Reality Winner, a former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor who was sentenced to five years in prison for leaking to the media a classified document related to Russian spies’ hacking attempt of US voting software, is now seeking an early release, after two inmates tested positive for the novel coronavirus where she has been incarcerated.
- Her mother, Billie Jean Winner-Davis, told NOVO Gazette that Reality was having panic attacks due to the coronavirus and obsessively cleaning all day. “She is really struggling and I fear she is self-destructing,” she said.
- Winner-Davis said she was angered by the news reports that the US dropped charges against two Russian companies accused of operating “troll farms” on the social media to meddle in the 2016 US election, while her daughter was serving time in prison for revealing a Russia-linked hacking attempt on a US voter registration software supplier.
- Most news stories about Russian election interference are missing a piece, according to Winner-Davis. “They are not mentioning Reality Winner. We hold our breath waiting for it, and then it doesn’t happen.”
- “I think that Washington, D.C. is really making sure that she is not heard from. They want people to forget about her case,” she says, commenting on the prison’s ban on Reality’s media contacts.
- She thinks The Intercept made some mistakes, but the FBI would have eventually identified her anyway.
In an interview with NOVO Gazette, Billie Jean Winner-Davis talked about her frustration after it was reported in mid-March that the US Department of Justice dropped charges against two Russian companies, which were indicted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller for running disinformation campaigns to influence the 2016 US election.
“I can’t even describe how angry I was,” she said.
“Having my daughter be sentenced to over five years in prison for an act that was meant to warn America about an attack on our voting systems, and then seeing that our Justice Department is dropping charges on those responsible for those attacks… It’s so crazy to me. I can’t even explain the anger that I felt, the despair I feel. They are protecting those who attacked us. And they are imprisoning those who warned us. Those who report the crime are the ones that our government wants to lock away and silence.”
The two Russian companies, Concord Catering and Concord Management, were defendants in the “Russian troll farm” case brought by Mueller in 2018, as part of his investigation into Kremlin’s interference in the 2016 presidential election of the US. The charges were dropped only a month before the trial kicked off.
‘Everybody recognizes Snowden and Manning’
Another disappointment Winner-Davis has is about the mainstream media’s inadequate coverage of Reality’s case, unlike those of other well-known whistleblowers like Edward Snowden or Chelsea Manning.
“It’s been very frustrating for me, our family and her supporters that have been here from the beginning. We have never stopped trying to get that mainstream media and public attention for her, trying to make sure that her name is out there like Edward Snowden’s and Chelsea Manning’s. Everybody recognizes those names, but there are still people who haven’t heard of Reality Winner. I think that our government played a part in putting pressure on mainstream media not to cover her case when it happened. It was big news for a week and then it just went away.”
She complained that even while reporting on Russia-linked hacking attempts on the US election system, many media outlets often fail to cite Reality and her case.
“As Reality’s mom, I feel despair when I watch the shows and I hear them talking about the Russian attacks on our elections and they fail to mention my daughter’s name. I’m just like Why? Why can’t you just say her name? Why can’t you just say ‘Meanwhile Reality Winner is still in prison for this?’ We see these news stories that are missing a piece. They are not mentioning Reality Winner. We hold our breath waiting for it, and then it doesn’t happen. So it’s like ‘Wow!’ you know.”
‘Media ban is a way for our government to shut down her story’
The Fort Worth prison, where Reality is currently staying, has been blocking journalists from carrying out interviews with her. “And that’s another thing to look at in Reality’s case. Why has she been silenced from the beginning?” her mother said in response to the prison’s stance.
Asked if she thinks it was connected to the Trump administration or just the decision of the prison, she said:
“I think that Washington, DC is really making sure that she is not heard from. I think that they have done this from the beginning. And that is part of making sure that her name and her story is not out there. Because by banning contact with reporters, basically without Reality, they don’t have a story. I think it’s been a way for our government to shut down her story. Our government doesn’t want that to be reported on. They kind of want people to forget any of that.
She believes that the country’s media cycle since President Donald Trump took office has also played a role in Reality’s case having been forgotten about:
“Every single day, there is a new story that is more crazy and chaotic than yesterday’s story. So things get forgotten very very quickly when you are living in such a world of chaos. We have never seen such daily chaos.”
Reality Winner (L) with her family members on Christmas in 2016. Courtesy of Billie J. Winner-Davis
When asked if any other whistleblower reached out to her and expressed solidarity with Reality, Winner-Davis mentioned Lisa Ling, a US Air Force veteran known for leaking to the media the country’s secret drone program for carrying out extrajudicial killings in countries like Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen, saying she contacted her and became part of their support campaign for Reality.
Snowden has also been supportive of Reality through his speeches during panel discussions and broadcasts, her mother said.
The 28-year-old former Air Force linguist and intelligence specialist anonymously provided the Intercept with a classified report in 2017, documenting that the Russian military intelligence conducted a cyberattack on at least one US voting software supplier and sent spear-phishing emails to around 100 local election officials ahead of the 2016 presidential election. She was sentenced to five years and three months in federal prison in August 2018.
Reality’s lawyer has applied for a compassionate release before November 2021, due to the coronavirus pandemic, following reports of two inmates diagnosed with COVID-19, a pregnant inmate with a suspected case and 31 others having been quarantined at the Federal Medical Center, Carswell in Fort Worth, Texas, where she has been staying. Her asthma and bulimia make her extra vulnerable for the risk of coronavirus infection.
She is scheduled to be released on November 23, 2021, if the court rejects her request for serving the rest of her sentence at home.
‘I worry every day about the risk of infection’
Winner-Davis told us she was particularly concerned about the possibility of Reality being exposed to the coronavirus, because the prison she has been staying for about a year and a half is called “medical center,” which actually houses a hospital within the prison system. Federal female inmates that need hospitalization are usually sent there, according to Winner-Davis.
“I worry every day. It’s always on my mind,” she said. “Within a confined system like that, there would be no way to stop the spread. Basically they are trapped. Reality recently had bronchitis and she has allergies. So I don’t know how that would impact her.”
Reality usually calls her mother when she is on her way to work and they talk. She recently told her mother that she has been extremely worried about the pandemic. In addition to suspending all visitation with family members, the Texas prison restricted programs as a precautionary measure against the outbreak. The recreation center Reality worked at has also been shut down.
“So she no longer has that outlet to rely on to relieve her anxiety and her stress. My daughter does suffer from anxiety. She was also diagnosed with bulimia and depression. She doesn’t want to go on medication, because that’s not something that she believes will help her. And within the prison system, it probably won’t. So she tries to deal with her anxiety and depression through her own means like meditation, exercise and things like that. Right now it’s very tough for her because they have taken away some of her outlets, the ways she uses to treat herself. ”
According to Winner-Davis, not only Reality but also other nonviolent offenders should be released to keep them safe from the risk of contracting coronavirus: “I really think by keeping them in that type of environment, we are actually sentencing some of them to the death sentence.”
‘I look at other people pardoned or released like Cohen’
When asked whether Reality has access to the news media and any publications, Winner-Davis says that there are common areas in her prison where she gets to watch TV news. She also listens to NPR daily and receives publications, including the Time magazine and the Economist, from her supporters, friends and family members.
She has email access, too, as her facility has the CorrLinks system. However, she can only have 50 people on her emailing list at one time, which all need to be pre-approved. She has to constantly juggle who is on her email listing, since she is taking college courses through Adams State University and needs to communicate with her college professors and the college personnel, as well as her lawyer, her friends, family and loved ones.
Prior to the coronavirus crisis, there were only five people that were approved to visit Reality, which included Winner-Davis, Reality’s step dad, her family’s next door neighbor and a friend of hers from Baltimore.
In February, Reality filed a petition with the Office of the Pardon Attorney, an arm of the Justice Department, asking for clemency from the US president.
“She has already served more than enough time for this crime,” her mother said. “She is not a threat to society or this nation. And keeping her in prison serves no purpose other than to cost the taxpayers. She is only somebody who will go out and serve her community like she has always done. Keeping her in prison right now is just punitive. Three years behind bars to us, to me, to her, that’s enough. Three years of her life has already gone.”
Winner-Davis stated that she and Reality’s supporters tried to “make enough noise to put her name out there front and center so that one person would see it,” in reference to President Trump.
“Unfortunately, I don’t think we were successful in getting her name out there and making the noise that we wanted to make. Because we have not seen any kind of action from the White House. But we are not going to stop trying. I will not stop trying. I will try every single day to try to do something to get his attention, to get the attention of people who can help me get his attention.”
Asked if she thinks her daughter was treated unfairly by the judiciary, Winner-Davis said:
“I do. From the beginning, when you look at Reality’s case, she was treated unfairly by our Justice Department. She was not granted bail pre-trial. She was turned down three times for a bond. They made her out to be an enemy of the country, which was untrue. They made her look like she was a huge threat and a flight risk, which was all untrue. They basically forced her to accept the plea agreement and to force her to accept this long sentence.
“I look at people who were pardoned or released. And it hurts deeply as her mother, as an American to see the people that are being granted pardons and clemency in today’s world. You compare them to Paul Manafort, to Michael Cohen, to Gallagher. That was a miscarriage of justice.”
When we reminded her of President Trump’s tweet where he called the action of Reality “small potatoes” in August 2018, Winner-Davis told us that when she saw that tweet, she was so hopeful that maybe the president would act on it, but over time she concluded that his tweet was just a way for him to attack Hillary Clinton.
Ex-NSA contractor to spend 63 months in jail over “classified” information. Gee, this is “small potatoes” compared to what Hillary Clinton did! So unfair Jeff, Double Standard.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 24, 2018
“So I feel like he used Reality in that sense,” she said. “If I were able to talk with him, I would want to convince him, I would want to show him who my daughter really is, that she deserves a chance, she deserves her life back. Her sentence was wrong. Her treatment was wrong from the beginning. I would just beg and plead with him to look at her, to look at who she is, her life and what she does for every community she lives in, what she has done for the United States of America. She deserves better than this.”
The Intercept made mistakes, but I don’t blame them
As for the biopic film project about Reality’s real life story that will be directed by Susanna Fogel, Winner-Davis told us that the producers were in the process of deciding on the cast, but it was currently on hold because of the coronavirus crisis and there was no released date yet.
However, she noted, Is This a Room, a play by Tina Satter that is based on the transcript of the actual FBI interrogation of Reality, has already toured different areas of the United States. It was slated to be staged in Austin at an arts festival in April, but it was canceled because of the pandemic, she explained, adding that there is also a documentary focusing on Reality’s case that’s in the works, which will be produced by filmmaker Sonia Kennebeck and her Codebreaker Films.
Kill Chain: The Cyber War on America’s Elections, an HBO documentary that aired on March 26, touches on Reality’s disclosure of the country’s vulnerability in its election machines.
When we asked her if she blames the Intercept, to which Reality leaked the top-secret report, for not being careful enough to protect her as their source, Winner-Davis replied:
“Yes and no. I think the Intercept’s mistakes just made it easier and quicker for the FBI to identify my daughter as the source of the document. But every time that I think about it, my daughter didn’t cover her tracks. She definitely didn’t think out. The NSA knew that they were only six people who had printed that document. So sooner or later, they would have come down to knowing who had done it. While I know they made mistakes, I don’t think they are the ones responsible for Reality being in prison.”
Reality’s sister Brittany, who is 15 months older than her, has also been campaigning for Reality’s release. Winner-Davis told us Brittany thinks that their lives are on hold. “She recently became engaged. She wants to plan her wedding. But she doesn’t want to do it without her sister. She wants to start a family. But she doesn’t want to do that without her sister. They are very close. It’s been difficult for our entire family.”
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