Reality Leigh Winner, a National Security Agency contractor with a top-secret clearance, became the first person to be jailed by the Trump administration after being accused of leaking classified information this week.
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Winner, 25, allegedly leaked a classified report about Russian election interference to the online publication The Intercept, the latest in a series of high-profile leaks blamed on government contractors who have access to sensitive national security secrets despite not being official government employees.
According to Richard Clarke, a former White House national security adviser who is now an ABC News consultant, contractors make up an increasingly large segment of the intelligence community and are not subject to the same scrutiny as official government employees.
“Departments and agencies are under pressure to keep the number of employees down, and so they have employees that don't show up on their books because they're contractors. And this makes it look like the government is smaller than it actually is,” Clarke told ABC News. “Security review for permanent party civil servants is usually much more detailed, takes longer, and is more thorough than contractor security reviews.”
Winner was a six-year Air Force veteran before taking a position at an NSA outpost in Augusta, Georgia while technically employed by a government contractor called Pluribus International Corporation. She joins a handful of contractors accused of abusing their security clearances to leak classified information.
The first and most famous case involved Edward Snowden, the former Booz Allen Hamilton contractor who lives in exile in Russia as he faces charges of treason for the secrets about the NSA’s global surveillance program he stole and gave to journalists in 2013.
Then there’s Harold Martin, also formerly of Booz Allen Hamilton, who was accused of systematically stealing secrets from the NSA for two decades after authorities say they discovered highly classified documents in his car and a shed in his backyard.
Clarke, a member of a commission empaneled by the White House which sought to make reforms to the spy agency in the wake of the Snowden affair, said that the group made recommendations that would have strengthened oversight of government contractors. They were accepted, Clarke says, but neither the Obama administration nor Trump administration appears to have implemented them.
“I think contractors generally don’t have that same sense of devotion, that sense of permanency, of patriotism that civil servants have,” Clarke said.
Rajesh De, who served as NSA general counsel during the Snowden affair, however, disagreed, saying that more leaks are coming from contractors simply because there are more contractors to leak.
“I would be cautious about besmirching contractors writ large because of a few individuals,” De told ABC News. “By sheer numbers, more and more incidents will be result of contractor activity.”
The more pressing problem, De said, is a political one.
“The only thing perhaps more dangerous than leaks of classified information is the politicization of leaking,” De said. “We’re in an environment where the subject of Russian election interference has become politically toxic, and we should worry about both leaks that are politically motivated and the prosecutions of leaks that are politically motivated.”
According to court documents, the FBI quickly figured out that Winner was one of only six people who had printed the leaked top secret document and the only one of the six who contacted the journalists via email. The FBI says Winner has admitted to being the leaker, but her lawyer, Titus Nichols, says she plans to fight the charges.
“She will be entering a plea of not guilty,” Titus Nichols told ABC News. “Ms. Winner is looking forward to just having her day in court and allowing a jury of her peers to make a final determination.”
On Tuesday, The Intercept released a statement that claimed the classified NSA document was provided “completely anonymously” and cast doubt on the government’s account of Winner’s arrest.
“It is important to keep in mind that these documents contain unproven assertions and speculation designed to serve the government’s agenda and as such warrant skepticism,” the statement reads. “Winner faces allegations that have not been proven. The same is true of the FBI’s claims about how it came to arrest Winner.”
Winner is being charged with “gathering, transmitting or losing defense information” under the Espionage Act and faces up to ten years in prison if convicted, all for allegedly revealing what press advocates have said are matters of clear public interest that should never have been concealed in the first place.
"It's a shame that the federal government does not understand the difference between journalism and espionage," said Peter Sterne, senior reporter at the Freedom of the Press Foundation. "Reality Leigh Winner is accused of sharing documents with an American media outlet about a topic of public concern, yet the Department of Justice is charging Winner under the Espionage Act, a 100-year-old statute intended for use against spies and saboteurs working on behalf of foreign governments.”
The information in the leaked document revealed that the U.S. had solid evidence that Russian spies had tried to hack into voter registration offices around the country just before the election.
Since the document was leaked, the National Association for the Secretaries of State, which oversees elections and voting infrastructure, has requested a briefing with Department of Homeland Security and issued a statement suggesting that members of the organizations are concerned that the information contained in the NSA report was not previously shared with local officials.
“We urge DHS and other federal law enforcement to share threat intelligence information with election officials and notify all local election officials who were targeted in the email spear-phishing campaign that is documented in the NSA report,” the statement reads.
De, meanwhile, said the need for transparency should be balanced with the need to hold leakers of classified information accountable for violations of their professional and legal obligations.
“I think that leaks can be dangerous in a lot of ways that aren’t readily apparent,” De said. “A lot of us think more information should be made public, but the solution can’t be individuals putting out tidbits of information haphazardly without appreciating how much damage can be done.”