The mother of NSA leaker Reality Winner speaks out: ‘Everything about her case has been so harsh and just cruel’

Reality Winner exits the Augusta Courthouse June 8, 2017 in Augusta, Georgia. Winner is an intelligence industry contractor accused of leaking National Security Agency (NSA) documents. Sean Rayford/Getty Images
  • Reality Winner, 28, was sentenced to more than five years behind bars for leaking a classified report detailing Russian government efforts to hack US election infrastructure.
  • In April, a federal judge rejected efforts by Winner’s attorneys to obtain compassionate release for their client. She is due to be released in November 2021.
  • “As each chapter of this unfolds, I see just how corrupt our system really is, and I see just how powerless the average American is,” Billie Winner-Davis, her mother, told Business Insider.
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Billie Winner-Davis doesn’t get it, or maybe she does. How can Paul Manafort, chairman of President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, get compassionate release from prison – years before his slated release, after lying about his dealings with Russian intelligence assets – while someone who leaked a report about Moscow’s efforts to interfere in elections, like her daughter, languish behind bars?

And whatever happened to all of those people who used to champion the cause of persecuted whistle-blowers?

“As each chapter of this unfolds, I see just how corrupt our system really is, and I see just how powerless the average American is,” Winner-Davis, the mother of former US intelligence contractor Reality Winner, told Business Insider.

Her daughter was arrested in 2017 after leaking a National Security Agency report detailing the Kremlin’s efforts to hack US election infrastructure, including voter rolls. She was then prosecuted under the Espionage Act and pleaded guilty to one count of felony transmission of national defence information. She was sentenced to more than five years in prison, the longest sentence ever handed out to someone convicted for leaking to the press.

“Everything about her case has been so harsh and just cruel,” Winner-Davis, who herself works in the case management department at a jail in Kingsville, Texas – a job she took after Reality’s arrest, she said, curious what life is actually like for the incarcerated – said in a phone interview. She was speaking just hours after talking to her daughter, who turned 28 while incarcerated, and remains in a pandemic-related lockdown in Texas’ Carswell federal prison. Winner spends most of life in de facto solitary confinement, barred from going outdoors, limited to one trip to the cafeteria, and served two meals in her cell (bologna sandwiches) that, as a kosher vegan, she cannot eat.

“She really is not doing well,” her mother said. But, in the eyes of federal Judge James Randal Hall, she’s doing well enough. In April, Hall rejected efforts by Winner’s attorneys to let her serve the rest of her sentence at home, before her November 2021 release date. “Winner is in a medical prison,” Hall argued, “which is presumably better equipped than most to deal with the onset of COVID-19 in its inmates.”

In fact, that prison is the site of the only confirmed death from COVID-19 of a female inmate in federal custody. Ironically, it is also the subject of whistleblower complaints, with prison staff complaining to US Sen. John Cornyn that they are ill-equipped to stop the spread of contagion. They fear what they have seen just across the way in Fort Worth, where the men’s federal prison has seen over 625 confirmed infections, with 10 inmates left dead thus far, according to the Bureau of Prisons.

“She’s fighting for a chance to come out of this sane and alive,” Winner-Davis said. “Yet somebody like Manafort just gets released automatically, without any kind of fight at all.”

Nor, Winner-Davis laments, is there much of a fight for her daughter, whose case has not become a cause célèbre as happened when others, such as Chelsea Manning, leaked classified information in what they believed to be the public interest.

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Those involved in The Sparrow Project stand with a small display they set up in New York, USA, on 9 June 2017. The Sparrow Project held a press conference today in Union Sq for Reality Winner. An alleged leaker of classified documents about Russian Interference in the 2016 US Presidential Election. Shay Horse/NurPhoto via Getty Images

That, in part, is due to the times in which we live: in 2020, there are many perceived injustices competing for finite attention. It is also a product of what Reality Winner actually revealed: that the same government that provided hacked emails to Wikileaks’Julian Assange, so as to influence the 2016 election, was also attempting to hack its way into the United States’ voting infrastructure.

For a few commentators, the fact of Russian government interference in the last presidential election – there is video, courtesy Dutch intelligence, of Russian spies hacking their way into the Democratic National Committee – is inconvenient, complicating simple narratives about the outcome: that Hillary Clinton lost the Electoral College, if not the popular vote because the public simply had enough with “The Establishment.”

In fact, leading voices at the news outlet to which Winner leaked continue to deny what their colleagues’ reporting and intelligence reports showed: that the Russian government, as part of its effort to hurt Clinton and elect Trump, engaged in a concerted hacking campaign.

In a May 28 stop on Fox News, for example, a founding editor of The Intercept participated in a segment declaring allegations of such hacking to be “the greatest hoax of all.” Indeed, that editor published emails stolen during the 2016 election under the guise of “Guccifer 2.0,” a phony hacker persona.

Support for the whistle-blower with the longest prison sentence has been cursory, compared to those who passionately defend Wikileaks’ Assange, who also worked with Russian intelligence.

“It does hurt, as her mum, when I’ve tried everything that I can to get as much support and awareness and advocacy for her as I possibly can and it just never seems to be enough to break through,” Winner-Davis complained. “That’s been puzzling for us from the get-go.”

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