberattack on at least one supplier of voting software and sent phishing emails containing malicious software to more than 100 local election official days before the 2016 election, The Intercept reported.
After the Intercept story and documents were published Monday, the Justice Department announced the arrest of a 25-year-old federal contractor from Georgia in connection with the disclosure.
Reality Winner, a contractor with Pluribus International Corp., who has held a top-secret security clearance since at least February, made her first federal court appearance in Augusta, Georgia, Monday.
“Winner printed and improperly removed classified intelligence reporting, which contained classified national defence information from an intelligence community agency and unlawfully retained it,’’ court documents stated, adding that material was taken May 9.
“Approximately a few days later, Winner unlawfully transmitted by mail the intelligence reporting to an online news outlet.’’
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein credited federal law enforcement agents with acting “quickly to identify and arrest the defendant.’’
“Releasing classified material without authorisation threatens our nation’s security and undermines public faith in government,’’ Rosenstein said.
US intelligence agencies including the NSA and CIA have fallen victim to several thefts of classified material in recent years, often at the hands of a federal contractor. For example, former NSA contractor Edward Snowden in 2013 disclosed secret documents to journalists, including the South China Morning Post while he was hiding in Hong Kong.
While the charges do not name the publication, a US official with knowledge of the case said Winner was charged with leaking the NSA report to The Intercept. A second official confirmed The Intercept document was authentic and did not dispute that the charges against Winner were directly tied to it.
The Intercept’s reporting reveals new details behind the conclusion of US intelligence agencies that Russian intelligence services were seeking to infiltrate state voter registration systems as part of a broader effort to interfere in the election, discredit Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and help then Republican candidate Donald Trump win the election.
According to The Intercept, the classified May 5 intelligence report “is the most detailed US government account of Russian interference in the election that has yet come to light.“
The NSA report says it is based on information it obtained in April, but the document does not reveal the “raw” intelligence that led to the report’s conclusions.
The Kremlin later reacted strongly to the purported intelligence in the report.
“Apart from this claim which absolutely does not conform to reality, we have not seen any other information nor heard any arguments for the reliability of this information and we resolutely deny the possibility that such a thing could have happened,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists, adding that he had not read the report.
The Intercept said that the NSA, Washington’s most important signals intelligence body, sought first to dissuade them from publishing it, and then requested redactions of sensitive information.
The report shows that, by trying to steal log-in credentials and using spear-fishing emails to plant malware, the hackers “obtained and maintained access to elements of multiple US state or local electoral boards.”
“Russian General Staff Main Intelligence Directorate actors ... executed cyber espionage operations against a named US company in August 2016, evidently to obtain information on elections-related software and hardware solutions,” the NSA report says, according to The Intercept.
“The actors likely used data obtained from that operation to ... launch a voter registration-themed spear-phishing campaign targeting US local government organisations.”
The new material does not, however, suggest that actual votes were manipulated.
The Intercept co-founding editor Glenn Greenwald did not immediately respond to a request for comment. However, Intercept spokeswoman Vivian Siu said the NSA document came to them anonymously.
“The Intercept has no knowledge of the identity of the source,” she said.
Meanwhile, Winner’s mother said she was “still in shock” over the arrest,
“She said that she had been arrested by the FBI and that she couldn’t really talk about it,” Billie Winner-Davis, told the Guardian in a telephone interview.
Winner-Davis said she was unaware that her daughter had allegedly already admitted, when questioned, to taking the top-secret document. Nor had she heard of the Intercept, the media outlet reported to have been the leak’s destination. And she really did not know why Reality would have done it.
Watch: Trump says Russia investigation a ‘witch hunt’
“I never thought this would be something she would do,” Winner-Davis said.
“I mean, she has expressed to me that she is not a fan of Trump – but she’s not someone who would go and riot or picket.”
While partially redacted, the NSA document is marked to show it would be up for declassification on May 5, 2042.
Classified documents are typically due to be declassified after 25 years under an executive order signed under former president Bill Clinton.
The NSA opened a facility in Augusta in 2012 at Fort Gordon, a US Army outpost.
The FBI and several congressional committees are investigating how Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election and whether associates of Trump may have colluded with Russian intelligence operatives during the campaign.
Trump has dismissed the allegations as “fake news,” while attempting to refocus attention on leaks of information to the media.
The crises over Trump’s possible ties to Russia could come to the fore when ousted FBI director James Comey appears on Capitol Hill, a month after the president fired him midway through a probe into the allegations.
Comey’s testimony will be the first public remarks since he was summarily fired by Trump in early May, and represent a moment of great peril for this already embattled president.
Reuters, Agence France-Presse, The Guardian, Tribune News Service