What We Know About Reality Leigh Winner, the Texan Charged Under the Espionage Act
The NSA contractor accused of leaking a classified report on Russian election hacking has South Texas roots.
The first prosecution of a suspected leaker so far in Donald Trump’s presidency is also a Texan. Reality Leigh Winner was denied bail by a federal judge on Thursday after pleading not guilty to charges under the Espionage Act, according to the Washington Post. The U.S. Justice Department says Winner, who worked as a contractor for the National Security Agency, gave classified documents detailing Russian hacking efforts leading up to the 2016 election to online news outfit the Intercept. But before she faced up to ten years in prison, Winner was a kid growing up in Kingsville, near Corpus Christi. This is what we know about her time in Texas.
Winner’s parents divorced when she was seven, according to the Guardian. Her mother, Billie Winner-Davis, works as a program administrator for Child Protective Services, according to the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, and serves on the board of directors for the Children’s Advocacy Center of the Coastal Bend. Winner-Davis did not respond to our requests for an interview.
Winner, 25, attended H.M. King High School, where by all accounts she was an exceptional student and a good athlete, receiving honorable mention All-District 31 4-A in girl’s tennis doubles in 2009, according to the Kingsville Record. She apparently made a good impression on teachers and classmates. “A teacher there at the high school knew of her and one day we were in the hall and I remember her saying, ‘Oh, that girl right there, she’s very smart,'” Laci Bernal, who was a freshman at H.M. King when Winner was a senior, told the San Antonio Express-News, adding that she thought her teacher “was just trying to point me in the right direction and make sure that I followed a good crowd.” According to the New York Times, Winner’s mother testified at Thursday’s bond hearing that when Reality was a kid, the most serious mark on her school record was organizing “the biggest, bestest food fight that the school had ever imagined.”
After graduating in 2010, Winner passed on a full scholarship to study engineering and instead signed up for the Air Force. According to the Record, she completed basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio in March 2011. Her most recent Air Force assignment was with the Ninety-fourth Intelligence Squadron at Fort Meade in Maryland, where she served as a cryptologic language analyst, listening in on intercepted foreign chatter to aid U.S. forces with intelligence. Winner speaks Pashto, Farsi, and Dari. She climbed to the rank of senior airman and won the Air Force Commendation Medal, awarded to airmen for meritorious achievement and service, according to the Air Force Times.
She was not deployed during her service, and received an honorable discharge in December 2016 before moving to Augusta, Georgia to work for Pluribus International Corp., a subcontractor for the NSA, where she had top secret security clearance and access to classified documents.
According to the Justice Department, Winner allegedly admitted to the FBI that she printed out a classified NSA report on Russian election hacking on May 9 and mailed it to reporters at the Intercept, which reports mostly on international security issues. She was arrested on Monday, the same day the Intercept published a classified NSA report that shows the Russians “executed a cyberattack on at least one U.S. voting software supplier and sent spear-phishing emails to more than 100 local election officials just days before last November’s presidential election.” The Intercept characterized the report as “the most detailed U.S. government account of Russian interference in the election that has yet come to light.” The online news outlet wrote that the report “was provided anonymously.”
Although the affidavit of Winner’s arrest seems to indicate that both Winner and the Intercept reporters made careless mistakes that led federal authorities to identify Winner as the alleged leaker, the Intercept said in a statement last week that it has “no knowledge” of the identity of the person who provided them the classified report, and cautioned against taking the DOJ’s account at face-value. “It is important to keep in mind that these documents [the affidavit] contain unproven assertions and speculation designed to serve the government’s agenda and as such warrant skepticism,” the statement says. “Winner faces allegations that have not been proven. The same is true of the FBI’s claims about how it came to arrest Winner.”
Since her arrest, Winner has been cast as both a patriot and a traitor. Supporters claim that Winner helped bring to light government-withheld information that is of vital public interest, and opponents accuse her of putting the nation at risk by exposing sensitive secrets. In a DOJ press release following Winner’s arrest, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said “exceptional law enforcement efforts allowed us quickly to identify and arrest the defendant.” Rosenstein added, “releasing classified material without authorization threatens our nation’s security and undermines public faith in government. People who are trusted with classified information and pledge to protect it must be held accountable when they violate that obligation.”
Winner’s supporters include Edward Snowden, Julian Assange of WikiLeaks, and Rosie O’Donnell, who reportedly donated $1,000 to a GoFundMe page set up to help cover the costs of Winner’s legal defense. “[Reality] would not jeopardize anybody’s safety,” Winner-Davis told NBC News. “She would not. I can tell you that for certainty. She loves children. She loves animals… She’s not a threat to anyone. She’s not a violent person. I can’t ever call her a traitor or even believe that. No, that is not Reality. That’s not her.”