Readers like you keep news free for everyone.

More than 5,000 readers have already pitched in to keep free access to The Journal.

For the price of one cup of coffee each week you can help keep paywalls away.

Support us today
Not now
Sunday 3 December 2023 Dublin: 0°C
russian hacks

Explainer: Who is Reality Winner, and why has she been charged with leaking US secrets?

The 25-year-old Air Force veteran has been charged with leaking information related to alleged Russian hacks.

FOR QUITE A while now, Donald Trump has bemoaned the leaking of information to the press from various agencies in the US.

“Classified information is being given to media that could have a devastating effect on US FIND NOW,” he tweeted in February.

In March, he said: “The real story that Congress, the FBI and all others should be looking into is the leaking of classified information. Must find leaker now!”

trump leak Donald J Trump / Twitter Donald J Trump / Twitter / Twitter

When, in the aftermath of the Manchester attack, information from UK authorities was leaked to the US press, Trump was irate.

He described the leaks as “deeply troubling” and threatened to prosecute those responsible.

Numerous leaks to the press have centred on alleged Russian involvement in last November’s presidential election, with stories around the involvement of his son-in-law Jared Kushner prominent among them.

One story, published on 5 June on online news organisation the Intercept, suggested that election-related hacking penetrated further into US voting systems than was previously known. It referenced a top-secret report which was dated 5 May to support the claim.

Barely an hour after its publication, a government contractor named Reality Leigh Winner was arrested and charged with copying classified documents and mailing it to a reporter.

But who is Reality Winner? What information was leaked? And how did she come to possess these documents if she did leak this information to the press?

Reality Winner

reality winner Instagram Instagram

Reality Leigh Winner is a 25-year-old woman from Augusta, Georgia, who served with the Air Force from January 2013 till February of this year.

Her mother, Billie Winner-Davis, told the Guardian that Reality had excelled in academia, tennis and athletics, and was fluent in several languages.

On social media, under the name Sara Winners, Winner would frequently retweet criticisms of Donald Trump’s policies.

sara winners Sara Winners / Twitter Sara Winners / Twitter / Twitter

Around the time that Trump implemented the travel ban in January, she tweeted using the hashtag #TrumpIsACunt and, on the night he was elected, she tweeted: “Well. People suck”.

Her mother said that she “never thought this would be something she would do”, adding that while she opposed Trump Winner was “not someone who would go and riot or picket”.

In recent times, she worked as a contractor for Pluribus International Corporation. Pluribus is a defence and intelligence contractor for the US government.

What was leaked?

A report from the National Security Agency (NSA) was leaked to the Intercept online publication and it is strongly believed that it is this document that relates to Winner’s arrest.

The news outlet was founded by journalists in the wake of the NSA documents on mass surveillance leaked by Edward Snowden.

The headline of the report reads: “Top-secret NSA report details Russian hacking effort days before 2016 election“.

intercept The Intercept The Intercept

It depicts a hacking operation tied closely to Moscow’s GRU intelligence directorate that targeted private US companies providing voter registration services and equipment to local governments.

The operation, which potentially threatened the integrity of the US vote, went on for months, until just days before the 8 November election, according to the document.

The NSA did not conclude whether the hackers had any effect on the outcome, the Intercept said. But US intelligence officials have repeatedly said vote tallies were not affected in the election, in which President Donald Trump beat Democrat Hillary Clinton.

“Russian General Staff Main Intelligence Directorate actors … executed cyber espionage operations against a named US company in August 2016, evidently to obtain information on elections-related software and hardware solutions,” the NSA report says, according to the Intercept.

The report shows that, by trying to steal log-in credentials and using spear-phishing emails to plant malware, the hackers “obtained and maintained access to elements of multiple US state or local electoral boards.”

How successful that effort was, and what kind of data may have been stolen, remains an unanswered question, the NSA report says.

Florida-based VR Systems, whose electronic voter identification system was in use in eight states, was a target of the Russian hacking effort, it says. In a statement the company said it had alerted its customers when it became aware of the phishing effort, and that none fell for it or were compromised.

“Phishing and spear-phishing are not uncommon in our society,” it said. “We have policies and procedures in effect to protect our customers and our company.”

VR Systems also stressed that none of its products are used for recording or tabulating votes.

The Intercept contacted NSA and the national intelligence director’s office about the document and both agencies asked that it not be published. US intelligence officials then asked The Intercept to redact certain sections.

The publication said some material was withheld at US intelligence agencies’ request because it wasn’t “clearly in the public interest”.

Where does Winner come in?

Within around an hour of the report being published on the Intercept, Reality Winner was arrested for leaking top-secret information to a news outlet.

It appears however, that she was under investigation before the publication of the Intercept story and, as soon as it was published, authorities acted swiftly.

It is the security services’ assertion that Winner unlawfully accessed top-secret files while working for Pluribus at a US government facility in Georgia.

Russia Hacking Election Patrick Semansky / AP Photo NSA campus in Fort Meade Patrick Semansky / AP Photo / AP Photo

In a sworn affidavit from an FBI special agent, Winner “admitted intentionally identifying and printing the classified intelligence reporting at issue despite not having a “need to know”, and with knowledge that the intelligence reporting was classified” on 3 June, two days before the publication of the story.

The FBI also claims it uncovered evidence that Winner had email contact with a news outlet and was one of six individuals that had printed the report.

A separate search-warrant application by investigators describes an encounter last month between an unnamed reporter and an unnamed defence contractor.

The Intercept had been attempting to verify that the documents were legitimate and asked the contractor to confirm by sending through a photo of them. This contractor is said to have told the reporter that the documents were fake, and immediately notified the agency in question about the leak.

For its part, the Intercept says that it does not know who provided them with the report.

“As we reported in the story,” they said in a statement,”the NSA document was provided to us anonymously. The Intercept has no knowledge of the identity of the source.”

Winner has been charged under the Espionage Act. If found guilty, she faces up to 10 years in prison.

With reporting from the Associated Press and AFP.

Read: Trump threatens prosecution over Manchester attack leaks

Read: White House ordered to save all of Trump’s tweets – even the ones he deleted or changed

Your Voice
Readers Comments
    Submit a report
    Please help us understand how this comment violates our community guidelines.
    Thank you for the feedback
    Your feedback has been sent to our team for review.