Federal prosecutors filed a criminal complaint against a government contractor in Georgia for sharing classified information with a news outlet on Monday, a rare move despite the surge in leaks from within the federal government since President Trump took office.
The Justice Department said FBI investigations arrested Reality Leigh Winner, a 25-year-old federal contractor from Atlanta, Georgia, for violating federal law that prohibits the distribution of classified defense information. Winner is an employee of Pluribus International Corporation, which provides a range of defense and intelligence contracting services to the federal government.
In an FBI affidavit filed in federal court in Georgia on Monday, investigators allege Winner “printed and improperly removed classified intelligence reporting, which contained classified national defense information from an intelligence community agency, and unlawfully retained it.” The affidavit claims Winner then passed along the information to an unidentified “online news outlet.”
A separate search-warrant application by federal investigators described an encounter in May between an unnamed reporter from the outlet and an unnamed defense contractor with whom he or she was acquainted. The reporter asked the contractor for help verifying the documents, and the reporter texted images of them to the contractor. The contractor told the reporter the documents were fake, then notified the agency in question about the documents shown to the contractor and gave the agency identifying numbers listed on the document.
When that outlet contacted the unnamed intelligence agency for comment and verification, federal investigators immediately began an internal audit to determine who had access to the document in question. The affidavit says six individuals printed the document and that Winner alone “had email contact with the [news] outlet.” It then describes an interview with FBI investigators on June 3 in which Winner allegedly admitted to sharing the information with the news outlet. She has not yet been formally charged or entered a plea of guilty or not guilty.
The case comes amid increased outrage from within the Trump administration over the flood of leaked information coming from the White House and other federal agencies since President Trump took office. Trump and his inner circle have blamed recalcitrant government officials whom they allege are still loyal to the Obama administration for the surge in leaks, and Trump himself has frequently inveigled against them on Twitter. Others have pointed to leaks coming from within the White House itself attributed to top aides as evidence of hypocrisy.
While leaks are a mainstay of Washington politics and a lifeblood for political journalists, those disclosures have reached extraordinary levels in recent months. Among the most sensitive leaks was President Trump’s Oval Office conversations with top Russian officials last month. His purported revelation to them of allied intelligence information reportedly outraged intelligence officials in Israel, which was identified by news outlets as the source of the sensitive intelligence. Trump’s discussions in the same meeting about the firing of former FBI Director James Comey one day earlier escalated scrutiny into whether the president may have committed obstruction of justice. Comey is set to testify before Congress on Thursday.
The flurry of leaks also caused significant headaches for the government. Outraged British intelligence agencies briefly halted intelligence sharing about the Manchester concert bombing last month with the United States after American news outlets published a series of highly detailed disclosures from the investigation. Many speculated those disclosures came from U.S. officials who had been briefed by their colleagues. After a conversation with British Prime Minister Theresa May during his overseas trip last month, Trump said he would ask the Justice Department to review the matter.
With so many high-profile disclosures, it’s not clear which one would be allegedly linked to Winner. The Justice Department avoided offering any details about the information Winner allegedly disclosed in announcing her arrest. The FBI affidavit did not say what agency the documents came from, what they contained, or which news organization received them.
But circumstantial evidence suggests it could be connected to a report published by the Intercept, a digital news outlet that specializes in national-security reporting, earlier on Monday. Hours before the Justice Department’s announcement, the Intercept published an article shedding more light on on Russian hacking efforts against local U.S. election officials ahead of the November election last year.
Included in the article was a top-secret, five-page report by the National Security Agency describing the Russian efforts. The Intercept said the report was dated May 5, 2017, and that it provided “most detailed U.S. government account of Russian interference in the election that has yet come to light.” The FBI affidavit alleges that Winner “printed and improperly removed classified intelligence reporting, which contained classified national defense information and was dated on or about May 5, 2017,” but does not identify the agency from which the report came or its subject.
The Intercept, for its part, said it did not know whether Winner was its source. “As we reported in the story, the NSA document was provided to us anonymously,” the organization said in a statement. “The Intercept has no knowledge of the identity of the source.”