Reality Winner Sentenced to 63 Months for Polarizing NSA Leak

AUGUSTA, Ga. (CN) — Following the government’s recommendation, a federal judge sentenced Reality Winner on Thursday to just over five years in prison for leaking top-secret records on Russia’s efforts to get Donald Trump elected president in 2016.

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The first government contractor to be criminally charged under the Espionage Act during the Trump administration, Winner entered the courthouse this morning wearing an orange jumpsuit marked “inmate” with her feet shackled. Photographed entering the courthouse with a beaming grin, the 26-year-old smiled faintly as she learned her fate.

Winner’s plea in June to a single count of transmitting national-security information called for a prison term of 63 months. Though her attorneys agreed today that the sentence is the best resolution aside from letting her walk away, they emphasized in a memorandum last week that the stipulated sentence was longer than any the government had ever contemplated for “arguably worse conduct.” (Emphasis in original.)

After the 40-minute sentencing hearing this morning, federal prosecutors confirmed that Winner’s is the longest sentence given for someone who leaked government documents to the media.

Represented by the Atlanta firm Baker Donelson, Texas-born Winner has already served a year behind bars in connection to her May 2017 leak of a National Security Agency report on Russia’s election meddling.

Despite her status as a first-time offender, Chief U.S. District Judge Randal Hall labeled Winner a flight risk and opted to hold her without bail.

U.S. Attorney Bobby Christine gives a statement outside the federal courthouse in Augusta, Georgia, on Aug. 23, 2018, after NSA leaker Reality Winner was sentenced to 63 months in prison. (EVA FEDDERLY, Courthouse News Service)

Hall told the packed audience in his small Augusta courthouse Thursday that he settled on 63 months with the hope of deterring future criminal acts.

“The public-deterrence factor is very important,” Hall said.

Though Hall opted not to impose a fine, he said Winner would face a psychiatric evaluation during incarceration to establish her mental health.

Winner told the court in a statement before learning her sentence that she has suffered from bulimia for 12 years.

“Even now it’s the most challenging in my survival,” Winner said. “It’s the only coping mechanism of incarceration.”

Judge Hall said he is recommending that Winner serve her prison term in Carswell, Texas, so that she can be close to her family. Winner must also pay a $100 fee, serve 100 hours of community service and then face supervised release for three years.

In Winner’s statement to the court, she thanked the court for using the “utmost professionalism” during an “arduous time” for her. She apologized to both the court and her family for the “severe crime against the government” she committed.

U.S. Attorney Bobby Christine noted later that Winner’s incarceration will give potential leakers “a moment’s pause,” and warned that “the Justice Department will continue to prosecute … and bring long sentences … to those threatening to jeopardize our nation’s safety.”

“She claimed to hate America,” Christine said in a press conference outside the courthouse. “She was the quintessential example of an insider threat.”

John Bell (l) and Titus Nichols (r) of Bell & Brigham give a statement outside the federal courthouse in Augusta, Georgia, on Aug. 23, 2018, after their client, Reality Winner, was sentenced to 63 months in prison for leaking a top-secret NSA report. (EVA FEDDERLY, Courthouse News Service)

Defense attorneys meanwhile noted that Winner is regretful of her actions. “This was not some nefarious plot,” Titus Nichols of Bell & Brigham said, calling the sentence “very fair.”

“When she’s released she’ll be in her 30s,” Nichols added. “She’s a very intelligent person. She’ll have the rest of her life ahead of her.”

In their sentencing brief, the defense team offered some context for why Winner abused her security clearance to leak to The Intercept. They said Winner was simultaneously mourning the death of her father in December 2016, had ended her six-year military career and “was swept up by the political fervor surrounding the 2016 presidential election.”

Winner had trained as a cryptologist and linguist in the U.S. Air Force before taking a job last February at Pluribus International, assigned to an NSA facility in Augusta, Georgia.

Peter Maass of The Intercept described Winner’s prosecution back in June as “unfair and unprecedented,” contrasting the leaker’s case against that of former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort.

“While Manafort is suspected of aiding the Russian effort, Winner is accused of warning Americans about it,” Maass wrote.

President Trump praised Manafort’s bravery meanwhile after news of the former lobbyist’s conviction on felony charges came down Tuesday.

Reality Winner arrives with a beaming smile at the federal courthouse in Augusta, Ga., on Aug. 23, 2018, for her sentencing after pleading guilty in June to leaking a classified document taken while she was working as a NSA contractor at Fort Gordon, Ga. The 26-year-old has been held in custody for 15 months. [MICHAEL HOLAHAN/The Augusta Chronicle via AP]
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