Reality Leigh Winner, a 25-year-old National Security Agency contractor, reportedly confessed to an FBI agent this week that she was behind the leak of a document claiming that hackers connected to Russian military intelligence tried to breach US voting systems days before the 2016 election.
Her confession came after The Intercept published a story based on the document.
Winner was arrested in Georgia on Saturday and charged with leaking top-secret intelligence to a news outlet, and she confessed on Monday. In the time since her identity was made public, a number of questions have been raised about how she gained top-secret security clearance and obtained access to such sensitive information.
It’s not unusual for government contractors to have top-secret clearance, said Bob Deitz, former top counsel at the NSA.
“When you’re hired for a position that requires a security clearance, you must receive that clearance,” Deitz said. As a contractor for the NSA with Pluribus International, Winner was granted that clearance.
It’s also common for the NSA to hire younger professionals, like 25-year-old Winner, to do sensitive work for the agency.
“The vast majority of people who do the National Security Agency’s intercept work, who translate and analyse — most of them are fresh out of high school,” intelligence historian Matthew Aid told NBC News. “There are thousands of 18 to 21-year-olds doing critically important and secret work around the world.”
Deitz echoed that assessment and said that there are plenty of people with top-secret clearances who are recent college graduates. Edward Snowden, the NSA contractor who leaked top-secret documents about the US spying on Americans, was 29 years old in 2013 at the time of the leaks.
But having a top-secret clearance doesn’t necessarily mean Winner was privy to any and all information that was classified Top Secret, like the Russian hacking document.
“One must be ‘read into’ a program in order to receive classified information related to that program,” Deitz said. What someone is read into depends entirely on their job.
It is not clear what Winner’s job responsibilities were when she was at the NSA. She joined the military after high school and previously worked for the Air Force.
She is also reportedly fluent in several languages, according to NBC News. If she was read into the program the leaked document originated from, she may have had the clearance to view it.
“But it would be both unusual and wrong” to view top-secret intelligence “just out of curiosity,” Deitz said.
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