Former Air Force linguist and NSA contractor Reality L. Winner made headlines in 2017 for her arrest on charges of leaking classified information to the media. After her case dragged on for more than year, Winner pleaded guilty and was handed the longest sentence ever on a civilian for releasing unauthorized government documents to the press. She was sentenced to five years and three months behind bars for releasing a classified report that alleged the Russian military "executed cyber espionage" against local U.S. election officials in 2016.
Winner, now released and living in Texas, spoke with 60 Minutes about her job, her court case, her time behind bars, and what she believes was her patriotic duty to the American people.
A daughter, sister, yoga and fitness instructor, and pet owner, Reality Winner talks with 60 Minutes correspondent Scott Pelley to, "set the record straight" on exactly who she is, besides being a household name because of her case.
"I am not a traitor. I am not a spy," Winner said, emphasizing that she is more than what prosecutors have painted her as in court.
Reality Winner explained the sequence of events that led to her decision to leak a classified government document to the media, a decision that would go on to cost her four years behind bars. Winner said she was concerned that, "the truth wasn't true anymore," and spoke to what she says was an atmosphere of confusion and mistrust that plagued America in early 2017.
"The public was being lied to," Winner explained. She says despite having taken an oath to protect classified material, she had "pledged service to the American people" and wanted to end the perceived "confusion," about alleged Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections.
Reality Winner sat down with 60 Minutes and detailed how she leaked an intelligence report about Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections. She printed the document labeled TOP SECRET, placed it in her pantyhose underneath her dress, and walked out of the building.
While she's not allowed to talk about the content of the document, she did say it caused a stir at her NSA office at Fort Gordon.
Reality Winner was charged under the Espionage Act in a case that dragged on for more than a year. Created initially during WWI to catch spies and enemies of the country during wartime, the Espionage Act began to shape shift and take on a new role during the Obama administration: to catch suspected leakers. Because alleged leakers during trial are prohibited from discussing the classified information they shared, or the reasons they shared it, the Espionage Act has become an effective tool for the government to prosecute suspected leakers of what the Act calls "national defense information."
Reality says when she first heard the charge, she felt hopeful that a strong enough legal defense would get her out of the situation, "because usually in espionage there's 'Country A' and 'Country B...' so I thought 'well, we still have a chance.'"
Most of those charged with leaking are released until trial, but prosecutors used her personal diary entries to get the judge to deny her bond. Prosecutors alleged the entries showed sympathy towards the Taliban, which she denied – and a desire to burn down the White House which she explained as "angry ramblings of a 24-year-old."
As the case dragged on, Winner's mental health deteriorated, and she said depression and thoughts of suicide consumed her.
60 Minutes correspondent Scott Pelley also spoke with Winner's attorney, Alison Grinter Allen. Allen admits that Winner broke the law, but believes her prosecution was abusive, political, and retaliatory.
Allen says they will pursue clemency because, "a pardon for Reality is the right thing for the country."
The videos above were originally published on December 5, 2021.
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