Alice Ollstein

Alice Ollstein is a reporter at Talking Points Memo, covering national politics. She graduated from Oberlin College in 2010 and has been reporting in DC ever since, covering the Supreme Court, Congress and national elections for TV, radio, print, and online outlets. Her work has aired on Free Speech Radio News, All Things Considered, Channel News Asia, and Telesur, and her writing has been published by The Atlantic, La Opinión, and The Hill Rag. She was elected in 2016 as an at-large board member of the DC Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Alice grew up in Santa Monica, California and began working for local newspapers in her early teens.

Articles by Alice

They began queuing up around 4 a.m.

By 9 a.m., the line hundreds of interns, congressional aides, and devoted members of the public snaked around the entire second floor of the Hart Senate Office Building, hoping desperately for a seat in hearing room for former FBI Director James Comey’s long-awaited testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee.

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On Thursday morning, the world will finally hear from former FBI Director James Comey, who was fired by President Donald Trump in May as the investigation Comey was leading into Russian election interference and possible collusion with the Trump campaign kicked into high gear. Comey’s explosive testimony, according to a preview of his prepared remarks that dropped Wednesday, will touch on the salacious allegations in an unverified dossier on Trump, including bizarre, unconfirmed reports the Russian government had compromising records of him consorting with “hookers in Russia” that it planned to use as leverage.

The dossier—which originated as campaign opposition research before its findings caught the attention of top national security officials—has for months been the subject of much snickering in Washington, largely disappearing under the radar after it was leaked and published in January. But the document’s inclusion in Comey’s testimony puts it back in the spotlight, firmly part of the scandal that pushed Congress and the FBI to look into whether Trump improperly and perhaps illegally interfered in the Russia investigation. Improbably, on Thursday, a conversation about “hookers in Russia” between the former FBI director and the President of the United States will be entered into the official congressional record and debated in a public hearing.

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Many members of the Senate Intelligence Committee engaged in aggressive questioning Wednesday morning, grilling the leaders of the NSA, FBI, DOJ and the Director of National Intelligence about whether President Trump has intervened in ongoing investigations in Russian election interference and allegations of collusion with his campaign.

Only one, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), was cut off by the committee’s chair.

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A Senate Intelligence Committee hearing Wednesday morning devolved into a heated back and forth between Democratic senators and the leaders of the NSA, FBI and Office of the Director of National Intelligence, after those intelligence community chiefs refused to comment on reports that the Trump administration has repeatedly attempted to interfere in the federal investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and potential collusion with the Trump campaign.

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The Senate Intelligence Committee will hear Wednesday morning from four of the men at heart of the government’s response to Russian meddling in the 2016 election, possible collusion with the Trump campaign, and the administration’s alleged efforts to derail the inquiry.

Though the official purpose of the hearing with Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats, Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe, NSA Director Michael Rogers, and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein is the reauthorization of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, senators plan to question the men about a wave of shocking recent reports, including Tuesday night’s allegation that President Trump asked Coats to intervene with the FBI to get it to back off its investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn.

Watch live below:

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Like many 25-year-old women, Reality Leigh Winner’s social media pages are filled with pictures of delicious food, cute animals, tropical vacations, and sweaty, smiling Crossfit selfies, sprinkled with lighthearted observations about life in her sleepy town of Augusta, Georgia, and sporadic gripes about the Trump administration.

What the pages do not show is that Winner is an Air Force veteran and former military linguist, fluent in Pashto, Farsi and Dari, with top secret security clearance. The only indication that she was arrested over the weekend, for allegedly taking a highly classified document and mailing it anonymously to reporters, are the comments streaming down from each of her posts—some calling her a hero and others, a traitor.

Winner is widely believed to be the alleged source of a leaked NSA report published by the Intercept on Monday detailing the Russian military’s attempts to hack into a voter verification software company and into the accounts of more than 100 local election officials. The Intercept in a statement Tuesday refused to confirm that Winner was its source, and the FBI’s affidavit filed in the case only cites an unnamed “News Outlet” as the recipient of her alleged leak. Yet the dates on the leaked NSA document the Intercept published and the date of the stolen material described in the affidavit match, as do the folds and creases visible in the NSA document and described in the affidavit. The DOJ announced the criminal charges against Winner less than an hour after the Intercept’s story was published.

Winner has been incarcerated in Lincolnton, Georgia, since she was arrested at her home on Saturday, and is scheduled to appear before a federal court on Thursday at 4 p.m., according to online records in the case.

According to the FBI affidavit seeking a warrant for Winner’s arrest, the federal government tracked her down as the alleged source of the leak after reporters contacted the NSA on May 30 to notify them that they would be publishing a leaked document.

The affidavit alleged the following: after the reporters showed the NSA a copy of the document in order to verify it, the agency determined it had been printed and hand-carried out of a secure facility. The agency then launched an internal audit and found that six people had printed the document in question. Of those six, they found that Winner had emailed the Intercept from her desk computer. It also raised red flags that the document in question was unrelated to Winner’s job, and that she printed only that intelligence report and no others.

The criminal complaint  against Winner alleges she confessed to the crime when FBI agents arrived to search her house on June 3. “Winner admitted intentionally identifying and printing the classified intelligence reporting at issue despite not having a ‘need to know,’ and with knowledge that the intelligence reporting was classified,” it said. “Winner further admitted removing the classified intelligence reporting from her office space, retaining it, and mailing it from Augusta, Georgia, to the news outlet, which she knew was not authorized to receive or possess the documents.”

Winner’s court-appointed attorney, Titus Thomas Nichols, did not respond to TPM’s request for an interview, but told CNN he is troubled by the government’s description of how her arrest played out.”The bigger issue is: Was my client interrogated without her attorney?” he said.

Late on Tuesday, the District Court terminated Nichols’ appointment as Winner’s attorney, noting that she “has sufficient funds to retain counsel of her own choosing and does not qualify for court appointed counsel.”

An unusual life

Reality Winner grew up in the small town of Kingsville, Texas, with her mother, step-father and older sister. Her father passed away last year, and it appears to be an ongoing source of pain in her life. She lamented in an Instagram post earlier this year addressed to her late father: “I still don’t know who I am without you here or how to keep moving forward without the one person who believed unconditionally in everything I want to do in life.”

Winner joined the Air Force soon after graduating from high school in 2010. A U.S. Air Force press officer confirmed to TPM that Winner was on active duty from 2010 to 2016, and worked as cryptologic language analyst at the Ft. Meade, Maryland Army base which also houses the NSA’s headquarters. During that time, she received an Air Force commendation medal in recognition of her achievements on the job. She became fluent in Farsi, Dari and Pashto.

In February, according to the government’s criminal complaint, Winner began working with the small Virginia-based federal contractor Pluribus International Corporation and moved to Augusta, Georgia, reportedly to work at the NSA’s Cryptologic Center. She lived, according to the FBI’s search warrant application, in a modest, one-story brick house and drove a Nissan Cube. In her free time, according to her social media pages, she was a fitness fanatic, working out at a Crossfit gym, a yoga studio, and with a personal trainer.

Winner expressed some glib, left-of-center political views on social media, tweeting “people suck” on Election Day, joking that the U.S. would become the “United States of the Russian Federation,” and referring to President Trump as an “orange fascist” and a “piece of shit.”

Her parents have insisted she was not an avowed activist.

“I mean, she has expressed to me that she is not a fan of Trump, but she’s not someone who would go and riot or picket,” her mother Billie Winner-Davis told The Guardian.

“You may not agree with her politics but she is a patriot,” her step-father Gary Davis told the Atlanta Journal Constitution. “She’s just a passionate young woman who probably made some mistakes.”

Her former attorney Nichols took a similar tone, telling CNN: “She’s just been caught in the middle of something bigger than her.”

But Winner was civically engaged, traveling to D.C. this February to talk with the staff of Sen. David Perdue (R-GA) about environmental issues, including concerns about the Dakota Access Pipe Line. After the meeting she posted that she was feeling “optimistic” and that Perdue’s state policy director had promised to keep her posted on her “concerns regarding climate change and what the state of Georgia is doing to reduce dependency on fossil fuels.”

A dark legal landscape

In the leakiest presidential administration in recent memory, Winner is the first person to be criminally prosecuted for passing information to the press. She has been charged under the Espionage Act and could face up to 10 years in prison.

Tom Devine, the legal director of the Government Accountability Project, an organization that counsels and advocates for whistleblowers, told TPM that Winner should be considered a whistleblower even though she did not blow the whistle on wrongdoing in her own workplace.

“Whistleblowing is not limited to misconduct by any specific government. It can be exposing misconduct by a foreign government,” he said.

U.S. law has almost no protection for people who leak classified information, especially private contractors.

“There is no such thing as a public interest defense in the United States,” Devine said, noting that those protections exist in many other countries. “We have a desperate need in our country for a public interest defense against criminal prosecution.”

The government contractor who most famously leaked national security documents to the press—Edward Snowden—took immense precaution, communicating with reporters over fully encrypted channels, and fleeing to Hong Kong where he was unlikely to be extradited. In contrast, Winner seems to have made herself fairly easy to track down, allegedly emailing the Intercept from her work computer and printing and mailing a document that could be traced back to her.

Though Winner has not yet said publicly why she allegedly took this drastic act, Devine says it has the hallmarks of less-than-strategic civil disobedience. “Quite clearly this was an ignorant act of conscience,” he said.

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Before hiring veteran New York attorney Marc Kasowitz to defend President Donald Trump as the federal investigations into his campaign and administration heat up, the White House knocked on the doors of D.C.’s top tier law firms, only to be turned away.

A new report by Yahoo News lists both the prominent attorneys who have turned down the offer to represent the leader of the free world and their reasons for doing so.

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The FBI arrested a Georgia-based federal government contractor at her home this weekend, and on Monday announced she is being charged with “removing classified material from a government facility and mailing it to a news outlet.” The leaker is identified in the criminal complaint as 25-year-old Reality Leigh Winner, an employee of the contractor Pluribus International Corporation who held a top secret clearance. The Justice Department alleged that Winner admitted taking the classified intelligence document and mailing it to a news outlet.

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Just a few days before the 2016 presidential election, Russian military intelligence hackers targeted a Florida voting software company and more than 100 local election officials, according to a highly classified National Security Agency report obtained by The Intercept and verified by CBS News.

Though the report does not draw any conclusions on whether the cyberattack influenced the outcome of the election, it is the first piece of evidence that has come to light that not only did Russian hackers meddle in the 2016 election by stealing and distribute damaging campaign communications, but also went after America’s election infrastructure itself. The document also undermines Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent assertion that allegations his government interfered in the U.S. political process are a “fiction.”

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