Who is Reality Winner, and what did she do to warrant a 63-month prison sentence? Director Sonia Kennebeck’s documentary film United States vs. Reality Winner premiered at the South by Southwest Online Film Festival on March 17 and delves into a story of state secrets, leaks, and questions of crime and punishment.
Kennebeck’s film confronts a tragically overlooked story of courage and injustice in the American intelligence community. The film tells the story of Reality Winner, a decorated NSA cryptologic linguist turned whistleblower who became disillusioned with the system she worked within and decided to leak a critical and classified piece of information. In the wake of the contentious 2016 election, as rumors of Russian electoral interference were flying, a document came across Winner’s desk that demonstrated without a shadow of a doubt that the intelligence community had proof of widespread Russian attempts at interference. She quickly realized that although many of her colleagues were aware of this document, none of them seemed to care that this information about our most sacred American democratic process had been tainted. It also seemed as if no one cared that this evidence of interference was being actively hidden from the American public.
With this information weighing on her conscience, Winner printed the document and smuggled it out of the NSA facility where she worked in Augusta, Georgia, before sending it to investigative online newspaper The Intercept. Days later, Winner was arrested by a team of 11 federal agents at her house, who had come there hoping to elicit a confession under the pretense of a friendly conversation. Denied bail and facing up to 10 years in prison for alleged violations of the Espionage Act of 1917, Winner pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 5 years and 3 months in federal prison. Kennebeck’s film tracks the events that Winner’s decision to leak the document would set in motion.
While chronologically detailing the events of Winner’s initial imprisonment, a series of bond hearings and rejections, and her final decision in 2018 to take a plea deal, Kennebeck weaves in the audio recording from the FBI’s 2017 questioning of Winner in her home. Additionally, interviews with Winner’s family and friends aim to contextualize events shown in clips from news broadcasts and government hearings. Through engaging visuals, the viewer learns the backstory behind personal text conversations between Winner and her sister Brittany that were later used in court to portray Winner as someone who hated America and had dangerous intentions.
Much of the film follows Winner’s mother and stepfather, Billie Winner-Davis and Gary Davis, as they cope with their daughter’s imprisonment and advocate for her in the courtroom and beyond. The viewer gets to see Winner’s family’s advocacy conducted both through social media and visits to the county jail. Winner-Davis is seen handing out shirts with her daughter’s picture on it, organizing protests in support of Winner, and even gets a job at a correctional facility to feel closer to her daughter. The film makes use of family photos and home videos, diary entries, and Winner’s letters from prison — sometimes decorated with sketches or lines of poetry jotted down — to paint a humanizing portrait of the titular documentary subject. To highlight Winner’s prodigious academic history, we get to see awards she won in grade school and commendations from her time serving in the Air Force as a cryptologic linguist. Seeing both the family’s anguish at Winner’s imprisonment as well as Winner’s personal affects helps the viewer understand more about who Winner is versus who the media coverage made her out to be.
Notably, Kennebeck features three whistleblowers who have also been charged under the Espionage Act: NSA whistleblowers Edward Snowden and Thomas Drake, and CIA whistleblower John Kiriakou. Each whistleblower provides insight into various aspects of the case: Snowden, being interviewed from Moscow, gives insight into the mindset of a whistleblower and the courage and bravery a person must have to do what Winner did. When he first heard about Winner’s case, Snowden said he was struck with “a sense of gratitude, that someone was still willing to do this from inside the NSA.” Snowden was charged with violating the Espionage Act in 2013 for his disclosures regarding surveillance programs. Under the Obama administration, seven individuals were charged with violating the Espionage Act, and Winner is the eighth individual in recent years to receive these charges.
Thomas Drake blew the whistle on an NSA surveillance program and was charged under the Espionage Act in 2010. In the documentary, Drake is seen providing support to Winner’s cause and commenting on the FBI’s interrogation techniques that the viewer listens to throughout the film. Drake pleaded guilty to one count of misdemeanor in 2011.
Former CIA officer John Kiriakou was charged with violating the Espionage Act in 2012 after making disclosures about the U.S.’ use of torture. He brings an interesting perspective to questions surrounding The Intercept’s role in Winner’s imprisonment, another subject that the documentary broaches. Kiriakou asserts that the reason he spent two years in prison was due to two Intercept reporters’ inept handling of information that he provided them. The documentary explains that staff at The Intercept sent Winner’s document back to the NSA authorities to confirm its legitimacy before publishing the article on the document. However, this action directly led to the government finding out that Winner was the one who leaked the information. Kennebeck gives airtime to Betsy Reed, editor-in-chief of The Intercept, who expresses sorrow over Winner’s arrest and imprisonment but also states that the government would have found out Winner’s identity without the newspaper’s mishandling of the document. However, the viewer is left to wonder about this statement and The Intercept’s overall role in Winner’s situation.
As the credits roll, we get updates about Winner’s condition in jail: she contracted COVID-19 in July of 2020 at the Fort Worth, Texas federal prison she is held in, garnering renewed outrage from her mother on Twitter and her supporters. The documentary reminds viewers that Winner “received the longest sentence ever imposed in federal court for an unauthorized release of government information to the media.” We also see clips from the 2020 election cycle and input from J. William Leonard, the “Secrecy Czar” for the George W. Bush administration, who states that Winner’s actions positively impacted the security of our most recent elections and that Winner deserves a pardon.
The documentary focuses on the government’s villainization of whistleblowers. It discusses how Winner and other modern government whistleblowers trying to provide a public service based on a moral obligation have been turned into criminals by the prosecution and the media. Kennebeck digs deep into how the government scoured through Winner’s unrelated text messages for a way to portray her as an enemy of the American people. The film leaves it up to the viewers to continue this work of looking past the sensationalized portrayal of whistleblowers in the media, to see the story underneath.
The film is currently screening at the South by Southwest (SXSW), and viewers can watch for when the film will be released in the near future.