The Trump administration on Tuesday notched another victory in its crackdown on government leakers, when Reality Winner pleaded guilty to sending to the news media a top-secret National Security Agency report about Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
The former NSA contractor’s plea agreement with prosecutors calls for her to serve five years and three months behind bars plus three years of supervised release. She will be sentenced later.
Wearing an orange jail uniform and shackled at the ankles, Winner, 26, read a short statement about her guilt in court, speaking in a calm and even tone as her mother, a former cellmate and about a dozen journalists watched from behind her.
“All of these actions I did willfully, meaning I did them of my own free will,” Winner, a former Air Force linguist, told the judge.
More: Former cellmate provides window into Reality Winner’s life behind bars
Her case drew international attention as the government prosecuted her under the Espionage Act, a World War I-era law aimed at spies. Winner’s supporters hailed her as a patriot who helped the public learn about threats to the nation’s election system. Her critics, meanwhile, blasted her as a naïve and reckless leaker whose actions could both jeopardize national security and deter whistleblowers with more explosive information.
This marks the second guilty plea in President Donald Trump’s anti-leak drive. In April, former FBI Special Agent Terry Albury pleaded guilty to one count of making an unauthorized disclosure of classified national defense information and one count of unlawful retention of national defense information. He faces up to 10 years in prison per count.
Winner’s plea came on the day the U.S. Supreme Court handed Trump another victory when it ruled 5-4 to uphold his ban on travel from mostly-Muslim nations. The ruling was welcome news for Trump, who has weathered a storm of controversy over his administration’s decision to separate immigrant families caught illegally crossing the southwest border.
“This ruling is also a moment of profound vindication following months of hysterical commentary from the media and Democratic politicians who refuse to do what it takes to secure our border and our country,” Trump said in a statement.
After Winner leaked the NSA report last year, The Intercept — an online publication — published an article based on it, saying Russian military intelligence sent spear-phishing emails, messages to specific people aimed at stealing sensitive information, to more than 100 local election officials and launched a cyberattack against a Florida-based voting software supplier that has contracts in eight states.
Before federal marshals led Winner out of the courtroom, she had been held in jail without bond for more than a year. Her trial was scheduled to begin Oct. 15.
Speaking to reporters after Tuesday’s hearing, her mother, Billie Winner-Davis, said her daughter appeared at peace when she visited her at the jail last weekend.
“I’m not going to say that Reality is innocent. I think that she did something that was wrong,” her mother said. “I hope that people don’t judge her by this one action, by this one mistake. I hope that people really look at her as the person that she is. She has always gone out of her way to serve her communities, to help people.”
Her mother added the Espionage Act was too difficult to fight. Former whistleblowers point out the law does not take into account whether leakers are trying to serve the public interest or whether their actions have damaged national security.
“The Espionage Act is harsh. It is outdated. It really needs to be reformed,” she said. “I wanted to fight the Espionage Act. I don’t want her to go down in history as someone who betrayed or hurt her country or that she is an enemy of the state.”
One of Winner’s federal prosecutors declined to comment Tuesday.
Winner also suffered a series of courtroom defeats in rulings handed down by U.S. Magistrate Court Judge Brian Epps. The judge, for example, rejected all but one of her attorneys’ 41 requests to subpoena the White House and numerous states and federal agencies, including the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, CIA and the National Security Council, for classified information.
Meanwhile, Winner’s health suffered in the Lincoln County Jail, where she was attacked by another detainee, according to her family. She also injured her knee in a fall while being transported for a court hearing, landing face-first while shackled and handcuffed. She told the judge Tuesday that she is being treated for an eating disorder and depression and that she was taking Zoloft, an antidepressant. A psychologist visited her at the jail, her mother said.
“I know that there have been some very dark times for her in there,” her mother said.
At the conclusion of Winner’s court hearing Tuesday, her mother told one of her daughter’s attorneys: “Give her a hug for me.”
As she entered the federal courthouse with grim-faced federal marshals Tuesday morning, Winner smiled brightly at the small group of reporters who had assembled just outside the gate. It was hot and sticky outside. Her light brown hair, which was tied back, fell to her shoulders before she entered the courtroom. Strands drifted over her eye as she spoke to the judge.
Journalists packed Winner’s previous court hearings. Fewer showed up for her guilty plea. Winner’s former cellmate, Mikaela Uscanga, spoke to them after the hearing, saying she was surprised by the guilty plea.
“I don’t want her in jail, period,” Uscanga said, though she added: “It is a grown-up thing to do when you accept your responsibility for what you have done and try to do what is best for you and your family and hope for the best outcome.”
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has covered Reality Winner’s court case from the start, reporting on her childhood in Texas, her time in the Air Force, the twists and turns of her legal odyssey, the significance of the Espionage Act and the personal stories of former whistleblowers who support and oppose her actions. Read all of The AJC’s coverage on myajc.com