Leakers of classified material and national security journalists alike know that publishing government secrets carries risks. But rarely have the revelation of a bombshell leak and the criminal charges against its source come in such quick succession—in the latest exposé of Russian election hacking, not much more than an hour apart.
The Department of Justice on Monday afternoon released a criminal complaint against Reality Leigh Winner, a 25-year-old intelligence contractor, accusing her of violating her top-secret security clearance to print and mail a classified document to the media early last month. That classified document appears to be the one published by the Intercept just hours earlier Monday.
The NSA file asserts that hackers, believed to be associated with the Russian military, had attempted to break into VR Systems, a Florida tech firm that sells voting registration equipment used in the 2016 election. (Aside from the more-than-coincidental timing, NBC News has confirmed that the DOJ charged Winner with leaking the document to the Intercept.) That near-instant outcome for Winner underscores the grave risks of sharing top secret information—and the pitfalls of public-interest journalism that depends on illegal leaks.
"Releasing classified material without authorization threatens our nation's security and undermines public faith in government," wrote Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein in a statement. "People who are trusted with classified information and pledge to protect it must be held accountable when they violate that obligation."
In its complaint against Winner, an employee of a contractor firm called Pluribus assigned to an Augusta, Georgia government facility, the Justice Department writes that Winner removed the NSA report from her workplace on May 9, and mailed it to a news outlet. In its story Monday, the Intercept notes that it received the top-secret report on Russian election hacking from an anonymous source. Intercept reporters then shared the report, in some form, with intelligence officials at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the NSA prior to publication to discuss redacting any details that might be damaging to national security.
Almost as soon as the Intercept alerted those agencies, however, federal authorities began tracing the leak. In the criminal complaint, FBI special agent Justin Garrick describes how the NSA noticed that the file was creased, based on lines in the image the Intercept shared, offering a clue that the document had been folded and mailed.