Department of Justice charges government contractor for leaking to The Intercept under Espionage Act

The Department of Justice on Monday announced that it had filed charges against a government contractor named Reality Winner for providing a news outlet with a classified document.

The charges were announced shortly after The Intercept published a report, based on a highly classified intelligence report, that alleged Russian military intelligence carried out a cyberattack against a U.S. voting software supplier.

A federal official told BuzzFeed News that Winner is accused of leaking to The Intercept. Winner is being charged under the Espionage Act, a 100-year-old federal statute that had not previously been cited by the Trump administration.

The seven-page complaint against Winner, filed in Georgia's Augusta Richmond County earlier today, alleges that Winner, a 25-year-old contractor with the security system supplier Pluribus International Corporation, printed out and mailed the classified intelligence report to The Intercept.

An attached affidavit by FBI agent Justin C. Garrick says that Winner admitted to sending the document after investigators noticed tell-tale signs of its provenance:

The U.S. government agency examined the document shared by the news outlet and determined the pages of the intelligence reporting appeared to be folded and/or creased, suggesting they had been printed and hand-carried out of a secured space.

The U.S. Government Agency conducted an internal audit to determine who accessed the intelligence reporting since its publication. The U.S. government agency determined that six individuals printed this reporting. Winner was one of those six individuals. A further audit of the six individuals' desk computers revealed that Winner had email contact with the news outlet. The audit did not reveal that any of the other individuals had email contact with the news outlet.

"It's a shame that the federal government does not understand the difference between journalism and espionage," said Peter Sterne, senior reporter at the Freedom of the Press Foundation. "Reality Leigh Winner is accused of sharing documents with an American media outlet about a topic of public concern, yet the Department of Justice is charging Winner under the Espionage Act, a 100-year-old statute intended for use against spies and saboteurs working on behalf of foreign governments."

"Winner's actions helped journalists inform the American people about a topic that is clearly in the public's interest," he continued. "It's disappointing to see the Department of Justice treat yet another alleged source for a journalist as a spy."

Bruce Brown, the Executive Director of the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press, said that federal prosecution of leakers "chills vital communications that are necessary to making sure the public is informed."

"This action has the potential to scare government employees from sharing even non-classified and non-sensitive information and curtail the free flow of information to the public,” he told Poynter.

In a statement, Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein praised "exceptional law enforcement efforts" for quickly identifying Winner.

"Releasing classified material without authorization threatens our nation’s security and undermines public faith in government. People who are trusted with classified information and pledge to protect it must be held accountable when they violate that obligation," he said.

Although President Trump has tweeted that leakers would be rooted out under his administration, leak prosecutions under his Department of Justice have been rare thus far. The Obama administration brought charges against several leakers, including Army Pvt. Chelsea Manning and former U.S. contractor Edward Snowden.

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    Benjamin Mullin

    Benjamin Mullin is the managing editor of Poynter.org. He previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow, covering journalism innovation, business practices and ethics.

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