Reality Winner. PHOTO: Wikipedia.

Martyr Or Traitor, NSA Leaker’s Breath Of Fresh Air

Reality Winner’s supporters push for a presidential pardon

David Braue

Melbourne, Australia – Jul. 2, 2021

She was the first American convicted under the federal Espionage Act of 1917 since Chelsea Manning — but as recently released former NSA contractor Reality Winner enjoys fresh air for the first time in years, her lawyer and supporters are doubling down on a grassroots campaign pleading with President Joe Biden to pardon the woman once vilified as an enemy of the state.

Winner — a bright, socially aware and intellectually engaged U.S. Air Force officer who worked in drone operations until her honorable discharge in 2016 — leveraged her exceptional linguistic skills into a position with NSA contractor Pluribus International Corporation, where she worked from a facility in Georgia translating and analyzing surveillance intelligence related to targets in Iran and Afghanistan.

A lifetime of intellectual curiosity eventually led to the May 2017 leak and publication of a top-secret, five-page document detailing Russian hackers’ compromise of election systems used in the 2016 United States election, six months before.

She was ultimately charged under the Espionage Act and faced a life sentence before plea-bargaining her way to a 63-month sentence that was cut short with her early release from a Fort Worth, Texas prison on good behavior, on June 2.

Yet as Winner re-acclimates to life on the outside, civil rights lawyer Alison Grinter Allen is now leading the charge for a formal pardon for Winner — who, she told Cybercrime Magazine, was the victim of an “obscene” smear campaign led by the Trump Administration’s secrecy-obsessed intelligence apparatus.

Cybercrime Radio: Reality Winner’s Attorney Speaks

NSA Whistleblower’s defense

Noting that the 100-year-old Espionage Act was designed to stop Americans from sharing troop movements to the enemy during times of war, Allen said, its use to prosecute a government whistleblower hinged on the belief that most people have little understanding of its actual role.

“Everyone understands that the law lags behind technology,” she said, “but this is probably the most obscene example of prosecutors exploiting that fact.”

“The crime here is to apply this law to something that is really much, much more common — and that is the revealing of classified information to the press for America’s best interests. It’s a classic backstop against tyranny here in the U.S. which has never been particularly secure with information, because it is handled by people who love their country.”

Sending a message

Unfortunately for Winner, the Espionage Act does not differentiate between good leaking of information and treasonous leaking of information — which is why she never had a chance after freely admitting that she printed and then smuggled the classified document out of the NSA.

Despite her lack of malice — she told her sister from jail that she “did not think of the consequences for even a second” — many have seen the Justice Department’s decision to use the Espionage Act, rather than softer legislation protecting government whistleblowers, as part of an ongoing Trump-era war on the media into which Winner was inadvertently pulled.

“It was a way to make an example of one person so that anyone who would be tempted to leak to the press in the future would have some serious fear about that,” Allen said. “When you look at the use of the Espionage Act to prosecute press leaks in this administration, what you saw was that leaks of classified information that embarrass President Trump are going to be prosecuted harshly.”

“The message was that this is a justice system that is willing to be policitized, and is willing to protect the president’s feelings over the equal administration of justice.”

Indeed, Winner’s sentence was nearly as long as that handed out to major cybercriminals like Nigerian citizen Olayinka Olaniyi — sentenced to 71 months in prison for trying to steal over $6 million after successfully compromising several universities in phishing attacks — and Ukrainian hacker Andrii Kolpakov, who was last month sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment after his FIN7/Carbanak hacking group caused more than $1 billion in damage for its victims.

Compared to the sustained and exploitative malice demonstrated by those and other cybercriminals, Winner’s offense seems almost inconsequential — and was even called out as such by no less than President Trump.

Yet it was a step too far by a socially aware young woman whose progressive ideology and lifelong interest in social justice primed her for action when she discovered secrets contradicting the Trump Administration’s public denials of Russian election interference.

“It’s pretty clear that the Trump Administration was really prepared to let vulnerabilities in the U.S. election infrastructure be swept entirely under the rug,” Allen said.

By exposing the exploitation of known vulnerabilities in the American electoral system, she added, Winner’s actions may well have won Joe Biden the 2020 election — catalyzing major security improvements that even Trump officials said made it the most secure election in history.

“The big lie didn’t happen overnight, and it didn’t start last November,” Allen said. “It began even before Trump was elected, when we started to get conditioned to hear that anything that was embarrassing to the former president was illegitimate: if he lost, it was because the election was rigged.”

“We had to be groomed to reject the truth,” she said. “And as soon as we got comfortable with that, as soon as we got comfortable with a president who was routinely at war, openly, with even the concept of truth, then we were ready for a huge interruption.”

Yet even as Winner recovers from her time in prison — where she, among other things, contracted COVID and struggled through a crippling Texas freeze that shut off power for over a week — she is considering a future where, Allen said, “I would be surprised if activism and advocacy aren’t a part of her life going forward.”

“She helps people in order to heal herself,” she added, “and I think that it would be difficult to stop her from doing something to help others.”

Allen, for her part, is pushing hard for the Biden Administration to issue a pardon “that could help the entire country, and could be a way to signal to our whole country that truth and healing are a priority for the administration.”

“That’s what we’re hoping for,” she said, “but right now we’re just really happy that she is seeing fresh air. We’re really happy that she is where she belongs.”

David Braue is an award-winning technology writer based in Melbourne, Australia.

Go here to read all of David’s Cybercrime Magazine articles.