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Contractor charged in leaking NSA document to media

Reality Leigh Winner, 25, a federal contractor charged by the U.S. Department of Justice for sending classified material to a news organization, poses in a picture posted to her Instagram account. Reality Winner/Social Media via REUTERS

A 25-year-old government contractor has been charged with mishandling classified information, after authorities say she gave a top-secret National Security Agency document to a news organization.

Reality Leigh Winner was accused of gathering, transmitting, or losing defense information - the first criminal charge filed in a leak investigation during the Trump administration.

Winner was arrested Saturday and the case was revealed Monday, shortly after the website the Intercept posted a redacted version of a U.S. intelligence document describing Russian government efforts to use hacking techniques against employees of a company that provides technical support to states' voting agencies.

Court documents filed in federal court against Winner in Georgia did not identify the news outlet, nor the document in question, although both the Intercept and the court papers say the document in question was dated May 5. A person familiar with the case said the charges stem from the document given to the Intercept.

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said investigators' fast work "allowed us quickly to identify and arrest the defendant. Releasing classified material without authorization threatens our nation's security and undermines public faith in government. People who are trusted with classified information and pledge to protect it must be held accountable when they violate that obligation."

Winner's lawyer, Titus Nichols, said he had not yet seen any of the evidence in the case, so he could not discuss the specific accusations. He said his client has served in the Air Force for six years, including a recent assignment at Fort Meade, home of the NSA.

According to court documents, Winner had a top-security clearance as an active-duty member of the Air Force from January 2013 until February of this year, when she began working for Pluribus International Corporation, a government contractor, at a facility in Georgia.

Winner remains in jail pending a detention hearing later this week, said the lawyer, adding that he expects the government will seek to keep her behind bars pending trial. Nichols said his client should be released.

"She has no criminal history; it's not as if she's a threat to anyone,'' he said.

An affidavit filed by an FBI agent said the investigation moved quickly after authorities learned less than a week ago that the document had been obtained by a news organization, because the organization had asked for a comment on the classified material.

The government learned of the leak after a reporter contacted an individual working at another government contractor seeking an opinion about the document. That person then contacted authorities, sparking the investigation.

Inside the government, officials scrambled to determine who had recently printed out that document. A search identified six employees who printed it out, including Winner. Authorities zeroed in on Winner because she was the only one who had been in email contact with the news organization, according to the affidavit.

On June 3, Winner was questioned by the FBI at her home in Augusta, Georgia, in which she allegedly admitted "intentionally identifying and printing the classified intelligence reporting at issue,'' according to the affidavit, which said she also allegedly admitted "removing the classified intelligence reporting from her office space, retaining it, and mailing it from Augusta, Georgia, to the news outlet, which she knew was not authorized to receive or possess the documents.''

In that conversation, according to the affidavit, Winner acknowledged that "she knew the contents of the reporting could be used to the injury of the United States and to the advantage of a foreign nation.''

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