26-year-old Reality Winner, an NSA contractor who leaked evidence of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election to the media, is going to jail for five years — the longest sentence ever given to someone for leaking to the media.
Winner was working as an NSA contractor when she found evidence that hackers affiliated with the Russian government were attempting to compromise a Florida-based company that supplied voting software to local and state governments. As The Intercept reported, Winner discovered in May of 2017 that the NSA explicitly named the Russian General Staff Main Intelligence Directorate (also known as the GRU) as the chief perpetrator of the hack:
Russian General Staff Main Intelligence Directorate actors … executed cyber espionage operations against a named U.S. company in August 2016, evidently to obtain information on elections-related software and hardware solutions. … The actors likely used data obtained from that operation to … launch a voter registration-themed spear-phishing campaign targeting U.S. local government organizations.
The GRU’s hack used a tactic known as “spearphishing” in order to accomplish their attempted break-in into the company’s systems. As the screenshot from the NSA report obtained by The Intercept shows, Russian hackers disguised their hacking attempt as a security notice from Google, asking users to click a malicious link that would allow hackers to remotely access information on that user’s device. These malicious links were disguised as password changes, account verification requests, and other seemingly benign security measures. Users with two-factor verification security were asked to put in both their password and their phone number.
Winner was arrested on June 5, 2017 for violating the Espionage Act — the same day The Intercept published its report. She has been held without bail while awaiting trial, which was originally scheduled for October 15. If convicted, she would have faced up to ten years in prison. However, the NSA contractor’s guilty plea, which was given in June, allows her to serve just five years. She’ll also serve an additional three years of supervised release and will pay a $100 fine.
The relentless prosecution of Reality Winner happened despite various U.S. intelligence agencies confirming prior to her leak that the Russian government did indeed engage in cyberattacks aimed at influencing the 2016 election.
Last month, the New York Times reported that then-President-elect Trump was informed about Russian attempts to compromise election systems prior to his inauguration. That report came shortly after Trump’s summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Finland, in which Trump publicly endorsed Putin’s view that there was no effort by the Russian government to interfere in the election.
To be clear, Trump is not the first president to aggressively prosecute whistleblowers and leakers. Out of all 13 people charged under the Espionage Act for leaking government secrets, eight of those people were prosecuted by the Obama administration. Prior to his suspicious death in 2013, BuzzFeed News investigative journalist Michael Hastings was working on a story about how John Brennan — who served as CIA Director under President Obama — was reportedly tasked with spying on journalists.
Jake Shepherd is a freelance writer from Cleveland, Ohio. He enjoys poring through financial disclosure statements, spirited debate, and good scotch. He remains eternally optimistic about the Browns. Email him at jake.d.shepherd.21 (at) hotmail (dot) com.