Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

Dear Common Dreams Readers:
Corporations and billionaires have their own media. Shouldn't we? When you “follow the money” that funds our independent journalism, it all leads back to this: people like you. Our supporters are what allows us to produce journalism in the public interest that is beholden only to people, our planet, and the common good. Please support our Mid-Year Campaign so that we always have a newsroom for the people that is funded by the people. Thank you for your support. --Jon Queally, managing editor

Join the small group of generous readers who donate, keeping Common Dreams free for millions of people each year. Without your help, we won’t survive.

Reality Winner arrives at a courthouse in Augusta, Georgia on Thursday. (Photo: Michael Holahan / AP)

NSA Whistleblower Reality Winner Receives Longest Sentence Ever For Unauthorized Disclosure

'Her sentence for violating the Espionage Act is extraordinary, particularly when compared to sentences issued in other leak prosecutions. Yet, it is representative of the extent to which the government will go to make examples out of whistleblowers.'

Kevin Gosztola

 by Shadowproof

Former National Security Agency contractor Reality Winner was sentenced to five years and three months in prison at a federal courthouse in Augusta, Georgia. It was part of a plea agreement approved by the court, where Winner admitted she disclosed classified information in violation of the Espionage Act.

Winner will be incarcerated at Federal Medical Center, Carswell in Fort Worth, Texas, primarily because she has been bulimic for 12 years. In a statement read before the court, Winner said bulimia has been “a constant struggle” for her and expressed fear that, if she wasn’t incarcerated at a medical facility, she could turn to bulimia as a coping mechanism. She also suffers from depression after the death of her father in 2016, mere months before the act for which she was prosecuted.

Defense attorney Joe Whitley described Winner’s disclosure as a “poorly considered act of political passion and protest” in an effort to ensure the judge accepted the plea agreement.

Additionally, Winner spoke about her motivations for learning the languages and cultures of countries in the Middle East. Following the attacks on September 11, she said she wanted to intellectually understand what had happened. Her interest in language is what ultimately led her to her line of work.

Defense attorney Joe Whitley described Winner’s disclosure as a “poorly considered act of political passion and protest” in an effort to ensure the judge accepted the plea agreement.

After incarceration, Winner will be subject to three years of supervised release. She will not be required to pay a fine. The judge also did not say whether time served would be factored into her sentence.

Winner apologized in her statement and indicated she took full responsibility for her action.

The plea agreement reflected the seriousness of the espionage defense, Judge James Randal Hall said, adding the oft-heard refrain that it would promote respect for the law.

Prosecutors claimed Winner’s disclosure of the NSA report “caused exceptionally grave damage to national security.” However, that was never proven during course of this case and in fact, prosecutors claimed it didn’t have to be proven to convict her of violating the Espionage Act.

In a statement after the hearing, Justice Department representatives celebrated Winner’s sentence as the longest ever for a defendant convicted of making an unauthorized disclosure.

Winner was in the United States Air Force for six years. She is fluent in Dari, Farsi, and Pashto and worked as a language analyst. When she left the Air Force, she was employed by Pluribus International and worked for the NSA at Fort Gordon.

She disclosed a copy of an intelligence report from the NSA that alleged Russian hackers targeted voter registration systems during the 2016 election. It was provided to the Intercept, which made several mistakes related to source protection that led authorities to identify Winner as the person who gave the report to the media outlet.

Winner was arrested on June 3, 2017, after FBI agents raided her home. In a small back room in her home, agents controlled her movements, never told her she was “free to leave,” nor did they inform her she had the right to remain silent. The FBI successfully induced a confession that agents recorded. (What happened during the raid was challenged by defense attorneys through a motion to suppress statements, but ultimately, no ruling on the motion was ever issued by the court.)

She was denied bail. Prosecutors used her service and training in the Air Force against her to make the case she would flee if she was not kept in prison. They also promoted the idea that Winner had no respect for the U.S. government and persuaded the court (as well as an appeals court) that she may be some kind of disloyal American.

For one year and 83 days, she was detained at Lincolnton County Jail. There she was assaulted by a state inmate. Her mental health deteriorated, as a psychologist was hired to help her with depression. Her struggle with an eating disorder worsened because the jail did not or would not accommodate her diet.

A trial was scheduled and postponed at least two times before her attorneys recognized it would be nearly impossible for her to defend herself in court. For example, her defense was hindered significantly when the court rejected 40 out of 41 subpoenas that were requested so evidence could be compiled to possibly show the government had not taken appropriate steps to protect information in the NSA report.

A sensitive compartmented information facility, or SCIF, was setup at the courthouse in Augusta for Winner to meet with her attorneys and work on her defense. Throughout this part of her case, she was routinely dehumanized, as she was shackled 12 hours each day. The shackles were at her waist so she could not drink a water bottle with her own hands.

When she wanted to use the bathroom, according to her mother, Billie Winner-Davis, officers would do a “complete strip search on her.” Any time she was “taken from the SCIF to return to jail,” they did a strip search on her.

Humiliating and degrading strip searches served the purpose of domination and ensured Winner would recognize who was in control over her.

She changed her plea from not guilty to guilty on June 26 and acknowledged in court the elements of the offense, which prosecutors brought against her.

Her sentence for violating the Espionage Act is extraordinary, particularly when compared to sentences issued in other leak prosecutions. Yet, it is representative of the extent to which the government will go to make examples out of whistleblowers.

There is no public interest defense available to individuals charged under the Espionage Act, a World War I-era law that is antiquated. It forces a person who reveals information potentially of publicly value to defend their act in terms of whether they are guilty of betraying the country or not. It was not initially used to punish sources and control the flow of information to the press, and yet, especially since President Barack Obama’s administration, the Justice Department has relied on the law to expand its ability to silence national security whistleblowers.


Copyright FDL Media Group © 2019, All Rights Reserved.

"I'm sure this will be all over the corporate media, right?"
That’s what one longtime Common Dreams reader said yesterday after the newsroom reported on new research showing how corporate price gouging surged to a nearly 70-year high in 2021. While major broadcasters, newspapers, and other outlets continue to carry water for their corporate advertisers when they report on issues like inflation, economic inequality, and the climate emergency, our independence empowers us to provide you stories and perspectives that powerful interests don’t want you to have. But this independence is only possible because of support from readers like you. You make the difference. If our support dries up, so will we. Our crucial Mid-Year Campaign is now underway and we are in emergency mode to make sure we raise the necessary funds so that every day we can bring you the stories that corporate, for-profit outlets ignore and neglect. Please, if you can, support Common Dreams today.

 

Scores Feared Dead and Wounded as Russian Missiles Hit Ukraine Shopping Center

"People just burned alive," said Ukraine's interior minister, while the head of the Poltava region stated that "it is too early to talk about the final number of the killed."

Brett Wilkins ·


Amnesty Report Demands Biden Take Action to End Death Penalty

"The world is waiting for the USA to do what almost 100 countries have achieved during this past half-century—total abolition of the death penalty," said the group.

Julia Conley ·


Pointing to 'Recently Obtained Evidence,' Jan. 6 Panel Calls Surprise Tuesday Hearing

The announcement came less than a week after the House panel delayed new hearings until next month, citing a "deluge" of fresh evidence.

Common Dreams staff ·


Looming US Supreme Court Climate Decision Could 'Doom' Hope for Livable Future

"The immediate issue is the limits of the EPA's ability to regulate greenhouse gases," said one scientist. "The broader issue is the ability of federal agencies to regulate anything at all."

Jessica Corbett ·


Supreme Court Takes 'Wrecking Ball' to Separation of Church and State With Prayer Ruling

After decades of affirming that prayers led by school officials are unconstitutional, said Justice Sonia Sotomayor, "the court now charts a different path."

Julia Conley ·

Common Dreams Logo