AUGUSTA, Ga. — A former government contractor who pleaded guilty to mailing a classified U.S. report to a news organization was sentenced to more than five years in prison Thursday as part of a deal with prosecutors, who called it the longest sentence ever imposed for a federal crime involving leaks to the news media.
Reality Winner, 26, pleaded guilty in June to a single count of transmitting national security information. The former Air Force translator worked as a contractor at a National Security Agency’s office in Augusta, Georgia, when she printed a classified report and left the building with it tucked into her pantyhose. Winner told the FBI she mailed the document to an online news outlet.
Wearing an orange jail uniform and shackles in court Thursday, Winner said she took responsibility for “an undeniable mistake that I made.”
“I would like to apologize profusely for my actions,” she told the judge. “… My actions were a cruel betrayal of my nation’s trust in me.”
Authorities never identified the news organization. But the Justice Department announced Winner’s June 2017 arrest the same day The Intercept reported on a secret NSA document. It detailed Russian government efforts to penetrate a Florida-based supplier of voting software and the accounts of election officials ahead of the 2016 presidential election. The NSA report was dated May 5, the same as the document Winner had leaked.
U.S. intelligence agencies later confirmed Russian meddling.
The sentence imposed by U.S. District Court Judge J. Randal Hall was in line with a plea agreement between Winner’s defense team and prosecutors, who recommended she serve five years and three months behind bars.
U.S. Attorney Bobby Christine told reporters Winner’s punishment is the longest sentence ever given for a federal crime involving a leak of secret information to the news media. Winner will get credit for having spent more than a year in jail already, he said.
Christine said Winner’s leak harmed national security by revealing “sources and methods” that impaired U.S. efforts to gather similar information.
“She was the quintessential example of an insider threat,” said Christine, the top federal prosecutor for the Southern District of Georgia.
Among other leak cases cited by prosecutors in court documents, the stiffest prior sentence was three years and seven months in prison given to former FBI explosives expert Donald Sachtleben. Secret information he leaked included intelligence he gave to The Associated Press for a story about a U.S. operation in Yemen in 2012.
One famous leaker received a harsher sentence from a military court-martial for giving classified materials to the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks. Army Pvt. Chelsea Manning was sentenced to 35 years in a military lockup, but served only seven years until President Barack Obama granted her clemency.
Winner’s defense attorneys said they were grateful the judge agreed to the sentence recommended by prosecutors. The charge she pleaded guilty to carried a maximum punishment of 10 years in prison. Winner attorney John Bell noted she will be in her early 30s when she’s released.
“It’s a serious matter and she can now get on with her life,” Bell said.
After her arrest, prosecutors used Winner’s own words against her, including a Facebook chat in which Winner once wrote to her sister: “Look, I only say I hate America like 3 times a day.”
Winner’s social media postings also included some scathing opinions on President Donald Trump. Three months before her arrest, Winner posted on Facebook that climate change was a more important issue than health care “since not poisoning an entire population seems to be more in line with ‘health’ care, and not the disease care system that people voted for a soulless ginger orangutan to ‘fix.'”
Despite prosecutors’ warnings that Winner may have stolen other U.S. secrets, she was never charged with any additional crimes.
Winner grew up in Kingsville, Texas, and enlisted in the Air Force after graduating from high school. Her parents have said she became a linguist, speaking Arabic and Farsi, and spent four years assigned to the NSA at Fort Mead, Maryland. During that time, Winner provided real-time translation to Americans conducting field missions.
After leaving the military, Winner moved to Augusta to become a civilian contractor for the NSA, which has operated a $286 million complex in the Georgia city since 2012. Court records say Winner translated documents from Farsi to English for the agency.
Winner confessed to leaking the classified report when FBI agents questioned her at her home in June 2017. Winner said she was frustrated at work and had filed complaints “about them having Fox News on.”
Prosecutors later made the 77-page transcript of Winner’s FBI interview part of the court file in her case. Any details about the document she leaked and the organization she mailed it to were redacted. But the rest of her confession to FBI agents became public.
“Yeah, I screwed up royally,” Winner told the agents before she was arrested.