Meet Reality Winner, the 25-year-old arrested for leaking file with federal secrets on Russia election hack

American authorities arrested a 25-year-old federal contractor, Reality Leigh Winner, on Monday on charges of violating the espionage act, and of leaking federal secrets to a news organisation.

What found Winner in the eye of the latest whistleblower scandal was the allegations that she had made copies of a so-called "classified document" published internally, and mailed it out to a media outlet for publication. The top secret US report supposedly shows that hackers from Russian military intelligence tried to repeatedly break into US voting systems before last year's presidential election, raising new alarms about the extent of Moscow's meddling.

Even as the news turned into the newest embarrassment for the National Security Agency (NSA) which has suffered compromises in the past at the hands of various whistleblowers and hacking groups, authorities announced Winner's arrest. Winner had apparently provided a federal report published barely a month ago to The Intercept, an online news portal focused on national security issues, which published a detailed report on a hacking operation tied closely to Moscow's GRU intelligence directorate that targeted private US companies providing voter registration services and equipment to local governments. Winner is now being held at a facility in Lincolnton, Georgia, according to CNN.

File photo of Reality Winner. Instagram/ @reezlie

File image of Reality Winner. Instagram/@reezlie

Who is Reality Winner?

A yoga instructor, linguist, and an animal lover, Winner was "just another normal person", according to Titus Nichols, her court-appointed attorney, as quoted in a report by CNN.

Before she was charged with leaking government secrets to a reporter, Winner occasionally shared scathing opinions on US President Donald Trump and his policies for the whole world to see. However, the bulk of her posts give glimpses into her life as a fitness enthusiast and an animal lover.

The 25-year-old government contractor has worked since February in Augusta, Georgia, for Pluribus International Corporation, a small-business firm that offers intelligence support, language translation and other services to various government agencies, where she had access to sensitive documents, according to NBC NewsShe was granted top secret government clearance but the secretive nature of her job didn't stop Winner from speaking freely on politics and other topics on social media accounts accessible to anyone.

She posted on Facebook three months ago that climate change is a more important issue than health care "since not poisoning an entire population seems to be more in line with 'health' care, and not the disease care system that people voted for a soulless ginger orangutan to 'fix'," according to AP. Her Facebook page, has since been suspended, apparently.

Winner remained locked up Tuesday on federal charges that she made copies of classified documents containing top-secret material and mailed them to an online news organisation. She was scheduled to appear before a federal judge on Thursday for a detention hearing.

A look through her Instagram profile, where she used the pseudonym Reezle Winner, reveals that she was a workout buff and enjoyed physical activity.

She usually shared pictures of home-cooked vegan food, her cats, and mostly selfies or her images from the gym.

According to a report in The Washington Times, Winner has served six years in the air force, after which, an AP report says she moved to Georgia early this year.

Born in  Texas in December 1991, was raised in Kingsville, a small city in the south of the state. Winner went to the military soon after graduating from high school. She was fluent in Middle East languages, such as Farsi, Dari and Pashto, had served as a linguist in the US Air Force since January 2013, according to The Guardian.

Gary Davis, Winner's stepfather, said she turned down a full college scholarship to join the air force.

As reporters gathered outside Winner's small, red-brick home in a neighborhood dotted with overgrown yards and houses in disrepair, after her arrest, her mother, Billie Winner-Davis told CNN that she was afraid for her daughter. "She's got a good heart. She serves her community, she served her country. She believes in always doing what's right,"  Billie Winner-Davis said.

"I know my daughter. She's a patriot," Davis said. "She served with distinction in one of the highest classified jobs in the air force."

Winner's mother said she was stunned when her daughter called over the weekend, saying the FBI had come to her home and she was being arrested. Winner asked if her mother and stepfather, who live in Texas, would travel to Georgia to help feed her cat. "Mainly she was concerned about her cat," Winner-Davis said.

On social media, Winner mostly shared glimpses into her life far removed from politics — such as watching Dr Who with her cat and serving her family a vegetarian meal of barbecued jackfruit. Although, since Donald Trump's upset election win, there were several instances when Winner took to the social media to air her political views.

"I just know she cares about her world and taking care of people and animals," Winner-Davis said. "I never termed her as a political activist at all, ever."

But Winner's Facebook page does mention reaching out to senator David Perdue, a Georgia Republican, after Trump nominated Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency, according to AP.

And in an angry reply to a report that Trump said he wasn't hearing complaints about building the Dakota Access oil pipeline, Winner wrote on Facebook: "I'm losing my mind. If you voted for this piece of (expletive), explain this. He's lying."

She reportedly has a Twitter account, @Reezlie, under the name Sara Winners, which her attorney could not confirm was hers. The account follows known whistleblowers like WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden, and had shared content with links to @AnonymousPress and rogue government agency accounts, known as 'alt' accounts. She routinely criticised Trump and sometimes shared popular Trump memes and GIFs.

In the legal case, authorities say Winner admitted to leaking the classified report once government officials traced her as the source.

An affidavit by FBI agent Justin Garrick said the government found out about the leaked documents from the news outlet that received them. He said the agency that housed the report was able to identify only six people — including Winner — who were privy to the report in the NSA's Georgia facility and had access to the document.

A pattern of tiny yellow dots on the leaked documents themselves would also have offered the government a way to track down the alleged leaker, security blog Errata noted late Monday. At the request of the government, recent model color printers automatically leave a unique stamp on the documents they produce.

In a court affidavit filed late Tuesday, the FBI said it searched Winner's home and seized her US passport, two spiral-bound notebooks, two laptops and computer equipment, and a Department of Defense-issued country handbook for Iran.

Investigators said in court records they wanted to search her property for a variety of computer information as well as possible contacts with media outlets as well as any possible contacts with "foreign governments, foreign powers, or agents of foreign powers", search warrant documents state.

The NBC News report states that Winner accepted making copies if the confidential documents and mailing it out to the news organisation.

However, her attorney could not confirm whether she had given a confession. "If there is a confession, the government has not shown it to me. The bigger issue is: Was my client interrogated without her attorney?" Nichols asked, as per CNN.

With inputs from agencies

Updated Date: Jun 07, 2017 10:08 AM

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