Like many 25-year-old women, Reality Leigh Winner’s social media pages are filled with pictures of delicious food, cute animals, tropical vacations, and sweaty, smiling Crossfit selfies, sprinkled with lighthearted observations about life in her sleepy town of Augusta, Georgia, and sporadic gripes about the Trump administration.
What the pages do not show is that Winner is an Air Force veteran and former military linguist, fluent in Pashto, Farsi and Dari, with top secret security clearance. The only indication that she was arrested over the weekend, for allegedly taking a highly classified document and mailing it anonymously to reporters, are the comments streaming down from each of her posts—some calling her a hero and others, a traitor.
Winner is widely believed to be the alleged source of a leaked NSA report published by the Intercept on Monday detailing the Russian military’s attempts to hack into a voter verification software company and into the accounts of more than 100 local election officials. The Intercept in a statement Tuesday refused to confirm that Winner was its source, and the FBI’s affidavit filed in the case only cites an unnamed “News Outlet” as the recipient of her alleged leak. Yet the dates on the leaked NSA document the Intercept published and the date of the stolen material described in the affidavit match, as do the folds and creases visible in the NSA document and described in the affidavit. The DOJ announced the criminal charges against Winner less than an hour after the Intercept’s story was published.
Winner has been incarcerated in Lincolnton, Georgia, since she was arrested at her home on Saturday, and is scheduled to appear before a federal court on Thursday at 4 p.m., according to online records in the case.
According to the FBI affidavit seeking a warrant for Winner’s arrest, the federal government tracked her down as the alleged source of the leak after reporters contacted the NSA on May 30 to notify them that they would be publishing a leaked document.
The affidavit alleged the following: after the reporters showed the NSA a copy of the document in order to verify it, the agency determined it had been printed and hand-carried out of a secure facility. The agency then launched an internal audit and found that six people had printed the document in question. Of those six, they found that Winner had emailed the Intercept from her desk computer. It also raised red flags that the document in question was unrelated to Winner’s job, and that she printed only that intelligence report and no others.
The criminal complaint against Winner alleges she confessed to the crime when FBI agents arrived to search her house on June 3. “Winner admitted intentionally identifying and printing the classified intelligence reporting at issue despite not having a ‘need to know,’ and with knowledge that the intelligence reporting was classified,” it said. “Winner further admitted removing the classified intelligence reporting from her office space, retaining it, and mailing it from Augusta, Georgia, to the news outlet, which she knew was not authorized to receive or possess the documents.”
Winner’s court-appointed attorney, Titus Thomas Nichols, did not respond to TPM’s request for an interview, but told CNN he is troubled by the government’s description of how her arrest played out.”The bigger issue is: Was my client interrogated without her attorney?” he said.
Late on Tuesday, the District Court terminated Nichols’ appointment as Winner’s attorney, noting that she “has sufficient funds to retain counsel of her own choosing and does not qualify for court appointed counsel.”
An unusual life
Reality Winner grew up in the small town of Kingsville, Texas, with her mother, step-father and older sister. Her father passed away last year, and it appears to be an ongoing source of pain in her life. She lamented in an Instagram post earlier this year addressed to her late father: “I still don’t know who I am without you here or how to keep moving forward without the one person who believed unconditionally in everything I want to do in life.”
Winner joined the Air Force soon after graduating from high school in 2010. A U.S. Air Force press officer confirmed to TPM that Winner was on active duty from 2010 to 2016, and worked as cryptologic language analyst at the Ft. Meade, Maryland Army base which also houses the NSA’s headquarters. During that time, she received an Air Force commendation medal in recognition of her achievements on the job. She became fluent in Farsi, Dari and Pashto.
In February, according to the government’s criminal complaint, Winner began working with the small Virginia-based federal contractor Pluribus International Corporation and moved to Augusta, Georgia, reportedly to work at the NSA’s Cryptologic Center. She lived, according to the FBI’s search warrant application, in a modest, one-story brick house and drove a Nissan Cube. In her free time, according to her social media pages, she was a fitness fanatic, working out at a Crossfit gym, a yoga studio, and with a personal trainer.
Winner expressed some glib, left-of-center political views on social media, tweeting “people suck” on Election Day, joking that the U.S. would become the “United States of the Russian Federation,” and referring to President Trump as an “orange fascist” and a “piece of shit.”
Her parents have insisted she was not an avowed activist.
“I mean, she has expressed to me that she is not a fan of Trump, but she’s not someone who would go and riot or picket,” her mother Billie Winner-Davis told The Guardian.
“You may not agree with her politics but she is a patriot,” her step-father Gary Davis told the Atlanta Journal Constitution. “She’s just a passionate young woman who probably made some mistakes.”
Her former attorney Nichols took a similar tone, telling CNN: “She’s just been caught in the middle of something bigger than her.”
But Winner was civically engaged, traveling to D.C. this February to talk with the staff of Sen. David Perdue (R-GA) about environmental issues, including concerns about the Dakota Access Pipe Line. After the meeting she posted that she was feeling “optimistic” and that Perdue’s state policy director had promised to keep her posted on her “concerns regarding climate change and what the state of Georgia is doing to reduce dependency on fossil fuels.”
A dark legal landscape
In the leakiest presidential administration in recent memory, Winner is the first person to be criminally prosecuted for passing information to the press. She has been charged under the Espionage Act and could face up to 10 years in prison.
Tom Devine, the legal director of the Government Accountability Project, an organization that counsels and advocates for whistleblowers, told TPM that Winner should be considered a whistleblower even though she did not blow the whistle on wrongdoing in her own workplace.
“Whistleblowing is not limited to misconduct by any specific government. It can be exposing misconduct by a foreign government,” he said.
U.S. law has almost no protection for people who leak classified information, especially private contractors.
“There is no such thing as a public interest defense in the United States,” Devine said, noting that those protections exist in many other countries. “We have a desperate need in our country for a public interest defense against criminal prosecution.”
The government contractor who most famously leaked national security documents to the press—Edward Snowden—took immense precaution, communicating with reporters over fully encrypted channels, and fleeing to Hong Kong where he was unlikely to be extradited. In contrast, Winner seems to have made herself fairly easy to track down, allegedly emailing the Intercept from her work computer and printing and mailing a document that could be traced back to her.
Though Winner has not yet said publicly why she allegedly took this drastic act, Devine says it has the hallmarks of less-than-strategic civil disobedience. “Quite clearly this was an ignorant act of conscience,” he said.