A story about someone named Reality Winner must begin with the name. His father, playing with the surname, explained that he wanted “a real winner.” And so, the Reality. That may not make sense yet, but it is the least puzzling fact in this story. Reality Winner became an infamous name in 2017 when she was accused of spying. She was hit with the longest sentence ever imposed on a civilian for leaking classified information to the media. Now released, she spoke to us. Did Reality Winner do “exceptionally serious harm,” as prosecutors put it? Or did he reveal a truth that defended the United States? It’s complicated, like the young woman with the unforgettable name.
Reality Winner: I am not a traitor. I am not a spy. I am someone who only acted out of love for what this country stands for.
We met Reality Winner, 30, at his home in Texas, after four years behind bars. ‘Espionage’ seemed surprising to a woman who joined the Air Force at age 19 and won the Air Force Commendation Medal, in 2016, for “600 enemies killed in action.” He did it as a linguist in a combat unit fighting secret missions.
Scott Pelley: How many languages do you speak?
Reality winner: Farsi, Dari, and Pashto.
Scott Pelley: These are the languages of Afghanistan and Iran.
Reality Winner: Yes.
But his duty station was 7,000 miles from those countries, at Fort Meade, Maryland.
Scott Pelley: Why are you at Fort Meade?
Reality Winner: I don’t … Can I say that?
Attorney (off camera): No.
Reality Winner: No
That is the voice of her attorney, who helped her stay away from secrets in our interview. Winner wouldn’t say it, but at Fort Meade, linguists eavesdropped on communications in Afghanistan to identify the targets of the armed drones.
Reality Winner: Not something I can argue with.
He did not discuss his mission with his mother, Billie Winner-Davis.
Billie Winner-Davis: Only in a conversation I had with her did she let me see how heavy her work was. I’ll never forget it, because she said, “You know, when you’re looking at someone on your screen and that person says ‘poof’, you have to make sure you’ve done everything right.”
Reality Winner: I was starting to see on the news that our mission had a very high civilian casualty rate.
She began to feel guilty while battling illness – depression and eating disorder, bulimia. He left the Air Force for a top-secret civilian job at the National Security Agency at Fort Gordon in Augusta, Georgia. But here in 2017, she says, what she was hearing in English worried her far more than interceptions in Farsi and Pashto.
President Trump: If you don’t catch a hacker, okay, on the spot, it’s very hard to tell who did the hacking.
The president raised doubts that Russia would attack the 2016 elections. His interview with John Dickerson was typical of the time.
President Trump: I will agree with Russia, it could have been China, it could have been many different groups.
But it was Russia and the NSA knew it. Reality Winner had seen evidence in a top-secret report on an internal news feed.
Reality Winner: I kept thinking, “OMG, someone needs to step up and fix this. Someone.”
The secret report said that, in 2016, the Russian military “carried out cyber espionage” against “122 … local government organizations” “targeting officials involved in the management of voter registration systems.” It was top secret, in part, because it revealed what the United States knew about Russian tactics. Winner told us he was exposing a White House cover-up. He printed the report, dropped it in this mailbox, and sent it anonymously to an online news source specializing in government wrongdoing. The NSA report was released a month later.
Scott Pelley: You knew it had the “Top Secret” stamp. You knew what that meant.
Reality Winner: I knew it. I knew it was secret. But he also knew that he had promised service to the American people. And in that moment, it felt like they were being diverted.
Winner was captured as soon as the top-secret report came to light. The NSA could see on its network that it printed it. It drove home to a new reality.
Reality Winner: A plain black sedan appeared behind my car and two men in polo shirts got out and introduced themselves as FBI agents.
A transcript shows that FBI agents told him the questioning was “voluntary.” And they did not mention their right to an attorney. Winner lied about mailing the report, then confessed and was arrested. The government hit her with the most serious charge possible, espionage. She was denied bail after prosecutors told a judge that Winner wrote in her diary that she was angry enough to “burn down the White House.” They suggested that he might defect to the Taliban. To the public, they told this.
US Attorney Bobby L. Christine: Winner’s willful and deliberate disclosure caused exceptionally serious damage to the national security of the United States.
But what prosecutors called serious harm was a real bomb for the Federal Electoral Assistance Commission, which helps secure the vote. Within hours, the commission issued an alert on the “leak of NSA documents.” It detailed the top-secret email addresses “used by the attackers.” And he urged officials to “check email records.” Blinded by Winner’s disclosure, the commission called for “full disclosure of electoral security intelligence.” Two former officials told us that Reality Winner helped secure the 2018 midterm elections.
Scott Pelley: One of the things you learned about the espionage charge is that you can’t talk in court about what you leaked or why you leaked it. What would you have told the judge?
Reality Winner: That I thought this was the truth. But also, he did not betray our sources and methods. It caused no harm. He did not risk lives. He just filled in a question mark that he was splitting our country in half in May 2017. And that I didn’t mean to hurt.
But there was harm to her. As his case dragged on for 16 months. She says the depression was consuming her. Her mother moved from Texas to Augusta to be with her daughter.
Reality Winner: There would be times when the end of this was hardly worth watching. And so–
Scott Pelley: Did you think about taking your own life?
Reality Winner: Yes. I started planning my suicide. And I would do practice races. The only thing stopping me was my mom. Because she was still in Augusta. My dad had returned to Texas to go to work and I refused to let her hear that news for herself. So I’d get on the phone and try to talk about it and, “Hey, there’s no need to stay. Visits aren’t worth it. Go back to Texas, just go. Just go.”
Her mother, Billie, heard that, while attending our interview with her daughter.
Scott Pelley: Reality told us that he was planning suicide.
Billie Winner-Davis: I heard that. Yes.
Scott Pelley: Did you know she was in so much trouble?
Billie Winner-Davis: I mean, there were some very dark days. But then a better day would follow. I just knew that when I was in Georgia I couldn’t leave. He couldn’t leave her.
In 2018, at the age of 26, Winner pleaded guilty. The judge said he would make an example of her: She spent four years behind bars, plus three now, answering to a probation officer. She is still unable to speak about the case.
Reality Winner: I’ve had four years trying to say that I’m not a terrorist. I can’t even begin to talk about my actual spy accusation. Or have a sense of accomplishment for having survived prison. Because I’m still tainted by them accusing me of being the same groups that I enlisted in the Air Force to fight. So I don’t allow myself to feel anything about the actual act or the accusation. Until I can make it known that I am not what they said I was.
He served his sentence during the COVID prison lockdown and the riots after the police murder of George Floyd. In a cell with two companions, depression and bulimia, she became self-destructive.
Reality Winner: You know, every time I had to give in to my illness, I would put it in my body. Cut me off. Everywhere. I couldn’t get out of my cell. I couldn’t exercise. And all I could do was ask why and ask why. And a chaplain came by. And I asked him why they were doing this to us and that same chaplain that I’d seen for two years looked at my face and said, “Nobody gives a shit about all of you here.” I started getting high that day. Everybody knows there are drugs in jail. He was reduced to binges and purges. Get high every day. And cutting me off.
Scott Pelley: Have you been able to clean yourself up?
Reality winner: I got it. I’m just ashamed to say how difficult it is.
It is worth noting how inconsistent the government is in these cases.
In 2008, Gregg Bergersen, a Pentagon employee, was convicted of selling secrets to the Chinese. He was seen on FBI surveillance filling his pocket with cash. His sentence was six months shorter than that of Reality Winner. In 2012, former Army General and CIA Director David Petraeus handed over top-secret notebooks to an author who was his lover. He was charged with a misdemeanor for mishandling classified information and never spent a minute in jail.
Scott Pelley: Was it worth it?
Reality Winner: I try really hard not to frame things as worthwhile or not. What I know is that I am at home with my parents. And we take our lives every day moving forward as if they were richer in knowing what to be thankful for.
Grateful, for the moment of his release in prison. We said that this story is complicated. For one thing, individuals cannot decide what to declassify. On the other hand, some things are classified to hide irregularities, like torture in the war on terror, for example. In a home in Texas, a mother has simplified the story in her own way: with a portrait of a veteran and a display of commendation for meritorious service to her country.
Billie Winner-Davis: What Reality did was not spying. What made reality was patriotism. In fact, he stood up and worked to get the American people to tell us the truth about an attack on our vote, an attack on our democracy, an attack on our country. And I’m very proud of her for that.
Produced by Henry Schuster and Sarah Turcotte. Broadcast Associate, Michelle Karim. Edited by Sean Kelly.