A federal judge postponed for a week his decision on whether to grant bond to former National Security Agency contractor Reality Winner, who has been accused of violating the Espionage Act, following a spirited hearing Friday in a Georgia courthouse that lasted more than five hours.
Winner appeared calm and never spoke throughout the session, her stiff posture and arms folded neatly behind her back serving as a reminder of her six years in the Air Force. Her tight cornrow braids and messy, youthful hairdo were also a reminder that the defendant is only 25 years old.
“Certainly nobody here is concerned about her holding up a liquor store,” Magistrate Judge Brian Epps said, amid a discussion about needing more time to evaluate whether to let Winner out of jail. He had yet to decide if she was a flight risk or posed danger to her community if let out before her March trial. His area of concern, he added, was “a macro look at our country in general.”
Winner, a linguist working for NSA contractor Pluribus International, was arrested on June 3 and charged under the 1917 Espionage Act with possessing “defense information” and transmitting it to unauthorized recipients. The term defense information is often disputed but broadly defined as “closely held” information that, if released, could be harmful to the U.S. or help a foreign government.
Ten armed FBI agents, according to an account from Winner, searched her Augusta home and interrogated her about the alleged disclosure, a charge to which she pleaded not guilty. A transcript of the interrogation released in a court filing shows an agent suggesting that Winner had been “angry over everything that’s going on, politics-wise.” The agent charged that a document she printed “made its way to an online news source that you subscribe to.”
Winner’s defense is seeking to suppress an alleged confession given to federal agents during that interrogation. They argued that her Miranda rights were violated, since she was not told she had the right to remain silent amid what amounted to a “custodial interrogation” wherein being appraised of one’s rights is required by law.
“Certainly nobody here is concerned about her holding up a liquor store.”
The government has not made public the name of the news outlet nor the subject of the documents Winner is charged with leaking. During the hearing, defense attorney John Bell asked FBI Special Agent Justin Garrick, responsible for investigating Winner, his opinion about the New York Times, the Washington Post, and The Guardian. Bell then asked if he thought The Intercept was similarly a “respectable” news outlet. After a long pause, Garrick responded: “No, I do not.”
Two days after her arrest, The Intercept published a report based on an NSA internal document that described a cyberattack by Russian military intelligence against a U.S. voting software supplier ahead of the 2016 presidential election. The Intercept said in a statement after Winner’s arrest that it received the document anonymously and has no knowledge of its source; the Intercept’s parent company, First Look Media, has contributed to Winner’s legal support through its Press Freedom Defense Fund and also provided funds to the Stand with Reality campaign.
The arguments on Friday dealt less with questions of Winner’s culpability than with her character and political views. While the government portrayed her as a reckless, dissenting defense contractor with eyebrow-raising interest in U.S. adversaries overseas, her defense and family described her as a worldly Middle East specialist engaged with current events and global religions in a way fitting with her line of work.
The frequently animated arguments covered whether use of online privacy tools by Winner was a sign of malicious behavior or a desire to avoid tech companies selling her personal data to marketers; if political Facebook messages to her sister — “I only say I hate America like three times a day,” for instance — indicated what the government attorney called “nothing but contempt for our country and our security” or hyperbole understood between siblings; and whether a national security employee should be held without bail simply due to the danger of what they know.
“It’s safe to say that she knows things in her head that, if disclosed, could cause great damage,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Solari.
Solari also raised the subjects of Winner’s alleged internet searches and research as evidence to keep her in detention, including looking for information on moving to Jordan or the Palestinian territories; how to support the online hacker collective Anonymous; and for the Twitter account of the Taliban.
“She would be welcome with open arms by any one of our adversaries,” said Solari.
Winner, who had experience with languages including Farsi, Pashto, and Dari, studied at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, before leaving the Air Force to work with Pluribus on Iranian aerospace issues. Her mother said that as a teenager, Winner ordered Arabic kits online to teach herself the language.
Winner’s sister, Brittany Michele Winner, was questioned about a Facebook chat she had with Reality, the transcript of which she saw for the first time at the hearing. In one line, the defendant said that she needed to take a polygraph for work and added, “#gonnafail.”
The older Winner called her sister’s response dramatic. “We assumed it was a safe place,” she said of the chat box.
Though he did not explicitly call her a “whistleblower,” Bell, Winner’s lawyer, brought a book called “Whistleblowers” to his closing remarks. He spoke of legal protections for government employees who disclose information of wrongdoing in the public interest. He said the government’s efforts to identify “foreign contacts” of Winner had come to nothing.
“We are not looking at a rich and powerful defendant,” he said.