The woman is suspected of providing a news outlet with a secret document describing Russian interference in the US election. The move comes from a justice department already known for its hostility to whistleblowers.
A US contractor was charged by the Department of Justice on Monday over allegations that she leaked classified information to a news outlet. The information in question related to Russian hackers' influence on the presidential election.
According to an affidavit, 25-year-old Reality Leigh Winner, an Air Force veteran, admitted to printing out the report and mailing it to the press in May. If convicted she could face up to ten years in jail.
"People who are trusted with classified information and pledge to protect it must be held accountable when they violate that obligation," said Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, adding that the release of secret documents threatens national security.
Although officials declined to name the news outlet, the arrest was announced just one hour after The Intercept published a document from the National Security Agency (NSA) that described how Russian military intelligence had targeted a US voting software supplier with phishing scams in order to steal data.
Among the co-founders of The Intercept is Glenn Greenwald, one of the journalists who met with and interviewed former Central Intelligence Agency employee Edward Snowdenin Hong Kong and first published details of the full extent of NSA surveillance of American citizens.
"She is neither a threat to public safety nor a flight risk.To hold a citizen incommunicado and indefinitely while awaiting trial for the alleged crime of serving as a journalistic source should outrage us all," Snowden said of Winner through the Freedom of the Press foundation.
The Intercept's report on Monday was confirmed as authentic by officials close to the case, Reuters news agency said. While the documents do not prove direct influence on the US election, they do provide evidence that Russian hackers were trying to do so in the days before the vote last November.
Arrest comes as Russian investigation heats up
The FBI and multiple congressional committees are currently investigating the role played by both Russian hackers and possibly the Russian government in last year's federal election, as well as any possible collusion between President Donald Trump's team and Kremlin officials. On Thursday, former FBI Director James Comey - whose surprising firing by Trump in May raised many eyebrows - will testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Russia and his own dealings with the president.
Trump had been expected to use his executive privilege to stop Comey from giving testimony but the White House gave a statement on Monday said he would eschew that path in order to "facilitate a swift and thorough examination of the facts."
Public interest in what Comey has to say is so high, several major US broadcasters, including ABC and CBS, have announced they will cancel their regular programming in order to air the cross-examination live.
es/jm (AP, dpa, Reuters)