AUGUSTA, Ga. (Reuters) - A U.S. intelligence contractor accused of illegally leaking a classified report on Russian interference in U.S. elections to a media outlet pleaded not guilty on Thursday to an espionage offence, and a federal judge denied her request for bail.
Reality Leigh Winner, 25, is accused of passing the top secret National Security Agency report to The Intercept last month while working with Pluribus International Corp, which provides analytical services for U.S. defence and intelligence.
Winner was charged in a federal grand jury indictment on Wednesday with a single count of willful retention and transmission of national defence information, a felony offence under the Espionage and Censorship Act that carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison.
A federal judge ordered that Winner remain held without bond after prosecutors argued during Thursday’s three-hour hearing that she posed a flight risk and public danger, citing what they called “disturbing” comments found in her notebook.
In one notation she wrote: “I want to burn the White House down,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Solari told the judge. The prosecutor said investigators also found the names of three Islamic extremists known to federal authorities listed in Winner’s notebook.
According to a probable-cause affidavit from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Winner admitted to intentionally printing a copy of the intelligence report in her office and mailing it to the news outlet.
The NSA document in question provided technical details on what it said were Russian attempts to hack election officials in the United States and a voting-machine firm before the presidential election in November, two U.S. officials with knowledge of the case have confirmed to Reuters.
The FBI said unauthorised disclosure of the secret document “could reasonably result in exceptionally grave damage to the national security,” though the government has not alleged that Winner sought to share the report with foreign agents.
She is the first person charged with leaking classified information to the media since the inauguration of President Donald Trump, who has called for investigations into leaks to the media.
A White House spokeswoman said at a press briefing ahead of Winner’s detention hearing that Trump believes anyone found guilty of unlawfully disclosing government secrets should be punished to the fullest extent of the law.
Winner, shackled at the feet and wearing an orange jumpsuit in court, said little during Thursday’s proceeding, except to reply, “Not guilty, your honour,” when asked for her plea, and to answer “yes” and “no” to procedural questions put to her by the judge.
Winner’s parents testified in support of her request to be released from jail on bond, describing their daughter as a church-going patriot who volunteered for the military and was never previously in trouble.
“Your honour, my daughter is a good girl. She will do whatever you tell her to do if you grant her bond,” her stepfather, Gary Winner, told the judge.
Solari countered that Winner’s political agenda mattered more to her than her oath to protect secrets entrusted to her, adding that she might be tempted to flee if further charges were brought in the continuing investigation.
Reporting Rich McKay in Augusta. Additional reporting by Dustin Volz in Washington; Writing by Jim Finkle in Toronto and Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Grant McCool and Tom Brown