NSA Leaker Reality Winner’s 5-Year Term is An Attack on Whistleblowing

Reality Winner has been sentenced to over 5 years in behind bars for leaking an NSA document to The Intercept about alleged Russian spearphishing in the US election system. It’s the longest ever prison sentence for a media source in US history. We speak to Shadowproof’s Kevin Gosztola about the trial and the double-standards in how the US government prosecutes leakers.  (Part Two to follow next week)

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Story Transcript

AARON MATE: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Mate.

NSA whistleblower Reality Winner has been sentenced to over five years in prison in what press freedom advocates call a draconian penalty and massive injustice. Winner allegedly leaked an NSA document that was used in a June 2017 story in The Intercept. The report claimed Russian military intelligence impersonated the voting software company, VR Systems, and sent malware-laden e-mails to state voting systems, a widespread hacking tactic known as spear phishing. Reality Winner’s five year sentence is the longest ever for an alleged media source in a federal U.S. case.

Well, joining me from Atlanta is Kevin Gosztola. He is managing editor of Shadowproof.com. He has covered Reality Winner’s case from the start and was there at her sentencing on Thursday in Augusta. Kevin, welcome. Your impressions from the sentencing hearing on Thursday?

KEVIN GOSZTOLA: Well, the most important thing is exactly what the Justice Department thinks is the positive about the outcome of this case, which is that it’s the longest sentence for someone guilty of an unauthorized disclosure in the history of the U.S. Justice Department. And I know that people might immediately think of other cases, particularly Chelsea Manning, maybe they think of John Kiriakou’s case, or there was a CIA whistleblower, Jeffrey Sterling. Well, in those cases, they were charged with several offences and they got way less time in jail when they had plea deals or when they were sentenced after trial.

And so, in this case, we have one charge, one charge of violating the Espionage Act which gets reality winner five years and three months in prison, and she’s already been in jail for one year and eighty-four days as of this day, as of Friday August 24. And so, I think that’s the biggest takeaway here, is that this is really an escalation in the kind of punishment that a person who releases information to the press without authorization, that’s what they can expect now, that they’ll get this sort of an egregious sentence.

And as far as the way proceedings went, they moved very smoothly. Reality Winner made a statement in court, she talked a bit about how she got to this point where she was working for an NSA contractor. The company was called Pluribus International at Fort Gordon. She described how she became interested in learning languages of cultures in the Middle East after 9/11, she wanted to understand those cultures a lot better. She followed in the footsteps of her stepbrother who had joined the Air Force.

And then she worked for this contractor and she talked about, in her FBI interrogation, a little bit about why she released the document. She was frustrated with the Trump administration and just believed that this was something that was being discussed so much in the media, the contents of this document, these allegations about Russian hackers. They were definitely all over the newspapers and she thought she had an important document that could color our conversation, so she went and mailed it to The Intercept.

And so, in the courtroom, what’s important for people to understand is that at that moment, they’re doing their best to get the least sentence possible, the lowest sentence possible. They don’t want to go to jail for ten years because that’s what you could get with an Espionage Act charge. And so, she said a lot of things, in my view, in that courtroom that you do under that kind of duress. And maybe in a better circumstance, if we had a process where you could argue what you did was in the public interest, where you could put on a case under the Espionage Act, where defense lawyers had the ability to do discovery and uncover information and prove that the government wasn’t taking steps to protect the information from disclosure.

Then, perhaps we would have heard something very different from Reality Winner yesterday. But she had to beg for mercy, she had to go before the judge and play the game and be meek. And the judge said what most judges say in our judicial system or in our justice system, that this is a deterrent, we don’t want you to commit this crime again and this is going to promote respect for the law.

AARON MATE: So, in part two of this discussion, Kevin, I want to get to actually what the document that she leaked contained, because I think there’s been some misrepresentation of it in the reporting around it. But that’s separate from the issue of whether she was unjustly treated and looking at a five year sentence, the longest for a government- for a U.S. media source in federal court history, by all counts is extremely draconian, on top of which, what she has already endured already. I want to go to a clip of Bobby Christine, he is the prosecutor for the Southern District of Georgia, and this is what he said about Reality Winner after the Senate session.

BOBBY CHRISTINE: It appropriately satisfies the need for both punishment and deterrence in light of the nature and seriousness of the offense. She claimed to hate America, she was the quintessential example of an insider threat.

AARON MATE: So, here you go, Kevin. There’s Bobby Christine, he is the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Georgia. He’s saying that Reality Winner claimed to hate America. Do I have it right that he’s basing that on some messages that she wrote that were intended to be sarcastic?

KEVIN GOSZTOLA: This is an important part of the case that hasn’t received enough attention, but you could say that for the entire case, at least the way in which the Espionage Act prosecution was pursued. So, the prosecutors, ever since they tried to get her bond revoked and insisted that she needed to be detained, they made several fabrications and this was one of them, which was that she hated America. And they took a joke, something that she said to a family member, and they have been sharing it out of context ever since and there is no evidence whatsoever that this is actually her view.

And also, people can hold this view. I think that on this broadcast I would like to just state clearly that if you hate America, that probably does not make you someone who should be incarcerated in our justice system before you go to trial. And that doesn’t- I mean, she committed a nonviolent offense and nobody who commits nonviolent offenses typically gets put in jail. That’s not a basis for- so, what they’re doing is they’re saying that because she doesn’t like America, then she’s probably going to flee the United States and go somewhere else, and that’s something that they have to be concerned about. And that’s just ludicrous because obviously, that doesn’t necessarily mean she’s going to go anywhere. And also, they’re not using available tools that they have to force defendants to appear at their trial.

And you can put ankle bracelets on a person, you can put them under house arrest. Her family was willing to put up their house as, this house. that Reality Winner had, as collateral to have money there to make sure that she was there through all of these proceedings. And the judge wouldn’t accept that as a way of keeping her out of prison. And so, they made up this stuff. They made up fabrications about how she was claiming to take thirty thousand dollars out of her account so that then she could get a free attorney from the government to represent her. But that was never said. And they just lied about a lot of conversations so that they can create this very villainous character and keep her in prison.

AARON MATE: Kevin, can you talk a bit about the double standard here? So, you have Reality Winner. She’s put in jail, in prison, for over five years for leaking, as an NSA contractor, this document. And again, in part two we’ll talk more about what the document contained. But compare that to, say, the example of David Petraeus, the former four star general. He leaked some incredibly sensitive information to the woman with whom he was having an affair, who was also writing a book, a biography on him, and gave her access to his classified material. He got a slap on the wrist.

KEVIN GOSZTOLA: Yeah, that’s an important case. The biographer, Paula Broadwell wrote this very hagiographiacal book about him, celebrating him. The plea actually lays out, I believe, the nature of what he was accused of doing. On top of lying to the FBI about what he did, this material is some of the most sensitive information you could imagine. This is private conversations with President Barack Obama, things like- they call them “black books.” There’s all kinds of sensitive secrets about military operations that were apparently shared with this biographer, this person who he was having an affair with.

And yet, he did not do a single, he was not in prison for a single day. And he paid a fine, but the fine is is very small compared with the fact that David Petraeus has the ability to do any sort of speaking engagement and make a ton of money back that can help him deal with having to make that kind of a payment. Another individual is Leon Panetta. Leon Panetta is someone who stood before a private event and there was someone there, Mark Boal was there, he was making Zero Dark Thirty. And he talks about SEAL Team 6 and the operation to kill and assassinate Osama bin Laden, and in that, reveals very sensitive identification information about the people who were involved in that mission. If you go by the government’s arguments, you’re putting people at risk, and he violated the law.

And what happened is, the government there, even in the inspector general’s offices- I’ve looked into and covered this story- took steps to protect Leon Panetta from any sort of finding coming out that would open him up to prosecution. And so, this double-standard is quite clear. If you are a lower-level employee, you are somebody who falls into the realm of John Kiriakou, Jeffrey Sterling, Thomas Drake, who was an NSA whistleblower, if you’re someone like Chelsea Manning in the U.S. military or if you’re Reality Winner, an NSA contractor, then the hammer comes down on you very, very hard.

AARON MATE: And just to clarify for anyone who is not familiar with him, Leon Panetta is the former director of the CIA. So, Kevin, we’ll pause here, come back in part two. We’ll talk about what actually Reality Winner leaked in terms of this NSA document about alleged Russian hacking and how The Intercept, the outlet that published this document and based a report around it, how it handled that information and played a role in, possibly, in her being in prison and how they’re handling it now.

My guest is Kevin Gosztola, managing editor of Shatterproof.com. I’m Aaron Mate for The Real News.