NSA whistleblower Reality Winner completed her prison sentence and spoke on November 26 at the first public event since her arrest.
“I have been home, but I haven’t really been home. It’s been a constant sort of pressure on my family,” Reality shared.
Since June 9, Reality lived under home confinement with an ankle monitor that buzzed constantly. She faced baseless accusations of escape because her monitor would set off false alerts. It only added to the trauma that she endured since her arrest and prosecution in June 2017.
Reality pled guilty to one count of violating the Espionage Act when she disclosed an NSA report to The Intercept. She believed the report contained evidence of Russian hackers targeting United States voter registration systems during the 2016 election.
On August 23, 2018, Reality was sentenced to five years and three months in federal prison.
At a whistleblower conference hosted by the Disruption Network Lab in Germany, Winner and her mother Billie Winner-Davis appeared after director Sonia Kennebeck’s film, “The United States vs. Reality Winner,” was screened. (Kennebeck and CIA whistleblower John Kiriakou were present at the conference while Reality and Billie appeared virtually.)
Reality described the emotional toll of constant calls from the U.S. Bureau of Prisons (BOP), including when her ankle monitor would trigger an alarm for no apparent reason.
“I ventured too far into my living room one day, and they told me I was escape status,” Reality recalled. “[It was] just absolutely nerve wracking the way they could levy these threats but then never document it.”
“We had no accountability or no ways to address how we could prevent the constant trauma from reoccurring. Because then I would speak to the director of the halfway house or my case manager, and they’d say well they never heard about it.”
The anxiety was responsible for “two panic attacks” and made Reality “physically ill from the stress” because they told her she could be “charged with escape.”
“We’ve had back-to-back-to-back drug tests every other week for five months, but I haven’t had any approval to drive,” Reality recalled. “So that means mom or dad has to take me to go get my drug test.”
The round trip is around 100 miles and a “huge inconvenience.” Reality suggested it would be more effective for the federal government to come to her house. “Come get a urine sample at my house. It should be on them, but instead it fell to me.”
“I went grocery shopping twice in five months because every time I got approval they would suddenly pull approval,” Reality said. She contended the COVID-19 pandemic became an excuse to inexplicably deny her permission to leave the house.
“For some reason, if we were on home confinement and they felt like COVID was getting bad, we were no longer allowed to go to restaurants or go grocery shopping. So actually I only went out to eat I believe two or three times in five months.”
“It just so happened COVID would tend to get bad whenever we had family down for the weekend. And so they would belatedly tell me that’s why my social passes were disapproved the day of [my plans],” Reality told the conference. “It was just a lot of coincidences like that."
Reality’s ankle monitor was cut off on November 23. However, when she met with her probation officer, she quickly realized she would not be free for three years.
The probation officer told Reality that she faces a curfew imposed by the Southern District of Georgia, which sentenced her to prison. It lasts from 10 pm to 6 am and will be in force for 365 days a year until her probation ends in 2024.
“That means no overnight trips no matter what. No late night movies. Nothing,” according to Reality. “It also means I have to have special permission to leave [for] work earlier than 6 am. I cannot leave the Southern District of Texas. But even if I could, I would have to keep it within a five hour drive so I can make it back in time for that 10 pm curfew.”
Reality contended, “Without saying so directly, they have effectively disabled me from any type of meaningful travel. That was a really crushing blow.”
“I have a godson in Wisconsin that I would like to go see. My sister lives in North Carolina, and I just thought maybe for the first time in four years I could bear some of the burden for my family and go see them.”
But being confined to the area for the next three years makes it hard for Reality to see how this is a step forward to reentering society after prison.
Upon legal advice, Reality said she has closely followed two particular clauses in her plea agreement to guide her on whether she can speak to the media and what she is allowed to say about the prosecution against her. She would like to finally speak on her own behalf without risking further punishment, but on November 23, her probation officer interpreted the plea agreement in a manner that would prohibit interviews.
“Even though the word interview is not stated one time in my court restrictions for probation, he just kept saying, well, as long as you don’t do interviews it will be fine,” Reality recounted. “So I don’t know what to do moving forward. I don’t know what the ramifications of even a discussion like this will be.”
Kiriakou, who endured probation after his prison sentence, called any imposed prohibition against media interviews “unusually harsh.” He did not face such a restriction.
“It sounds to me like they’re picking on you because they think they can get away with it, and that’s just wrong,” Kiriakou added.
Later, Reality came back to the issue of whether she can exercise her First Amendment rights while completing her probation. She said her plea agreement does not list what repercussions she would face for violating them.
While legal scholars told her the plea agreement does not prohibit interviews with the press, her probation officer now interprets it differently.
“Does that mean I can’t do an interview about CrossFit?” Reality wondered. “I’m a CrossFit coach. Why can’t I talk about CrossFit? Why can’t I be a public spokesperson for rescue horses? He doesn’t seem to understand that.”
Ultimately, it comes down to control and whether her probation officer can get away with imposing burdensome restrictions. If the officer can remand Reality into custody at any time, she has to act accordingly.
“Because we can’t seem to get my own country to pay attention to what’s happening to me, who knows how long it will be before I can get released?”
Reality questions whether there will be any public support or backlash if she is sent back to prison.
“Nobody’s coming to help me out. There’s not going to be any justice. It will just be me being silenced all over again and being alone and being in conditions where I can’t manage my mental illness anymore,” Reality asserted. “That’s what I face every day because they change the rules every day.”