Reality Winner, leaker of secret US report on Russian hacking, gets 5 years behind bars
The prison sentence is longer than anyone else has been sentenced for an ‘unauthorised disclosure to the media’, say US federal prosecutors
Ex-NSA contractor Reality Winner received a record-setting prison sentence – five years and three months behind bars – on Thursday for leaking a top-secret government report about Russian meddling in the 2016 US election.
“I sincerely apologise and take full responsibility for my actions,” the former National Security Agency contractor told Chief US District Court Judge J. Randal Hall in a federal court in Augusta. “In particular, I want to apologise to my family.”
Bobby Christine, US lawyer for the Southern District of Georgia, told reporters after the sentence hearing that Winner “knowingly and intentionally betrayed the trust of her colleagues and her country”.
“Make no mistake, this was not a victimless crime,” he said. “Winner’s purposeful violation put our nation’s security at risk, not in a speculative way or hypothetical way but in a very real way, a very direct way.”
The judge said Winner’s sentence reflects the seriousness of the offence and is meant to serve as a deterrent.
Winner, 26, faced up to 10 years in prison for her crime. But her plea deal with prosecutors called for her to serve five years and three months behind bars.
That is longer than anyone else has been sentenced for an “unauthorised disclosure to the media”, federal prosecutors said in a court filing this month.
Both Winner’s lawyers and the prosecutors urged Hall to agree to the sentence spelt out in her plea deal.
“The government advises the court that despite the agreed-upon sentence being below the applicable guidelines range, it would be the longest sentence served by a federal defendant for an unauthorised disclosure to the media,” the prosecutors said in their court filing.
The prosecutors added avoiding a trial would prevent them from having to reveal sensitive government information in court. The former government contractor is accused of leaking classified intelligence.
“The agreement reflects a fair resolution of the defendant’s criminal culpability, especially when balanced against the further harm to the national security that would likely result from a trial,” the prosecutors said.
The prosecutors also cited several other similar federal cases in which defendants received shorter prison sentences.
In 2013, former FBI bomb technician Donald Sachtleben was sentenced to 43 months in prison for leaking classified information to the Associated Press about a foiled bomb plot in Yemen.
That same year, former US Central Intelligence Agency officer John Kiriakou was given a 30-month sentence for revealing to a freelance journalist the identity of an undercover CIA agent.
Two years later, former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling got a 42-month sentence for leaking to The New York Times classified information about a secret operation to disrupt Iran’s nuclear weapons programme.
Winner, the prosecutors said, mailed a copy of an US National Security Agency document to The Intercept, an online publication.
The Intercept published an article based on the report, saying Russian military intelligence sent spear-phishing emails to more than 100 local election officials and launched a cyberattack against a Florida-based voting software supplier that contracts in eight states.
Christine, the federal prosecutor, said the government had determined Winner’s actions “caused exceptionally grave damage to US national security”.
“That harm included but was not limited to impairing the ability of the United States to acquire foreign intelligence information similar to the information disclosed,” she said.
Winner asked that she be detained at the Federal Medical Center Carswell in Texas, saying that would place her nearer to her family, and allow her to get help with her bulimia, an eating disorder.
Joel Sickler, a criminologist working with Winner’s lawyers, noted in court papers that Winner is a US Air Force veteran with no other criminal convictions. She has already spent more than a year behind bars at the Lincoln County Jail outside Augusta.
“In my opinion,” Sickler wrote, “it would be extremely helpful for Ms. Winner if she were designated to a facility close to her family in Texas, as it would assist with her adjustment to the conditions of confinement, and later, it would be beneficial as she transitions to pre-release at a halfway house.”
The judge said Thursday he would recommend to the Bureau of Prisons that Winner be held at Federal Medical Center Carswell.