back to article Winner, Winner, prison dinner: Five years in the clink for NSA leaker

A former NSA translator who leaked a classified report into attempted Russian hacking of US voting systems has been sentenced to 63 months behind bars. Reality Winner received the longest sentence ever imposed for the unauthorized release of government information to the media. Her defenders argue she should be hailed as a …

  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    The ease of hacking of US voting machines is a public scandal. And people who reveal public scandals get treated very badly.

    1. bombastic bob Silver badge

      Re: Understandable

      It's not the revelation of the problem (in an attempt to correct it) that's the cause of the prosecution, or even at issue; it's the way the information was disclosed.

      Going to a congressional oversight committee with the information would have been smarter [and would not have included jail time]. Making any kind of classified material 'public' like that endangers those who obtained the information. You begin the disclosure process by contacting your own Congressman and/or Senator and explaining things. Or maybe you just discuss it with your boss and get HIM to do it.

      With the exception of some of the stuff the D.O.J. has 'classified' in order to cover their own asses [as revealed by somewhat recent Inspector General and congressional oversight investigations] classified information is generally 'classified' because the SOURCE (or national defense, etc.) is put in danger by de-classifying it.

      I have seen information that is classified in the past, information you normally wouldn't think SHOULD be classified, until you look at it or read it and realize that the person who got that information to you would be put in danger BECAUSE the information actually links that person to its disclosure.

      So if properly used, information classification isn't to "stop some high-up from being embarassed" but instead, to PROTECT THE SPY THAT GOT THE INFO. Except, of course, when the classified nature of information is being abused. That's a different problem.

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I find it hard to credit the 'printer dots' with her indictment/conviction

    Sure, it would be nice if The Intercept and every other site receiving leaks would take the obvious measure of using OCR to avoid this sort of thing, but if only six people printed what she did, the list of potential culprits was short enough to sift through.

    Had it identified someone who printed something a thousand and one others did...

    1. Lt.Kije

      Re: I find it hard to credit the 'printer dots' with her indictment/conviction

      The dots just make it easy.

      I doubt OCR would help; as you say, only a few folks printed it, but embedded typos, hard spacing and minor version differences would also point to particular managed versions and so to smaller pools of folks who had access,

      She has been very poorly treated, and as The Intercept said, everything she revealed was splashed out by Muller and the facts were known to the FBI and those chaps under our beds a year before. This hardly rises to the level of espionage.

      1. wanderer3

        Re: I find it hard to credit the 'printer dots' with her indictment/conviction


        So after you sign the American version of the official secrets act, its ok to spill the beans on anything you don’t approve of, as long as you do it while you’re in the throes of a hissy fit.

        Following her logic trail no-one should ever be prosecuted for espionage.

        1. jmch Silver badge

          Re: I find it hard to credit the 'printer dots' with her indictment/conviction

          The whole rationale behind having an official secrets act or equivalent is to protect the interests of the country as a whole. Unfortunately most people running most countries seem to think that their own personal interests and those of their political party, business buddies etc are, ipso facto, also the interests of the nation as a whole. This is clearly wrong, which is exactly why civilised nations have whistleblower acts.

          Citizens of a democracy are sovereign, and their interests and desires are represented in parliament* as exercised through their votes. Any attack on the voting system is an attack on the rights of a countries' citizens to exercise their sovereign authority, and therefore there can never be any justification in keeping knowledge of such an attack secret, since it is the attack that is harming the countries' interests and not the report about the attack.

          This is exactly the case where the interests of the country are served by having knowledge about the attack, while the interests of some select few at the top are served by keeping it quiet. It's a textbook whistleblowing case.

          *Hence being called House of Representatives in US

        2. Charlie Clark Silver badge

          Re: I find it hard to credit the 'printer dots' with her indictment/conviction

          So after you sign the American version of the official secrets act, its ok to spill the beans…

          Public interest is an acceptable defence for this: it was evidence of attacks on the democracy. It is not about approval but what would think about it if it were evidence of a crime, say murder or child abuse?

          Intimidation of citizens through cases like this is the sort of thing that Benjamin Franklin warned against: suppressing dissent is one of the first steps on the road to totalitarianism.

        3. GruntyMcPugh

          Re: I find it hard to credit the 'printer dots' with her indictment/conviction

          @Wanderer3 "Following her logic trail no-one should ever be prosecuted for espionage."

          Maybe no US citizen should, as they are protected by 1A here. The whole 'Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press...'

          I can't reconcile laws limiting free speech, such as 'official secrets' with 1A myself. It's one, or the other, but not both. 1A would appear to make later laws invalid, but I'm in the UK, and this stuff doesn't apply here.

          1. OldSod

            Re: I find it hard to credit the 'printer dots' with her indictment/conviction

            "I can't reconcile laws limiting free speech, such as 'official secrets' with 1A myself. It's one, or the other, but not both. 1A would appear to make later laws invalid, but I'm in the UK, and this stuff doesn't apply here."

            Anyone who receives a security clearance in the United States has voluntarily agreed to and signed a contract that restricts their ability to speak freely on certain matters. It is known to those signing the contract that violating the contract can result in a draconian effort to punish the violator. Snowden did his thing with the full knowledge of what would happen, apparently because he thought his sacrifice was for a greater good. The individual in question in this recent case did not appear to have had as lofty a purpose, nor the same understanding of the likely consequences of her action. I don't believe there are necessarily political motivations behind her punishment, it seems enough that she flouted what are very clear rules. It is not so much that she twisted the tail of a political figure by revealing "oooo - we know the Ruskies hacked us" but that she sinned against the system itself when she violated the terms of the agreement she made when given her clearance. If infractions like hers are not punished, then these agreements would cease to have meaning.

    2. bpfh

      Re: I find it hard to credit the 'printer dots' with her indictment/conviction

      Maybe, but a group who is set up to publish confidential info did not seem to take any basic security checks or even ocr/retype (preferably retype), correct and then copy paste to and from notepad to disguise the data they have to take a long hard look at themselves...

      I believe that about 20 years ago Tom Clancy mentionned à system where subtle changes would be made to a document to enable source text identification... and that was a fiction novel. After everything Snowden leaked, nobody thought of any abstraction of the source documents before posting it back to the same bloody agency that it escaped from? The mind boggles...

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: I find it hard to credit the 'printer dots' with her indictment/conviction

        "Canary Trap" was the name used and that's pretty simple in comparison to what you can get software to do for this type of work. The idea was that there would be sentences and paragraphs that would be so lurid that the journalists wouldn't be able to resist not quoting the material. In Reality Winner's case, even this type of trap wasn't required due to (1) The Intercept being so boneheaded as to hand copies of the original over the the NSA and (2) not obscuring or removing the printer dots which is just good OPSEC. Ya'd think that what Snowden taught Greenbaum et al. would have been retained, but noooo. By the way, there's software out there to render the dots useless. Have it myself on an encrypted volume.

        Lastly, while they knew there were a limited number of copies out and about, it was for the particular office which The Intercept oh so nicely provided to the NSA. We don't know the overall number of copies floating around, or whether they were all "Canary Trapped." Likely will never know. The Intercept blew this one completely, luckily the maximum sentence was already capped.

        However, when you do think about leaking classified material of any sort, you need to seriously ask yourself whether you are prepared to deal with the consequences. I had a security clearance and thankfully was never put in the situation that I would have to make that sort of decision. Given my level of clearance and the types of things I would be seeing in the future (having already worked with the NSA before), well, damn.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: I find it hard to credit the 'printer dots' with her indictment/conviction

        Source text identification has been around for a long time, Tom Clancy just added it to a plot - we've been doing it for much longer than that.

  3. This post has been deleted by its author

  4. Anonymous Coward

    I call baloney on this whole story

    I call baloney on this whole story, a pretext to insert the Russia-hacked-voting-machines meme into the zeitgeist Good Day Sir!

  5. Cincinnataroo

    What a weird and deeply troubling situation.

    In the west we're not living in a world of truth, free speach, sanity and decency.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      We never have, we still to a point live in a Feudalistic society, with the illusion of Freedom (TM)

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    This is serious business

    It's a pity she didn't get the full 10 year prison sentence for willful violation of her sworn oath to the U.S.

    1. tiggity Silver badge

      Re: This is serious business

      Why AC?

      What she did was pro US - revealing attempts to subvert democracy by a (regarded by many as hostile) nation state

      Hence a valid reason to whistleblow

      Mindless following orders is not always a good thing - look at history and the atrocities that leads to.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: This is serious business

        As some Americans have taken to saying, she did what she did to help America (the American people) - but she fell foul of USA (the government).

        It's fundamental that the US government does not represent the American people, and does not act on their behalf or in their interests. Instead it represents those who own it - the rich and powerful who contribute money.

        1. GruntyMcPugh

          Re: This is serious business


          Spot on.

          "Patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it."

          -Mark Twain

      2. Fatman

        Re: This is serious business

        <quote>Mindless following orders is not always a good thing - look at history and the atrocities that leads to.</quote>

        Don't forget some of the punishments handed out at Nuremberg for those convicted at the tribunal.

        For the yoou who didn't study History:

      3. DCFusor

        Re: This is serious business

        We have no way of knowing that what she "revealed" wasn't a completely made-up trial balloon to be used for "controlling the narrative". Get rational, people. These agencies tell lies for a living, to justify their own existence - and if you've worked for one for any length of time, you know that. A document on an agency disk drive isn't automatically verdicial.

        Who is even going to check if she even serves that time, vs a couple paper records noted, an ID change and move to somewhere else with a nice reward for doing the work? No one checks, they know this, this would be more believable than a lot of other memes that get floated.

        They even pay outsiders to help them learn how to lie...or whatever you want to all this stuff.

        Note the date. This isn't a new thing, and they talked about it right in the open.

        This is just one example. These people need enemies to keep themselves in business.

        "If apple didn't exist, microsoft would have to invent them". Work it out.

        So there's really no way to tell what actually went on, everyone who claims to know something either has an agenda to spin, or isn't revealing any actual check-able details. As computer-competent people here know, if you haven't seen the logs, someone's story doesn't mean a lot. Especially if your believing it helps them - time to be double cautious about it.

        I'm not saying the Russians (and a host of others, probably) didn't try and sometimes succeed. That would be just as silly a thing to assert. I think the fact that all this foo-foorah happened only when the "wrong" person won an election - one who skipped the pre-election selection process by the two wings of the unitary party - is somewhat telling. Oooh, a threat to the embedded status quo - must destroy by any means possible, and we're too dumb to wait for it to happen naturally. No, I don't like him either, but dirty pool is dirty no matter who is doing it.

        Follow the money and power, and well, a lot of the hyperventilating on the news seems, well, like an attempt to "control the narrative" and distract from the failures of our systems to do other than milk the average person - handy to always have someone else to blame it on, eh? Forget taking responsibility for ones own actions and the results, that's so trite.

    2. Crisp

      Re: This is serious business

      She was upholding her oath. she swore to support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic.

  7. Dutman

    What contest did she win?

    CBB, Love Island?

    Reality Winner as a name would surely raise flags going for a Job at the NSA?

  8. Mr Dogshit

    Sod her

    If you can't keep a secret, don't take a job that involves keeping secrets. It isn't for her to decide what remains a secret and what doesn't.

    See also: Brian Regan

    1. sabroni Silver badge

      Re: Sod her

      Indeed! Obey peasants!! We know what's best for you!

    2. jmch Silver badge
      Thumb Up

      Re: Sod her

      "It isn't for her to decide what remains a secret and what doesn't."

      True, it should be her boss who decides, or her boss's boss, and so on and so on, all the way up to the very top, where you have the president. And the president's boss is the voters. So in the end she just reported the case internally to the highest authority in the land.

  9. aberglas

    Non Jury Crime???

    Since when can someone be convicted of a serious crime without a Jury??

    Not in Australia or the UK, I don't think.

    I think they need a Bill of Rights in the USA.

    1. Richard 12 Silver badge

      Re: Non Jury Crime???

      Yes, you can be convicted without a jury in the UK and Australia.

      For reasons of "National Security". Magna Carta be damned.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Non Jury Crime???

        In other words, the USA, UK and Australia have undergone coups d'etat that removed the most fundamental and essential human rights.

        And hardly anyone even noticed.

        Now that's artistic.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Non Jury Crime???

      How serious? A Magistrates' Court in England never uses a jury and can give up to 12 months in prison. You can appeal to the Crown Court, but you're not guaranteed a jury there, either.

      Of course, if you're innocent, you almost certainly don't want a jury.

      The maximum prison sentence you can get without a jury, excluding special circumstances, is an interesting question, and I'd like to hear the answer. There are probably two versions of the question: with or without taking all options to appeal.

      1. grumpasaur

        Re: Non Jury Crime???

        The magistrates are the jury.

        Magistrates are not trained legal professionals, though many will end up with a very good knowledge of parts of the law and legal procedure. The magistrates have a legal advisor in the court with them.

        It is now possible to be convicted without a jury in the UK, though. For example, where there is evidence of intimidation of the jury.

      2. grumpasaur

        Re: Non Jury Crime???

        Oh, and generally the advice is always to go for a jury where possible. Sitting in front of scallies day in, day out, tends to make magistrates and judges a tad cynical.

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Last I heard

    Had the report actually contained information that exposed active agents etc, the death penalty might have been a serious risk. In other countries this would not even have made the news!

    I did wonder if part of the problems Wikileaks co-founder Assange has with things like Internet access are actually because he knows something that would directly expose the Trump administration wrt Russia or some other Doomsday scenario leading to regime change and resulting utter chaos.

    I have evidence that various agencies have lied about other things, tried to expose this but got punished for it even to the extent of hardware damage and unwanted attention by the authorities.

    (note: not what you think. My interest is purely scientific and this goes well beyond mere international machinations, this is a matter of planetary significance and one day soon it will go public.)

    1. Version 1.0 Silver badge

      Re: Last I heard

      The security issue was her arrest - the smart thing to do would have been to move her to a different department (housekeeping etc) - had they done that it's unlikely that anyone would have noticed how they identified her and the test. So the real dumb-asses are the security forces who were more interested in punishing her than preventing future security leaks - everyone now knows how to leak securely and not get caught.

  11. sabroni Silver badge


    I expected all the usual right wing nuts to be on here explaining why Russia meddling in US elections is a good thing...

    Instead all we get is flaccid "she knew the risks" platitudes and a bit of forelock tugging.

    1. Tree

      Re: surprised!

      I am a right wing patriot and do not want another country interfering in our elections. The problem with the Mueller investigation is that that the Russians have been bribing the candidates who despise free markets and call our economic system by the Marxist term "capitalism". Trump is not one of these. The Clintons are guilty.

  12. Peter Galbavy
    Big Brother

    She did wrong, correct. Given the potential harm in the information disclosed most sane observers would have expected her being fired ('natch), barred from government jobs for life and maybe a "time served" sentence. Instead there is very much some behind-the-scenes flexing of influence going on to make an example of her and to ensure that others with access to similar evidence of state-actor level interference stay down behind their cubicles.

    1. Adrian 4 Silver badge

      She didn't do wrong. She broke the law.

      They're not the same thing.

      1. Peter Galbavy

        Good point, my bad.

  13. Vanir

    Reality Loser

    The poor lass must be contemplating, at leisure, if the Intercept is a reliable, helpful organisation, especially to its sources.

    She must also ask herself if letting anger dictate her actions is wise.

    It seems there is a lot of expressed anger in the USA which is turnng to hate: it does not augur well for the democracy that is the UNITED States of America.

    1. Pascal Monett Silver badge

      Re: Reality Loser

      Neither united nor a democracy any more.

      States are refusing to implement universal healthcare, companies are subverting officials all over the place and even high-level government-appointed people are no longer doing their job to protect people, they're just catering to companies.

      The USA is now officially a shithole country.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Reality Loser

        @Pascal Monett: The US does not have Universal Healthcare, we have mandated "Insurance" which is not healthcare, it is a cost, that has tripled in the last 5 years, covers less that it did. Universal Healthcare would be great, but we do not have it. Yes corporations run US law and it sucks.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Reality Loser

      Except at the local level where the US can be very democratic indeed* the US has never been a functioning democracy. Workers have had to fight for rights virtually since it was first colonised. Unions are continually under threat in many places. The rich make the rules, determine the candidates, and divvy up the profits. The new boss is the same as the old boss.

      *The real attitude of Republicans to democracy is exemplified by P J O'Rourke describing how local democracy in a small town in New Hampshire was keeping out a golf club developer. O'Rourke made it clear that he thought it was wrong that ordinary people could prevent the rich from doing what they wanted. It was an unconscious giveaway.

    3. Spanners Silver badge
      Big Brother

      Re: Reality Loser

      ...the democracy that is the UNITED States of America...

      ..the Democracy that the United States of America WAS...


      1. Stevie Silver badge

        Re: Reality Loser

        The USA was never a democracy. It was and is openly a Republic, and de facto an oligarchy.

  14. imanidiot Silver badge

    Electronic voting cannot be trusted

    It's a basic rule of any voting system. Electronic voting cannot be trusted and therefor should NEVER be used in an electoral system. This has been explained time and time again. So the only reason politicians insist they be used is because A) They've been paid of by voting machine manufacturers, B) They're too stupid to do any research for themselves, C) They intend to use them to their own benefit or D) Any combination of the above.

  15. Lee D Silver badge

    1) We need whistleblowers. That's without a doubt. I hate scummy behind-the-scenes illegal acts more than the next guy, I promise you.

    2) Classified information may be a very different ballgame, especially as - in this case - it shows that the agencies WERE already aware of what was going on. It may well be that they act slowly and in secret so as to gain information, deploy agents, etc. etc. about that rather than just ignoring that information entirely (though, you should really watch/read The Looming Tower). So, although the act could in theory be one you could justify, I'd hesitate to say that they were so neglectful in their handling that it needed to become public knowledge.

    3) She was a) stupid not to redact documents herself, b) stupid to trust a random outside entity, c) stupid to do all this FROM the place in question (hell, print it out, take a photo or similar, hold onto it for a few weeks, etc. and then the "date of printing" becomes almost moot in correlation terms). She may not have known about the yellow dots but for sure you'd want to distance yourself as much as possible from any printing / dates / times / correlations, no? Unless, of course, you're more interested in making a name for yourself than in the information you're disseminating being acted upon.

    4) Like EVERYONE ELSE that claims to support whistleblowers, she was totally let down by the people she gave the material to. Assange is "on the run" (supposedly from the US), Manning went to jail, Snowden had to flee to Russia and co-operate with everything they wanted, and now she's in jail. All it tells me is that you don't want to be a whistleblower no matter how "anonymous" you think you can be, or how many lives you think you're saving - if anything Wikileaks et al have done MORE to prevent people whistleblowing than they have ever encouraged - and most of their stuff has ZERO impact whatsoever, while also posing a NON-ZERO danger to others. Literally the lesson is "don't whistleblow unless you want to spend your life on the run or in prison", given their various histories.

    5) What was the end-result? The FBI was already aware, investigating and working their way through the courts. Same as in the other cases... sure, information comes to light. But the outcome is... well... mediocre at best. In anything it bolstered the case that the FBI SHOULD be investigating and still nobody really cares (I mean, I do, but nobody in the US it seems)... it hasn't turned people against the Russians, against Trump, etc. even with convictions now. That's disgusting and disappointing, yes, but it hasn't actually done anything. Like the Wikileaks stuff - sure, the information was brought to light but did anything change because of that? It's hard to determine that it did. Fact is, what you might care about most people don't and it gets brushed over, even if it's murder of civilians in a warzone, etc.

    I have a really hard time fathoming why they continue to bother. Sure, if there are genocides, etc. then it needs to come out. But Guantanamo is still an illegal prison on foreign soil with a history of torture and escaping all due legal process, been promised to be torn down by at least two presidents over three terms, and yet it's STILL THERE and people are STILL being held without a proper trial. Who's up in arms about that? Just me, it appears!

  16. oiseau Silver badge



    ... greatly assisted by a decision by The Intercept to send scans of the leaked document to intelligence officials to seek confirmation it was real.

    Despicable and utterly irresponsible assholes.

  17. Solarflare

    Wait a minute

    So "Reality Winner" is ACTUALLY her name? It's not some weird codename for the case or some silly nickname? Never mind putting her in jail for leaking stuff, her parents should be the ones locked up for naming her that.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Wait a minute

      >So "Reality Winner" is ACTUALLY her name?

      Could be worse, they could have called her Jackpot or Michael.

    2. Lee D Silver badge

      Re: Wait a minute

      I think if anyone loses at reality, it has to be Reality Winner, who didn't realise that you go to jail for doing those things, right or wrong.

  18. poohbear

    I think the real issue here is that she blew an undercover false-flag op by NSA/whoever.

  19. Version 1.0 Silver badge

    Remember, El Pres says it never happened

    She gets jail time for something that the president says never happened? American is now officially a reality TV show (Desperate Presidents?) with crap screenwriters and low ratings - I doubt that it will run more than another season or two before the sponsors abandon it and the networks cancel the entire show.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Remember, El Pres says it never happened

      Have you considered how many people both in and out of politics find it suits them well to have a President who sucks out all the attention, just as Brexit means that stories about what is going on in the UK can be kept off the front pages?

    2. imanidiot Silver badge

      Re: Remember, El Pres says it never happened

      Douglas Adams already called it years ago: "The President is very much a figurehead - he wields no real power whatsoever. He is apparently chosen by the government, but the qualities he is required to display are not those of leadership but those of finely judged outrage. For this reason the President is always a controversial choice, always an infuriating but fascinating character. His job is not to wield power but to draw attention away from it."

  20. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    "one of the world's leading democracies"

    Didn't realise there was a league table for this...

  21. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Patriots are enemies of the state

    and the state is the enemy of the people it was made to serve.

  22. fung0

    Winner of The Blame Game

    The Intercept certainly deserves some blame, but its people did admit their failing multiple times, starting immediately after Winner was arrested. What’s more, their error was an honest one – it just shows how difficult it is for even the most paranoid organization to be 100% secure. The Intercept takes stringent precautions to safeguard electronic submissions - what tripped them up was the rare inclusion of physical evidence.

    "No, wait, only joking, of course it didn't: the Intercept is never wrong."

    Of course, The Register is in a great position to scoff. It has for years been risking its reporters’ lives by heroically publishing leaked material, in a never ending fight against secrecy and oppression. With never a slip.

    No, wait, only joking.

  23. Jake Maverick

    Been saying for years...never trust the Intercept! You just need to look at who owns it.... :-(

    Also, Jeremy Hammond? Been sentenced to a lot longer....ten years if memory serves :-(

  24. Danny 2 Silver badge

    Obligatory XKCD on voting software

    I warned the SNP before the 2007 Scottish election that the OCR counting machines were a hackable single-point of failure that were unnecessary and dangerous to democracy. The SNP were fairly interested until they won that vote hands down.

    That's the paradox of warning about voting risks, the winning government who can change things is never interested.

    The Intercept certainly were criminally incompetent as a media outlet by failing to disguise their source material. As IT workers we find that ignorance unforgivable, but bear in mind that Snowden had to explain to Greenwald how to encrypt emails at a time we all would have assumed every journalist already regularly encrypted emails. Reminiscent of the time The Guardians' Leigh published a Wikileaks passphrase as a chapter title in a kiss and tell book.

    Reality Winner bears some responsibility for failing to disguise the source material herself, as it was her ass on the line and she should have anticipated the incompetence of the journalists she was trusting her fate to.

    I note her five year sentence from the US matches the five year sentence that Vietnam gave John McCain.

    Oh, and as for daft American names, Zephyr Teachout is the Democrat candidate for New York - but she'd only be in the house for four years.

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