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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.

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Reality Winner exits the Augusta Courthouse June 8, 2017 in Augusta, Georgia. Winner is an intelligence industry contractor accused of leaking National Security Agency (NSA) documents.
Sean Rayford/Getty

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.”

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  • Cary Strickland

    She did the Russians a really big favor. Now they know what we know (and how we know it) about their attempts to interfere in the election. The Russians will close these sources and it will be harder the next time to detect their actions and there will be further attempts just like they have been doing this for decades.

    • Jed

      now we also know what we know. that ain’t nuthin.

    • congressive

      Frikkin stupid logic. She served this great nation as an Airforce senior airman with Commendations, and she is serving this great nation again by outing the criminals currently in charge. The only way this “helps” Russia is if Trump was actively seeking to prosecute the election hacking that got him elected. HE WAS DENYING IT, AND HIDING IT.

      Grow a pair – like her. Democracy is worth fighting for, according to conservative superhero Reagan. She is doing just that.

      • Cary Strickland

        Well, I spent 28 years in Air Force Intelligence (retired Air Force Major) myself and maybe know a little more than you do about the damage she caused and how this helps Russia.

        • Jed

          maybe. no evidence of that here, though.

          • Cary Strickland
          • Jed

            Did you seriously just post a link to a facebook page as “evidence” of something?

            Specifically, evidence that you know more than the rest of us about … anything?

          • Cary Strickland

            Well, I’m 75 years old and not an expert on how social media works. I thought, maybe, apparently incorrectly, that your cryptic comments were questioning my credentials as former Air Force Intelligence Officer and thought I could direct you to my facebook page where I could prove my bonafides – it didn’t work. Sorry. See my entry above. Also, I do know, based on my experience that she divulged highly sensitive classified information. You are welcome to inquire about “specific evidence” just ask a specific question and will try and get back to you.

          • Jed

            i wasn’t questioning your bona fides.

            i just don’t think either (any) of us have enough info to make blanket proclamations such as yours.

            (i do find a little ironic that now we should be concerned about what our great (the greatest) new friend russia might do with our secrets *in this instance* and not in the many such instances allegedly happening in the white house.)

        • congressive

          Fascinating. Is Trump planning to step down when he finishes this super-secret classified investigation into Russian vote machine hacking if it proves he did not actually win?

          Winner is pleading innocent, and it’s horrifying that a military person such as yourself has pronounced her guilty. That’s how innocents are massacred on the battlefield.

          But if she did leak it, she is the Ellsberg of our time. Do you think our democracy should remain ignorant of a fraudulent presidency for the sake of protecting…what, exactly? I am genuinely curious what you think would be served by keeping nationwide voter hacking a secret for even more decades. I am also genuinely curious if you think Daniel Ellsberg is a traitor or a patriot. And curious if you think My Lai was a necessary military operation.

          Thoughts?

          • Cary Strickland

            I think you are a little confused. President Trump is not doing a “super-secret classified investigation into Russian vote machine hacking”. He has established a commission under vice president Spence to investigate vulnerabilities in the voting system, as well as potential impacts on improper voting, fraudulent voter registrations, and fraudulent
            voting. Anybody paying attention knows we have these problems, we just don’t know the extent of the problem. Ask anybody that has or had the same level of clearance as Winner what would happen to them if they released that level of classified information and they will tell you, they would expect to go to prison for a very long time. And they are totally shocked that Hillary Clinton didn’t go to prison for the same crime – that was proof that the law does not apply equally to all citizens. Nobody in a position to know believes there was nationwide voter hacking by the Russians or anybody else. President Obama assured us there was no voter hacking/changing votes during the election and it would have been on his administration to prevent that happening. I remember Daniel Ellsberg, he is pretty much in the same class as other people like Winner and Snowden. Where these people went wrong was to pass classified information to news media and see it divulged to our enemies. Responsible whistle blowers, who are concerned should identify members of congress who would be sympathetic to their cause and provide them the classified information instead of making it public and causing grave damage to our country. As far as My Lai is concerned it may or may not have been a necessary military operation, but the way it was carried out was a war crime, plain and simple. The perpetrators of My Lai were court marshaled and convicted – as they should have been.

          • congressive

            Wow. Invoking Hillary and not invoking Trump’s unsecured classified communications while having dinner at Mar A Lago with reporters taking selfies with the nuclear football, or accidentally outing classified Israel ops to Russians in the White House. Dear God, the level of willful ignorance in an otherwise intelligent human staggers.

            Obama DID NOT assure us there was no hacking, and I think you know better. Obama’s CIA director Brennan took it to Congress and McConnell punted. It’s easily found on the internet if you just turn off Fox News for a minute. http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/mcconnell-rejects-push-select-committee-probe-russian-hacking/

          • Cary Strickland

            What unsecured classified communications were revealed while having dinner at Mar A Lago? – seems like they would have appeared in the news media if they were compromised and I haven’t seen or heard of any classified being revealed. An erroneous, anonymous source that said classified Israel intelligence was passed to the Russians at that meeting has been denied on the record by senior officials that were present at the meeting. Depends on what “hacking” you are talking about. Of course the DNC emails and Podestas’s emails were “hacked” by somebody, possibly the Russians but the Russian hacking has not been proven. The hacking I was talking about was hacking US voting machines to change the vote which the Obama administration concluded did not happen. Gratuitous comments by you like “Dear God, the level of willful ignorance in an otherwise intelligent human staggers” does not support your argument and indicates it’s pretty weak. By the way the “nuclear football” you mention is a closed box containing nuclear launch codes and taking pictures of it is no big deal. As a matter fact when I was in Strategic Air Command many years ago, as a lieutenant I had an additional duty as a positive control custodian which meant that me and another PC custodian could courier a box with the same launch codes that are in the “nuclear football” and load them on a nuclear armed aircraft and we were not concerned if anybody took our picture with the box.

  • José

    It’s unclear whether this is new information to the Russians. Surely they suspect that the USIC knows more than it has admitted. It’s clear, however, that the American public has been kept in the dark about the extent of the Russian hacking. Until the Trump Administration and its Congressional collaborationists show a sense of urgency then we must rely on whistleblowers to shed light on this alarming problem. Those of us who love America believe that she deserves protection. I don’t know what to think about the Trump Party apparatchik who are more concerned about leaks than they are about the attacks by foreign aggressors.

    • orbearider66

      You mean, as opposed to the last administration that sat on its hands, watched the rise of ISIS and the subsequent well documented atrocities they committed? Yeah. This is way worse than that.

      • José

        Apparently the one thing we can agree on is that right now both of us would rather be complaining about the HRC Presidency than wincing at the latest act of idiocy from 45. I can understand your reluctance to stand up for this President.

        The inauguration was five months ago. It was a grievous mistake by the voting public but it’s official. I’ve moved on and am dealing with the world as it is today. That means demanding action from those now in charge, not making whiny excuses based on bogus arguments about events in the past. You might consider doing likewise. No one ever solved a difficult problem merely by sitting around and blaming others.

        • orbearider66

          Nope. Sorry, I would not be happy with a HRC presidency. I’m not sure we’ve seen a political family as corrupt (IMO) as the Clinton’s in 50 years. But, at the same time, I’m no fan of Trump. This whole election reminded me of the old Richard Pryor movie “Brewster’s Millions” where, in an effort to spend millions of dollars but retain no assets, he runs a political campaign for “None of the Above”. It’s too bad we couldn’t have a do over with better candidates on both sides.

          • José

            You misunderstand. There are lots of people who would be unhappy with Ms. Clinton in the White House. However they would be falling over themselves because they would be in tall cotton right now. The only thing they know is how to gripe about Democrats. Shoot, Fox News built their whole business model on that. They made big bucks on Lewinski in the 1990s and on Benghazi the last few years. Now they are saddled with a clown President that they aren’t allowed to criticize. No wonder that their business is down this year.

            We could argue about the nutty idea that former President Obama should be credited with creating ISIS, but that doesn’t do a danged thing about the problems facing this country today. Russians hacked into our communications and data processing systems so that they could interfere with our election process. The President—the one we have RIGHT NOW—didn’t respond by ordering an emergency task force to shore up our defenses. No, his reaction was to protect a close aide, someone who already had been fingered as a suspicious character. The Attorney General wasn’t curious enough to ask for any details. Congressional Republicans don’t want to investigate the cyber invasion but they do want to prosecute anyone who tells the American public what government officials on both sides already know. And instead of agreeing to address an immediate threat to our nation you want to waste time yakking about wild stories about Obama. No, bro.

  • Bill Henrickson

    Bye reality.

    • Jed

      i bet you first said that a long time ago.

      • Bill Henrickson

        Oh, snap.

  • Darwin Standfast

    How did she learn those languages? Why her? What makes a person able to learn those languages so quickly?

    • congressive

      She is brilliant. She served with Commendations in the Air Force. She is a true patriot. What have YOU done for you country lately, Skippy?

      • Darwin Standfast

        She seems extremely talented. Those are very strange and hard languages. It will be a sad waste to see her spending all that time in Federal Prison.

      • Caroline Van Winkle

        Orrry, but if you serve in the military you get commendation medal for doing a good job. I was a civilian working in Germany as military essential which means that if Russians had come over Fulda gap, and I was captured I would have been shot. As a spy as Geneva convention does not apply to civilians. All this idiot did was sit at a desk safely in the United States. I had Top secret with. Special access clearance ..if I did what this traitor did I would still be in jail.

    • anonyfool

      The armed forces has a school in Monterey if the recruits do not already possess the language skills needed. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Defense_Language_Institute Those particular languages suggest she was working on translating communications intercepted either between people in Iran/Afghanistan/Pakistan or within those countries, i.e. Al Qaeda/Taliban support network.

    • Caroline Van Winkle

      Sashes may have been exposed to another language at an. Early age which allows other languages to be learned more readily. Also, she may be an intuitive feeler which for some reason, are able to learn languages easily…see jungs architypes

    • Dereck Cram

      When the US military says you’re fluent in a language it means you are trained to know key phrases. I doubt that she’s really fluent, just far better at it than non-trained airmen. You have to pass a language test that shows your aptitude for learning, however. She might have signed up to study that, or they may have just chosen her based on test scores. When you choose a specialty, you are tested repeatedly until you pass. Two years of school I believe it still is.