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FBI Agents Didn’t Think Reality Winner Was Spy—Yet Government Is Prosecuting Her Like One

An FBI agent who entered former NSA contractor Reality Winner’s house to execute a search warrant did not think she was a “big bad mastermind prolific spy.” And yet, the government is prosecuting Winner under the Espionage Act, as if she is some kind of spy.

Winner is accused of “removing classified material from a government facility and mailing it to a news outlet.” She allegedly mailed a classified document on Russian hacking to the Intercept and is in pretrial detention awaiting a trial that is currently scheduled for March.

Federal prosecutors filed a transcript in federal court on September 27 of an interrogation FBI agents recorded when they raided her home in June.

According to the transcript, the FBI agents acted friendly, like they may be able to treat what happened as a “mistake.” One agent said, “Telling a lie to an FBI agent is not going to be the right thing,” and convinced her to quit withholding information from them. She incriminated herself and gave the Justice Department all it needed to bring an Espionage Act case against her.

Winner was asked if she knew the Intercept was not authorized to access classified information. She said, “I am aware of that.” She was asked if she was aware of that when she sent the document. She answered affirmatively.

When it comes to Espionage Act cases, especially the record number brought by President Barack Obama’s administration, prosecutors only need to show an unauthorized disclosure and that the person who allegedly committed the act knew it was against regulation. They do not have to be a spy or agent of a foreign power.

The government could have charged Winner with “unauthorized removal and retention of classified documents or material,” which is a misdemeanor. Indeed, when reading the transcript, it seems like the FBI agents would have been okay with such leniency.

Special Agent Justin C. Garrick said, “I’m not sure why you did it, and I’m curious as to that, but I think you might’ve been angry over everything that’s going on, politics-wise. Because you can’t turn on the-you can’t turn on the TV without getting pissed.”

“I think you just messed up. Now, I’m not quite sure why you did it, and I’d like to hear from you on that,” and, “If you’re angry about what’s going on, if there’s something that—Look, you’ve had a good career. You have. If there’s something that just pushed you over the edge on this, now is the perfect time. This is a podium,” Garrick added.

Special Agent R. Wallace Taylor continued, “I think what we both think is that maybe you made a mistake. Maybe you weren’t thinking for a minute. Maybe you got angry, like he said. I mean, that’s what I’m hoping. If that’s the case, then that makes us feel a little better knowing that we don’t have a real serious problem here.”

Later in the interrogation, Winner shared, “I want to go out with our Special Forces. That’s why I got out of the Air Force. I mean, that’s why I’m here in Augusta. I wanted my clearance back so I could get a deployment, and it was just at a time when I wasn’t applying for deployments.”

Winner was working for the Iranian Aerospace Forces Office in her contracting job as a linguist. She knows Farsi, Dari, and Pashto.

“I had, you know, seven, eight months left of a job that didn’t mean anything to me, because it’s Iran, and I’m a Pashto linguist. Like, what am I doing translating Farsi?”

“I felt really hopeless, and seeing that information that has been contested back and forth, back and forth in the public domain for so long, trying to figure out, like, with everything else that keeps getting released and keeps getting leaked—Why isn’t this getting, why isn’t this out there? Why can’t this be public?” Winner recalled.

From that explanation, it appears to confirm Winner had whistleblower motives when it came to providing the document to the Intercept. She thought the contents of the document needed to be part of the larger conversation on alleged Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

Winner was clearly concerned the FBI agents might see her as another NSA whistleblower like Edward Snowden. She said, “I wasn’t trying to be a Snowden or anything.”

At one point in the interrogation, Garrick asked Winner why she installed the Tor browser, a privacy tool, on her computer. Her answer sheds some light on how feverish the military is about personnel who access WikiLeaks.

“There was one day when I was interested in WikiLeaks, and then I opened it up once, I shouldn’t have done,” Winner said. “I was in between jobs, just had gotten out of the Air Force, and when I opened it—I was at Starbucks. And I was just, I guess I was really underwhelmed. There was nothing there.”

“I don’t know how you can make use of this shit, but okay,” Winner told the agents. Still, as soon as she was out of the Air Force, she was going to see WikiLeaks for herself.

Winner was asked if she knew the document she allegedly released had sources and methods that would be valuable to adversaries. In her mind, the “sources and methods” in the document were already compromised and revealed to the public.

Her attorneys recently filed court documents to have her released from pretrial detention. They argue the government misled or deliberately lied to the judge to prevent her from receiving bail.

“In arguing for her to be kept in the Lincoln County Jail in Lincolnton, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Solari told a judge Winner was recorded in a jailhouse phone call discussing some ‘documents’ — plural — raising concerns she might have gathered other top-secret information beyond the NSA report she is accused of leaking,” the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported. “Solari said she was also overheard directing the transfer of $30,000 from her savings account to her mother’s account because the court had taken away her free appointed counsel.”

Neither was true. Solari emailed Winner’s attorneys on June 29 and said she only referred to a singular “leaked document” in the phone call with her mom. In a separate phone call, her request for money was made because she was concerned authorities would freeze her bank account. She would not be able to pay bills.

The recorded interrogation shows the FBI agents had no suspicion she leaked more than one document. They collected quite a bit of evidence prior to the interrogation and would have confronted Winner over other documents if she disclosed more classified information.

Back in June, the government raised the issue of a flash drive that Winner allegedly plugged into a top secret computer to keep her in jail. She told FBI agents about this act during the interrogation. It was apparently done to see if the system—which was presumably instituted after Snowden or Chelsea Manning released information—would flag her for plugging in a removable device. This is not a criminal offense.

Winner would like to reside at her home in Augusta until trial. Her attorneys said the court could require her to remain in Richmond County and keep in contact with a pretrial services officer. Her parents could “post their property as bond,” and she could go back to teaching yoga and “spin classes as well as volunteering in a local animal shelter.”

A legal defense campaign, “Stand With Reality,” was launched to defend against an “overzealous prosecution.”

“Stand With Reality believes the charge against Winner is grossly disproportionate to her alleged offense, and is designed to create a chilling effect on investigative journalism by dissuading sources from sharing information that is critical to the public interest. The group is dedicated to raising public awareness of Winner’s case, as well as the U.S. government’s persistent abuse of the Espionage Act to silence its critics and stifle journalism,” the campaign declared in July.

It used to be the government settled leak cases administratively. The words of FBI agents, who interrogated her, suggest that would have been more sensible. But President Donald Trump’s administration sees Winner’s case as an opportunity to successfully win a high-profile leak case. They aim to make an example out of her, as evidenced by their commitment to keeping her in jail for months before trial.

Charles Bradley performs at SXSW 2011. Photo by Ben Houdijk on Flickr.
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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."