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2021 Whistleblower of the Year Candidate - Reality Winner

Posted  December 16, 2021

In 2017, Reality Winner shared with the public a top-secret intelligence report from the NSA about Russia’s attempt to infiltrate the 2016 U.S. Presidential election process.  The report indicated that Russian hackers accessed voter registration polls with an email phishing operation, potentially undermining the integrity of the election.

At the time, Winner was a military contractor for Pluribus International with top-secret security clearance.  She shared the report only after seeing there was no mention of it in any of the post-election coverage, which she felt was tainted by relentless misdirection from the Trump Administration. To Winner, she had no choice but to release the NSA report so the truth could be brought to light.

Winner, who had served six years in the United States Air Force prior to becoming an intelligence contractor, was just 25 years old when she printed the classified intelligence report and smuggled it out of the NSA facility.  Next, she mailed the classified document to The Intercept, believing it to be in trustworthy hands.  Winner, feeling she had done right by her country, was prepared to move on with her life and resume training for an upcoming powerlifting competition.  She could not possibly anticipate what would come next.

When The Intercept received the classified document, it did not abide by what it describes as one of its core principles: taking proper precautions to protect its source.  It shared the document with the NSA, which with the help of the FBI soon identified Winner as its source.

The DOJ announced her arrest on June 5, 2017.  Winner was charged with “removing classified material from a government facility and mailing it to a news outlet.”  She was denied bail and forced to remain in confinement as she waited for her trial date.  A “Stand with Reality” campaign was formed by representatives from Courage to Resist, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and the Freedom of the Press Foundation with the goal of raising public awareness to ensure that Winner received a fair trial.

After more than a year in confinement, with her mental health spiraling, Winner asked the court to allow her to change her plea to guilty against the advice of her counsel.  On June 26, 2018, she pleaded guilty to one count of felony transmission of national defense information and on August 23, 2018, Winner was sentenced to five years and three months in prison for violating the Espionage Act.  It was the longest ever imposed in federal court for an unauthorized release of government information to the media.

After serving roughly three years of that sentence, she was released into home confinement with her parents in Kingsville, Texas.

It was only this past October when Winner finally made her first public appearance since going to prison.  It was at the Seventh Annual Double Exposure Film Festival, where a new film telling her story­—United States vs. Reality Winner—debuted as the opening night film and only in-person showing at the five-day festival.  Following the showing, Winner spoke about her experience as a whistleblower, her struggles in prison, and her motivation to share the intelligence report.

In the few months since, the national media has been gripped by her story.  As national attention continues to swirl around Winner, there has been heavy emphasis placed on the need for more whistleblowers like her.

Winner’s recent 60 Minutes interview brought the national media attention to a head.  In the interview, Winner discussed why she released the report: “I knew it was top secret, but I also knew that I had pledged service to the American people.  I am not a traitor.  I am not a spy.  I am somebody who only acted out of love for what this country stands for.”  Following her interview, social media and national news organizations have mobilized a full-scale effort urging President Joe Biden to pardon Winner.

Winner’s story continues to hold national traction on the importance of whistleblowing.  It has sparked conversations about legislative changes to better protect whistleblowers and encourage others to follow Winner’s heroic lead.

For her courageous act of putting her country before herself for bringing much-needed international attention to the vital role that whistleblowers play in securing justice for all, we nominate Reality Winner for Constantine Cannon’s 2021 Whistleblower of the Year.


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