Reality Winner was sentenced today to 63 months in prison for disclosing a top-secret NSA document describing a hacking campaign directed by the Russian military against U.S. voting systems.
On June 5, 2017, The Intercept published a story about the document. We did not know the identity of the source who had sent it to us. Shortly after we posted our story, we learned that Winner had been arrested two days earlier. After an internal review, we acknowledged shortcomings in our handling of the document. However, it soon became clear that the government had at its disposal, and had aggressively used, multiple methods to quickly hunt down Winner.
The information in The Intercept story on the NSA report played a crucial role in alerting local election officials who had been in the dark about the cyberattack — a public service that was implicitly acknowledged in a recent report from the Senate Intelligence Committee. As a former official from the Department of Homeland Security told The Intercept’s Sam Biddle, transmitting word of the cyberattacks down the chain was “not a high priority issue” for the NSA. The vulnerability of the American electoral system is a national topic of immense gravity, but it took Winner’s act of bravery to bring key details of an attempt to compromise the democratic process in 2016 to public attention. Those same details were included in the July indictment of alleged Russian military intelligence operatives issued by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
Instead of being recognized as a conscience-driven whistleblower whose disclosure helped protect U.S. elections, Winner was prosecuted with vicious resolve by the Justice Department under the Espionage Act. Her plea agreement reflects the conclusion of Winner and her lawyers that the terms of this deal represent the best outcome possible for her in the current environment. She not only faced unrelenting pressure from prosecutors, but a series of setbacks in the courtroom severely restricted her lawyers’ ability to defend her.
The Intercept’s parent company, First Look Media, contributed to Winner’s legal defense through the Press Freedom Defense Fund.
Reality Winner’s courage and sacrifice for the good of her country should be honored, not punished. Selective and politically motivated prosecutions of leakers and whistleblowers under the Espionage Act — which dramatically escalated under Barack Obama, opening the door for the Trump Justice Department’s abuses — are an attack on the First Amendment that will one day be judged harshly by history.