NEW YORK—The announcement that Reality Winner has entered into a plea bargain to serve 5 years in prison has troubling ramifications for government whistleblowers and the public’s access to information, PEN America said today.

On Tuesday June 26, Reality Winner reportedly pleaded guilty to the charge of leaking classified information under the Espionage Act. The charges against her allege that Winner, a former military contractor, leaked an intelligence report about Russian interference in the 2016 election to news site The Intercept. 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.

Under the plea deal, which has yet to be approved by a judge, Reality Winner will serve five years and three months in prison. According to news reports, this sentence would constitute the longest known prison term imposed by a federal court under the Espionage Act. The World War I-era Espionage Act does not include any exception for information disclosures made in the public interest, and the courts have held that a defendant cannot argue that the leaks were in the public interest as part of his or her defense.

“Reality Winner’s unauthorized disclosure provided Americans with vital information related to national security: evidence that a foreign power had attempted to hack into a state election system,” said PEN America Senior Director of Free Expression Programs Summer Lopez. “Now she will be spending over five years in prison for this disclosure. 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. Outdated and increasingly used as a blunt tool to crush whistleblowers, Congress should immediately reform the Espionage Act to include an exception for information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.”

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PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. pen.org

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Anoosh Gasparian, External Relations Coordinator: agasparian@pen.org