On December 5, National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Reality Winner was featured on a “60 Minutes Overtime” broadcast and in an accompanying article. In an interview with CBS’ Scott Pelley, Winner talks about her intentions in blowing the whistle, her reaction when her charges under the Espionage Act were handed down, and her experience serving her sentence in prison.
Winner began working for the NSA as a cryptologic linguist in February of 2017 after serving in the Air Force as a linguist. In May of 2017, Winner came across a document containing information about Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections, which was being investigated at the time. Winner anonymously sent the top-secret document to news outlet The Intercept, which published the document and a story on June 5, 2017. However, the government was able to track the identity of the person who printed out the document, and Winner was arrested and charged under the Espionage Act.
After pleading guilty to leaking the document on June 26, 2018, Winner was sentenced to 63 months in prison with 3 years of supervised release. As the CBS feature points out, this is the longest prison sentence a civilian charged with leaking information to the press has served. While serving her prison time in a Texas federal prison, Winner contracted COVID-19. On June 14, Winner’s lawyer Alison Grinter Allen announced via Twitter that Winner had been released from prison. At the time of Allen’s tweet, Winner was still forbidden “from public statements or appearances.” Her first public appearance was at the Double Exposure Film Festival at a screening of “United States vs. Reality Winner,” a documentary detailing Winner’s story. However, Winner said very little in the question-and-answer portion of the screening: her recent interview sheds more light on her experiences.
The CBS Interview
“I am not a traitor,” Winner states. “I am not a spy. I am somebody who only acted out of love for what this country stands for.”
The interview provides background on Winner’s time in the Air Force and her struggle to reckon with what her job entailed. Winner then describes what she was feeling later on at her job at the NSA when she learned about the agency’s knowledge of election interference by the Russian military. “I just kept thinking, my god, somebody needs to step forward and put this right. Somebody,” she tells Pelley. In another clip from the interview, Winner expresses her frustration with the media’s spin of important topics in 2017, and her motive to leak the document coming from observing the question of election interference “rapidly spinning out of control.”
Winner was not allowed to talk about her reasoning behind leaking the document in court due to the espionage charges; thus, in the CBS interview, Pelley prompted her to say what she would have told the judge if she could. She responded: “…that I thought this was the truth, but also did not betray our sources and methods, did not cause damage, did not put lives on the line. It only filled in a question mark that was tearing our country in half in May 2017, and that I meant no harm.”
Winner discusses the state of her mental health during the process of her case. “There would just be times when it almost wasn’t worth it to see the end of this,” Winner says. She started to plan taking her own life and did “practice runs,” according to the interview. “The only thing that was stopping me was my mom, cause she was still in Augusta” she tells Pelley. Her mother Billie Winner-Davis had relocated to Georgia, where Winner was being kept while the case “dragged on” for 16 months. Winner-Davis learned about her daughter’s suicidal thoughts while listening in on the CBS interview: in a separate interview with Pelley, Winner-Davis says she didn’t know the extent of the danger Winner was in, but she “knew [I] couldn’t leave her.”
Winner also talks about her current view of the situation, describing the lack of closure she feels regarding the case. “I’ve had four years of just trying to say I’m not a terrorist…so I don’t let myself feel anything regarding the actual act or the charge until I can let it be known that I’m not what they said I was.”
Winner discusses her time in prison, grappling with an eating disorder, getting high, and engaging in self harm. She says that she has been able to get clean. “I just am ashamed to say how hard it is,” she tells Pelley.
When Pelley asks if leaking the document was worth it, Winner responds: “I try so hard to not frame things as being worth it or not worth it. What I know is that I’m home with my parents, and we take our lives every day moving forward as being richer in knowing what to be grateful for.”
In another interview clip, Winner’s lawyer Allen says that Winner “gave us the truth when we needed it” and that because of the information uncovered in the leak, “our elections have been more secure.”
A different interview segment focuses on Winner’s motives. “You felt that the public was being lied to and you were one of the only ones who knew what the truth was?” asks Pelley. “The public was being lied to,” Winner affirms. She also acknowledges that she knew the document was classified. “I knew it was secret,” Winner says. “But I also knew that I had pledged service to the American people. And at that point in time, it felt like they were being led astray.”
“It was person never my intent to hurt anyone or cause any damage…my only intent was that maybe one- one could restore the foundation of truth and integrity in a really tumultuous year,” Winner tells Pelley.
One portion of the interview details the history of the Espionage Act and includes the story of Thomas Drake, another NSA whistleblower who was indicted under the Espionage Act. In a video clip from a 2011 interview, Drake says that his being charged under the Espionage Act aimed to “send a chilling message” to “other whistleblowers, to others in the government not to speak out or speak up…Do not tell truth to power. We will hammer you.” According to the CBS video, Drake’s charge was lowered to a misdemeanor charge, but he still lost his job with the NSA.
Pelley also discusses the case of Gregg Bergersen, a Weapons Systems Policy Analyst at an agency within the Department of Defense. Bergersen was caught on tape giving classified national defense information to Tai Shen Kuo, who then provided the information “to an official of the government of the People’s Republic of China,” according to a July 2008 U.S. Department of Justice press release. After pleading guilty, Bergesen was sentenced to 57 months in prison – shorter than Winner’s sentence by six months.
Throughout Winner’s imprisonment, Winner-Davis has been advocating for her daughter on Twitter and through news articles. According to a December 6 Newsweek article, calls for President Biden to pardon Winner have surged following the CBS feature. The article also includes criticism for Winner that has come in through social media.
The Espionage Act and Whistleblowers
Whistleblower advocates have long decried the use of the Espionage Act to harshly punish whistleblowers. During the Obama administration, eight whistleblowers were sentenced under the Espionage Act, including Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, according to an NPR article. Under former President Trump, three people were indicted under the Act, including Winner. Drone warfare whistleblower Daniel Hale was sentenced to 45 months in prison for violating the Espionage Act, garnering support and an urge for a pardon from Representative Ilhan Omar (D-MN).
The issue with the Espionage Act, according to a New Yorker article, is that “[I]t draws no distinction between insiders who share information with foreign intelligence services and those who share it with the media, or between those who intend to harm the United States and those who intend to inform the public about the abuse of government power.” The article states that the Act “is blind to the possibility that the public’s interest in learning of government incompetence, corruption, or criminality might outweigh the government’s interest in protecting a given secret. It is blind to the difference between whistle-blowers and spies. The government’s now-routine use of the Espionage Act against journalists’ sources suggests that it, too, has lost sight of these distinctions.”