June 14, 2021
Reality Winner, the most prominent and harshly punished whistleblower of the Trump era, has been released to a halfway house after serving most of her five-year sentence for leaking a classified document on Russia’s effort to hack the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Court filings make clear that Winner had wanted to make Americans aware that the government had concluded that Russia secretly tried to gain access to U.S. voting systems in 2016, contrary to what the Trump administration said in 2017. Winner was a contractor for the National Security Agency when she disclosed the document, which was published by The Intercept in June 2017. The NSA document described phishing attempts by Russian military intelligence against local U.S. election officials — and was the most convincing evidence to emerge of the Russian effort.
Winner was prosecuted under the Espionage Act, even though election officials in the U.S. indicated that it was her action, rather than warnings from their own government, that had made them aware they were targets of Russian hackers. While the Obama administration had used the draconian Espionage Act against a record number of leakers, none received a sentence as long as Winner’s, who pled guilty rather than face what could have been an even longer sentence if she had gone to trial.
The injustice of her case was highlighted when Marina Butina, a Russian national, received an 18-month sentence in 2018 for trying to influence American political figures without registering as a foreign agent. It struck many observers as dumbfounding that an actual Russian agent would receive a lighter jail sentence than an American trying to reveal a secret Russian effort to alter the outcome of an election. Winner was even denied compassionate release during the Covid-19 pandemic — and subsequently contracted the disease.
Although Winner was prosecuted by President Donald Trump’s Department of Justice, the decorated Air Force veteran has not received any favors from President Joe Biden. She has been released according to a normal schedule that takes account of her good behavior while behind bars, her lawyer said in a statement. Winner’s request for a pardon and commutation of her sentence has not been granted.
“It is wonderful news that Reality Winner is finally out of prison,” said Betsy Reed, editor-in-chief of The Intercept. “Her arrest and 63-month sentence, the longest in federal court history for the alleged crime of being a journalist’s source, was a massive injustice meant to silence other whistleblowers and threaten the practice of national security journalism. The Trump Justice Department should never have prosecuted her, and President Biden should have pardoned her.”
The Press Freedom Defense Fund, which is part of First Look Institute, The Intercept’s parent company, supported Winner’s legal defense.
Winner was serving her sentence at a federal prison in Fort Worth, Texas, and is now in a halfway house in the state. She remains formally incarcerated. According to a statement from her lawyer, Alison Grinter Allen, “Reality and her family have asked for privacy during the transition process as they work to heal the trauma of incarceration and build back the years lost. Her release is not a product of the pardon or compassionate release process, but rather the time earned from exemplary behavior while incarcerated.”