FBI seizes documents, computers from Augusta home of NSA leak suspect

The FBI has seized a long list of documents, computer equipment and other items from the Augusta home of the federal contractor who has been charged in the National Security Agency leak case.

Court records show the FBI visited Reality Leigh Winner’s home Saturday and took her passport, some mail, a pair of spiralbound notebooks, two pieces of notebook paper with handwritten notes, a power bill, a Department of Defense-issued “country handbook” about Iran, a nondisclosure agreement, a cell phone, two laptop computers and a tablet computer.

Winner’s attorney, Titus Nichols, referred questions about what was seized to federal prosecutors, who declined to comment. But Nichols told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that Winner plans to plead not guilty to the charge of “gathering, transmitting or losing defense information.” Nichols declined to discuss the basis for her plea.

“We can’t go into that as far as strategy,” he said.

Winner, 25, has been charged with sending to the news media a classified government report about Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election. The U.S. Justice Department announced her arrest Monday, about an hour after The Intercept reported that it had obtained a top-secret NSA report about Russia’s interference. The intelligence report, according to The Intercept, says Russian military intelligence officials tried to hack into the U.S. voting system just before last November’s election.

One of the keys to her defense will turn on what the authorities seized at her home, said Greg Rinckey, a former federal prosecutor who defended a Navy sailor in a classified information mishandling case last year.

“If they find classified information in her house, that is very damaging for her case,” said Rinckey, an attorney and author based in New York.

Winner’s defense could focus on who else had access to the same classified information, Rinckey added. Winner is a contractor with Pluribus International Corp. and was assigned to a U.S. government facility in Georgia, where she has held a top-secret clearance, according to the U.S. Justice Department. The government started investigating her after the news outlet contacted it last week about an upcoming story concerning leaked intelligence materials.

The news outlet provided federal officials a copy of the classified information. Federal investigators said they quickly identified six people who had printed the materials, including Winner, and found she had email contact with the news agency.

“They are going to want to be looking at the chain of custody of this document,” Rinckey said of Winner’s defense team.

Winner is now being held at the Lincoln County Jail, which is about 40 miles northwest of Augusta. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter spotted her Wednesday afternoon as she was standing in an outdoor part of the jail. She was pacing in the fenced-in area, wearing an orange jumpsuit.

Detainees at the jail get three meals a day and have access to a phone, said Sheriff Bruce Beggs. A doctor is on call and a nurse comes twice a day, partly to dispense medication.

“As far as I know, she is fine,” Beggs said of Winner. “We have not had any problems.”

Beggs would not permit an AJC reporter to go inside the jail, citing security concerns. But he gave the reporter a tour of the brick facility from the outside.

Originally built in 1991, the jail can hold up to 90 detainees. Of the 50 who were being held there Wednesday, fewer than 15 were women, Beggs said. Men and women are separated in the jail, which includes medium and maximum security wings. The federal government reimburses the jail for holding and transporting its detainees. On average, two-thirds of those being held there are facing federal charges, Beggs said.

“They get served decent meals,” said Beggs, a Lincolnton native and a veteran of the Lincoln Sheriff’s Office. “They get adequate medical care.”

Beggs added he has received up to 20 phone calls about Winner’s case from reporters from across the country.

“I don’t know anything about her background,” he said, “or really what she is charged with.”

A federal court hearing has been scheduled for 4 p.m. Thursday in Augusta concerning Winner’s detention. Nichols, her attorney, said he plans to argue for her release.

“She is not a flight risk,” he said. “There really is nowhere she can go because of all the media attention she has received. Plus, the government seized her passport.”

Nichols said he recently visited Winner at the jail, and she appeared in good condition.

“I have spoken to her and her family as recently as yesterday,” he said. “She is in good spirits and she is looking forward to her next hearing.”

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