During the Memorial Day holiday weekend last month, Reality Winner, a 25-year-old living in Georgia, took a brief trip to Belize. Like so many people her age, she documented it on social media, posting about the little resort where she stayed, the banana pancakes she enjoyed and a moment of reflection she had while sitting in the Mayan pyramids.
Winner described the trip as “such a spiritual journey for me,” part of a young life that already had included serving as a language analyst in an Air Force intelligence squadron and a post-military private-sector job in the field. Just days after returning from Belize, she was taken into FBI custody in Augusta and became the first person publicly charged in a leak investigation under the Trump administration.
The FBI arrested Winner, an Air Force veteran, on Saturday, and federal authorities have charged her with removing classified information from a government facility and sending it to a news organization. The charges were made public shortly after the Intercept, a news website, published a story about a top-secret National Security Agency document that describes Russian government efforts to target local elections officials before Election Day.
Federal officials did not publicly identify the document they say Winner gave to a news outlet or identify the news organization; a person familiar with the case said the charges stemmed from the document the Intercept received.
The leak investigation was brief, officials say. In an affidavit, an FBI special agent said the bureau was contacted Thursday about the classified document; by Saturday, the special agent said he had interviewed Winner and that she had admitted to leaking the intelligence.
Winner’s arrest stunned her relatives and associates, and it shone a sudden spotlight on the young woman, who faces up to a decade in prison. Winner was a high school tennis star and an animal lover who had used social media in ordinary ways, documenting her exercise habits, musical tastes, news that caught her eye — and her increasing agitation at President Trump’s actions.
Winner’s mother, Billie Winner-Davis, told media outlets that she was in shock.
“I never thought this would be something she would do,” Winner-Davis told the Guardian newspaper on Monday. “I mean, she has expressed to me that she is not a fan of Trump — but she’s not someone who would go and riot or picket.”
The Air Force said Tuesday that Winner entered active duty in December 2010 and served for six years, earning the Air Force Commendation Medal. Before she left the Air Force in December, Winner’s last duty title was “cryptologic language analyst,” and she was stationed at Fort Meade, Md., home to the NSA.
Winner headed to Augusta, Ga., after she left the military. In January, she began teaching two yoga classes each week at Oh Yeah Yoga, a studio there, Annalisa Adams, the facility’s owner, said Tuesday.
An FBI affidavit filed Monday said that Winner, working as a contractor for Pluribus International, was assigned to work at a government agency’s facility in Augusta beginning Feb. 13. While the FBI did not identify the agency, the NSA in 2012 opened up a center in the Augusta area.
Pluribus did not respond to messages seeking comment about Winner’s employment, and the company’s website appeared to go offline Tuesday afternoon. A cached version of the site said the company operated out of an office building in Alexandria, Va.
Winner grew up in Kingsville, Tex., about 40 miles outside Corpus Christi, where she attended H.M. King High School and made a name for herself on the varsity tennis team, according to local news reports.
When she made the all-district tennis team, her head coach, Ed Gonzales, told the Kingsville Record in late 2009: “She has only been playing tennis since her freshman year and has done a very good job of getting where she is at right now by putting her time in as far as the drills and conditioning she does every day and I am not surprised by her making all-district which is a great showing for her.”
Winner’s mother told the Guardian that her daughter performed well in both academics and athletics but had “gotten a little tired of school.” When she graduated in 2010, she opted not to go to college. Instead, Winner, who reportedly speaks several Middle Eastern languages including Farsi, Pashto and Dari, joined the Air Force as a linguist, her mother told the newspaper. Winner-Davis said she never expected her daughter would be accused of leaking information.
“She said that she had been arrested by the FBI and that she couldn’t really talk about it,” Winner-Davis told the Guardian. Winner-Davis told several news organizations that, as far as she knew, her daughter had never been overtly political.
Winner’s social media accounts, shared widely online, showed her derision toward Trump, whom she at various points called “our Tangerine in Chief,” a liar and several expletives. They also captured her concerns about climate change and personal notes, like her love for her cat, Mina, who Winner said she picked up at an animal shelter in Ellicott City, Md., in 2015.
After Winner’s arrest was announced, her Facebook page was filled with thousands of comments, many of them assailing her, accusing her of treason and, in some cases, calling for her to be executed.
Winner-Davis, who declined to be interviewed Tuesday, said she believed the Facebook account circulating online was used by her daughter. Winner-Davis could not confirm the Twitter account also described as belonging to her daughter, but the account shared a username — @reezlie — with an Instagram account Winner had posted on her Facebook page.
Winner’s stepfather, Gary Davis, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution the version of Winner that appears on social media is not “an accurate portrayal of my daughter.”
“She’s just a passionate young woman who probably made some mistakes,” he told the newspaper.
Though the FBI affidavit and a Justice Department statement did not say what officials believe might have motivated the leak, Raj De, a former general counsel at the NSA who is now in private practice, said the case raises potential alarms about politics seeping into the intelligence community.
“If leakers — or those seeking to deter leakers — have political motivations, that’s not a good place to be,’’ De said. “Most intelligence professionals don’t think that way, and I just hope this is not a case of somebody being against the president and therefore deciding to leak something about Russian intervention.’’
Adams, the yoga studio owner, said that she had seen some of Winner’s posts on Facebook but did not see “anything that would cause alarm.” She said her dealings with Winner were cordial and professional.
Adams said Winner’s mother messaged her Saturday to say there was a family emergency, so Winner’s classes were taken off the schedule, but she did not think anything of it. On Monday night, Adams had television news on in the background while doing work and heard a mention about a contractor from Georgia, so she looked at the screen. Not long after, Adams began getting text messages from people asking if she had seen the reports.
“I was aware she was a government contractor but didn’t know the extent of that, or which particular branch of that,” Adams said. “I knew everything I needed to know to put her on with the studio, but nothing that in-depth. In Augusta, because we have Fort Gordon and we have SRS [the Savannah River Site, operated by the Department of Energy], there are many, many government contractors in the area. It’s not unusual to know them.”
In late May, Winner took her brief trip to Belize, according to the FBI and her social media postings. During her trip, she posted several photos of meals eaten on the road along with a contemplative image of her sitting near the Mayan pyramids.
Days later, Winner returned to her one-story red brick home just down the road from Augusta National Golf Club. A week after posting the photo near the pyramids, an FBI special agent went to Winner’s home, where she admitted to sending the classified intelligence to the news organization, according to the FBI. She was arrested that same day.
Devlin Barrett, Julie Tate and Thomas Gibbons-Neff contributed to this report.