WASHINGTON: A former contractor for the US National Security Agency who leaked information on Russian hacking of election systems to journalists was sentenced today to more than five years in prison.
The 63-month sentence that a federal judge in Augusta, Georgia handed Reality Winner in exchange for her guilty plea was the stiffest ever for a single charge of leaking classified information to the media, according to her lawyers.
It came despite the same information she leaked later being divulged officially by Washington after US states demanded it.
"The defendant schemed to take and disclose classified information she had sworn to protect -- and then did so almost as soon as she had the chance," said Assistant Attorney General John Demers in a statement.
The former Air Force linguist was arrested in June 2017 hours before The Intercept, an online publication that frequently breaks national security-related stories, published a story based on documents she took.
They discussed in detail attempts by hackers from Russian military intelligence to penetrate a company that sells voter registration software, as well as the computers of local election officials.
Three months after Winner's arrest, under pressure from state election officials, the Department of Homeland Security revealed that Russians tried to hack systems in 21 of the 50 states in 2016.
Prior to the decision Thursday, Winner's lawyers told the court that the proposed sentence was well over previous sentences in leak cases.
"There is no allegation or evidence of actual spying or treason" against her, they said.
"This was not a WikiLeaks-like 'dump' of massive amounts of sensitive data, nor was it a disclosure of military secrets," they added.
That was a reference to the case of Chelsea Manning -- at the time known as Bradley Manning -- who as an army intelligence analyst in 2010 leaked a massive amount of highly secret defense and diplomacy documents to the transparency group.
Manning was ultimately sentenced in February 2013 to 35 years in prison on 17 counts that included espionage and other charges.
In January 2017 President Barack Obama commuted her sentence as having been disproportionate and she was freed.
Winner's case was one of a string of breaches at the National Security Agency, the powerful signals intelligence body still smarting from Edward Snowden's 2013 disclosures of its global surveillance programs.
The sentence appeared to reflect in part the Trump administration's pledge to crack down on leaks of classified information.
Media activists criticized it as excessive.
"Reality Winner is a whistleblower who alerted the public about a critical threat to election security," said Freedom of the Press Foundation Executive Director Trevor Timm.
"Winner performed a public service by alerting the public and state officials to dangerous vulnerabilities in election infrastructure, and it's shameful the Justice Department would seek any prison time for her doing so --let alone the longest sentence for such an act in history."