National Security

NSA contractor accused of leaking top secret report on Russian hacking efforts

A federal contractor was arrested over the weekend and accused of leaking a classified report containing "Top Secret level" information on Russian hacking efforts during the 2016 presidential election.

Reality Leigh Winner, 25, appeared in U.S. District Court in Augusta, Ga., to face one charge of removing classified material from a government facility and mailing it to a news outlet, the Justice Department said Monday.

Winner's arrest was announced shortly after the Intercept website published a story detailing how Russian hackers attacked at least one U.S. voting software supplier and sent so-called "spear-phishing" emails to more than 100 local election officials at the end of October or beginning of November.

The Justice Department did not specify that Winner was being charged in connection with the Intercept's report. However, the site noted that the National Security Agency (NSA) report cited in its story was dated May 5 of this year. An affidavit supporting Winner's arrest also said that the report was dated "on or about" May 5.

The Intercept contacted the NSA and the national intelligence director's office about the document and both agencies asked that it not be published. U.S. intelligence officials then asked The Intercept to redact certain sections. The Intercept said some material was withheld at U.S. intelligence agencies' request because it wasn't "clearly in the public interest."

The report said Russian military intelligence "executed cyber espionage operations against a named U.S. company in August 2016 evidently to obtain information on elections-related software and hardware solutions, according to information that became available in April 2017."

The hackers are believed to have then used data from that operation to create a new email account to launch a spear-phishing campaign targeting U.S. local government organizations, the document said. "Lastly, the actors send test emails to two non-existent accounts ostensibly associated with absentee balloting, presumably with the purpose of creating those accounts to mimic legitimate services."

The document did not name any state.

The information in the leaked document seems to go further than the U.S. intelligence agencies' January assessment of the hacking that occurred.

The Washington Examiner reported that Winner worked for Pluribus International Corporation and was assigned to a U.S. government facility in Georgia. She had held a top-secret classified security clearance since being hired this past February. The affidavit sworn by FBI agent Justin Garrick said that she had previously served in the Air Force and held a top-secret security clearance.

Late Monday, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange tweeted his support for Winner.

Winner's attorney, Titus Thomas Nichols, declined to confirm whether she is accused of leaking the NSA report received by The Intercept. He also declined to name the federal agency for which Winner worked.

"My client has no (criminal) history, so it's not as if she has a pattern of having done anything like this before," Nichols told the Associated Press in a phone interview Monday. "She is a very good person. All this craziness has happened all of a sudden."

Garrick said in his affidavit that the government was notified of the leaked report by the news outlet that received it. He said the agency that housed the report determined only six employees had made physical copies. Winner was one of them. Garrick said investigators found Winner had exchanged email with the news outlet using her work computer.

Garrick's affidavit said he interviewed Winner at her home Saturday and she "admitted intentionally identifying and printing the classified intelligence reporting at issue" and mailing it to the news outlet.

Asked if Winner had confessed, Nichols said, "If there is a confession, the government has not shown it to me."

House Oversight Committee Chairman Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, praised the arrest in an appearance on Fox News' "The Story with Martha MacCallum."

"When you have classified information, you cannot put that out there just because you think it would be a good idea," Chaffetz said. "I want people in handcuffs and I want to see people behind bars."

Chaffetz also criticized federal agencies for failing to protect sensitive information after a series of high-profile leaks.

"They have hundreds of thousands of people that have security clearances," Chaffetz said. "There are supposed to be safeguards in there ... But how many times do we have to see this story happen? They obviously don’t have the safeguards."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.