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Ahead of Trial, Government Vilifies NSA Whistleblower Reality Winner

The government wants to make an example of whistleblowers.

Reality Winner exits the Augusta Courthouse June 8, 2017, in Augusta, Georgia. Winner is an intelligence industry contractor accused of leaking National Security Agency documents. (Photo: Sean Rayford / Getty Images)

As whistleblower Reality Winner nears trial, prosecutors for the United States government have focused on framing Winner as “anti-American,” denying her bail and due process, and depriving her defense attorneys of adequate access to resources.

Winner, an Air Force veteran working for an intelligence contractor in Augusta, Georgia, printed out and mailed a classified NSA document to The Intercept in May 2017. The document reported that Russian hackers conducted cyberattacks against a United States voting software supplier and sent phishing emails to more than 100 election officials leading up to the November 2016 election, though the data used to develop this analysis was not included in the report.

Through metadata from the document obtained after a reporter from The Intercept forwarded the full document to verify its authenticity, government officials deduced that it was printed, rather than sent electronically. They then concluded that Winner was the one who sent it, as she was one of only six people who had printed the document and she had also previously contacted the media outlet.

Shortly after The Intercept contacted intelligence agencies about the document, FBI agents arrested Winner on her way home from the grocery store. She confessed to leaking the classified document, but her attorneys are working to have that confession thrown away, as she was not read her Miranda rights before the FBI interrogated her. Winner was charged under the Espionage Act with leaking classified information to a media outlet, and now faces up to 10 years in prison.

“What’s been going on is unfortunately typical of what happens when you overcharge someone who, by all appearances, is a whistleblower, with charges like the Espionage Act,” said Jesselyn Radack, head of the Whistleblower and Source Protection Program (WHISPeR) at ExposeFacts, in an interview with Truthout. She pointed to the situation as an example of the “criminalization of whistleblowing.” Winner has no public interest defense available, and the use of the Espionage Act ensures many of the legal proceedings will take place in secret.

“Unfortunately, the government has used the Espionage Act more on whistleblowers than it has on traditional spies,” Radack said. She added that the government has a variety of other laws it could use to prosecute the leaking of classified information, but the use of the Espionage Act reveals political motives to make an example of whistleblowers.

The FBI’s interrogation tactics and campaign led by prosecutors to vilify Winner have incited criticism from civil rights and whistleblower advocates that her rights are being undermined in a case that has heavy political connotations.

“I feel like she’s not being treated fairly by the courts,” said Winner’s mother, Billie Winner-Davis, in an interview with Truthout. Winner-Davis took an early retirement from her job as an administrator for child protective services programs in Texas to focus on her daughter’s case. “I feel almost like she’s already been convicted by these courts, without the due process, without the constitutional right of having a jury.”

Requests for bail were repeatedly denied to Reality Winner, as prosecutors claimed she was a flight risk who had exhibited contempt for the United States and an interest in living abroad. In the government’s response to Winner’s request for bail, they cited several diary entries from Winner and private phone calls she had with her sister to try to portray her as “anti-American” and on the side of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. Prosecutors have also used Winner’s linguistic skills in Farsi, Dari and Pashto, which she developed in the Air Force, as claims that she has pro-Taliban leanings and would flee even if placed under house arrest with an electronic monitor. Winner received a commendation medal during service in the military before being honorably discharged. As a civilian, she instructed yoga and spin classes while working for a private intelligence contract firm.

“An inconvenient truth is that high-ranking government officials routinely leak documents far more ‘sensitive’ and secret than what Reality Winner allegedly provided to The Intercept,” said Norman Solomon, editorial board member of ExposeFacts, in an interview with Truthout. “The hypocrisy involved with arresting and prosecuting her in the first place is extreme. For many decades, top US officials have fed all sorts of classified and top-secret information and officially sanctioned disinformation to the press. Behind the scenes, they get a pat on the back from on high, or — if exposed — at most, a slap on the wrist.”

In contrast with the Trump administration’s tactics in prosecuting Winner, Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort was offered bail and even granted permission to spend the holidays in the Hamptons, despite being indicted on 12 charges of money laundering and conspiracy against the United States.

“There is no hope for her getting pre-trial bond … that’s something that I was really hoping for,” said Winner-Davis. “In our country, there’s a presumption of innocence until otherwise determined by either a court or a jury. It appears that Reality is not getting that presumption of innocence.”

The government has used secrecy to obstruct Winner’s defense attorneys from working on key parts of her case, including attempting to prevent her attorneys from reviewing classified material cited in media articles in the case.

Winner is currently being detained in a county jail in Lincolnton, Georgia, about 39 miles outside of the city of Augusta.

“I don’t feel like that jail is set up to house anyone long term, yet it appears that she’s going to be there probably about a year and a half before she ever has her trial,” said Winner-Davis, who noted the jail has given her daughter trouble in meeting dietary and nutritional needs, and visitation privileges are only offered on weekends between a glass divider.

Winner’s next hearing is February 27. At that time, the court will review a motion to dismiss Winner’s confession. Her trial is currently scheduled to begin on March 19, but both sides have filed for extensions to postpone it.

Winner will be the first whistleblower to be tried in court under the Trump administration.

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