Reality Winner pleads guilty to espionage after leaking document to security news website

Frank LoMonte, who heads the Brechner Center at the University of Florida, says Reality Winner’s plea was not that surprising. (photo by Ryan Tarinelli)

By Skyler Mitchell |
Staff Writer

LINCOLNTON—After more than a year of fighting in the federal court, Reality L. Winner pleaded guilty on June 26 to charges of leaking government documents to the public under the Espionage Act.

Winner will serve 63 months in jail with three years of supervised probation after her release, nearly half the sentence she would have gotten if she had gone to trial, which was expected to begin in October. There hasn’t been any confirmation on possibility of bond or counting the time she’s spent to her current sentence.

Winner, who worked for the military contractor Pluribus International Corporation, was accused last year of leaking sensitive NSA documents to the press about possible Russian hacking of the 2016 presidential election. Winner supposedly found the documents while working at her contracting job and could view them due to the high security clearance that she retained from her Air Force career.

She mailed the news outlet The Intercept the documents and was under arrest an hour after the website published an article on June 5, 2017. The article never mentioned her name. An investigation found she was the only person to simultaneously print a copy and email The Intercept after looking through Winner’s computer.

The article is still available on the security news outlet’s website.

Winner was charged under the Espionage Act and has remained in prison since her arrest last June. Many people have been talking about the case, with just as many people supporting her actions as there are detractors. A group supporting the defendant paid for a billboard advertising trying to get eyes on the case. Family members of Winner have stood by her side while the case continued and were surprised when she took a guilty plea.

The controversy around her choice still goes on today, despite the near closing of the case. Were her actions justified and should she really be tried under the Espionage Act? Was there another way?

Frank LoMonte, director of the Brechner Center at the University of Florida, thinks Winner’s decision to leak the document ultimately was her own.

“The morality and ethics of leaking government documents is a deeply personal choice for the individual,” he said.

While LoMonte does say that the information leaked wasn’t extremely damaging to the government, it is up to an individual to decide whether to leak or not.

LoMonte also pointed out that while there seemed to be overwhelming evidence against Winner that a trial would have most likely led to a conviction, the charge under the Espionage Act may not fit this scenario. While leaking government documents is dangerous, she debatably fits the description of a whistleblower. LoMonte said that “prosecutors also have discretion about which charge to bring, and when you charge someone with espionage, you’re branding them as disloyal to the United States.” He says that since that means she is practically getting charged with treason, it could have led to life in prison. That might well scare someone into confessing.

Overall, LoMonte was not surprised to hear about the guilty plea. He thought it was to be expected with the nature of the case.

If certain people question what Realiy Winner has done, some have also questioned the professionalism of The Intercept in their role of publishing the documents. Are they just as responsible for possible vulnerabilities created, or are they innocent? Were their motives pure in publishing the content?

Augusta University’s very own Professor Debra van Tuyll said that The Intercept has technically done nothing wrong, but “it depends on the national security issue.” While she and another consultant she asked about the case, diplomatic historian and husband Hubert van Tuyll, who teaches in AU’s Department of History, couldn’t comment on the news outlet’s motives, they do agree it’s situational.

Citing the cases of Near v. Minnesota and New York Times v. U.S., only documents that could present a national security threat could be censored. If that was the case, then The Intercept likely would have dealt with massive legal trouble.

“The Supreme Court has ruled that if the press obtains docs, it can print them,” Professor Debra van Tuyll said.

She said that the axe would fall on the leakers themselves.

Overall, The Intercept has done nothing that could lead to prosecution. The editors’ motives are up for debate, but as one thing Professor van Tuyll said in the interview, journalists’ right to tell the public the truth is “sacrosanct.”

Whether people believe Winner deserves the punishment heading her way, that she could have fought harder, or simply only followed her story due to her unusual name, this case does bring up uneasy questions. Winner’s case will be remembered and debated for years. Was she justified in what she did or did her actions cause more chaos? Was it ethical to give the documents, and was it ethical for the website to publish them too?

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