Daniel Ellsberg on Biden and Whistleblowers

Will the new president follow in his predecessor’s footsteps in pursuing prosecution of leakers?

Photo illustration: Soohee Cho/The Intercept, Getty Images


In his first press conference as president, Joe Biden decided not to address his decision to continue to seek the extradition of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange from the United Kingdom. The outcome of the Assange case could set a major new precedent on press freedom, yet the press largely seems uninterested in it. Ryan Grim talks to Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1971, and Billie Winner-Davis, mother of Reality Winner, who was prosecuted and imprisoned for leaking confidential documents in 2017.

[Introductory music.]

Ryan Grim: This is Ryan Grim. Welcome to Deconstructed.

Joe Biden held the first full press conference of his presidency on Thursday, and what we heard was a president determined not to let Republican obstruction get in the way of his agenda. The contrast with President Obama couldn’t have been more stark, as Obama spent most of his first term contorting himself to try to strike deals with a party that was hell-bent on nothing but his destruction.

Axios reported this week that Biden is loving the narrative that he’s so far been a bolder president than Obama. People forget that as early as 2013, Team Obama was sending signals that it would support Hillary Clinton for president in 2016, whether Joe ran or not. Biden was routinely snickered at in meetings by aides who would roll their eyes at his stem-winding interruptions. Obama himself, when he was a senator on Biden’s committee, would roll his eyes as Biden went on and on. Obama even gently discouraged Biden from running this time, worried he’d embarrass himself and undo the legacy he’d built. How sweet it must be for Biden not just to have won, but to be delivering in bigger ways than Obama did, with party leaders explicitly making the comparison to 2009 and blaming Obama’s push for bipartisanship.

Senator Chuck Schumer: We made a big mistake in 2009 and ’10. Susan Collins was part of that mistake. We cut back on the stimulus dramatically and we stayed in recession for five years.

RG: And hey, if spite is what it takes for Biden to become a transformational president, I say let a thousand egos bloom. Here he is celebrating the passage of his Covid relief bill with zero Republican votes at Thursday’s press conference.

President Joseph Biden: Many of you thought there was no possibility of my getting the plan I got passed, passed without any Republican votes. Pretty big deal. Got passed!Growing economy. People’s lives are changing.

RG: The older Joe Biden — Senator Joe Biden, Vice President Joe Biden — would have seen the partisan nature of that bill as a mark against it. President Biden taking pride in it is an enormous development. And here he is being as clear as Biden can be that he’s not going to let Republicans in the Senate block him from enacting his agenda.

JB: As you observed, I’m a fairly practical guy. I want to get things done. I want to get them done consistent with what we promised the American people. And in order to do that in a 50/50 Senate, we’ve got to get to the place where I get 50 votes so that the Vice President of the United States can break the tie, or I get 51 votes without her.

RG: To get to that place, Biden is calling for big changes to the filibuster.

JB: We should go back to a position of the filibuster that existed just when I came to the United States Senate 120 years ago. It used to be, you had to stand there and talk, and talk, and talk, and talk until you collapsed. I strongly support moving in that direction.

RG: And while Obama almost never said a bad word about George W. Bush, Biden pinned the border crisis at his own predecessor’s feet.

JB: They’re coming because of the circumstances in-country. The way to deal with this problem, and I started to deal with it back when I was vice president putting together a bipartisan plan of over $700 million, to deal with the root causes of why people are leaving.

What did Trump do? He eliminated that funding. He didn’t use it. He didn’t do it. And in addition to that, what he did is he dismantled all the elements that exist to deal with what had been a problem and what has continued to be a problem for a long time. He, in fact, shut down the number of beds available. He did not fund HHS to get people to get the children out of those Border Patrol facilities, where they should not be, and are not supposed to be more than a few days, a little while.

RG: He also made a point to speak to the humanity of those making the journey, making the obvious but often overlooked point that nobody sends their nine-year-old on a perilous, 1,000-mile journey on a whim, that the journey itself is a sign of extreme desperation. He compared it to his own ancestor, who fled Ireland on a coffin ship, not because he desperately wanted to leave his home, but because British imperial policy toward the Irish had made life unbearable.

JB: It’s not like somebody sitting on a hand-hewn table in Guatemala — I mean somewhere in Mexico or in Guadalupe — said, “I got a great idea. Let’s sell everything we have, give it to a coyote, have them take our kids across the border into a desert where they don’t speak the language. Won’t that be fun? Let’s go!”

That’s not how it happens. People don’t want to leave. When my great-grandfather got in a coffin ship in the Irish Sea, [the] expectation was: was he going to live long enough on that ship to get to the United States of America? But they left because of what the Brits had been doing.

RG: That’s not the first time Biden has alluded to Britain and Ireland’s fraught history. Here’s what he said last November to a British reporter who tried ask him a question:

BBC Reporter: Mr. Biden! A quick word for the BBC.

JB: The BBC? I’m Irish!

RG: Now, Biden spent time in his press conference talking about the desperate conditions that were driving people to flee Central America, and he mentioned earthquakes, hurricanes, gang violence, corruption; what he didn’t mention was that just as British imperialism made Ireland unlivable, American imperialism in Central America and Mexico has driven people north. Remember that it was British policy that starved the Irish during the potato famine, not a shortage of food. U.S. support for a coup in Honduras while Biden was vice president has played a major role in destabilizing that country. Then there was our support for the 1954 coup in Guatemala on behalf of the United Fruit Company that set that nation on the road to Civil War. Nicaragua, of course, was home to an American-funded dirty war, as was El Salvador. On top of that, our trade policies subsidize American corn growers to export to Central America and Mexico and undercut farmers there, producing millions of unemployed young men.

The media missed some of this because they were more interested in his Bidenesque mangling of the English language, and his drifting off into nowhere. And, in the media’s defense, there was plenty of that.

JB: So, the best way to get something done — if you hold near and dear to you that you like to be able to — anyway —

JB: OK. Hang on. Sorry. Oh, Seung Min — Ms. Kim.

RG: The other thing the media zeroed in on after the press conference was the White House press corps had made the odd choice not to ask a single question about Covid.

But there were two other omissions I thought were telling — and even more telling considering that nobody complained afterwards about their absence. I’m talking about the case of Julian Assange and the case of Reality Winner. In another break from the Obama administration, Biden’s Justice Department is pursuing extradition of Assange from London for the crime of publishing evidence of U.S. war crimes in Iraq. The Obama administration had declined to pursue Assange, reasoning that if it did so, they’d also have to go after every newspaper that’s ever published a leaked document. That particular dilemma has become known as “The New York Times problem.”

Assange’s case could set a historic precedent and represents a major roll back of press freedoms, but it has been absent from the national conversation. We’ll talk with whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, who famously leaked the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times in 1971, about the case of Assange.

Later in the show, we’ll also talk with Billie Winner-Davis, mother of Reality Winner, who is serving the longest federal prison sentence of any whistleblower for alerting the public that what President Trump was saying about Russian interference in the U.S. election differed from what the NSA had concluded. Her case is the subject of a recently released documentary, “United States vs. Reality Winner,” which just premiered at SXSW.

But first, Daniel Ellsberg, welcome to Deconstructed.

Daniel Ellsberg: Hi. I’m glad to be here, Ryan. I’m a constant listener to your program.

Ryan Grim: That’s tremendous to hear. That fills me with pride, because it’s great to have you here. It’s a real privilege.

We’re gonna talk about a couple of different things. But I want to start with the case of Julian Assange. When the Biden administration took office, what was your expectation about how they would approach this case?

DE: Well, of course, there was hope that they would revert to the decision of the Obama Department of Justice not to prosecute Julian, since no journalist or publisher ever had been prosecuted, nor should they be prosecuted in this country. We don’t have an Official Secrets Act, as they do in Britain, and the use of the Espionage Act is, I believe, on good judgment of lawyers, unconstitutional as applied to sources and whistleblowers in general.

RG: Mhmm.

DE: So at any rate, the Obama administration which had prosecuted more than any other — in fact, all other administrations put together — had prosecuted whistleblowers and leakers in general, but they did back off from prosecuting Julian, after realizing that the implication would be that the New York Times and The Intercept and other places that published classified information would be comparably liable.

So you could say, OK, Biden was in the Obama administration, obviously, and maybe he will abide by that sound constitutional approach. On the other hand, Biden had said, at the time, I think it was in 2010, that he thought Julian Assange was a high-tech terrorist.

JB: If he conspired to get these classified documents with a member of the U.S military, that’s fundamentally different than if somebody drops on your lap here, David. Your press person here is classified material.

David Gregory: Mitch McConnell says he’s a high-tech terrorist. Others say this is akin to the Pentagon Papers. Where do you come down?

JB: I would argue that it’s closer to being a high-tech terrorist than the Pentagon Papers.

DE: So that did not bode well at all. And the decision of his DOJ so far to continue to appeal the decision by the UK judge, Judge Baraitser, not to extradite Julian Assange to the U.S.; the Trump administration appealed that, I think actually, formally, on their very last day in office on the 19th of January.

But, as I say, Biden could have immediately dropped that appeal, and could still do so, and should still do so. But it didn’t. So hopes were initially dashed. But that doesn’t mean that there’s no chance to get them to reverse that. And I hope that will happen.

RG: Right. They had the opportunity to just say: “You know what? We lost this and we’re dropping this; we’re not moving forward,” which would have been making the same decision that the Obama administration did and the one that you referenced, you alluded to, what the Department of Justice referred to as their “New York Times problem.” Like, how do we prosecute Julian Assange, who they really kind of emotionally wanted to prosecute, without also implicating the New York Times?

Because as listeners might not realize, as you said, there’s no law against publishing classified information. We have a First Amendment that’s not restricted by whether or not the CIA has determined that something should or should not be published. There are crimes for leaking classified information to the media, but the media itself can’t be punished.

And so what critics of Assange have said, and what supporters of the prosecution say as well: OK, he’s sort of a publisher, but really, he’s a hacker — sort of similar to how Biden had referred to him as a high-tech terrorist — he’s actually a hacker, so he’s not just a publisher. And so what’s your response to that basis for the prosecution?

DE: Well, first Ryan, I have to take reservations about a couple of things you just said.

RG: Sure.

DE: First of all, it has been the case, of course, that many sources like myself, have been tried. In fact, three cases were brought before Obama, and [indistinct] brought at least 9 — or 10, if you count Petraeus. And so more than three times all the previous. But the question is whether that would have properly been tried as a crime has never been addressed by the Supreme Court. And very few journalists really know this, I’d have to say. To say, in other words, unequivocally, that it is a crime confronts very strong arguments by constitutional lawyers, that the Espionage Act does not constitute a constitutionally —

RG: Right. So it’s a crime, but it may not be a constitutional crime. Right?

DE: Well —

RG: It’s on the books, is what I mean.

DE: The wording of the act. There’s two acts that are really important on Assange right now.

One is that as an abridgment of free speech and against the First Amendment, that using the Espionage Act against any release of classified information amongst the criminalization of all sources, regardless of the intent, the motive, the impact, and thus, too much of an abridgment, it can’t be allowed of the First Amendment. And I think that’s very solid.

But the Espionage Act, as it’s written, has always been applicable to such a broad range of discussion of important matters, many of which have been wrongly kept secret for a long time, that it should be regarded as unconstitutional.

RG: Right.

DE: As a matter of fact, in her last days in Congress, Tulsi Gabbard introduced a resolution with very good amendments to the Espionage Act, that would acquire the hearing of a public interest defense, and that this was in the public interest.

And in the case of Reality Winner, for example, she clearly did reveal information that she thought, with good reason, was in the public interest. But that’s true of most of any of the ones we would call whistleblowers,

RG: To kind of expand on the absurdity of how expansive the law is, I remember during the Obama years, after the Snowden revelations, talking with Obama administration officials, or NSA spokespeople, or CIA spokespeople, and they were not internally allowed to host articles on their computers —

DE: [Laughs.] Yeah. I know that. I remember that.

RG: — that had revelations from Edward Snowden in the Guardian, in the Post, in the New York Times, on television. They were everywhere in the public, but inside the headquarters, they were still considered classified and so they still couldn’t be talked about and couldn’t be shared. And that over-expansive application of the law, you can tell there are people who actually do believe that that should be how the law is applied. And you can see the glimmerings of a dystopia that has that kind of Kafkaesque absurdity to it: that everybody can read these in the newspaper, but it’s a crime to read it in the newspaper.

And you make a good point that there is no distinction in the constitution between members of the Fourth Estate — between journalists — and regular citizens. The government doesn’t credential journalists and nor should it. So if the same first amendment rights apply to everybody, which of course they ought to, then how would the government try to create a system of classification that they could enforce? Would it just be on penalty of termination, but they couldn’t actually make it a crime because the crime would be unconstitutional?

DE: Look, I was the first person prosecuted for this. I was not the first person to release classified information.

RG: Right.

DE: Or probably was not the first person that week! Sometimes I’ve been called the father of whistleblowing. People have called me that. Well, I had to point out: I didn’t start whistleblowing, I didn’t start leaking. I was the first, probably, to do a mass release — like that 7000 pages — and I wanted much more of that to happen as a result.

But it didn’t. I had to wait 39 years for Chelsea Manning to give Wikileaks from Assange an even larger amount of information in the digital era, more than I could possibly have Xeroxed at the time. And likewise, three years later, Edward Snowden.

But how can the government keep secrets, if it doesn’t have this act? Well, the point I’m making is it kept secrets very well for almost 100 years since the Act was passed. No, it isn’t 1917, so let me not exaggerate. Let’s say for our history, I mean, even before the Act was passed, they kept secrets very well, just as Exxon and the aerospace industries and others keep secrets all too well, without the advantage of being able to charge their people with crimes. They do criminal offenses. As you say, the administrative remedies for airing dirty linen in public are all too effective. And the big one, of course, is not only firing the person, but basically blackballing him in the industry: their careers have to go. Perhaps even greater than that, whistleblowers have a hard time getting employed; they have a hard time finding employers. That’s a very serious problem.

But the fear of them of losing your job is more than enough to keep people from revealing secrets, including secrets that should be known and that they know should be known. And even before that, in the government, losing access to certain kinds of secrets effectively curtails your career, or promotion, or understanding. In my case, they brought 12 people up with orders to incapacitate Daniel Ellsberg totally physically, on the steps of the U.S. Capitol on March 3, 1972.

So they wanted me to shut up about what I was saying about Nixon’s policies. And for that, they found nothing short of incapacitating me, or, as the prosecutor believed, killing me. William Merrell said, “I have no doubt that the intention was to kill you.” And that was the meaning of those words.

I’m not sure. In fact, I doubt that was the direct intention. I think they wanted to shut me up. And as one person testified, Bernard Parker, of the Bay of Pigs, Macho Barker he is known as, “My orders,” he said to a journalist, “were to break both his legs.” This is from the oval office now, basically. I don’t think that was the extent of what they wanted. That wouldn’t shut me up. I think it had to do with my job, more importantly.

But the point is, you are subject to these sorts of things. All of the things that were done to me in terms of setting the CIA on burglarizing my former doctor’s office, listening to my phone calls without a warrant, these things were formerly illegal, clearly illegal as well as unconstitutional. And they’ve essentially been legalized now after 9/11.

I don’t want to say the government has recourse, they just do it, they don’t have legal recourse with these approaches. And I wouldn’t say they should — obviously not rely on them. But they do have the ability as they had before me, and after me, to ruin and end the careers of these people. Unfortunately, that threat has proven to be enough to keep people silent even when they know terrible wrongs are being committed. A war of aggression is being planned, and then carried out, as in Iraq. How many thousand people knew that that was coming along? And how many of those thousands of people who had access to that felt this is a great mistake on many grounds, that this should not happen? None of them revealed documents on that.

RG: Now, the other argument you hear from some Democrats is, well, Assange received stolen information from the Russians and interfered in the 2016 presidential campaign, and so he’s getting what he has coming to him.

DE: Well, first of all, the important thing to see is the charges — which are the basis for trying to extradite him now, and which he would face unfair trial in the U.S. — have nothing to do with what he did in 2016, or ’15, or ’14. They entirely refer to what I would say are unquestionably right revelations in 2010. And basically what he got from Chelsea Manning.

So these complaints, which have a basis, in my opinion, make it problematic, in 2016, not so much as journalism, but a matter of his political judgment —

RG: Right.

DE: I don’t judge him for being quite angry at Hillary Clinton, who he properly regarded as a key person in keeping him in there for six years and so forth. And I can imagine, without having discussed this with him, that that affected his judgment of what he ought to do in 2016 in a very understandable way, even if it had very bad consequences, even if the question comes back to journalistic judgment — or practice, I should say — and I think there’s no question that he should not be extradited or tried for what he did in 2010. And I would say the same, by the way, for 2016, except that, let’s just put it, I don’t blame a lot of people for being very angry at him for that.

RG: And as a journalist, I actually come down on the other side of that one particular question. To me if a journalist obtains information that he or she can verify as true, and that it is newsworthy, that he or she should publish it. The source is beside the point. The real question is whether or not it’s true, can be verified, and is newsworthy.

DE: Absolutely, Ryan, I agree with you on that. And if you may have noticed, or maybe you didn’t notice, I did not raise the question of the source of the information in 2016. And I don’t think that is relevant, as you say, if it’s authentic.

I don’t disagree with you on that. And moreover, when it comes to releasing it, maybe if I come clean, which I haven’t chosen to do particularly, on my feelings about Assange in 2016, because I don’t want to make it in any way more likely that he will be extradited.

RG: Right.

DE: So I haven’t really said anything critical. I said, I disagreed with him.

Since you’ve raised issues here which I don’t raise, the political judgment I do make: the way he did it, in terms of timing and forecasting it, and releasing some of it right after the Access Hollywood tape — same day, within hours, to dilute the news impact of the Access Hollywood, pussy-groping revelation indicated that he was acting in the desire that Hillary Clinton not be elected.

Now he has a right to have that opinion. But what did that reflect? Well, first of all, humanly, I would not expect him to be friendly to Hillary Clinton. Nor her to him, by the way. The revelations embarrassed her tremendously. However, in 2015, in the course of his years of effective confinement, he did arrive at the decision, which he tweeted that the election of Donald Trump — and this is 2015, before the campaign — would be better, or might be better, than the election of Hillary Clinton.

Now, a lot of people made that judgment. In fact, you know, what was it 60 million or something? But I think it was a mistake. And put him on the wrong side.

RG: Right. Right. Right.

DE: So there, I’ve said it. I’ve never actually said that in public before, because I’m not interested in fanning flames against Julian. But what I am saying is I can understand that it’s not just a matter of feeling a little angry, a feeling that he contributed, in however small an effect, it may not have been so small, but that he contributed to the election of Donald Trump — and not without intention. That’s very severe criticism. To have helped somebody do that shows, in my opinion, very bad judgment. And it is not at all confined to Julian Assange.

RG: No, it’s not.

DE: I don’t want to go into that. And it definitely applies to other people I know.

RG: Right. There’s also a push, as you know, in the whistleblower community, to get a commutation for Reality Winner, the NSA contractor.

DE: Yeah. Yeah.

RG: What’s your sense on the dynamics of that, and whether that is possible? She’s serving out nearly a six-year sentence, could be that end up being the longest ever.

DE: Well, no, even the full six years would not be as long as Chelsea Manning actually served —

RG: Right.

DE: — which was seven and a half. I saw in the media, on the web, just the other day, the statement that it was the longest sentence. And of course, Chelsea Manning got 30 years, but maybe there’s a distinction.

RG: Maybe the distinction is the court martial versus federal sentence.

DE: Right, right.

Now, Obama did commute that. He waited until his last months in office, and he should have done it at the beginning. She should have never gotten a sentence like that or, I would say, found guilty at all of a constitutional role. I would like to see that law challenged. And I don’t remember seeing any newspaper that has made that point. Why do I know better than they do on the constitutional issues?

For a very simple reason: I was charged with them, and I’ve become knowledgeable about that one law. I don’t know if there’s another part of the U.S. code that I could identify that same way. But I have followed that one. And no newspapers have, that I know of, really addressed the constitutional issues. And in part that was because they sort of accepted the use of this against their sources, without really fighting that very much, and certainly without paying legal costs, for example, as I believe The Intercept did do, probably, in the case of Reality Winner.

As far as I know, no one on the New York Times lifted a phone call, told any wealthy friend that my trial was a good thing to donate to, let alone stated in the newspaper or even mentioned that I had a fund for the trial. Zero. Hands off. And I think that is the almost universal treatment. I really think that newspapers tend to think of people, especially who give them classified information that their bosses don’t want out, the people who have only one shot of saying, “I’ve just learned something that is terrible, illegal, criminal, unconstitutional, or will cost many, many lives,” I don’t find the press, terribly concerned about those people at all. I almost suspect that they regard them the way police regard their special informants — that is snitches, members of the criminal community.

RG: Last question, I wanted to ask you about a revelation that came recently from the late Neil Sheehan, who you had provided the Pentagon Papers to. It was revealed after he died that you had told him, “Don’t make copies of all of this.” And he finagled a way to get in there when you were away and made copies in an eerie parallel —

DE: Yeah.

RG: — to the way that you did. And then when you spoke about it, he said: Look, I just did the same thing you did, I was driven by my moral conscience — or something like that. What’s your recollection of how all that unfolded?

DE: OK, first of all, the truth. [Laughs.] From my point of view, first of all, this is not the New York Times at its best, and not at its worst either. Neither that or the article the next week, which lauded that particular article, said this was a triumph of ours of a revelation, neither of the people had called me, in which I could have corrected a number of things. very flatly. For instance, the claim, which was most important, was false, which was: Daniel Ellsberg never gave these documents to the New York Times.

Oof! That looks — wow. Wow. You mean, I’ve been telling a full story again, for 50 years? That’s a rather important claim denied, in the same article, when it does say I gave a full controlling copy to him, he says, in May, well before the papers came out in June, so I did give it to him.

Second, the revelation that caught everybody as a big revelation is that you’ve copied these papers, which has been known for about 40 years or 50 years — ’71 — 50 years ago. And in early ’72 it was brought out in a book on the papers by Sanford Ungar about the copying; it’s been brought out in every book about the thing. It’s absolutely not news at all, except to readers, of course, who understandably don’t remember everything, or didn’t know, they were born after it, it’s all news to them. Not news at all!

First of all, I never criticized him for doing that at all. The quote is, as though I were charging him, “You stole it, just the way I stole it.” I went, I never regarded myself as having stolen that information, which as he says, really belongs to the American people, you know, and has been wrongfully kept from them. I never thought of him as stealing the information. I did think of him when I learned about it, as having wanted to assure himself that he had that information that he could put out. I took, Daniel Ellsberg took, he wanted to have that. I thought that was very reasonable when I heard about it. It was not necessary.

And he was described as saying it had to be done. It needed to be done. Well, no. All he had to tell me was the truth, that his editors were eager to do this, and wanted to do it, and did not rule out publishing classified information. When I said I didn’t want him to copy it at first, it was in the absence of that assurance of him. I thought it was pretty likely that the Times would say he can’t do this. And that’s what their lawyers did say, except for James Goodale. But their law firm dropped them over it. It was treason. It was criminal. And that’s pretty much what I expected.

I did not want 4,000 pages of top-secret material, sitting around the Times indefinitely in a copy if they weren’t going to use it. Time would go on, eventually, and somebody would call the FBI, as people wanted to do, as it’s now been reported later. So all I needed to hear from him, as I said, was: Are you people interested in doing this? Are they moving ahead on it? It was already the case when I talked to him. And he could have told me that anytime.

Why he didn’t, I can only speculate. It’s been a puzzle to me for 15 years. Why he chose to tell me up till the end: They’re not working on it. Only I am working on it. And so I want a copy to do it on weekends, and night, and so I said, “OK, then take the copy.” So why did he act like that? I can conjecture. It certainly wasn’t necessary. But it ended very, very well. Couldn’t have been better. The Times did a great job with it, including Abe Rosenthal who, for other reasons, I’m told, hated me and didn’t like anti-war protesters in general. But he went against that: He printed it. He was for the war. And I don’t give him credit for that and his judgment. But I give him a lot of credit as a journalist for printing something that, as he said, is going to make his friends mad for hurting the war. That was more than I expected from him and I give him great credit for that.

RG: Well, Daniel Ellsberg, thank you so much for joining us on Deconstructed.

DE: I’m glad to do it, Ryan. And I regularly listen to this on my treadmill. [Laughs.]

RG: Excellent. Excellent.

DE: [Laughs.] OK.

[Musical interlude.]

RG: That was Daniel Ellsberg. When I came to The Intercept in 2017, one of the first articles I worked on was based on a document that had been leaked to The Intercept, relaying the NSA’s conclusion that Russian operatives had attempted to breach election systems in the U.S.. Now, my role was a minor one, limited basically to researching election security protocols in North Carolina. But when Reality Winner was prosecuted for leaking a confidential document, I ended up learning a lot more about her, and I discovered she’s one of the more remarkable people her generation has produced. It’s my privilege to be joined now by Billie Winner-Davis, Reality’s mother.

Billie Winner-Davis: Thank you so much for inviting me.

RG: So you just finished watching the documentary on your daughter. Did it do her justice?

BWD: I think it did. I think that it did. I think that it really showed the injustice that was done to her. It didn’t do her justice, but it showed the injustice that was done to her. It showed the government’s persecution of her; they showed how she was treated from the beginning. And I really feel, also, that they did a good job of actually bringing my daughter to light, too, introduce her to the public, because she has been absent in all of this. She has been locked away and silenced since June 3, 2017.

RG: And what was she like as a child?

BWD: Reality was always a lot of fun as a child. She was always one who joked around. She loved sports, she loved laughing, she was never in any kind of trouble. The only kind of trouble that she ever got into was the eighth grade, right before graduation, when she was getting ready to be valedictorian of her class, she orchestrated a huge food fight at the school, and so she was banned from the school for life. So she did not get to walk the stage. But that was it for Reality’s troublemaking growing up.

DE: When did she start getting interested in languages? She speaks an extraordinary number of languages. And I understand she’s even picked up some new ones. Was that later in life? Or did you see that developing early?

BWD: That was pretty early on. We live in South Texas, which is [a] heavy Hispanic population. And so when the girls were in school, the school that they went to, it was a requisite that at I think it was Pre-K, they started them in Spanish classes. And she really picked up Spanish very fast and very well, especially from where we live. It’s all around us.

DE: And when did she start picking up the other languages? And is it true she reads Latin now?

BWD: She actually took Latin in high school and fell in love with it. And then in high school, she started also sending off for books to try to teach herself Arabic. And so she started self-teaching Arabic.

RG: And I want to tell you a story that a friend of hers told me, and I assume you may have heard a version of it before, but I wanted to get your reaction to it and what it says about her. He said that — and, for people who don’t know, she got into competitive, what would you call it, competitive weightlifting?

BWD: Yeah she had just started weightlifting and actually had competed for the first time just prior to her arrest.

RG: And one of the remarkable things about her ability to compete was that she was vegan. And she was going up against, of course, many other people who were not. And there was one gym that she used to like to go to when she was living in Maryland, that was in in Baltimore, and her friend said that every time that she would be asked by somebody on the street in Baltimore for something, she would feel compelled to give them a Luna bar or something that she had brought with them. Usually it was one of her Luna bars. And she said that eventually it was just becoming so expensive to go to that gym, that she eventually had to stop going to it, because there was just a part of her personality that couldn’t see suffering that she could do something about and look the other way. Does that sound like her?

BWD: Yes, it does. I don’t think I’ve heard that one. But I know that when she lived in Maryland, there was a homeless man that lived somewhere on the streets near where she lived. And if she were to stop somewhere and get some food for herself, she always got a second plate for the gentlemen. She always made sure that he had food to eat. And that’s who she is. That’s always been who she is.

RG: And did you feel like what she ended up getting convicted of was in line with that, that it was just her moral compass kind of directing her there?

BWD: I do. I feel like she wasn’t the type of person that could have looked away and done nothing. You know, we know, throughout this ordeal, that thousands of people in the NSA looked at that document. What she had said was that that was the most-read document of the time within the intelligence community, yet Reality had to be the one that said, “I can’t look away from this and I can’t do nothing.” That’s not who she was.

RG: Right. Unless Biden orchestrates a compassionate release, or commutes her sentence, or pardons her, she’s scheduled to be released in November. Do you know what her plans are for when she gets out of prison?

BWD: Well, she wants to come home and be with Gary, and myself, and our animals. She does want to work for criminal justice reform and prison reform. She has talked a lot about making change. All of the experiences that she has had in the system has opened her eyes that our system needs to be changed and there needs to be justice, not for her, but for everybody. Human beings shouldn’t be treated like this.

RG: What’s been her response to that? And has there been any recourse through the system?

BWD: The first several days of January is when she called me one day and she was hysterical. And it’s then that she shared with me that last March, March of 2020, she had filed what’s called a PREA report, and PREA stands for Prison Rape Elimination Act. And this makes sure that all inmates have the ability to report when something has happened to them, and when they have been sexually assaulted or inappropriately touched. And she reported that she was inappropriately touched by a prison guard that worked her unit. And she told me that there were at least three other persons in the unit that also reported this same prison guard, but nothing was being done. So she reported this in March of 2020 and nothing was done.

And here we are January of 2021. Well, this guard came into that unit the night before she called me and told everyone in the unit that Reality Winner had made a report on her. And this guard stated, in front of everyone, that: If you lie on me, I come for blood. Which my daughter felt, she took it as what it was, it was a threat to her safety. And so my daughter was hysterical, saying that something was gonna happen to her, which is very real, especially in prison. And so we’ve been trying to do what we can do within the system to make sure that number one, her PREA allegation gets investigated thoroughly, and then that this threat allegation gets investigated, and that my daughter is protected in the process. And what I don’t want is I don’t want her to be put in protective custody, because protective custody is basically the SHU, it’s solitary confinement, and she shouldn’t have to go through that to be protected.

RG: And so what is her current situation? She’s in FMC Carswell now. Do you feel some confidence that she has some level of safety from retaliation at this point?

BWD: No, I do not. That prison guard continued to work in her unit, even after I sent up concerns. Then that guard was walked out of the unit; she was then brought back to the facility. And, about two weeks ago, my daughter again called me frantic, stating that she had heard that that guard was going to be reassigned to her unit. So once again, myself and my daughter’s Dallas attorney, we got on the line, we started making calls, we started making inquiries to get that stopped. My daughter, you know, will not be safe unless they do something about the system within.

RG: How are they handling her vegan diet?

BWD: That depends on the day. Prior to Covid, she indicated that things were pretty good. They would go down to the actual cafeteria, there would be a line, there were always plenty of vegetarian options for her. So prior to Covid, she was OK.

Prior to Covid, she was teaching a nutrition and fitness class, she was also taking college courses, she was doing her artwork, things were good. When Covid hit and started spreading through prisons like wildfire last March, they shut down all of the prisons, they discontinued all visitation, they discontinued all meal services, all programs, recreation. Her attorneys are not even allowed to go and visit with her. And so they pretty much have them all locked down.

And since the lockdown last March 2020 she hasn’t been fed a no-flesh option at every meal. This hasn’t been available to her. When her entire unit tested positive for Covid, they were isolated within their unit not allowed to leave their rooms. And they were being fed these Johnny bags, which basically is the meal in a paper bag. And a lot of times she was given a bologna sandwich, which she can’t touch. So she went without.

A lot of people don’t understand what’s happened to our prison system during Covid, it’s just inhumane.

RG: Right. And on top of that, it didn’t work. Like you said, her entire unit, including her contracted coronavirus. What was her experience with Covid like?

BWD: Yeah, so Reality filed for compassionate release back in March and April, and she was denied. Or, rather, I should say that the prison system lost her petition and denied that she did it. Later they found it. So her team filed with the District Court for compassionate release. That judge denied it, they appealed, it went to the circuit court and in November, it was denied again. But in the meantime, in July, my daughter caught Covid. And the first thing with her experiences that a prison guard came in and congratulated her on her positive test result.

RG: Congratulated her?

BWD: She congratulated her. She was congratulated, yes. “Congratulations, you are positive with Covid.”

And my daughter tells me how frightening it was, because some of the women were really very sick. And what they were doing was those who had had the worst of the symptoms were being taken out either to hospitals, or they had resurrected these tents outside on the yard that they could see by looking up out of the windows. Imagine you’re you’re shut in a prison like this, and you’re seeing your cellmate gets carried away in the middle of the night. And you don’t know what’s happening. It was terrifying to them.

And of course, she suffered from body aches, and fever, and pain, and all of that. And the only thing that they gave them was Tylenol. And the staff even tested them, they thought that this was so funny, you know, in those Johnny sacks that they would give them their bologna sandwiches, they would also include a raw onion to test whether the women could actually smell or not.

RG: Hmm.

BWD: I mean, this is horrific. This is treatment that should not be happening in America.

RG: And they say you need a lot of liquids, you need to take really good care of yourself. Beyond a Tylenol, was there any compassion whatsoever shown by any of the guards? Or was it just like it was pre-Covid, except even worse?

BWD: It was even worse, because the staff were angry that they had to be there. The staff themselves were afraid of catching Covid. They didn’t feel protected in that environment. And there were staff who were catching Covid, and so they couldn’t be there. So staff had to work longer shifts, they had to work overtime, and they were angry, and they took it out on the inmates. They let them know that this was their fault.

How is it their fault? My daughter never went anywhere so she could contract Covid. It hadn’t been brought in by the guards. But yet the guards were treating them as if this was all their fault. The inmates were left to take care of one another. My daughter talked about helping others get up and helping them to the restroom because they couldn’t walk.

RG: Has she fully recovered?

BWD: Yes, she has.

RG: And have you gotten any signals from the Biden administration that they’re taking your daughter’s case seriously when it comes to a commutation or compassionate release? Or do you think that this is not remotely even on their radar?

BWD: I do not have a clue. I wish I knew. I wish I knew something one way or another, because we continue to request and write and make noise. And we don’t know if we’re being heard.

RG: When did you speak with her most recently?

BWD: We spoke this morning. She called me this morning. And we had to cut the call short because the guard had come to get her for her so-called class that nobody showed up to, and then she called me back a little bit later knowing that I was going to be home today. So we talked a little bit.

RG: And you said you had watched the documentary a little earlier with family. Did you tell her anything about it? What’s her take on being the subject of a SXSW documentary?

BWD: Oh, she’s uncomfortable with it and she’s a little bitter. Her take is that all of these things are happening about her without her. And, to her, it’s like, great, she’s glad that people are enjoying her life, because she’s not. That’s hard to hear. But it’s really, that’s her reality.

RG: Do you think if she had it to do over again, she would do the same thing?

BWD: I don’t think that she could stop herself. I mean, just like giving away her Luna bars, I don’t think she could stop herself. It’s who she is.

RG: And do you think given the power of the NSA and the FBI surveillance state that there was a chance that she could have done it and remained anonymous? If The Intercept hadn’t made any mistakes at all?

BWD: I ask myself that. I don’t know. ’Cause I really don’t know just how many people across the intelligence communities accessed that document. I don’t know how many of them outside of the Georgia area may have printed it. I don’t know how they would have come down to the conclusion and put the spotlight on her. I don’t know. I don’t know that answer.

I know that she didn’t take any precautions. As she said in her interrogation, she quit thinking about herself. She didn’t even give it a second thought. It was just something that she felt she had to do.

RG: As you’ve been speaking to her recently, does she have any hope that Biden is going to do the right thing here? Or is she thinking towards November of the date that she’s scheduled to be released?

BWD: I think that she’s given up hope. I think that she’s afraid to hope because everything in her case has gone against her. And it’s easier not to have any hope at all, because then you don’t lose anything.

RG: Well, Billie Winner-Davis, thank you so much for joining us.

BWD: Thank you so much for having me on.

[Credits music.]

RG: That was Billie Winner-Davis, and that’s our show.

Deconstructed is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. Our producer is Zach Young. Laura Flynn is our supervising producer. The show was mixed by Bryan Pugh. Our theme music was composed by Bart Warshaw. Betsy Reed is The Intercept’s editor in chief.

And I’m Ryan Grim, D.C. bureau chief of The Intercept. If you’d like to support our work, go to theintercept.com/give — your donation, no matter what the amount, makes a real difference.

If you haven’t already, please subscribe to the show so you can hear it every week. If you’re subscribed already, please do leave us a rating or review — it helps people find the show. And if you want to give us feedback, email us at Podcasts@theintercept.com. Thanks so much!

See you next week.

Join The Conversation