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NSA Whistleblower Reality Winner Asks Trump To Commute Her Prison Sentence

NSA whistleblower Reality Winner submitted a petition for a commutation of her prison sentence.

“The continued imprisonment of Reality Leigh Winner serves no social or preventative purpose,” the petition declares. “Her continued incarceration is costly, unnecessary to protect the public, burdensome to her health and well-being, and not commensurate with the severity of her offense.”

Billie Winner-Davis, her mother, said, “I am so very happy about the filing today. For me, this means we are finally able to officially ask for Reality’s immediate release from prison.”

She emphasized, “Keeping Reality in prison serves no purpose. She is not a threat or a danger and has already served so much time behind bars. She has accepted responsibility and has paid a very high price. It’s time to bring her home.” 

Winner pled guilty to one count of violating the Espionage Act when she disclosed an NSA report to The Intercept. She believed the analyst report contained evidence of Russian hackers targeting United States voter registration systems during the 2016 election.

On August 23, 2018, Winner was sentenced to five years and three months in federal prison. She has served more than half of her prison sentence—nearly 33 months—at Federal Medical Center Carswell in Fort Worth, Texas.

A federal court denied her bail prior to her guilty plea, and she was in jail for one year and nearly three months before her sentencing.

Bobby Christine, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Georgia, boasted that Winner’s sentence was the “longest received by a defendant for an unauthorized disclosure of national defense information to the media. It appropriately satisfies the need for both punishment and deterrence in light of the nature and seriousness of the offense.”

In arguing for leniency in federal court, Winner’s defense highlighted the cases of Bryan Nishimura, a former Navy reservist who transported classified material from a base in Afghanistan to his home; David Petraeus, a former CIA director who improperly handled and disclosed classified information to his biographer with whom he was having an affair; Sandy Berger, a former Clinton national security adviser who removed classified information from the National Archives without authorization; and Shamai Leibowitz, a former FBI linguist who was prosecuted for showing classified information to a journalist on what he described as illegal and constitutional acts.

The document was marked “top secret,” but primarily, the report described a spear phishing attack, which is an extremely common tactic employed by scammers. Multiple accounts at VR Systems, a Florida-based elections technology software and systems vendor, received an email that was amateur in nature and could hardly be said to contain sensitive information.

“In contrast to others charged and convicted under the Espionage Act, however, she did not work with a foreign agent or entity to conspire against her country,” the petition contends. “Her disclosure did not jeopardize the security or safety of human lives or strategic information. She sought no compensation or attributes and only acted to inform the public.”

FBI agents raided Winner’s home in June 2017, and when they interrogated her (without Mirandizing her), she told agents, “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 has a “greater management variable” designation which prevents her from stepping down to a camp, according to the petition.

FBI whistleblower Terry Albury, who was also prosecuted by President Donald Trump’s Justice Department, is  serving a sentence in federal prison for two counts of violating the Espionage Act. He was given a “management variable” designation.

“The [Bureau of Prisons] typically applies this MGTV [management variable] to offenders with lengthy prior arrest records but few convictions, nonviolent offenders who have a history of poor adjustment under probation or community supervision, offenders with a history of organized crime, offenders with significant foreign ties and/or financial resources, and offenders who have had disciplinary problems during prior incarceration. Inmates who receive this MGTV are placed one security level higher than their score would otherwise require,” Albury wrote in a letter in 2019.

The clemency petition asserts the federal court failed to consider her record of volunteerism and service in the military when she was sentenced. She was a cryptologic language analyst in the 94th Intelligence Squadron in the U.S. Air Force.

Instead of viewing her service in the Air Force as meritorious, an appeals court interpreted it in the most negative way possible to justify keeping her in jail before she pled guilty.

Evidence in the record indicates that Ms. Winner—who is fluent in Farsi, Dari, and Pashto—has long wanted to live and work in the Middle East,” the appeals court stated. “She wanted the Air Force to deploy her to Afghanistan. She researched traveling, working, and living in places like Kurdistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Jordan, and the Palestinian territories. She researched flights to Kurdistan and Erbil. She researched buying a home in Jordan. And she researched how to obtain a work visa in Afghanistan.”

The mosaic the appeals court created made it seem like she was intent to go join the Taliban in Afghanistan, even though she had been involved in helping the military kill “high value targets” who were considered terrorists.

“Reality Winner is diagnosed with depression, anxiety, and bulimia,” the petition notes. “Her placement at FMC Carswell was recommended so that she could receive treatment, however, the only treatment available to Reality Winner at this placement is medication.”

“The Bureau of Prisons does not offer therapy to deal with the underlying causes of her mental illness or assist in providing coping mechanism that will help her overcome, adjust, and function. Reality is enduring substantial suffering and in need of therapy to treat her illness,” the petition adds.

Winner has no infractions on her record. She is a fitness trainer at FMC Carswell, and she has pursued education while incarcerated. 

On the day of Winner’s sentence, Trump tweeted that her sentence was “unfair” and criticized then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions for issuing a disproportionate sentence. He referred to Hillary Clinton and how she was not prosecuted for mishandling classified information on her private email server.

After Trump made a statement related to her case, Winner commented, “Even our commander-in-chief, President Trump, has kind of come out and said, ‘Wait a minute, this is really unfair. There’s this double standard here.’”


Winner continued, “For that, I can’t thank him enough, because for 16 months, those words, ‘so unfair,’ were actually not allowed by either myself, or my team or my family to really say out in the public. So I just can’t thank him enough for finally saying what everybody has been thinking for 16 months.”

Alison Grinter, a criminal defense attorney in Texas, helped Winner and her family file the request for clemency, and Winner-Davis thanked Grinter for her assistance. She now hopes that President Donald Trump will consider their request.

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

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