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Reality Winner sentence has troubling ramifications for whistleblowers, information

Reality Winner, an intellgence industry contractor, exits the Augusta Courthouse in Augusta, Georgia, 8 June 2017
Reality Winner, an intellgence industry contractor, exits the Augusta Courthouse in Augusta, Georgia, 8 June 2017

Sean Rayford/Getty Images

This statement was originally published on pen.org on 23 August 2018.

The sentencing of Reality Winner to serve 63 months in prison has troubling ramifications for national security whistleblowers and the public's access to information, PEN America said today.

On August 23, a U.S. District Court judge accepted the terms of Winner's plea agreement, under which she will serve 63 months in prison. Such sentencing marks the longest sentence ever received by a federal defendant accused of making an unauthorized disclosure to the media. In June, Winner plead guilty to a count of violating the Espionage Act by transmitting national security information.

Winner is presumed to have leaked an intelligence report about Russian interference in the 2016 election to The Intercept news site. The Intercept drew upon this intelligence report in publishing a story in June 2017 detailing the efforts of Russian hackers to break into state election systems. This story provided Americans - including state election officials - with evidence that Russia attempted to hack election infrastructure.

"Reality Winner believed the American people had a right to know about Russia's attempted interference with our election," said PEN America Senior Director of Free Expression Programs Summer Lopez. "But because the Espionage Act essentially allows the government to engage in secrecy with impunity, Winner will serve over five years in prison for revealing the truth. It's impossible to believe that it is in our country's best interests to so harshly punish whistleblowers whose disclosures are intended to advance the public interest."

Lopez added, "Given how the Espionage Act is increasingly being used as a blunt tool to crush whistleblowers, Congress should immediately reform the Act to include an exception for information disclosures that advance the public interest, and our courts should begin allowing defendants to introduce information about the public interest of their disclosures as part of their defense."

In its 2015 report examining the gaps in protections for national security whistleblowers Secret Sources: Whistleblowers, National Security and Free Expression, PEN America noted the Espionage Act tends to be used against leakers because it is "a broad, vague charge not easily defended against." The Trump administration has continued the Obama administration's practice of using this law to silence sources and chill national security media coverage.

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