Domestic Affairs

The Case of Reality Winner

“The fact that she is still in prison is political.”

Attorney Alison Grinter

On May 9, 2017, Reality Winner, a 25-year-old Air Force veteran working as a translator for the National Security Administration (NSA), saw something she thought the public should know: the details of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. She printed out the classified report and mailed it to the online news publication The Intercept. Although she had no criminal record, Reality was denied bail and received a 63-month sentence, the longest sentence in U.S. history for releasing government information to the media. 

Before the pandemic hit, Austin’s Fusebox Festival had been slated to present “IS THIS A ROOM,” a docu-drama created by experimental theatre artist Tina Satter and her company Half Straddle. The play, which The New York Times called an “exercise in theater vérité… with a tension level worthy of Hitchcock,” dramatizes Reality’s initial interrogation, taking all the dialogue from the verbatim transcription released by the FBI. When the show could not go on, Fusebox responded to COVID-19 by going virtual and invited Tina Satter, Billie Jean Winner-Davis (Reality’s mother), and Alison Grinter (her attorney) to discuss the case in a live-streamed Zoom interview, which aired on April 25. (It begins 44 minutes into the stream linked here.) The conversation illuminated the details of the case and the extraordinary severity with which Reality is being treated. 

Tina Satter’s attention was initially caught by a profile of Reality Winner in New York Magazine that describes her as “an idealistic 25-year-old CrossFit fanatic with unmatched socks.” As the quotation suggests, Reality doesn’t fit the model of a whistleblower. She grew up in Texas, has Pikachu bed sheets, and likes to draw animals and portraits of civil rights leaders she admires. In the FBI transcript and the play (an excerpt of which aired on “This American Life”), Reality is concerned about the dog she fosters and her weekend job as a yoga instructor. After leaving the Air Force, where she was instrumental in the capture of hundreds of enemy targets and received a commendation medal for her service, Reality was looking for ways to deploy to the Middle East to continue making a difference. But in their case against her, Reality’s mother said, the government tried to “paint her as someone who was ready to join the Taliban.”

Reality was convicted of violating the Espionage Act, a law that was originally written to prevent Americans from giving U.S. secrets to hostile foreign powers. In recent history, says Grinter, “it has been co-opted and used counter to its original purpose to criminalize American citizens giving secret intelligence to the press.” In this case, the Espionage Act seems to have been misapplied. Grinter argues that the document Reality leaked “didn’t give any information to a hostile foreign power.” Russia already knew that the United States government was aware of their efforts to hack the voting system. In the case against Reality, the prosecution argued that she may have revealed the sources and methods used to obtain the intelligence, but in this specific case, they were likely already compromised. The net damage to “national security” from this leak was essentially zero. Reality let the American people know, in Grinter’s words, that “our democratic infrastructure had been attacked.” 

Another key issue in Reality’s case is that she was not read her Miranda rights. As someone with a security clearance, she had a different relationship with the FBI than most Americans, but, cornered outside of her home by eleven armed FBI agents, Reality was made to feel powerless and intimidated. Onstage, her vulnerability is obvious, even with just three actors portraying the FBI presence. It’s possible, Grinter explained, that in this situation the agents were not required to advise Reality of her right to remain silent. However, the transcript shows that Reality was told her conversation with the FBI was “voluntary,” something that was clearly not true, as they repeatedly reminded her that they had a search warrant for her house, car, and person. Surveillance teams surrounded her block, an FBI agent took her keys and phone, and Reality was effectively not “free to leave.” Reality’s trial law team filed a motion to void her confession to the FBI because of these protocol issues, but despite an all-day hearing, Billie Jean Winner-Davis says “the judge never ruled on it.” 

June 3, 2020, will mark the three-year anniversary of Reality’s incarceration. Her team has petitioned the current administration for a pardon, but without significant public pressure, there is little hope. As Grinter put it, “the office of the pardon attorney is generally the place where dreams go to die.” Reality’s case isn’t an easy partisan talking point, so organizing advocacy for her hasn’t been easy. Even in Texas, her home state, Winner-Davis has struggled to find venues that are willing to host awareness events. Grinter put it this way: “Texas doesn’t like an agitator.”

On April 24, 2020, Reality was denied medical release, despite there being multiple cases of COVID-19 in the Fort Worth maximum security prison where she is being held. Already, one of these cases has proved fatal. Vice magazine reports that Andrea Circle Bear, an inmate of the same facility as Reality Winner, “died from COVID-19 four weeks after giving birth while on a ventilator.” On May 13, Amnesty International USA called for the commutation of her sentence for medical reasons in addition to the obligation of states to protect whistleblowers, under international human rights law. Reality risked her liberty to share the truth with the American people. Now, placed in an incredibly vulnerable position during this pandemic, the government is risking her life.

 “Leaking to the press,” Grinter told viewers, “is a time-honored American tradition. It is almost definitely one of the things that keeps us safe … Whenever leaking to the press is criminalized, it’s because it upsets powerful people.” As citizens in a democracy, it’s important we know what the truth is. Reality Winner’s case, in real life and onstage, is a horror story. She revealed information that was being intentionally withheld from the American people, and now she is being punished vindictively for it.

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