Last week's news that special counsel Robert Mueller had the goods on 12 high-level Russian spies whose job was to hack computers and muck up America's 2016 presidential election was a political bombshell — but also a resounding vindication for a 26-year-old Georgia woman with the wonderfully poetic name of Reality Winner.
In the spring of 2017, with public concern mounting about the extent of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, federal officials still sought to assure people that there'd been no major success in penetrating electronic voting systems. But Winner, a commended Air Force veteran with a top-secret security clearance, then working for a government contractor, had seen evidence that federal officials weren't telling the whole truth.
And so Winner did what Daniel Ellsberg, Mark Felt, and others whose difficult decisions made in real time have long since been vindicated by history had done: She blew the whistle. In sending her evidence to the news media, Winner took down a cover-up of information that the Russians had, in fact, been far more aggressive — and successful — in targeting voting systems. Indeed, one major electronic voting-records vendor, later identified as VR Systems, had been hacked into, and Russians then used that information to target voting officials in the critical swing state of Florida with "spear-phishing" emails aimed at compromising their computer networks.
Several key state officials said no one had warned them about the Russian scheme until the leaked memo from the National Security Agency, or NSA, appeared in The Intercept in June 2017. To them, Winner's leak was a form of public service. And both the validity of the information, and its seriousness, was confirmed last week when the hacking of VR Systems and other underreported Russian efforts to gain access to voter rolls was a centerpiece of Mueller's indictment.
But to say that the vindication of Reality Winner was bittersweet would be a gross understatement.
When the indictments came down, the young Air Force vet still sat in a Lincoln County, Ga., jail cell, awaiting formal sentencing after she decided in June to plead guilty to one count of felony transmission of national defense information, an inevitable outcome in a federal prosecution that was ridiculously stacked against Winner from Day One. Under her plea agreement, Winner will spend 5 years and three months in prison — until late 2022, if time served is included.
Winner's arrest and the aggressive prosecution of her under a federal law — the Espionage Act — intended for spies, not whistle-blowers, came just four months after President Trump and then-FBI director Jim Comey sat in the Oval Office and spoke about jailing journalists and the need to put a leaker's (in Comey's acknowledged words) "head on a pike." They both laughed about that.
Prosecutors then brought them the head of Reality Winner, and the case is no laughing matter. Not when a president has already declared war on the public's right to know what his government is doing and has branded journalists as "enemies of the American people."
Winner, who won an Air Force Commendation Medal for her work in identifying "high-value targets" for American drone strikes, is clearly a woman with a strong notion of right and wrong, who wanted America to do better. For that, she was punished under a law aimed at traitors and forced to surrender 63 months of her freedom, the longest sentence, if it's not commuted, that will ever be served by an American whistle-blower. Her unconscionable punishment shows how a national-security state can devolve into a police state when the issue becomes who owns the truth: the government or the governed.
"Far from a criminal, she should be considered a hero," Trevor Timm, executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, which supported Winner during her prosecution, told me. Timm is also a little dumbfounded (and so am I) that Winner's case didn't get more attention, in a time when the Trump-Russia story is often the lead item on cable TV news. Or why she didn't get more support from mainstream news orgs in a time when the White House has all but declared war on journalism.
After all, Trump's expressed passion for jailing journalists and his Justice Department's zeal in prosecuting Winner to the fullest extent of the law may be appalling, but it's also the culmination of a long-standing war on whistle-blowers that's accelerated with the security-state obsessions of post-9/11 America, under presidencies and Congresses run by both parties.
It was a Democrat, Barack Obama, who ran in 2008 with a promise to extend protections to whistle-blowers, only to betray those words as president. Under Obama, eight whistle-blowers were prosecuted, initially, under the Espionage Act, far more than any commander-in-chief who came before him. Most of the persecuted made the same difficult choice as Winner, pleading guilty to lesser charges because of the Kafkaesque nature of the Espionage Act.
America's obsession with valuing its secrecy over doing the right thing led to utter absurdities. Not a single high-ranking government official spent one day behind bars for the unlawful torture of terrorism suspects, arguably the greatest moral stain on our nation during the George W. Bush years, but a CIA analyst who blew the whistle on torture named John Kiriakou was locked up for two years in a federal prison here in Pennsylvania.
So far, history is repeating itself. The nightmare of a foreign power like Russia trying to tip the scales of a weakened American democracy and install Donald Trump in the White House is the political scandal of the century, and yet two years into it, the only person convicted of a felony and sitting in a jail cell is the woman seeking to expose part of the cover-up.
Yet, as Timm noted, the perversions of the American justice system when it comes to government secrecy made it essentially impossible for Winner to defend herself. Under the Espionage Act, defendants aren't able to present evidence about their motive, that a leak of documents was in the public interest and didn't actually harm national security, as seemed true here. A motion by Winner's lawyers to allow testimony from the state election officials who were grateful to learn about the security flaws exposed by the leak was shot down by the federal judge who also refused to grant bail to the Air Force veteran.
Timm noted, incredulously, that the day after the leaked NSA document 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 revealed. "This is at the same time," Timm noted, "that the government was saying that by releasing this information, Reality Winner was putting national security at risk."
If America wants to emerge from the current quagmire, we need a system that will encourage responsible truth-tellers, not deprive them of their liberty. Let's be honest: Those things aren't going to happen with a president who's at war with the First Amendment or a Congress brainwashed to do his bidding. But if citizens do succeed in flipping the government over the next couple of cycles, how can a new generation of leaders keep the promise that Barack Obama broke a decade ago, and make America safe for the next Reality Winner?
Timm said any solution would start with rewriting the Espionage Act, to make it clear that the law is targeting treasonous spies, not patriotic whistle-blowers. Likewise, he said federal law could also be reformed to allow whistle-blowers like Winner or Kiriakou to present evidence on whether their leak was motivated by the public interest or whether national security was, in fact, harmed.
What's more, we need more big shots in Big Media with the biggest megaphones to help remind people that it was leaked information that let the public know about the depths of Watergate, the crimes committed at Abu Ghraib, and the Vietnam War lying that was laid bare in the Pentagon Papers. In fact, it's a little crazy — and maybe revealing — that while the journalism world was going ga-ga over the Pentagon Papers-era defiance in the movie The Post, very little ink was spilled in defense of Reality Winner.
All of us, true political leaders, the media, everyday citizens, need to fight for courage and for truth-telling and to speak out in its defense, or else we will continue to stumble through our current nightmare, where reality is a loser.