The National Security Agency contractor who blew the whistle on the Russia military intelligence’s cyberattacks on the 2016 election was sentenced on Thursday to more than five years in prison — the harshest punishment ever imposed on federal crimes involving leaks to the media.
Reality Winner, 26, a contractor who was working at the NSA’s August Georgia office, pleaded guilty to turning over a highly classified document revealing the Russian cyberattacks to the media. She was sentenced under the Espionage Act.
Winner faced 10 years in prison but she accepted a plea deal of 63 months in prison with three years of supervised release, according to CNN.
The May 2017 report that Winner released was considered the most detailed government account of Russia’s attempts to interfere in the U.S. elections that was revealed to the public. The news outlet The Intercept wrote about the NSA document the same day as Winner’s June 2017 arrest.
The sentence is the latest victory for federal officials who over the past decade have been escalating their crackdown on whistleblowers who leak classified intelligence documents using the Espionage Act.
The Obama administration prosecuted eight government employees or contractors under the Espionage Act, more than all previous administrations combined, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
The Trump administration has vowed to intensify the crackdown. Last August, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the Department of Justice planned to go after government workers who reveal classified information and the media organizations that report it.
Minnesota-based FBI agent Terry Albury was arrested in March after sharing documents to a news outlet related to the agency’s work with informants. That news outlet was reportedly also the Intercept, which published a series in 2017 called “The FBI’s Secret Rules,” which was based on the documents Albury leaked showing the expansion of the federal law enforcement agency’s powers since September 11, 2001, according to Reuters.
In a June statement, Freedom of the Press Foundation Executive Director Trevor Timm characterized Winner as a whistleblower who alerted the public about a “critical threat to election security.”
“It continues to be a travesty that sources of journalists are prosecuted by the Justice Department under the Espionage Act—a statute meant for spies that doesn’t allow for a public interest defense,” Timm said.
“Winner performed a public service by alerting the public and state officials to critical vulnerabilities in election infrastructure, and it’s shameful the Justice Department would seek any prison time for her doing so,” he continued.
Winner was sentenced at federal court in Augusta, Georgia. U.S. Attorney Bobby L. Christine told reporters that Winner put the “nation’s security at risk” and caused “grave damage” to U.S. national security, according to the New York Times.
Since the document outlining Russian meddling in the election came to light, a number of indictments filed by Special Council Robert Mueller have revealed other instances of Russian meddling into the 2016 to the benefit of then-presidential candidate Donald Trump. Last month, 12 Russian intelligence officers were charged with hacking the Hillary Clinton campaign and Democratic computer networks in 2016. And Trump’s longtime lawyer and fixer, Michael Cohen, recently indicated he’s willing to testify that Trump knew in advance about a June 2016 meeting where Kremlin-linked Russians offered dirt on Clinton.