Reality Winner, an Air Force vet who studied yoga in Baltimore, thrust to center of Russian hacking controversy

Ellicott City yoga instructor Keith Golden thinks of Reality Leigh Winner as a dedicated student who works hard and a compassionate person who cares deeply for animals and people.

On Tuesday, Golden opened a text from a friend telling him to look up Winner online. He learned that his 25-year-old former student had been charged with giving reporters a top-secret National Security Agency file about Russian attempts to interfere in last year's election.


Winner, an NSA contractor and Air Force veteran who was stationed recently in Maryland, is the third community professional in their 20s with ties to Maryland accused in recent years of leaking classified documents to the media.

The case, like those of Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning before it, could offer a glimpse at what some analysts say is an emerging problem for the intelligence community: young workers who are granted security clearances, discover classified information they find objectionable, and take their concerns to the public.


Kalev Leetaru, a scholar at the George Washington University described a culture clash between a world of spies laboring on secret information in anonymity and that of the young, accustomed to oversharing on social media.

Winner, who worked for the NSA in Georgia as an employee of the private contractor Pluribus International, held a top-secret clearance but was active online, where she apparently shared posts supportive of former Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and critical of President Donald Trump.

The risk for the intelligence community, Leetaru said, is "a young person starting off sees something they don't like, and they don't have the same respect and belief in the notion of secrecy and classification."

"I think that is something we're going to see more in the future," he said.

Winner's motivations are unclear. She was being held Tuesday in a federal facility in Georgia. Her lawyer did not respond to a request for comment.

Elizabeth Goitein, a national security researcher at New York University's Brennan Center for Justice, warned against drawing neat conclusions about leaks.

"We have this notion that anyone who leaks information is a traitor or a hero," she said. In reality, she said, people have a range of reasons for spilling secrets.

A Facebook page in Winner's name includes posts indicating concern about Russia's suspected meddling in the presidential election — "On a positive note, this Tuesday when we become the United States of the Russian Federation, Olympic lifting will be the national sport," one post reads — but they're scattered among messages about cats, workouts and trips to Ellicott City.

Golden, her former yoga instructor, said he is convinced Winner's motives were pure.

"I think Reality would only do what is right for human beings in general," he said. "I'm disappointed that the story has been about leaks and Trump and Russia when it should be about this young woman who is definitely not a bad person in any way, who is sitting in a jail cell over this."

Winner and Golden didn't discuss politics, he said, but Winner emailed him during the 2015 riots in Baltimore and expressed what he called "compassionate concerns."

Golden said Winner was also outspoken about the so-called Islamic State.

"One of her main purposes in life was being a part of the fight against ISIS," he said.

Winner's social media posts offer a glimpse of her life in Maryland.

A 2015 Instagram post shows what was then the Charm City Yoga studio in Fells Point as "Home, home, home." A 2016 Facebook post shows that she completed requirements for a 200-hour yoga teacher certification in July 2016.

Golden posted a photo of him with Winner the day after Memorial Day in 2016, calling her "a living hero."

Another Facebook post shows the Belvedere Hotel and expresses dismay that she never tried the pizza at its Owl Bar.

"That is one of my life regrets, and it stings like a lost love," the post reads.

David Gomez, a retired FBI agent, said people's reasons for committing espionage has varied. During the Cold War, sympathy for communism drove some leakers, he said. Now, domestic politics appears to be the bigger concern.

"The threat has always been there," he said. "The motivations change over time."

Changes in technology have also created new opportunities for secrets to spill. Large numbers of intelligence community workers, operating at facilities scattered around the country, have access to deep troves of information. Winner moved to Georgia this year when she started working with Pluribus.

Gomez said only a small fraction of intelligence workers might be tempted to share classified information. Prosecuting leakers, he said, helps deter others.

"It makes them think twice about the consequences of leaking," he said.

Winner has been charged under the Espionage Act, a law Goitein said was written to outlaw passing information to enemies but has been applied far more broadly.

Goitein said people can debate whether Winner's alleged leak was sensible, but "to put her on par with Aldrich Ames" — a CIA mole who aided Russia in the 1980s and '90s — "seems clearly wrongheaded."

The document that Winner appears to have leaked was published Monday by The Intercept. The online news site also worked closely with Snowden, the NSA contractor who revealed details of the Fort Meade-based agency's surveillence programs.

The file published by The Intercept provides new insight into what the NSA concluded were attempts by Russia to meddle in the United States' election infrastructure.

Amid the steady stream of leaks about Russian interference in the election, and growing questions about possible involvement by Trump aides, the parties are battling for control of the narrative. Democrats are demanding more information about the interference; many Republicans are casting the leaks of secrets as the real problem.

Goitein worries that the charges against Winner mean the White House and its allies will get new ammunition in that battle, fueling more disagreement and pushing what she sees as the more serious issue of Russian interference into the background.

"This is very new, very important information," she said.