Three and a half years after NSA whistleblower Reality Winner was arrested and charged under the Espionage Act, MSNBC finally invited her mother Billie Winner-Davis on the network on January 29. Billie was able to share her message on why Reality Winner deserves compassionate release from federal prison during a pandemic.
The segment on “The ReidOut,” hosted by Joy Reid, was a worthwhile opportunity to speak to a national audience and potentially reach staff in President Joe Biden’s administration. However, to justify giving Winner-Davis air time, the segment was crafted in a partisan and warped manner that demonized anyone who supports NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden over Reality Winner.
It depicted Snowden as a “traitor” while suggesting, even though Reality Winner also leaked classified information, that what she did was patriotic and possible to forgive.
Last September, Snowden appeared on MSNBC’s “11th Hour,” which is hosted by Brian Williams. Snowden urged President Donald Trump or any future president to end the war on whistleblowers.
“[Trump] should pardon Reality Winner for trying to expose election interference. He should pardon Daniel Hale for revealing abuses in the drone program, or Terry Albury for trying to expose systematic racism within the FBI. And these are all people who are deserving of pardon,” Snowden declared.
Snowden put clemency for Reality Winner and other whistleblowers before clemency for himself. In fact, he has always supported Reality Winner. He published an op-ed that condemned her pretrial detention immediately after she was arrested and charged with violating the Espionage Act.
“Winner is languishing in prison, while figures like Edward Snowden have become the darlings of civil libertarians,” Reid stated. “Her petition for clemency was overlooked by the former president, who went on to pardon his cronies convicted in the Russia probe.”
Uninformed MSNBC Guest: ‘What She Did Was Wrong’
For many, many months, supporters of Reality Winner appealed to Malcolm Nance, who is a former naval cryptologist known for weaving unverifiable conspiracies about Trump and Russia that stray extremely far from the truth. They did so because they believed Nance might use his platform as an MSNBC analyst and a Twitter user with nearly a half-million followers to help free Reality Winner.
But Nance ignored Reality Winner and her supporters up until January 29, when he appeared during the same segment as Billie Winner-Davis.
“When [Reality Winner] became a civilian contractor, you could understand the allure of wanting to go out there and make a significant impact on a very important, you know, story of the day,” Nance said. “On the other hand, what she did was wrong. She released classified information.”
“And there’s a way to do this. Take a look at [Lieutenant] Colonel Alexander Vindman and others. That’s water under the bridge.”
Apparently, it is not “water under the bridge” otherwise Nance would have stuck to the script, attacked Snowden, and allowed MSNBC to boost her as a whistleblower worthy of support.
Nance showed he possesses no grasp of the two-tiered system for whistleblowers. Reality Winner’s case is not analogous to the case of Vindman, whose disclosures were a key basis of the first impeachment case against Trump.
Vindman was a high-ranking official, who could easily turn to Congress. In contrast, Reality Winner was a low-ranking contractor. She could go to her supervisor, but the political nature of what she said would have likely turned her into someone monitored as a potential insider threat.
Reality Winner could have disclosed information to the inspector general’s office that oversees the NSA, but her complaint might have been ignored. Worse, the inspector general might have forwarded her name to the Justice Department for a leak investigation, as happened in the cases of the NSA Four—Bill Binney, Thomas Drake, Ed Loomis, and Kirk Wiebe.
Also, it is common for people like Nance to attack whistleblowers for being egotistical and out to enrich themselves. Talk of the “allure” of making an impact on a significant news story evokes this banality.
“There is a way for Ms. Winter [sic] to get a pardon,” Nance added. “She needs to show remorse. Come out and expose what she did. We all know what that is, and to show that, in comparison, General Michael Flynn, the former director of Defense Intelligence Agency, was—I mean, was committing crimes that he admitted to the FBI.”
Nance knows so little about Reality Winner’s case that he mixed up her last name. If he had known any of the basic details, he would not have said she needed to “show remorse” to get a commutation or compassionate release.
Reality Winner did not go to trial. She accepted a plea agreement. To do so, she was required to take responsibility for her actions, and she apologized.
“A Straight-Up Traitor”
Joy Reid brought Nance into the conversation by asking him about “purist” civil libertarians who see him as a “cause celebre.”
“But the House Intelligence report in 2016 found that the vast majority of the documents that Mr. Snowden stole really had nothing to do with programs impacting individual privacy interests. They instead pertained to the military, defense and intelligence programs of great interest to America’s adversaries,” Reid stated.
“And he is now in Russia, where he has safe haven. And yet you have seen Republican lawmakers pushing the former president to pardon him. There’s been a lot of people on other sides of the aisle also pushing for a pardon for him.”
Reid asked, “Why do you suppose that Reality’s story has not become the kind of cause celebre for those who care about information getting out that could help the public? This [helped] expose our voting systems were targeted.”
Biden was directly involved in contacting world leaders in June 2013 to discourage them from offering Snowden asylum. He ended up in Russia because the State Department revoked his passport, and he was trapped in a Moscow airport. It’s the fault of United States government officials that he is living in a country deemed to be one of America’s top adversaries.
The House Intelligence Committee report cited by Reid was described by Barton Gellman as an “‘aggressively dishonest’ piece of work.” (Gellman worked on the Snowden documents for the Washington Post.)
Opponents of Snowden with roots in the national security establishment frequently utter this talking point about the vast majority pertaining to military and intelligence programs of “great interest to America’s adversaries.” However, this “shrill brigade” of critics, as the New York Times referred to them, has never “presented the slightest proof that his disclosures really hurt the nation’s security.”
“Many of the mass collection programs Mr. Snowden exposed would work just as well if they were reduced in scope and brought under strict outside oversight, as [President Barack Obama’s panel recommended,” the Times editorial board further insisted.
Nance’s answer to Reid was boring and uninspired. “Why the right-wing has Edward Snowden as a cause celebre? That man’s a straight-up traitor. I mean, he literally exposed programs I swore to die before I would ever release in the hands of our enemies. And he did it with such blithe spiritedness. He joined the CIA and the NSA with the intent to release this information.”
There is zero evidence to support this assertion that Snowden joined the CIA and the NSA with plans to disclose information to journalists. Even the CIA doesn’t subscribe to this conspiracy theory.
“The CIA did not file any report on Snowden indicating that it suspected he was trying to break into classified computer files to which he did not have authorized access while he was employed at the CIA, nor was he returned home from an overseas assignment because of such concerns,” Todd Ebitz, CIA spokesperson, stated in October 2013.
Blaming Trump and The Justice Department For What Happened
Fortunately, the broadcast glitched and marvelously scrambled up Nance’s words so viewers were unable to hear all of Nance’s delirious message endorsing much of the war on whistleblowers.
Reid asked Billie Winner-Davis if she thought Reality Winner went to The Intercept because it had published documents from Edward Snowden. “Did she think that that was a sympathetic outlet for her? And what do you make of what happened as a result of that same news outlet not really concealing her identity?”
The problems with The Intercept’s handling of Reality Winner and the document she disclosed were numerous. But to ask Billie Winner-Davis to rehash these issues on national television when her chief concern is bringing her daughter back home is vain news entertainment. It is elite hosts and producers at MSNBC posturing as more rational and responsible gatekeepers than the so-called fringe media, which is The Intercept in this case.
Nevertheless, Billie Winner-Davis nailed the response. “I do realize that mistakes were made. Mistakes were made both by The Intercept and by my daughter that led the FBI straight to her door. But I can’t blame The Intercept for what’s happened to my daughter.”
“I blame Trump, and I blame Trump’s DOJ for what’s happened to my daughter. They’re the ones who arrested her, who denied her bail, who have persecuted her under the Espionage Act, who have denied her compassionate release, and who have made sure that she got the longest-ever sentence for a crime of this nature in the United States.”
The segment concluded with Billie Winner-Davis clearly stating her demand for Biden and his Justice Department.
“Reality has a petition for clemency on file, and that’s pretty much what we’re pushing right now,” Billie Winner-Davis said. “Just commute her sentence. Let her out. She is suffering not only in a maximum-security prison, but in a maximum-security prison that is infected with COVID. And also they’re in lockdown conditions.”
“I just want her home. I want her out. We can look at the idea of a pardon later on. But what I want right now is I want Joe Biden to look at her. She’s no threat at all to society. There is no reason to keep her locked away in prison at this time,” Billie Winner-Davis added.
Coverage of whistleblower stories rarely happens on cable news networks. As this example shows, when there is coverage they almost always filter it through a partisan lens. That almost always does a disservice to the whistleblowers in need of support from the public.
Neither Malcolm Nance, Joy Reid, nor any other person at MSNBC really cares about the impact of the Espionage Act on journalism, freedom of speech, and truth-tellers who risk their livelihoods to inform the public. Yet, regardless of what was said about Snowden, MSNBC could not manipulate Billie Winner-Davis into reinforcing attacks that intensify divisions.
And at least Billie Winner-Davis had the last word, and she gained the satisfaction of knowing there were hundreds if not thousands of more people who would search for information on Reality Winner’s case and see what they could do to help her daughter.