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US Intelligence contractor arrested for Russia probe leak

A news outlet ran a story that Russian interference in the 2016 US election went much deeper than previously reported, allegedly based on the information leaked by Reality Winner.

world Updated: Jun 06, 2017 20:20 IST
Yashwant Raj
Reality Leigh Winner was charged by the justice department for sending classified material to a news organization.
Reality Leigh Winner was charged by the justice department for sending classified material to a news organization.(Reuters)

The US justice department on Monday announced the arrest of an intelligence contractor for allegedly leaking a classified document related to Russian interference in the 2016 elections.

This was the first arrest for unauthorised disclosure of classified information under the Donald Trump administration that has been hit by an onslaught of leaks, embroiled it in an unceasing cycle of controversies, most of it pertaining to the Russia probe.

Reality Leigh Winner, 25, a federal contractor working at an intelligence community facility in Georgia, was charged with “removing classified material from a government facility and mailing it to a news outlet”, the justice department said.

The news outlet, The Intercept, ran a news story on Monday that Russian interference in the 2016 US election went much deeper than was previously reported or was publicly known, based on information it said was provided by an anonymous source.

It reported that there were two cyberattacks in which hackers for Russian military intelligence, GRU, tried to access voter registration records, targeting private company that sells voter-registration software in August and more than 100 election officials through spear phishing just days before polling.

Winner was employed with Pluribus International Corporation, which had assigned her to a US government agency facility in Georgia, and she had been working there since February.

The justice department said Winner held top secret clearance during that time. “On or about May 9, Winner printed and improperly removed classified intelligence reporting, which contained classified national defence information from an intelligence community agency, and unlawfully retained it. Approximately a few days later, Winner unlawfully transmitted by mail the intelligence reporting to an online news outlet,” a justice department statement said.

The administration is likely tested severely in this connection when sacked FBI director James Comey testifies about his conversations with Trump on the Capitol Hill on Thursday. The White House was expected to block him invoking the president’s executive privilege, but has said it won’t.

The White House also continues to be buffeted by backlash to Trump’s decision to pull the US out of the Paris climate accord. The acting US ambassador to China has resigned in protest, just days before Trump’s nominee Terry Brandstad is expected to take charge.

But it’s the Russia probe that poses the administration the bigger challenge. Federal and congressional investigations are underway into Russian meddling in the elections and allegations of members of Trump’s campaign team colluding in it. Trump has steadfastly denied any personal involvement in it, but has made clearly in recent remarks he could speak only for himself.

US intelligence community has accused Russia of meddling in the 2016 election to defeat Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and help Donald Trump win, alleging personal animus between President Vladimir Putin and Clinton going back to her days as secretary of state.

Moscow has denied the accusations and Putin has dismissed personal involvement in it from multiple forums, including an interview that aired over the weekend. But, he has said, “patriotically minded” hackers might have acted on their own, without the government’s backing.