Reality Leigh Winner pleaded guilty to retaining and transmitting a document to an online news organization after reaching a deal with the government to serve a five-year prison sentence, compared to the 10 years she faced when she was indicted under the Espionage Act.
Winner told a judge she “misused” her security clearance when she sent an intelligence report in the mail to a media outlet. “All of these actions I did willfully,” the 26-year-old former defense contractor and Air Force veteran said before she signed away her rights to a jury trial and appeal.
Judge J. Randal Hall ordered a pre-sentence report and will announce whether he accepts her deal of 63 months of confinement and three years of supervised release at a later court date.
Whether or not it’s justice, her mother and advocates said it’s a relief for Winner.
“At least she knows it’s coming to an end,” said Winner’s mother, Billie Winner-Davis, though she said the length of the sentence “hurts.” Winner-Davis said her daughter is eager to move out of the rural Georgia jail. Winner has seen “dark times” in a year of pretrial detention in the small county facility, where she struggles with depression and an eating disorder.
“Congress has now determined that press report and others were critical to alerting state officials to the threat, because federal officials failed to raise the alarm about the Russian threat to the integrity of voting systems.”
The government does not officially discuss the content of the document Winner admitted to leaking. Media outlets, however, identified Winner as the source behind a June 2017 Intercept story detailing National Security Agency reporting on Russian phishing attacks targeting U.S. state election officials. Emails recently obtained by The Intercept showed that officials in key states were in the dark about the hacking attempts on their systems until prompted by media reports last June. The Intercept received the document anonymously and, through its parent company, has donated to Winner’s legal fund.
Because Winner was charged under the Espionage Act, her defense team was restricted from ever discussing the public interest of the document she is believed to have leaked. The judge overseeing the case issued a stern muzzle order, warning lawyers in the case against speaking publicly on “any opinion as to the accused’s guilt or innocence or as to the merits of the case or the evidence in the case.”
James Risen, a journalist with The Intercept and director of the Press Freedom Defense Fund, a project of The Intercept’s parent company, First Look Media, called the release of the NSA document a “public service,” in a statement made after he attended the Tuesday hearing. “Congress has now determined that press report and others were critical to alerting state officials to the threat, because federal officials failed to raise the alarm about the Russian threat to the integrity of voting systems,” he said. “Despite that, the Trump administration has used a draconian approach in this case.”
Winner has been called the Trump administration’s first political prisoner but, over the past year, Winner’s case was seemingly lost in the incremental flood of “Russiagate” news. In the meantime, a mash-up of unusual activists circled around her: a Florida mom turned self-made social media manager, who created a Twitter account to promote Winner’s cause last June; a teenager who was Winner’s former cellmate at the county jail; a dissident drone program veteran; and Winner’s mother, who before Donald Trump’s election said she engaged little with national politics and, instead, was concerned about following news about county judges and district attorneys in her career working with foster children in child protective services.
Mikaela “Kay Kay” Uscanga, who shared a cell with Winner at the Lincoln County jail, where they slept with one’s head to the other’s feet, said of the plea, “It was very emotional because to me, it doesn’t seem like a crime.”
“It was very emotional because to me, it doesn’t seem like a crime.”
During her time at the Lincoln County jail, a small brick facility surrounded by 10-foot barbed wire fences, Winner faced many daily deprivations and discomforts — the sort of travails experienced by incarcerated people at jails across the country. For instance, jailhouse violence: Winner was assaulted by another incarcerated person and had to curl into a fetal position as she was kicked and punched. The altercation left a gash on her head.
Winner’s diet was a constant cause of worry for her advocates. She became a vegan before her arrest – motivated by environmentalism, opposition to animal cruelty, and her struggles with bulimia – but while she was incarcerated, she ate fresh fruit only a handful of times when a local church provided it. Her meals often consisted of peanut butter and chips. Time outside was not guaranteed on a daily bases, meaning that Winner sometimes didn’t see the sun or breathe fresh air. “If you were in there for three days,” Uscanga said of the air inside, “every single pore on your skin would break out.”
Her supporters compared her denial of bail with the leniency offered to powerful Washington figures, like ex-CIA director Gen. David Petraeus and lobbyist Paul Manafort. Petraeus, who pleaded guilty to sharing notebooks of classified information with his mistress-cum-biographer, was never sent to jail and eventually received two years of probation. Even after he was indicted on charges of conspiracy, money laundering, bank fraud, and lying to federal agents, Manafort was allowed to live under house arrest in his luxury condo in northern Virginia – until prosecutors accused him of witness tampering, and a judge ordered him locked up in June.
Winner, on the other hand, was deemed a flight risk – “She would be welcome with open arms by any one of our adversaries,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Solari said at a bond hearing – because of the foreign languages taught to her in the military. The government also argued that Winner “knows things in her head” that could be leaked if she weren’t jailed pending trial.
Yet Winner has never actually been to the Middle East or visited Iran and Afghanistan, the countries whose languages she speaks. Her mom said she was prohibited from leaving the United States during her years as a crypto-linguist specialized in Farsi, Dari, and Pashto, and needed to plot any family vacations down to the mile markers to report to her superiors.
And in a dark turn in her case, Winner – who is believed to have leaked a document in her zeal to warn Americans about vulnerabilities in the U.S. electoral system – will, as a convicted felon, lose her right to vote, Hall informed her Tuesday.
Billie Winner-Davis said Reality Winner is looking ahead to doing a degree by correspondence and looking forward to the closure that the plea bargain will offer her. “I know she always wants to do the right thing,” Winner’s mother said of the plea deal. “That’s who she is.”