WASHINGTON — A former contractor for the US National Security Agency who leaked information on Russian hacking of election systems to journalists was sentenced Thursday to more than five years in prison.
The 63-month sentence that a federal judge in Augusta, Georgia handed to Reality Winner in exchange for her guilty plea was the stiffest ever for a single charge of leaking classified information to the media.
It came as the Trump administration ramps up pressure to deter the leaks of classified materials to journalists that have plagued it since last year.
But Winner’s case dealt with materials that had been kept from US states that were the targets of the hacking, and was officially divulged only months after her arrest.
"The defendant schemed to take and disclose classified information she had sworn to protect -- and then did so almost as soon as she had the chance," said Assistant Attorney General John Demers in a statement.
The former Air Force linguist was arrested in June 2017 hours before The Intercept, an online publication that frequently breaks national security-related stories, published a story based on documents she took.
The documents detailed attempts by hackers from Russian military intelligence to penetrate a company that sells voter registration software, as well as the computers of local election officials.
That was apparently news to the states in question.
After the leak, as The Intercept later documented, the US Election Assistance Commission, which helps states conduct elections, issued a new alert on cybersecurity, and tweeted about the alert by referring to Winner and the Intercept story.
State officials themselves exchanged emails on how to deal with the systems that were targeted.
Three months after Winner’s arrest, under pressure from state officials, the Department of Homeland Security officially revealed that Russians tried to hack systems in 21 of the 50 states in 2016.
The sentence appeared to reflect the Trump administration’s campaign against leakers. Winner’s lawyers told the court last week that the proposed sentence far exceeded those in other prominent leak cases.
"There is no allegation or evidence of actual spying or treason" against her, they said.
"This was not a WikiLeaks-like ’dump’ of massive amounts of sensitive data, nor was it a disclosure of military secrets," they added.
That was a reference to the case of Chelsea Manning -- at the time known as Bradley Manning -- who as an army intelligence analyst in 2010 leaked a massive amount of highly secret defence and diplomacy documents to the transparency group.
Manning was ultimately sentenced in February 2013 to 35 years in prison on 17 counts that included espionage and other charges.
Four years later, then president Barack Obama commuted her sentence as having been disproportionate, and she was freed.
Media activists criticised Winner’s sentence as excessive.
"Reality Winner is a whistleblower who alerted the public about a criticalthreat to election security," said the executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, Trevor Timm, who helped raise money for Winner’s defence.
"Winner performed a public service by alerting the public and state officials to dangerous vulnerabilities in election infrastructure, and it’s shameful the Justice Department would seek any prison time for her doing so -- let alone the longest sentence for such an act in history." — AFP