Reality Winner is “frustrated” right now, her mother Billie J. Winner-Davis told me by phone on Tuesday. Frustrated that the government insists on holding Winner — just 27, a commended U.S. Air Force veteran — in a maximum-security prison near Fort Worth, Texas. Frustrated that a security minder follows her around, and that she can’t talk to the press — all for the crime of revealing one classified government document.
Reality Winner is frustrated, her mother said, when she hears that President Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, gets sent to a cushy, minimum security prison camp in upstate New York while her pleas for similar treatment are met with silence. “Why,” her daughter will ask Winner-Davis, “did they single me out?”
The truth is, powers that be would love for you to forget that Reality Winner ever existed. That’s why President Trump’s Justice Department took the hardest-line approach every step of the way in prosecuting her for leaking a key government document in 2017, ensuring that she would remain in federal custody well beyond the 2020 election. And it’s why federal prison officials are going to great lengths to make sure that journalists from CNN and other news outlets aren’t allowed to talk to her now.
And yet it’s impossible to forget about Reality Winner. As the next presidential election looms larger and larger, it’s becoming clearer and clearer that what this young Texas native blew the whistle on — that the government was covering up evidence that Russian hacking of U.S. election boards had been more successful and posed a greater threat than officials wanted the public to know — is a major scandal that threatens the very underpinnings of democracy.
Winner served for six years in the Air Force, where she learned to translate the languages of Afghanistan and Iran and aided the targeting of drone strikes that killed hundreds of people, an experience that deeply affected her. By 2017 she’d moved to Augusta, Ga., and — with her security clearance — took a job with a contractor for the National Security Agency, or NSA.
Trump had just been elected and — despite the growing hubbub about Russian election interference — government officials in early 2017 were both acknowledging that Vladimir Putin’s hackers had attempted to enter U.S. computerized election systems yet insisting there’d been no real success. The documents that Winner obtained and leaked to The Intercept showed otherwise — that Russians had successfully hacked into an election vendor called VR Systems that’s employed in key swing states such as Florida and North Carolina, and then used that access to further target county election officials.
Winner’s leak had immediate, tangible results. On the day after the story was published in The Intercept, a federal agency — the U.S. Election Assistance Commission — sent out a bulletin to state officials warning about the security issues that had been disclosed. A number of state and local officials said they hadn’t been warned about this specific Russian threat and that in fact the Winner disclosure was the first they’d heard of it. Perhaps more importantly, her blown whistle put new pressure on Washington to investigate a problem that Team Trump and its allies on Capitol Hill wanted to disappear.
The result was last week’s stunning report on Russian election interference from the Senate Intelligence Committee, a GOP-led panel. It revealed for the first time that the Russian 2016 operation targeted election systems in all 50 states, that hackers had the ability to change key data in Illinois and that, in the words of the New York Times, this was “an effort more far-reaching than previously acknowledged and one largely undetected by the states and federal officials at the time.”
That lack of either acknowledgment or detection is precisely the reason that Reality Winner risked everything to blow the whistle.
As blogger Marcy Wheeler pointed out last week, it took both the Winner leak and subsequent prodding from Democratic members of Congress for either VR Systems or the FBI to take Russia’s apparent 2016 computer break-in of that vendor’s software seriously. Investigative efforts by Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, revealed that despite some back-and-forth between VR Systems and the FBI before the 2016 general election, the vendor didn’t hire a contractor — FireEye — to investigate until after Winner’s disclosure (and, thus, long after the election).
Even worse, only this summer has the story gained enough momentum that the Department of Homeland Security finally began its own, more extensive probe of what the Russians were able to do with their hack of VR Systems. The investigation comes amid growing concern about whether the Russian hack had anything to do with 2016′s Election Day meltdown of VR Systems’ electronic voting records in the Democratic stronghold of Durham County, N.C.
The computer problems caused massive lines and widespread confusion that surely prevented some Americans from voting on 11/8/2016. Which would mean that three years of government assurances that the Russians didn’t change the 2016 vote count weren’t actually true.
For jamming her foot in the almost-slammed-shut doorway of truth, you’d think that Reality Winner would be getting a ticker-tape parade. But the folks who won that 2016 election had other plans for her. Trump’s Justice Department — following a shameful precedent set by the Barack Obama administration of locking up whistleblowers instead of protecting them — used the harsh provisions of the Espionage Act to deny any avenue for a credible defense. When Winner thus pleaded guilty into that onslaught, the judge threw the book at her: a 5-year-and-3-month sentence.
It’s remarkable to compare Winner’s treatment with that of her contemporary, the 30-year-old Maria Butina. While Winner was blowing the whistle on Putin’s interference in our domestic politics, Butina was trying to create it, fostering ties between pro-Putin oligarchs and their agenda with National Rifle Association and others on the political right. But Butina was offered a deal — plead guilty as an unregistered foreign agent and get just 18 months, or less than a third of Winner’s sentence. And political pressure may cut that sentence even shorter, meaning that Butina might be sharing caviar with her millionaire backers in Moscow while Winner still sits in her orange jumpsuit.
But here’s something even more bizarre. Butina has also been allowed to speak from her lockup with journalists from National Public Radio, CNN, and other leading news outlets. Yet requests from CNN, a documentary filmmaker, and other journalists to interview Winner at the federal facility in Fort Worth have all been denied by the Federal Bureau of Prisons. In fact, the feds won’t even allow Winner to speak with reporters over the telephone.
The news blackout on Reality Winner has drawn sharp protests from the Reporters Committee for Press Freedom, which has noted the intense international interest in her case and how the press ban is interfering with the public’s right to know. But the prison bureau refuses to even respond to letters from the committee’s legal director Katie Townsend.
“It’s difficult to see what their concerns are,” Townsend told me Tuesday by phone.
But it’s not difficult to see that the Trump administration and its key allies in Congress — most notably, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — have been engaged in a three-year effort to deny, downplay, and flat-out cover-up the extent to which Russia is interfering in our elections, with grand plans to do it again in 2020 when both Trump and McConnell are both on the ballot.
Surely it’s no accident that federal officials block any and all public access to Winner and are determined to keep her story under wraps at the same time that McConnell is using his unchecked power in Capitol Hill to prevent bipartisan, common-sense measures to protect the ballot box in 2020 from even coming up for a vote. That happened on the same day that special counsel Robert Mueller warned two congressional committees that election interference from Russia and, increasingly, other adversaries and rivals is a grave threat to U.S. democracy and that Team Putin is “doing it as we sit here.”
Mueller was right, but an even graver threat to the American Experiment are the men like Trump and McConnell who could do something to save our elections, but who would rather go for craven, short-term political gain. The silencing of Reality Winner is both a symbol of everything that’s gone wrong, and a tragedy.
Billie Winner-Davis says that she and her daughter feel that she is a political prisoner. It’s hard to disagree. She said that while her daughter appreciates the letters and books she gets at the Carswell federal prison, it’s hard to find hope right now. But there is a sense of vindication over the recent election-hacking disclosures. “It helps to know that it’s all coming to light,” she told me. “That Reality Winner and her leak were good...needed.”