What We Know About Reality Winner, Government Contractor Accused Of NSA Leak

Jun 6, 2017
Originally published on June 6, 2017 8:28 pm

Updated at 1:40 p.m. ET

A few days ago, based on her apparent Instagram account, Reality Winner was prepping vegan meals and thinking about her weightlifting goals. Now she's in jail, awaiting prosecution on charges of mishandling classified information.

Winner is the first person accused of leaking classified information to be charged with a crime under the Trump administration. The 25-year-old National Security Agency contractor, who is also an Air Force veteran, is accused of orchestrating the latest bombshell leak from the NSA.

Winner, who was working in the Georgia office of contractor Pluribus International, allegedly printed out a top-secret document last month and mailed it to an online news outlet, which was not named in court documents.

However, The Intercept broke a story Monday with details on Russian attempts to penetrate U.S. election systems.

At roughly the same time, the Justice Department announced that it has charged Winner with mishandling classified information on national defense. She was arrested Saturday at her home in Augusta, Ga., but the case was not announced until Monday.

Winner spent several years in the Air Force before leaving last year, according to her social media accounts. She began working with Pluribus in February and had "top-secret" clearance, according an affidavit from the Justice Department. It said she printed and removed the document on or about May 9 and passed it on to a news outlet.

Pluribus says on its website that it works with the defense, security and intelligence community sectors and offers a range of services, including translation in languages such as Farsi and Pashto.

Winner's mother, Billie Winner-Davis, said in a CNN report that her daughter was a linguist with the Air Force in Maryland and speaks Pashto, Farsi and Dari — languages widely spoken in Iran and Afghanistan.

Investigations into national security matters can often drag on for months or even longer. But in the affidavit, the FBI said it began investigating just last Thursday — after a news outlet contacted the government saying it had received the document anonymously and was working on a story.

The Intercept has provided a similar account. Ryan Grim, one of reporters who wrote the story, told NPR's Morning Edition that the news site received the document from an unknown sender.

He described the document as "an NSA analysis of Russian efforts to tamper" with the election.

Winner-Davis told The Daily Beast that she spoke with her daughter on Sunday evening — the day after she was arrested — but they apparently did not discuss details of the case.

"She called us (Sunday) night. She asked if we could help out with relocating her cat and dog," Winner-Davis said.

Winner-Davis said she was not aware of the details of her daughter's work or the charges against her.

"I don't know what they're alleging," she said.

Winner-Davis described her daughter as "passionate" about her beliefs.

An Instagram account that appears to belong to Winner — it has a photo of Winner in uniform with her last name clearly visible — is almost entirely nonpolitical. The photos on @reezlie are dedicated to Winner's love for CrossFit, yoga, vegetarian food and her pets, with rare references to listening to Ron Paul's podcast or supporting protesters at Standing Rock fighting the Dakota Access Pipeline.

On Inauguration Day, the account posted about crispy tempeh, her 5-mile run and her workout.

A Twitter account with the same username, by contrast, is almost entirely political. The account of "Sara Winners" began on June 2015 but doesn't show any posts until October 2016. The account, which has a profile picture that appears to be Reality Winner, swiftly began tweeting and retweeting criticism of then-candidate Donald Trump, along with support for Standing Rock and updates on the conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.

"I'd literally eat the original constitution if that would mean #FourMoreYears" of the Obama presidency, @reezlie wrote on Nov. 5.

On election night, the user wrote that "people suck." After Trump's election, the Twitter account doubled down on sharing mockery and outrage of the incoming president. The user repeatedly used the hashtag "#notmypresident," along with one much more expletive-laden denunciation.

The account "liked" tweets by Edward Snowden, WikiLeaks and so-called "rogue" government accounts, as well as various journalists and politicians.

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And now a story that brings together a couple of recurring themes about national security under the Trump administration, Russia's meddling in the U.S. election and leaks of sensitive government information. Yesterday, the Justice Department accused a 25-year-old woman of giving a classified document to a news outlet. Her name is Reality Winner.

NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre is here to tell us more about her. And Greg, who is Reality Winner?

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Well, this young woman, based on her Instagram photos, loved cooking, loved working out. She was raised in Kingsville, Texas, and after high school, she went straight to the military. She was a linguist in the Air Force. The languages she specialized in were Pashto and Dari in Farsi. These are languages widely spoken in Iran and Afghanistan - did this for six years, got out of the military end of last year, found a job with a company called Pluribus International Corporation. It's a government contractor that works with the national security community. She started working with them in Georgia, and she got top secret clearance for that job.

SIEGEL: The Trump administration has vowed to punish leakers. She is the first one to be charged under this administration. What does the Justice Department accuse her of doing?

MYRE: Well, they say that a month ago, she printed out a National Security Agency document using this top security clearance that she had. And this was a document that detailed the Russian efforts to penetrate the U.S. election system, provides lots of specifics on the details trying to get into a company that makes election software, mailing emails to local election official. It doesn't point to vote tampering or Trump campaign contact with the Russians, but it provides lots of insight into what the NSA has been learning about these extensive Russian efforts.

SIEGEL: You've said that Reality Winner printed out this document. What did she tell the FBI she did with it once she printed it out?

MYRE: So apparently she printed it at her office, took it out and then put in old-fashioned post office mail. Now, the FBI isn't naming the news organization that she sent it to, and the news organization that seems to be involved, which is The Intercept, the online news organization, isn't citing its source. But they're both telling very similar stories.

The Intercept says it received a document from the - with the NSA information anonymously, and the FBI says that it was contacted by this news organization in reference to an NSA document. And so the government now knows that there's this leaked document, and they start investigating. Now, these are investigations that can often take months or even longer. This happened very, very quickly. Last week, the FBI learned about this on Thursday. They arrested her on Saturday, announced the charges on Monday.

SIEGEL: Greg, we hear leak, NSA contractor. The question is, is this in any way comparable to what Edward Snowden did?

MYRE: Some similarities. Obviously we have an NSA contractor accused of leaking classified documents - shows that this is still very difficult to prevent even though we've had a President Trump speaking quite vociferously about this. But in this case, the FBI was able to act very quickly and say they found the person who did it.

Now, remember. Snowden leaked thousands and thousands of documents, and she - Reality Winner is accused of leaking one document - so a huge difference there. Also motive here - Snowden said he did this to tell Americans about something they didn't know, the extent of government surveillance. Here we have the NSA doing exactly what you'd expect them to be doing.

SIEGEL: Well, and in this case of course, it wasn't U.S. activities that were disclosed but Russian activities...

MYRE: Exactly.

SIEGEL: ...That were disclosed by the leak. NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre, thanks.

MYRE: Thank you, Robert.

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