Reality Leigh Winner
December 4, 1991
|Years active||4 to 6 months|
|Employer||Pluribus International Corporation|
|Known for||Leaking an intelligence report detailing Russian interference in the 2016 United States elections to The Intercept|
|Criminal status||Convicted upon guilty-plea|
|Criminal charge||18 U.S. Code § 793(e) – Gathering, transmitting or losing national defense information|
|Penalty||Five years and three months in prison|
|Imprisoned at||Federal Medical Center, Carswell|
|Service/||United States Air Force|
|Years of service||2010–2016|
|Rank||Senior airman (E-4)|
|Unit||94th Intelligence Squadron|
|Awards||Air Force Commendation Medal|
Reality Leigh Winner (born December 4, 1991) is an American former intelligence specialist. In 2018, she was convicted of "removing classified material from a government facility and mailing it to a news outlet". The material in question originated with the National Security Agency (NSA).
On June 3, 2017, while employed by the military contractor Pluribus International Corporation, Winner was arrested on suspicion of leaking an intelligence report about Russian interference in the 2016 United States elections to the news website The Intercept. The report suggested that Russian hackers accessed voter registration rolls in the U.S. with an email phishing operation, though it was unclear whether any changes had been made.
Concerns were raised that The Intercept's handling of the material exposed her as the source and contributed to her arrest. Twice denied bail, Winner was held at the Lincoln County Jail in Lincolnton, Georgia. On August 23, 2018, Winner was sentenced to five years and three months in prison as part of a plea deal. As of October 2020[update], she is incarcerated at the Federal Medical Center, Carswell in Fort Worth, Texas. Her projected release date is November 23, 2021.
Early life and education
Winner grew up in Kingsville, Texas, and was a top-ten GPA 2010 graduate of H. M. King High School, where she learned Latin at school, studied Arabic in her free time, and played on the soccer and tennis teams.
Journalist Kerry Howley has described Winner during adolescence as shy, intellectually adept, "almost comically mature." Winner served in the United States Air Force for six years and received a commendation in October 2016 for "removing more than 100 enemies from the battlefield."
The sudden loss of her biological father, Ronald, in December 2016 had a devastating impact on Winner's life. Her father's influence early in her life had extensively shaped Winner's worldview on many topics including politics, history, philosophy, and religion. After the September 11 attacks, Winner was encouraged by her father to seek out answers about the geopolitical motivations behind the attacks. She also discussed with him current events such as the Syrian Civil War, and later donated to the White Helmets, volunteers helping civilians caught up in that war.
Winner served in the United States Air Force from 2010 to 2016, achieving the rank of senior airman (an E-4 paygrade) with the 94th Intelligence Squadron. After two years of language and intelligence training, she was posted to Fort Meade, Maryland. She worked as a cryptologic linguist, being fluent in the Persian language and in Dari, the Persian dialect spoken in Afghanistan, as well as in Pashto. Assigned to the drone program, she listened in on intercepted foreign chatter to provide U.S. forces with intelligence. Winner was awarded the Air Force Commendation Medal for "aiding in 650 enemy captures, 600 enemies killed in action and identifying 900 high[-]value targets."
A month after being honorably discharged from the Air Force in November 2016, Winner moved to Augusta, Georgia, where she taught at CrossFit and at a yoga studio. Winner applied for jobs with NGOs in Afghanistan, hoping to use her Pashto to dialogue with refugees. However, her search for overseas employment was frustrated by her lack of post-secondary education. Still possessing a top-secret security clearance, Winner was then hired by Pluribus International Corporation, a small firm that provides services under contract to the National Security Agency. On February 13, 2017, Pluribus assigned her to work at Fort Gordon, a U.S. Army post near Augusta, where she had once been stationed while in the Air Force. Assigned to translate documents relating to Iran's aerospace program from Persian, Winner was employed by Pluribus at the time of her arrest for unauthorized disclosure of classified documents. It was while translating these documents that Winner came across the classified document she ended up mailing to The Intercept.
Federal agents found her diary during a search of her home, in which she allegedly expressed support for Taliban leaders and Osama bin Laden, and for burning down the White House. The U.S. magistrate judge who presided over Winner's bail hearing, Brian Epps, said: "She seems to have a fascination with the Middle East and Islamic terrorism," and quoted her writing: "It's a Christlike vision to have a fundamentalist Islamic state." However, one of the prosecutors at her bail hearing said: "The government is not in any way suggesting the defendant has become a jihadist or that she is a Taliban sympathizer."
Winner was arrested on June 3, 2017. When her house was searched and she was initially questioned, Winner stated that she had a pink AR-15, a 9mm Glock, and a 15 gauge shotgun, as well as two pets: a foster dog and a cat. She stated she "wasn't trying to be a Snowden or anything".
In an 'Affidavit in Support of Application for Arrest Warrant' dated June 5, 2017, FBI Special Agent Justin C. Garrick stated:
On June 3, 2017, your affiant spoke to WINNER at her home in Augusta, Georgia. During that conversation, WINNER admitted intentionally identifying and printing the classified intelligence reporting at issue despite not having a "need to know," and with the knowledge that the intelligence reporting was classified. 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 further acknowledged that she was aware of the contents of the intelligence reporting and that she knew the contents of the reporting could be used to the injury of the United States and to the advantage of a foreign nation.
Your affiant submits that the facts set forth in this affidavit establish probable cause to believe WINNER committed a violation of 18 U.S.C. Section 793(e). Therefore, your affiant respectfully requests this Court issue an arrest warrant for WINNER.
The Department of Justice announced her arrest on June 5. shortly after The Intercept published an article describing Russian attempts to interfere with the 2016 presidential election by hacking a U.S. voting software supplier and sending spear-phishing emails to more than 100 local election officials just days before the November 8 election. The Intercept's story was based on a top-secret May 5, 2017, National Security Agency (NSA) document leaked to them anonymously.
Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, called on the public to support Winner, offering a $10,000 reward for information about a reporter for The Intercept who had allegedly helped the U.S. government identify Winner as the leaker. Assange wrote on Twitter that "Winner is no Clapper or Petraeus with 'elite immunity'. She's a young woman against the wall for talking to the press."
Role of The Intercept
The Intercept had contacted the NSA on May 30 and sent copies of the documents in order to confirm their veracity. The NSA notified the FBI of the situation on June 1. According to media coverage published in VICE, an official FBI report said the documents "appeared to be folded and/or creased, suggesting they had been printed and hand-carried out of a secured space." Next, the NSA did an internal audit, confirming that Winner was one of six workers who had accessed the particular documents on its classified system, but only Winner's computer had been in contact with The Intercept using a personal email account. On June 3, the FBI obtained a warrant to search Winner's electronic devices, and she was arrested. Both journalists and security experts have suggested that The Intercept's handling of the reporting, which included publishing the documents unredacted and including the printer tracking dots, was used to identify Winner as the leaker. In October 2020, The Intercept′s co-founding editor Glenn Greenwald revealed that Winner had sent her documents to The Intercept′s New York newsroom with no request that any specific journalist work on them, and called her exposure a "deeply embarrassing newsroom failure," resulting from "speed and recklessness," for which he was publicly blamed "despite having no role in it." He said editor-in-chief Betsy Reed "oversaw, edited and controlled that story."
Sentencing and confinement
Winner was charged with "removing classified material from a government facility and mailing it to a news outlet." On June 8, 2017, she pleaded not guilty to a charge of "willful retention and transmission of national defense information", and was denied bail. Prosecutors alleged she may have been involved in other leaks of classified information, and might try to flee the country if released. The U.S. Justice Department lawyers also argued that her defense team should not be allowed to discuss any classified information, even if it was in news reports published by the media.
On August 29, 2017, Winner's attorneys filed a motion in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Georgia to suppress her statements to law enforcement, arguing that Winner was not read her Miranda rights before being interrogated by the FBI on June 3. On October 5, 2017, Judge Brian Epps denied a second request from her defense attorneys that bail be set. In December 2017, The Intercept reported that Winner's defense team was allowed to discuss the case with her, including its classified aspects, in a "Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility" (SCIF). First Look, the parent company of The Intercept, helped fund her defense, and as of September 2020[update] was still paying her legal bills.
On January 31, 2018, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed a lower court order blocking Winner from posting bond, determining that no combination of conditions would reasonably assure her presence at trial, thus ensuring that she remains in jail until her trial, which was scheduled to begin on October 15, 2018.
A "Stand with Reality" campaign was formed by representatives from Courage to Resist, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Freedom of the Press Foundation with the goal of "raising public awareness" to ensure that Reality Winner receives a fair trial. Billie Winner-Davis, mother of Reality Winner, called on members of the public to join this campaign.
On June 21, 2018, Winner asked the court to allow her to change her plea to guilty and on June 26 she pleaded guilty to one count of felony transmission of national defense information. Winner's plea agreement with prosecutors called for her to serve five years and three months in prison followed by three years of supervised release.
On August 23, 2018, at a federal court in Georgia, Winner was sentenced to the agreed-upon five years and three months in prison for violating the Espionage Act. Prosecutors said her sentence was the longest ever imposed in federal court for an unauthorized release of government information to the media. The New York Times reported, "Under the plea agreement, Ms. Winner will be transferred to the Federal Bureau of Prisons Federal Medical Center, Carswell in Fort Worth, Texas, where she can receive treatment for bulimia and be relatively close to her family."
On August 24, President Donald Trump tweeted: "Ex-NSA contractor to spend 63 months in jail over 'classified' information. Gee, this is 'small potatoes' compared to what Hillary Clinton did! So unfair Jeff, Double Standard." Winner expressed appreciation for his support, saying, "I can't thank him enough." On August 31, Winner said she will ask Trump for clemency as a result of his tweet, and that her legal team was already working on her pardon application.
On April 24, 2020, a federal judge rejected Winner's request to commute the remaining 19 months of her 63-month sentence and be released to home confinement due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Winner's lawyer argued that her history of respiratory illness and immune system compromised by bulimia makes her highly vulnerable to the virus. Two inmates had tested positive before being transferred to the federal medical center where (under the terms of her June 2018 guilty plea agreement) Winner is housed to meet her special needs; they were immediately quarantined and never entered the general population. The government insisted that the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) "has taken aggressive action to mitigate the danger and is taking careful steps to protect inmates' and BOP staff members' health." The judge found that Winner did not exhaust her administrative remedies through the BOP, which he held has sole authority to grant her compassionate release.
On July 20, 2020, it was reported that Winner had tested positive for COVID-19. By September 13, 2020, Winner was recovering from the coronavirus, although still experiencing occasional shortness of breath.
In popular culture
In 2019, Tina Satter staged the play Is This a Room, based on the transcript of Winner's interview by the FBI. Is this a Room was given its Dutch premiere at the 2019 Noorderzon Festival in Groningen in the Netherlands, and was further presented in New York City at the Vineyard Theatre later that year.
- Timeline of Russian interference in the 2016 United States elections
- Timeline of investigations into Trump and Russia (January–June 2017)
- Daniel Ellsberg
- Katharine Gun
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Ms. Winner's apparent Twitter feed, which used a pseudonym but had a photo of her and the same account name as her Instagram feed, makes clear her hostility toward Mr. Trump. That suggests a possible motive for leaking: highlighting Russian hacking of election-related targets, amplifying the narrative that Mr. Trump's victory is tainted.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
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Winner's posts deriding President Trump likely wouldn't trigger interest from NSA personnel unless someone complained, experts said. And even if someone did, deciding whether to take some sort of action would be a difficult call, they said.
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