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NSA Whistleblower Reality Winner Receives Longest Sentence Ever For Unauthorized Disclosure

Former National Security Agency contractor Reality Winner was sentenced to five years and three months in prison at a federal courthouse in Augusta, Georgia. It was part of a plea agreement approved by the court, where Winner admitted she disclosed classified information in violation of the Espionage Act.

Winner will be incarcerated at Federal Medical Center, Carswell in Fort Worth, Texas, primarily because she has been bulimic for 12 years. In a statement read before the court, Winner said bulimia has been “a constant struggle” for her and expressed fear that, if she wasn’t incarcerated at a medical facility, she could turn to bulimia as a coping mechanism. She also suffers from depression after the death of her father in 2016, mere months before the act for which she was prosecuted.

Additionally, Winner spoke about her motivations for learning the languages and cultures of countries in the Middle East. Following the attacks on September 11, she said she wanted to intellectually understand what had happened. Her interest in language is what ultimately led her to her line of work.

Defense attorney Joe Whitley described Winner’s disclosure as a “poorly considered act of political passion and protest” in an effort to ensure the judge accepted the plea agreement.

After incarceration, Winner will be subject to three years of supervised release. She will not be required to pay a fine. The judge also did not say whether time served would be factored into her sentence.

Winner apologized in her statement and indicated she took full responsibility for her action.

The plea agreement reflected the seriousness of the espionage defense, Judge James Randal Hall said, adding the oft-heard refrain that it would promote respect for the law.

Prosecutors claimed Winner’s disclosure of the NSA report “caused exceptionally grave damage to national security.” However, that was never proven during course of this case and in fact, prosecutors claimed it didn’t have to be proven to convict her of violating the Espionage Act.

In a statement after the hearing, Justice Department representatives celebrated Winner’s sentence as the longest ever for a defendant convicted of making an unauthorized disclosure.

Winner was in the United States Air Force for six years. She is fluent in Dari, Farsi, and Pashto and worked as a language analyst. When she left the Air Force, she was employed by Pluribus International and worked for the NSA at Fort Gordon.

She disclosed a copy of an intelligence report from the NSA that alleged Russian hackers targeted voter registration systems during the 2016 election. It was provided to the Intercept, which made several mistakes related to source protection that led authorities to identify Winner as the person who gave the report to the media outlet.

Winner was arrested on June 3, 2017, after FBI agents raided her home. In a small back room in her home, agents controlled her movements, never told her she was “free to leave,” nor did they inform her she had the right to remain silent. The FBI successfully induced a confession that agents recorded. (What happened during the raid was challenged by defense attorneys through a motion to suppress statements, but ultimately, no ruling on the motion was ever issued by the court.)

She was denied bail. Prosecutors used her service and training in the Air Force against her to make the case she would flee if she was not kept in prison. They also promoted the idea that Winner had no respect for the U.S. government and persuaded the court (as well as an appeals court) that she may be some kind of disloyal American.

For one year and 83 days, she was detained at Lincolnton County Jail. There she was assaulted by a state inmate. Her mental health deteriorated, as a psychologist was hired to help her with depression. Her struggle with an eating disorder worsened because the jail did not or would not accommodate her diet.

A trial was scheduled and postponed at least two times before her attorneys recognized it would be nearly impossible for her to defend herself in court. For example, her defense was hindered significantly when the court rejected 40 out of 41 subpoenas that were requested so evidence could be compiled to possibly show the government had not taken appropriate steps to protect information in the NSA report.

A sensitive compartmented information facility, or SCIF, was setup at the courthouse in Augusta for Winner to meet with her attorneys and work on her defense. Throughout this part of her case, she was routinely dehumanized, as she was shackled 12 hours each day. The shackles were at her waist so she could not drink a water bottle with her own hands.

When she wanted to use the bathroom, according to her mother, Billie Winner-Davis, officers would do a “complete strip search on her.” Any time she was “taken from the SCIF to return to jail,” they did a strip search on her.

Humiliating and degrading strip searches served the purpose of domination and ensured Winner would recognize who was in control over her.

She changed her plea from not guilty to guilty on June 26 and acknowledged in court the elements of the offense, which prosecutors brought against her.

Her sentence for violating the Espionage Act is extraordinary, particularly when compared to sentences issued in other leak prosecutions. Yet, it is representative of the extent to which the government will go to make examples out of whistleblowers.

There is no public interest defense available to individuals charged under the Espionage Act, a World War I-era law that is antiquated. It forces a person who reveals information potentially of publicly value to defend their act in terms of whether they are guilty of betraying the country or not. It was not initially used to punish sources and control the flow of information to the press, and yet, especially since President Barack Obama’s administration, the Justice Department has relied on the law to expand its ability to silence national security whistleblowers.

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

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