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United States

Reality Winner, ex-NSA contractor accused of leaking secrets, pleads guilty to mishandling government documents

Under the terms of her plea agreement, Winner faces a likely sentence of 63 months in prison

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 27 June, 2018, 3:15am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 27 June, 2018, 11:05pm

A former National Security Agency contractor pleaded guilty on Tuesday to mishandling government secrets, as part of a plea deal in which she would serve about five years in prison.

Reality Winner, 26, was arrested a year ago after authorities alleged she gave a top-secret NSA document about Russian hackers targeting US election systems to a media outlet. People familiar with the case identified the outlet as The Intercept.

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The case marked the first criminal charges filed during the Trump administration against someone suspected of leaking government secrets to a journalist. Since then, three other individuals have been charged in leak-related investigations.

Prosecutors have said Winner, an Air Force veteran, was motivated by anger over public denials that Russia sought to influence the outcome of the 2016 election.

Her mother, Billie Winner-Davis, spoke to reporters briefly outside the federal courthouse in Augusta, Georgia, after her daughter pleaded guilty to a single felony count of mishandling defence information.

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“I’m really proud of Reality. I’m happy that she did this,” her mother said. “I think that this will enable her to have peace, and now she can at least look forward to planning for her future … I hope that people don’t judge her by this one action, by this one mistake.”

Winner had been scheduled to go to trial in October, but her defenders had complained that her ability to mount a vigorous defence was hampered by legal precedent and pretrial rulings. Under the terms of her plea agreement, she faces a likely sentence of 63 months in prison.

A former military linguist, Winner held a top-secret security clearance while serving in the Air Force until 2016 and continued to handle classified information as a contractor for Pluribus International, working at Fort Gordon in Georgia.

Prosecutors say she took a copy of a classified NSA report describing Russian government efforts to use hacking techniques against employees of a company that provided technical support to states’ voting agencies.

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Many leak investigations take months or years to come to a conclusion, but hers resulted in charges within a matter of days, in large part because investigators were able to quickly trace the document back to her.