Former NSA contractor Reality Winner has pleaded guilty to a charge of leaking classified information under the Espionage Act, the first such person prosecuted by the Trump administration for that crime.
Winner was arrested last June for leaking a classified report about Russian interference in the 2016 election to the news site the Intercept. She obtained the report while working as a contractor for the NSA at Fort Gordon, a military base near Augusta, Georgia, and holding a top secret security clearance. Her arrest came just days before the Intercept published the report. She initially pleaded not guilty.
Winner entered her plea on Tuesday in Federal District Court in Augusta, Georgia. The plea deal, pending final approval by a judge, would lead to a sentence of 63 months in prison and three years of supervised release. “All of my actions I did willfully, meaning I did so of my own free will,” Winner said in court on Tuesday, according to the New York Times.
The 63-month prison sentence is “unusually harsh for a leak case,” according to the Times. It’s the longest known term imposed by a federal court for an Espionage Act violation, according to the Intercept. (Chelsea Manning’s 35-year-sentence for a leaking classified intelligence was issued by a military court.) Winner’s plea deal would avert a trial that was scheduled for October.
It’s worth noting that not all leaks are illegal. But the Espionage Act, a WWI-era law, criminalizes unauthorized disclosure of national security secrets that could be used to harm the United States or aid a foreign government. Winner was charged under Section 793, which prohibits “gathering, transmitting or losing defense information.” When prosecuting defendants under the act, the court does not consider whether the disclosure was in the public interest
The Obama administration brought nine or 10 leak-related prosecutions, depending on how they are counted—about twice as many as those brought by all previous administrations combined. At least eight of those investigations involved the Espionage Act.
It’s not clear how many leak cases the Trump administration is pursuing. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said last year that the Department of Justice was pursuing three times as many leak investigations as were open at the end of the Obama administration. The Trump administration has resolved at least two leak cases through plea deals: Winner’s and the case of former FBI agent Terry Albury, who pleaded guilty in April to leaking classified documents concerning the FBI’s treatment of minority communities in Minnesota. Prosecutors in Albury’s case reportedly said they would seek a sentence of 46 to 57 months in prison.
And the Trump administration has brought at least two other leak-related cases, according to the Times, including one against former CIA software engineer Joshua Schulte, who was charged under the Espionage Act and other laws this month amid allegations that he sent WikiLeaks documents and electronic tools related to the CIA’s hacking operations. Former Senate Intelligence Committee Director of Security James Wolfe was also charged this month, though in that case the charge is not leaking classified information but rather lying to the FBI about his relationship with a reporter.
Trump has tried to look tough on leaking, though as Slate’s Leon Neyfakh wrote last year, Trump may care more about loyalty than national security. The president has lashed out publicly against leakers, including those in the White House. In a tweet last month, the president tried to downplay the issue while at the same time issuing a warning: “The so-called leaks coming out of the White House are a massive over exaggeration put out by the Fake News Media in order to make us look as bad as possible. With that being said, leakers are traitors and cowards, and we will find out who they are!”