National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden has spoken out in support of Reality Winner, a 25-year-old federal government contractor, accused of leaking classified information to a news outlet. Snowden, who famously leaked thousands of classified NSA documents in June 2013, called the prosecution of Winner without due consideration by a jury a "fundamental threat to the free press".
"Much is unknown, as the public is made to depend upon the potentially unreliable claims of government prosecutors, while Winner is held in jail without any contact with the public," Snowden wrote in a statement on the Freedom of the Press Foundation website. "What we do know is clear: Winner is accused of serving as a journalistic source for a leading American news outlet about a matter of critical public importance."
Winner, a federal contractor with Pluribus International Corp in Augusta, Georgia, was charged under the Espionage Act on Monday (5 June) for allegedly "removing classified material from a government facility" and mailing it to The Intercept.
She was arrested by the FBI at her home on Saturday (3 June) and appeared in a federal court in Augusta on Monday, the US Justice Department said in a release.
Citing a highly classified NSA document, the Intercept reported on Monday that Russian military intelligence hacked at least one US voting software supplier just days before the 2016 presidential election in November. More than 100 local election officials were also targeted with spear-phishing emails, according to the intelligence report dated 5 May 2017.
The Intercept reported that the document was provided anonymously and was independently authenticated.
"Releasing classified material without authorisation threatens our nation's security and undermines public faith in government," Deputy Attorney General Rod J Rosenstein said in a statement. "People who are trusted with classified information and pledge to protect it must be held accountable when they violate that obligation."
Snowden himself faces up to 30 years in prison if convicted under the Espionage Act of 1917, which does not permit a public interest defence.
"For this act, she has been charged with violating the Espionage Act — a World War I era law meant for spies — which explicitly forbids the jury from hearing why the defendant acted, and bars them from deciding whether the outcome was to the public's benefit," Snowden said.
Snowden slammed the "often-condemned law" saying it offers no space to distinguish the "extraordinary disclosure of inappropriately classified information in the public interest — whistleblowing — from the malicious disclosure of secrets to foreign governments by those motivated by a specific intent to harm to their countrymen."
The former NSA contractor is currently living in Moscow to avoid extradition to the US after he leaked a trove of classified documents to reporters in 2013, unveiling the scale of mass surveillance programmes in the US and UK. The unprecedented leaks triggered a major public discourse over government surveillance, privacy rights and data protection and even led to positive legislative reform.
"The prosecution of any journalistic source without due consideration by the jury as to the harm or benefit of the journalistic activity is a fundamental threat to the free press," he said. "As long as a law like this remains on the books in a country that values fair trials, it must be resisted."
He also called for Winner to be released on bail pending trial.
She is currently being held in a federal detention centre in Lincolnton, Georgia. Her attorney Titus Nichols expressed concern that she is being interrogated without an attorney.
"You don't see very often the deputy attorney general releasing a press release before a case has been prosecuted," Nichols told CNN. "The government seems to have a political agenda. They're going after a low-level government employee."
Snowden added: "To hold a citizen incommunicado and indefinitely while awaiting trial for the alleged crime of serving as a journalistic source should outrage us all.
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange supported Winner's alleged actions in a tweet on Monday.
"Reality Leigh Winner is no Clapper or Petraeus with 'elite immunity'," he wrote. "She's a young woman against the wall for talking to the press."