Billie J. Winner-Davis is the mother of Reality Winner, the U.S. national security contractor who was sentenced to 63 months in prison for sharing one classified government document with The Intercept. She recently spoke to Annenberg PhD candidate and Center Steering Committee Member Muira McCammon about her experiences advocating for her daughter. This reflection traces Billie Winner-Davis’ journey and efforts to make sense of the institutional logics underlying the U.S. national security state.
Back when your daughter was a contractor working at Fort Gordon in Augusta, Georgia, she mailed a report about Russian attempts to interfere with U.S. elections to The Intercept. That media outlet subsequently shared information about that report and the source (your daughter) in a manner that helped federal investigators pinpoint Reality’s identity. Given this chain of events, I’m wondering how your own attitudes towards journalism and more specifically journalistic ethics have evolved since you learned about the failure of Intercept reporters to keep your daughter’s identity confidential.
Prior to my daughter’s arrest, I had no knowledge of The Intercept and was not at all familiar with whistleblowers or issues surrounding how journalism works. While I know that mistakes were made that led the Federal Bureau of Investigation straight to Reality and aided in her arrest and prosecution, I also know that she did nothing to cover her tracks or take actions to protect herself. I’ve since learned that as a contractor, she didn’t have the whistleblower avenues available to her. Other than take matters into her own hands as she did, there would have been no other way for her to bring the information to the light of day.
I was shocked and somewhat angered when I learned that the two journalists involved in revealing her identify were involved with John Kiriakou, another whistleblower who was imprisoned for releasing information to journalists.
Placing blame on The Intercept or the journalists involved is not something I do, as it won’t change anything. The Department of Justice under the Trump administration was responsible for the persecution of my daughter Reality, for the denial of bail, for her harsh treatment and her record- breaking sentence. I have a lot of anger toward the Department of Justice. When I learned that they actually handed out awards for the personnel involved in her case and sentencing, I lost all faith in our criminal justice system.
Throughout this ordeal, First Look Media and The Intercept have been supportive of Reality and our family. First Look arranged for a defense team for her and paid all legal bills. They were there for some of her court hearings and expressed true support to Reality and myself. The Intercept staff have continued to be available to me whenever I reach out and have done numerous articles about my daughter’s nightmare. I am really very grateful for everyone at First Look and The Intercept for their supportive actions.
How do you describe your daughter and her life over these past few years to people who have never heard of her before?
My daughter Reality Leigh Winner, 29, is an extremely intelligent, focused, passionate and selfless person. She is a humanitarian and crusader for climate change. She thirsts for knowledge about so many different topics, such as language, nutrition, religion, climate, social justice, etc. She is athletic and practices yoga, cross-fit and spinning. Reality is also a very talented artist. She sketches, paints and creates meaningful art to reflect her passion and thoughtfulness for others.
Reality joined the U.S. Air Force upon her graduation from high school and served a 6-year term. She became a trained linguist and intelligence specialist. She speaks Dari, Farsi and Pashto. Prior to her honorable discharge in December 2016, Reality was awarded a commendation medal for her excellent service. After her discharge from the military, Reality was hired on as a private contract worker at the National Security Agency at Fort Gordon in Augusta, Georgia.
On June 3, 2017 Reality was interrogated at her home in Augusta, Georgia, and confessed to releasing a classified document to a news outlet. She was subsequently arrested and charged with a crime under the Espionage Act of 1917. She was denied bail and held in a county jail for over a year, before pleading guilty and being sentenced to over 5 years in prison. Reality has been imprisoned for the past 3 years, 10 months. Her release date is 11/23/21, but she may be eligible for a halfway house release prior to that date.
When Reality sneaked the document with proof of Russian interference in the 2016 election, out of the National Security Agency, she didn’t think about consequences, she only felt strongly that the public had the right to this information. Throughout her incarceration, Reality has at times expressed disbelief in the government’s treatment of her. Reality has struggled at times during her incarceration. She has been assaulted, injured, denied medical care, denied adequate food and treated poorly. She has been exposed to people who are coming off of drugs, those with severe mental health conditions and an environment she was not prepared for. She has witnessed so much injustice and has been the recipient of cruelty while jailed, and this has changed her views drastically.
Reality remains strong. She has never wavered from her vegan and kosher diet, has strengthened her devotion to her chosen religion of Messianic Judaism and continues to exercise daily to battle her anxiety and bulimia. She has developed strong friendships with many other inmates and continues to do whatever she can from within to help others.
Prior to Covid-19 Realty was working in the prison as a nutrition and exercise instructor, was taking college courses toward a sociology degree, was painting and drawing and practicing guitar. Due to “modified operations” within the prisons, all programs and courses were suspended. Reality was denied a compassionate release by the Federal Bureau of Prisons and the courts and was infected with Covid-19 in July 2020.
What have been some of the most challenging aspects of conveying your daughter’s story to journalists?
The lack of media coverage and consistent media coverage in Reality’s case has been frustrating. Keeping her name and case out there was difficult due to several factors. First, the prosecution (the Department of Justice) painted her as a “terrorist” and “Taliban sympathizer.” Totally untrue, so there was little sympathy or interest in covering her. Second, the court’s gag order on all parties (with the exception of the Department of Justice’s press releases) made her story a dead end – no one could speak to her or her attorneys, so there was no information to report. Third, the chaos of the news cycle during the Trump administration made it difficult to keep attention on any story, as there was a constant rush of breaking and crazy news daily.
What types of blindspots have you seen in U.S. and international media coverage of your daughter? Do you keep track of what’s being written about Reality?
I do keep track of news articles and mentions for my daughter Reality. Social media has made this fairly easy to do. Our website, StandWithReality.org, tries to post links of relevant articles and stories. Media attention and reports on Russian election interference and the absence of my daughter’s name and involvement has been very frustrating for me. Whenever a news story with new information or a newly released investigative report on Russian election interference drops, I look to see if there is any mention of my daughter and am disappointed 100% of the time for the lack of mention.
Reality’s case has caused some people to look differently at norms involving information security, journalistic practice and national security reporting. It has sparked conversations about the rights of whistleblowers in the United States. I’m wondering how your day-to-day life has changed since Reality’s case has gained national attention.
Prior to my daughter’s arrest and charge under the Espionage Act, I had no experience in whistleblower or national security reporting at all. I was very naïve and isolated within my own bubble, and my world revolved around my family and my career with Child Protective Services. Even though I had heard of Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, prior to being immersed in this new “reality,” I had no idea who they were or what their cases were truly about and believed what mainstream media reported on them. I didn’t seek out information or question the government’s narrative and I trusted that for the most part, our systems were fair and just, and that there was oversight by our higher government.
When Reality was arrested and made national news, people from whistleblower networks and other organizations reached out immediately. We were given a lot of advice and assistance with setting up social media platforms, and I was repeatedly told that we were now a part of a larger family and network. I have always had people to go to for help, advice and support. It’s been an eye opener for me and a true learning experience.
I witnessed how the government attacked my daughter’s life, her service and her character and how the court allowed them to do so, even in public. I experienced how powerless the average citizen is in our country – voiceless and vulnerable. I saw just how corrupt our entire system is and how our elected officials hide information and lie to us. I learned about a classification system that has little to do with security, but a lot to do with hiding secrets. I have come to understand that we really are powerless and voiceless in America, even our votes are jeopardized. And, it really doesn’t matter who is in the position of power; it’s the same, just different faces.
As far as my day-to-day life, everything is changed. I took an early retirement, moved to Georgia for about 9 months to be close to Reality and to help her and became immersed in daily advocacy activity for her. Because no one else was telling her story or keeping her name out there, I took this task on myself. Several very dedicated supporters joined me. Our small but mighty group has consistently kept Reality out there on Twitter and Facebook and from time to time our efforts have paid off and we have been noticed and covered by media and journalists. I have given countless interviews to journalists, done numerous podcast interviews and have appeared on national television to advocate for Reality. I have written to the U.S. President, have reached out to my representatives and have participated in a documentary film recently released at the SXSW Film Festival.
In a 2018 piece that ran in The Intercept, journalist Trevor Timm described the lack of media coverage your daughter’s case received at the national level. He wrote, “Some local media in Georgia — not least the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the leading large paper near the site of the trial — have been regularly coveringthe case. But, aside from a profile in New York Magazine, there has been virtually no substantial national coverage of Winner’s case. At most, Winner might garner mentions in occasional brief write-ups when the judge rules against her defense team, which has happened with virtually every major motion Winner’s lawyers have put forward.” In the years since Timm’s piece ran, many other reporters appear to have made a deliberate choice to not cover your daughter’s imprisonment. Lawyer Jesselyn Radack also tweeted recently about the lack of media coverage. Given this gap in coverage, I’m wondering how you would like the next generation of U.S. reporters—local and national—to cover Reality and people like her, who are accused of violating the Espionage Act.
The lack of coverage of my daughter’s case, especially of the government’s treatment of her, has been the most frustrating thing. The lack of coverage has allowed the government to do whatever they want to my daughter. The Washington Post’s motto is “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” and this is true. The government was able to persecute my daughter because no one was shining the light on her case and treatment.
There were other whistleblowers during Trump’s administration that received accolades. This was also a source of pain for me, as I couldn’t understand why she was treated differently by media. I want media to report on abuses of power. My daughter’s case was definitely an abuse of power by the Department of Justice, and I believe it was being directed out of Washington, D.C. My daughter did not deserve the sentence she received, nor should she have been denied bail. Regarding other whistleblowers, I would like to see media report on them and their treatment. Presently Daniel Hale, a drone whistleblower, has pleaded guilty and is awaiting sentencing. Watching this unfold, without any media attention, causes me alarm. I hate to think that he will also be thrown away into prison for reporting abuses of our system.
Do you remember when you first learned about the Espionage Act? How have you had to reckon with it over the past few years?
I had never learned of the Espionage Act until my daughter’s arrest and charge. It sounds so scary. Then when you look up the definition, it is so wrong to charge her with violating this. It hurts that she was charged with this. I know she broke her oath, violated the law, but she did not commit espionage. She didn’t conspire against her country. She didn’t do harm to our national security. She didn’t betray her country.
What questions and matters related to Reality’s case would you like to be further explored and examined by journalists and academic researchers in the coming years?
The use of the Espionage Act against American whistleblowers like my daughter is something I really want people to research and work to change. There are a few congressmen/women who have proposed changes, and I would love it if academic groups could get behind this and push for reform so that no other American whistleblowers are persecuted in this manner.
Can you talk a little bit about to what extent Reality has been able to speak with journalists during her time in federal prison?
My daughter is not allowed to give interviews with journalists. Pre-trial, when she was in the county jail in Georgia, she did correspond in a very limited way with journalists, but due to the gag order imposed by the court, she could not do interviews or give statements. She is under a lifelong gag order, as per her plea deal, that restricts her from ever talking about her case. While in prison, the prison forbids any journalists from contact with her.
What have been your experiences advocating for Reality on Twitter and elsewhere online?
Twitter has been a valuable tool to increase awareness and support for Reality. Before this experience, I had just started a Twitter account and had less than a handful of followers. I have built a pretty significant following to include large accounts and celebrities, which has helped promote Reality’s cause. This has helped to increase awareness and support in other areas as well, such as petitions, letter writing campaigns, etc.
Facebook has also been helpful, and very supportive. Through the Facebook groups, loyal supporters of Reality have written to her consistently throughout the years that she has been in prison, which has helped to ensure that she feels support and love. One Facebook supporter started an art site, and asked others to submit her works (drawings sent to them from jail) to him so he could post. That is available at realitywinnerart.com. Facebook also connected me to other groups who were willing to help with in-person events, such as the rally at the White House on June 3, 2018.
How would you like to see national security reporting change moving forward?
I would like to see a push for more transparency from our government. If we are truly a government for the people by the people, there shouldn’t be such a classification system meant to hide things from us, the people.
What would justice for Reality look like?
Justice for Reality looks like (1) clemency and commutation of sentence – an immediate release. Although she has very little time left on her sentence, for me, it’s the principle. If she is made to serve the sentence in its entirety without any clemency, it’s again the government telling her she is a criminal. She needs, at some point, an acknowledgement that she did not harm, that she did act in the best interest of our country, our democracy. It also would mean (2) a full pardon. The mere fact that Reality Winner lost her right to vote with a felony conviction when she was protecting our vote to me is insane, and it’s the principle of it, again. She deserves some recognition for her act to protect us, to warn us, to do the right thing.
Billie J. Winner-Davis is the mother to two brilliant, beautiful girls. She previously was a social worker with Child Protective Services in South Texas. On June 3, 2017, her youngest daughter Reality Leigh Winner was arrested and charged under the Espionage Act, and subsequently, her life changed radically. She became a mother with a mission: to advocate for my daughter Reality and ensure that the public heard our side and that she was not forgotten. She now works with a small number of supporters to run a non-profit organization, Stand with Reality.
Muira McCammon is a Steering Committee Member of the Center and PhD candidate (ABD) at the Annenberg School for Communication. Her research focuses on three key areas: (1) secrecy, transparency, and investigations of how people unearth, reckon with, and amplify contested knowledge about the U.S. national security state; (2) deletion as a way of exploring how socio-technical practices can alter political systems; (3) dead and dying digital platforms. Follow her on Twitter @muira_mccammon. This summer, Muira is researching government speech practices with danah boyd at Microsoft.