Intelligence contractor charged with media leak of cyber attack on voting system supplier

Polling system potentially compromised was used in 21 NC counties in November elections.

FILE PHOTO: Citizens vote on a basketball court at a recreation center serving as polling place during the U.S. general election in Greenville

WASHINGTON, D.C. — A U.S. intelligence contractor has been charged with leaking to a news organization classified National Security Agency material about Russian effort to interfere in the 2016 American presidential election, the Justice Department and officials said.
The Justice Department on Monday charged Reality Leigh Winner, 25, with removing classified material from a government facility in Georgia. It said she was arrested on Saturday.
It was one of the first concrete efforts by the administration of President Donald Trump to crack down on leaks to the media.
The charges were announced less than an hour after The Intercept published a top-secret document from the NSA that described Russian efforts to launch cyber attacks on at least one U.S. voting software supplier and send “spear-phishing” emails, or targeted emails, that try to trick a recipient into clicking on a malicious link to steal data, to more than 100 local election officials days before the Nov. 8 U.S. election.
One of those suppliers is VR Systems which, according to the N.C. State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement, operated on election day in 21 of N.C.’s 100 counties. Kim Westbrook Strach, executive director of the N.C. State Board of Elections & Ethics Enforcement, said the board is working with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in investigating the reported attempt to compromise VR Systems’ program.”This agency takes any reports of possible interference with our election processes very seriously,” Westbrook Strach said in a statement Tuesday.
“We are actively investigating reported attempts to compromise VR Systems’ electronic poll book software, which is used on Election Day in 21 of North Carolina’s 100 counties to help check in voters who show up to cast ballots in person,” she added. “The software is not used during early voting and does not play any role in ballot marking or vote tabulation.”
While the charges do not name the publication, a U.S. official with knowledge of the case said Winner was charged with leaking the NSA report to The Intercept. A second official confirmed The Intercept document was authentic and did not dispute that the charges were directly tied to it.
The Justice Department declined to comment on the case beyond its filing. The Federal Bureau of Investigation did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Winner’s mother also did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The Intercept report carried details it said supported the conclusion of U.S. intelligence agencies that Russian intelligence services were seeking to infiltrate state voter registration systems as part of a broader effort to interfere in the election, discredit Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and help the Republican Trump win the election.
The new material does not suggest that actual votes were manipulated.
“This assertion has absolutely nothing to do with reality,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told a conference call with reporters. “We have heard no arguments proving the veracity of this information … Therefore we strongly deny the very possibility that this could have happened.”
The Intercept co-founding editor Glenn Greenwald did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
While partially redacted, the NSA document is marked to show it would be up for declassification on May 5, 2042. The indictment against Winner alleges she “printed and improperly removed” classified intelligence reporting that was dated “on or about May 5, 2017.”
Classified documents are typically due to be declassified after 25 years under an executive order signed under former President Bill Clinton.
The NSA opened a facility in Augusta in 2012 at Fort Gordon, a U.S. Army outpost.
The FBI and several congressional committees are investigating how Russia interfered in the election and whether associates of President Donald Trump may have colluded with Russian intelligence operatives during the campaign.
Trump has dismissed the allegations as “fake news” and sought to focus attention on leaks of information to the media.
Winner graduated from basic military training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio in 2011. Investigators determined she was one of only six individuals to print the document in question and that she had exchanged emails with the news outlet, according to the criminal complaint.
The complaint said that on Saturday, Winner told an FBI agent she had intentionally printed classified intelligence and mailed it to a news organization while knowing “the contents of the reporting could be used to the injury of the United States and to the advantage of a foreign nation.”
U.S. intelligence agencies including the NSA and Central Intelligence Agency have fallen victim to several thefts of classified material in recent years, often at the hands of a federal contractor. Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden in 2013 disclosed secret documents to journalists, including Greenwald, that revealed broad U.S. surveillance programs.