Her name is sadly ironic. Reality Winner, a 26-year-old former Air Force linguist, made the news when she leaked a report on Russian election hacking. Her prize? A sentence of 63 months in prison plus three years of supervised release.
Who is Winner, other than being called the first victim of the Trump Administration’s “war on leakers?” She served in the Air Force for six years and earned an Air Force Commendation Medal which praised her for providing over 1,900 hours of enemy intelligence exploitation and assisting in geolocating 120 enemy combatants.
After being honorably discharged in 2016, Winner then worked at an Augusta, Georgia branch of the National Security Agency as a government contractor. In addition to being a linguist who speaks Pashto, Farsi, and Dari, she’s a fitness enthusiast and yoga instructor who was active on social media (her last tweet appears to be in early March). Some of her posts were critical of the current administration, like her reference to the “orange fascist.”
When Winner got her hands on an intelligence report showing solid evidence of Russian election hacking, she printed and carried it out of her office and then mailed it to a website called The Intercept. The website – which describes itself as dedicated to fearless, adversarial journalism inspired by NSA Whistleblower Edward Snowden — then contacted the NSA and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence for the resulting article. When The Intercept provided the government with a scan of the document, investigators noticed a visible crease mark and deduced it was a printout. They were able to determine that Winner was one of six people who printed the document as well as the only one who had email contact with The Intercept. Winner was confronted with the allegations; she admitted to the leak and was arrested. Understandably, questions have been raised about whether The Intercept failed to protect its source despite its statement that a secret document was provided to them anonymously.
Winner was charged with espionage under the 1917 Espionage Act and denied bail. She was held in jail until her recent hearing, which has been deemed harsh for an espionage case. She actually changed her plea to guilty at the hearing, which her mom thinks is in her best interest.
“I believe that this was the only way that she could receive a fair sentence,” her mom Billie Winner Davis wrote on a website dedicated to supporting and defending Winner called Stand With Reality. “I still disagree strongly with the use of the espionage charge against citizens like Reality. The use of the espionage charge prevents a person from defending themselves or explaining their actions to a jury, thus making it difficult for them to receive a fair trial and treatment in the court system. I do believe that whatever Reality did or did not do, she acted with good intentions.”
The Courage Foundation – an international organization that supports those who risk life or liberty to make significant contributions to the historical record – has stood by Winner. The Foundation says it’s clear that Winner intended to inform the American public with “obviously newsworthy, valuable information that we should thank her for disclosing.” If she had been a high-ranking official, it’s safe to say she wouldn’t be in this position, the Foundation says, as those in the highest places disclose politically useful secret information to journalists all the time with complete impunity. In fact, the tentative plea agreement amounts to a longer prison sentence than anyone who has been indicted as part of the Russian interference investigation, a supporter tweeted.
Reform is needed, Winner Davis has said. Courage director Naomi Colvin agrees. “The Espionage Act is a draconian, World War I-era law that equates whistleblowing with treason, and journalism with spying,” she says. “It is beyond question that Reality’s disclosure of attacks on the integrity of elections was in the public interest: The US media has discussed little else for the past two years.”
In this real-life stand-off, the true winner remains to be seen.