• United States



Feds charge NSA contractor for leaking Top Secret report about Russia hacking election

Jun 06, 20173 mins
Data and Information SecuritySecurity

A leaked NSA document revealed that Russia attempted to interfere with the US election more than we previously knew. The intelligence contractor who allegedly leaked the Top Secret document was charged barely an hour after the evidence of Russia's US election hacking went live.

Election 2016 teaser - Lack of trust in a broken election or divided vote
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Russian military intelligence hackers, believed to be working within the Russian General Staff Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU), tried to break into VR Systems, a company that sells voting registration equipment which was used in the 2016 election. That’s what the NSA determined, according to a classified intelligence report which was leaked to The Intercept.

An hour after The Intercept published the NSA document, the Justice Department announced charges against Reality Leigh Winner, a 25-year-old intelligence contractor working for Pluribus International Corporation in Georgia. She had only been working as a Pluribus contractor since Feb. 13. Winner, accused of “removing classified material from a government facility and mailing it to a news outlet,” has been charged with Espionage Act.

The leaked NSA document revealed that Russia attempted to interfere with the US election more than we previously knew. The “Top Secret” document states, “Russian intelligence obtained and maintained access to elements of multiple US state or local electoral boards.”

According to The Intercept, the NSA is certain that GRU hackers “executed cyber espionage operations against” staff at VR Systems, “evidently to obtain information on elections-related software and hardware solutions. … The actors likely used data obtained from that operation to … launch a voter registration-themed spear-phishing campaign targeting U.S. local government organizations.”

Barely an hour after the article went live, the FBI arrested Winner for the leak. The Intercept maintains that the NSA document was submitted anonymously, but the after reporters contacted the NSA for more information about the report, the NSA asked for a copy of the leaked document.

According to the complaint (pdf), the NSA noticed “pages of the intelligence reporting appeared to be folded and/or creased, suggesting they had been printed and hand-carried out of a secure space.” The NSA then conducted an internal audit, determining that six people printed the report. After examining their computers, the NSA learned that Winner was the only one of those six people who emailed The Intercept.

The complaint states that on May 9, Winner printed the May 5 classified intelligence report. A few days later, she emailed it to The Intercept from her work computer. On June 3, the FBI questioned Winner at her Georgia home where she admitted being the leak. She was arrested and appeared in court on Monday, June 5.

The Justice Department added:

Once investigative efforts identified Winner as a suspect, the FBI obtained and executed a search warrant at her residence. According to the complaint, Winner agreed to talk with agents during the execution of the warrant. During that conversation, Winner admitted intentionally identifying and printing the classified intelligence reporting at issue despite not having a “need to know,” and with knowledge that the intelligence reporting was classified. Winner further admitted removing the classified intelligence reporting from her office space, retaining it, and mailing it from Augusta, Georgia, to the news outlet, which she knew was not authorized to receive or possess the documents.

In a DoJ statement, Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein said, “Exceptional law enforcement efforts allowed us quickly to identify and arrest the defendant. Releasing classified material without authorization threatens our nation’s security and undermines public faith in government. People who are trusted with classified information and pledge to protect it must be held accountable when they violate that obligation.”

Winner faces up to 10 years in prison. NBC reported that Winner faces one charge of “gathering, transmitting or losing defense information.” That charge, however, according to the New York Times, falls under the Espionage Act. This is the first leak case under President Donald Trump.

ms smith

Ms. Smith (not her real name) is a freelance writer and programmer with a special and somewhat personal interest in IT privacy and security issues. She focuses on the unique challenges of maintaining privacy and security, both for individuals and enterprises. She has worked as a journalist and has also penned many technical papers and guides covering various technologies. Smith is herself a self-described privacy and security freak.