Winner is the former intelligence specialist and decorated military veteran who at the age of 25 was charged in 2017 with “removing classified material from a government facility and mailing it to a news outlet.” The material was a single, five-page National Security Agency document analyzing recent intelligence on foreign attacks on the U.S. voting infrastructure before the 2016 presidential election, and which she acknowledged providing to the online publication the Intercept. When asked why she had leaked the report, she told the FBI that she believed the “sources and methods” mentioned in the report were already known to the public, and “with everything else that keeps getting released and keeps getting leaked, why isn’t this getting out there?” But in fact her action was the first time the vulnerability of our election system to foreign interference had been brought to the attention of many Americans, including state and local election officials.
In June 2018, Winner entered into an agreement in which she pleaded guilty to one count of felony transmission of national defense information in exchange for a prison sentence of five years and three months, the longest ever imposed in federal court for an unauthorized release of government information to the media. Less than a month later, Robert S. Mueller III publicly released information similar to what Winner was accused of leaking regarding foreign interference when he indicted 12 Russian officers for election interference.
As director of the Information Security Oversight Office, I was the so-called secrecy czar in the George W. Bush administration, responsible for overseeing the government’s system for protecting classified national security information. I have spent much of my professional career ensuring that information which ostensibly can be used by adversaries to harm our nation is properly protected. I appeared as a pro bono expert witness for Winner’s defense because I believed her prosecution constituted overreach by the government.
I viewed her case as representing the “head on a pike,” which then-FBI director James B. Comey advocated in a February 2017 meeting with Trump, when he told the president that he was “eager to find leakers and would like to nail one to the door as a message.” Of course, this was before Comey’s own memos, in which he outlined the above statements were leaked to the media.
Last month, the members of the Election Infrastructure Government Coordinating Council Executive Committee stated that “the November 3rd election was the most secure in American history.” At a time when this sacred process of our democracy is being attacked by party partisans, the ability of local, state and federal government officials to attest to the security of our election process has a profound impact upon the well-being of our nation and its democratic institutions. Many of these same officials first became aware of the vulnerability of our elections only after Winner’s leak to the media. However, since she was prosecuted under the terms of the Espionage Act, Winner was denied the right to make a “public interest defense.”
Nonetheless, Winner’s actions have clearly been in the public interest, and I can attest that they far outweigh any claims of damage by the government. President-elect Biden, do the right thing as soon as you take office, and pardon Reality Winner.