Authorities have gathered additional classified information in the National Security Agency leak investigation here beyond what the suspect is accused of revealing to the news media about Russia’s meddling in the U.S. election system, according to federal prosecutors.
Without identifying the information or saying where they got it, the prosecutors mentioned the records in a court filing this month. They didn’t say why the information is classified or whether Reality Leigh Winner was authorized to access it as part of her job.
“Classified material, including but not limited to the document which the defendant is charged with unlawfully retaining and transmitting, was collected as part of the underlying investigation,” prosecutors said in the court papers.
Also, during a court hearing here Tuesday, the prosecutors disclosed they are analyzing an extensive amount of other items they have gathered, including a notebook from Winner’s work space that contains handwriting in Farsi. In addition to translating those notes, they are examining two computers, a tablet and four phones they seized from Winner’s home in Augusta. Additionally, they are studying a recorded interview the former Air Force linguist did with the FBI at her home as well as recordings of phone calls she made from the Lincoln County Jail.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Brian Epps outlined how he would handle sensitive information in the case. First, he introduced Carli Rodriguez-Feo, a “classified information security officer” who will help with any motions or orders connected to the Classified Information Procedures Act, or CIPA. That federal law is aimed at preventing “graymail,” or the practice in which defendants threaten to reveal classified information in an attempt to force prosecutors to drop the charges against them. Further, Epps said federal officials are helping line up security clearances for him and the defense attorneys so they can look at the evidence. The judge added they are also searching for a secure location to safeguard those records.
Epps said the court is tentatively preparing to hold Winner’s trial on Oct. 23. He highlighted that he is sensitive to the fact that Winner — who has no criminal convictions — is being held in the Lincoln County Jail until her trial, stressing that he does not want the case delayed.
“At first blush, it’s quite a simple case,” he said while noting there is only one defendant and that she is facing a single charge.
As an Air Force senior airman, Winner became a linguist proficient in Farsi, Dari and Pashto, languages spoken in Iran and Afghanistan. After she left the military, she worked as a federal contractor at a U.S. government agency in Georgia this year and had a top-secret security clearance.
A federal grand jury has indicted her on a single count of “willful retention and transmission of national defense information,” alleging that she leaked to the news media a classified NSA report on Russia’s attempts to interfere with the U.S. election system. Winner faces up to 10 years in prison and $250,000 in fines, plus up to three years of supervised release and a $100 special assessment. She has pleaded not guilty to the charge.
Clad in an orange jail uniform, she sat rigid in her chair, wore an impassive expression and quietly observed Tuesday’s proceedings. When one of her defense attorneys patted her on the shoulder, Winner gave him a slight smile.
The U.S. Justice Department announced Winner’s arrest this month, about an hour after The Intercept reported that it had obtained a top-secret NSA report about Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election. The report says Russian military intelligence officials tried to hack into the U.S. voting system just before the November election.
Before she was indicted, Winner spent months unleashing a tirade of social media posts calling President Donald Trump, among other things, an “orange fascist.” She also wrote in a notebook seized by authorities that she wanted to “burn the White House down” and then flee overseas, according to federal prosecutors.
In a court hearing June 8, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Solari argued against releasing Winner on bond, adding that prosecutors have not ruled out bringing additional charges against her. She could still do “exceptionally grave damage to national security,” which “could assist our foreign adversaries,” Solari said.
Epps ultimately denied Winner’s release. He referenced several statements prosecutors attributed to her, including one instance when she allegedly told her mother in a call from the jail, “Mom, those documents, I screwed up.” And he cited a flash drive prosecutors say she improperly plugged into a top-secret computer — in a sort of test run — while she was still in the Air Force last year.
Tuesday’s court hearing ended with a highly technical discussion about a proposed order designed to protect any classified information in the case. Winner’s defense attorneys sought to tweak it so that they could discuss in court information that has already been made public, citing newspaper articles as an example.
“They are saying I would go to jail if I violate this order,” said John Bell, one of Winner’s defense attorneys.
One of the prosecutors said he worried Bell’s suggested edit would create “murkiness.” But the prosecutors ultimately agreed to work on the language in the protective order after Epps said he sympathized with Bell and did not want him to be “needlessly hamstrung” in the case.
“It makes a lot of common sense to me,” Epps said of Bell’s argument. “I do feel there is room for clarification here.”
More about the case involving the leaking of classified information about Russia’s meddling in the U.S. election system can be found on myAJC.com.