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rocksolid / Offtopic / The Story of Reality Winner, America's Most Unlikely Leaker

Subject: The Story of Reality Winner, America's Most Unlikely Leaker
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'The World's Biggest Terrorist Has a Pikachu Bedspread'

Not every leaker is an ideological combatant like Edward
Snowden and Chelsea Manning. Reality Winner may be the
unlikeliest of all.
By Kerry Howley
Illustration by Mike McQuade
December 22, 2017 7:24 am

Reality Winner grew up in a carefully kept manufactured home
on the edge of a cattle farm 100 miles north of the Mexican
border in a majority-Latino town where her mother, Billie,
still lives. From the back porch, a carpet of green meets
the horizon, and when a neighbor shoots a gun for target
practice, a half-dozen local dogs run under the trailer to
hide. Billie worked for Child Protective Services, and in
Ricardo, Texas, the steady income made her daughters feel
well-off; the fact that they had a dishwasher seemed
evidence of elevated social standing. Billie, a chatty
redhead with the high-pitched voice of a doll, supported the
family while her husband, Ronald, she says, "collected
degrees." It was Ronald who named Reality. The deal had been
that Billie got to name their first -- Brittany -- but their
second was his to choose. He noticed, on a T-shirt at their
Lamaze class, the words I COACHED A REAL WINNER. He wanted a
success story and felt that an aspirational name would
increase his chances of producing one. Billie did not
object; a deal is a deal.

Ronald was intellectually engaged, though never, during his
marriage, employed, and Reality's parents separated in 1999,
when she was 8. Two years later, when the Towers fell,
Ronald held long, intense conversations about geopolitics
with his daughters. He was careful to distinguish for them
the religion of Islam from the ideologies that fueled
terrorism. "I learned," says Reality, "that the fastest
route to conflict resolution is understanding." She credits
her father with her interest in Arabic, which she began
studying seriously, outside school and of her own accord, at
17. It was this interest in languages that eventually drew
her into a security state, unimaginable before 9/11, that
she chose to betray. Fifteen years after those first
conversations with her father, Reality's interest in Arabic
would be turned against her in a Georgia courtroom, taken as
evidence that she sympathized with the nation's most feared

Reality was an almost comically mature adolescent,
intellectually adept, impatient with her peers, with a
compulsive drive to improve herself she would eventually
channel into an obsession with nutrition and exercise. Her
body was strong and substantial and unadorned: thin blonde
hair tied up, no makeup, clothes that suggested a lack of
interest in the act of dressing. She was shy and shyly
mischievous. In the eighth grade, she organized a food fight
so intense that she was banned from walking during
graduation, though her mother points out that she was
careful not to schedule it during spaghetti day, when it
would have been especially messy.

Reality agreed to date her high-school boyfriend, Carlos, on
certain conditions intended to improve and to edify. Carlos,
who was failing out of school and broke, had to read a
particular number of books a week. He had to maintain at
least a C average. He had to get a job. He did not have
clothes suitable for employment, but Reality would work on
that; she had her mother take Carlos shopping for khakis and
a polo. "Reality takes in a lot of strays," says her mother
with a sigh, "and I don't mean just animals."

She was a talented, stylish painter, and her most frequent
subjects were herself, Nelson Mandela, and Jesus. She was an
inveterate smasher of phones. She threw one across the room
while talking to her father, who struggled with an addiction
to painkillers and who she sensed was stoned, and cracked
another one falling from a tree she'd climbed in a fit of
whimsy. A third phone met its fate when it simply wasn't
working. "How hard is it to be a phone?" she yelled, threw
it, smashed it.

Reality was raised six miles from a naval base, in a
household where humanitarian and military motives were not
taken to be in tension, at a moment, just after 9/11, when
the country had mostly unambivalent feelings about the moral
might of its armed forces. "What could be more
humanitarian," Billie asks, "than protecting your country
and innocent victims of war and terrorism?" As an
adolescent, Billie had dreamed of joining the Air Force
herself but ended up advocating for abused and neglected
children as a social worker. During Reality's senior year,
an Army recruiter came to her high school and zeroed in on
her as a smart, athletic potential recruit. He took her out
to lunch at a Kingsville Whataburger multiple times a week,
for several weeks, until she agreed to take an assessment

No one was surprised when Reality's sister, Brittany, went
on to college, absurd amounts of college, such that she
walked out of Michigan State with a Ph.D. in pharmacology
and toxicology last year. But Reality had then, and has now,
a skepticism of academic degrees, which she recently
described to me as "hundred-thousand-dollar pieces of paper
that say you've never had a job." ("It's interesting," her
mother notes, "because of her father?") She wanted her life
to start. She wanted to make the biggest difference she
could, as soon as she could. It wasn't until she was getting
on the bus for basic training that she told her mother she'd
applied to engineering school at Texas A&MKingsville,
received a full scholarship, and turned it down.

Based on her test scores, Reality was selected to be a
cryptolinguist, which is to say she was tapped to help the
military eavesdrop on people speaking languages other than
English. She wanted Arabic, but the ones assigned to her
were Dari and Farsi -- languages of use to a military
vacuuming up conversations from Afghanistan and Iran. She
would spend two years becoming fluent and another year in
intelligence training before she was sent to Maryland's Fort
Meade. Along the way, she'd be one of a few students
admitted to a selective program in Pashto, yet another
language in which she would become fluent.

In Maryland, her life, according to those closest to her,
involved an exceptionally punishing exercise regimen,
volunteer work, and 12-hour shifts listening to the private
conversations of men and women thousands of miles away.
There was also anxiety. Reality worried about global
warming. She worried about Syrian children. She worried
about famine and poverty all over the globe. Highly critical
of her carbon-spewing, famine-ignoring fellow citizens, she
nevertheless thought her humanitarian impulses were
compatible with the military's mission, and wished her
fellow Airmen were not just more competent in their jobs but
more motivated to do them well, to save the vulnerable from
acts of terror.

To those around her, Reality was a never-ending, frequently
exhausting source of information on the world, its problems,
and our collective obligation to pay attention. She gave her
sister a marked-up copy of the Koran, rife with Post-it
notes, and told her to read it. With an organization called
Athletes Serving Athletes, she pushed wheelchair-bound kids
through half-marathons. ("Athletes Serving Athletes," said
her ex-boyfriend Matt Boyle. "She'd never shut up about
that.") She donated money to the White Helmets, a group of
volunteers performing search-and-rescue missions deep in
rebel-held Syria. She told those around her to watch 13th, a
documentary about racial injustice in the prison system.

On Facebook, where she called herself Reezle Winner because
the site had rejected her legal name, she friended her yoga
instructor, Keith Golden. "I was like, Who the fuck is
Reezle?" said Golden. Thereafter he called her "Diesel
Reezle." He had, as everyone around Reality did, the sense
that she was an extremely competent linguist. "I'd say, 'I
bet you dominate that military shit, they fucking love you,
don't they?' And she'd say, 'Well, yeah, I'm good at my
job.' "

What remained abstract and distant to the news-consuming
public was neither abstract nor distant to Reality. "She was
really, really passionate about Afghanistan and stopping
ISIS," says Golden. "We would go to lunch, and that's pretty
much all she would talk about. She was despondent that ISIS
was the way that it was, that we can't do anything to help
the whole situation, that it's so fucked up."

The people closest to her did not know precisely what Airman
Reality L. Winner did during her 12-hour shifts at Fort
Meade. They only knew that there were certain days when she
knew something big was coming and went to bed early. Reality
told her mother that she might have PTSD. If she were to
explain the nature of her work stress to a therapist, she
would risk being charged with espionage. She exercised, and
she journaled. She kept thick diaries full of small text,
Post-it notes scrawled to the margins. She wrote down
instructions, inspirational quotes, arguments she was having
with herself. A couple of times a week, for hours at a time,
she would talk to her father, whose health was failing but
who was constantly watching the news. They discussed current
events of concern to her, like the war in Syria.

Reality would later tell the FBI that she worked in the
drone program; as a cryptolinguist, her job would likely
have been to translate communications so that drone
operators would know whom to target. "It was definitely
traumatizing," says Boyle. "You're watching people die. You
have U.S. troops on the ground getting shot at, you miss
something, a bomb goes off, and you get three people

As a matter of record, she helped kill hundreds of people. A
commendation she received in October 2016 praises her for
"assisting in geolocating 120 enemy combatants during 734
airborne sorties." She is commended for "removing more than
100 enemies from the battlefield." She aided in 650 "enemy
captures" and 600 "enemies killed in action."

In January 2015, ISIS militants locked a 26-year-old
Jordanian pilot in a cage, soaked him in gasoline, touched
torch to fuel, and filmed him as he slowly burned alive.
Reality was deeply upset and full of fury, as she often was,
for the Islamic State. "Getting out of work," she wrote in
an email to Golden, "I felt such a rush of emotion that I
had been suppressing throughout the shift. I could not
escape, or allow myself to put aside thoughts about the
Jordanian pilot ... I spent hours playing mental chess with
the world, who should strike first, hardest, what message
should be sent, revenge, etc. ... So on all fronts I just
felt really helpless and overwhelmed. Naturally my thoughts
had turned to yoga, because it is the means by which I can
really understand and acknowledge powerful emotions and put
them aside to gain more clarity and peace. But I didn't want
to just hide in asana and meditation because it made me feel
good. In the pain I felt, I did not want the 'moral' to be
compassion and forgiveness."

Golden hadn't even heard about the pilot. "I had to Google
it," he told me, "because I don't really follow the news."

Reality's favorite part of the job was "saving lives," but
this was not, in the end, the way she wanted to save them.
She wanted to do something humanitarian and directly so; she
had thought the Air Force could make that possible by
sending her abroad to places in need of her language skills
and drive to help. In her daydreams, Reality passed shoe
boxes full of toys to children in refugee camps in a
war-torn country on Christmas morning. She knew that this
was not realistic, that this was not what was needed, and
she treated this dream with a wry, self-deprecating
lightness. She gave what was actually needed: money to the
Red Cross, donations to the White Helmets. Then she went
back to work transcribing the tapped communications of
suspected militants 7,000 miles away.

Disappointed that the Air Force was not sending linguists
like her into the field, Reality began to look elsewhere for
fulfilling work. She was honorably discharged in November
2016, at which point she applied for jobs with NGOs in
Afghanistan, hoping to use her Pashto to actually talk to
people -- maybe refugees, maybe kids on Christmas morning.
That same month, she began to test the boundaries of her
oath to keep information secret. Reality says she wanted to
know how her colleagues had uploaded personal photos onto
their secure computers. She searched using the phrase "Do
top secret computers detect when flash drives are inserted"
and inserted a thumb drive. According to Reality, an admin
box popped up. She didn't have the password. She ejected the

Reality's search for work abroad was frustrating. Her
nonmilitary education stopped at high school, which is
perhaps why her applications went nowhere. "They want a
degree to hand out blankets," she told her mother. She was
one of an infinitesimal number of Americans fluent in
multiple Afghan languages, and yet she could not find a way
to get out of an American office park.

During her years in the Air Force, Reality had, for a time,
deployed to Fort Gordon, a base near Augusta, Georgia. After
she was discharged, she got in her boxy,
bumper-sticker-covered Nissan Cube (ADOPT! / MAKE AMERICA
belongings -- which included an AR-15, a Glock, and a
12-gauge shotgun -- and moved back. She taught at a CrossFit
place, a high-end boutique gym, and a yoga studio while she
tried to find a way to go abroad. Months passed. Around this
time, she downloaded a Tor, a browser that allows for
anonymous communication. Reality says she was curious about
WikiLeaks, about how it all worked. She opened it up at a
Starbucks, checked out the site, and was underwhelmed. She
closed it again.

Reality did not have a college degree, but she was one of
1.4 million Americans with Top Secret clearance, which is to
say that she had something to sell. Contractors are
sometimes called body shops, and the bodies they want are
security-cleared, readily found on sites like, which Reality frequented. Augusta
was full of contractors paying good money for cleared
linguists, and Reality accepted a job with Pluribus
International, a small operation owned by the son of a
former CIA operative.

By December 2016, when Reality returned to Georgia, it was
common for a certain class of educated and politically
sophisticated people to refer to the "deep state," a term
that conjures dark-suited men self-satisfied in their grim
capacity for discretion. This image fails to account for the
fact that those 1.4 million hold top security clearance;
that most of the intelligence budget now redounds to private
contractors employing tens of thousands of middle-class
Americans; that armies of security-cleared analysts are
required to sift through all the data the state collects. If
your definition of "deep state" cannot accommodate an
idealistic 25-year-old CrossFit fanatic with unmatched
socks, you've underestimated both the reach and scope of
American surveillance.

To get to the second floor of the Whitelaw Building, where
Reality Winner appears to have worked from February until
June, she first had to drive into Fort Gordon, "Home of the
U.S. Cyber Center of Excellence," past low-slung brick
buildings and uniformed military in formation, past massive
satellite dishes behind barbed wire, toward the $286
million, 604,000-square-foot sleek white listening post that
is NSA Georgia, gleaming and gently curved, surrounded by a
parking lot full of the middle-class cars of working
intelligence-industry professionals.

I took this drive in October, after I'd been given a visitor
pass at the entrance to the Army base. I drove until I
arrived at a building that looked like renderings I'd seen
before and walked around feeling perfectly invisible. After
five minutes or so, a black SUV pulled up with a police
officer inside; she demanded my license. "Woman in a
burgundy top" was the efficient way I had been identified in
her notepad. Another SUV pulled up. The police officer
called the men inside "special agents," though when I asked
a guy for his title, he declined to say. There were two
officials, then three, then six, and they were "just trying
to figure out what's going on." I asked a few times if I
could leave and was told I could not in fact leave; I asked
if I was under arrest and told no, this was "investigatory
detention." I was then turned over to a third jurisdictional
authority, military police, who drove me off the base.

The Whitelaw Building is one of many facilities built all
over the country with the government largesse produced by
9/11, in a decade when spending on intelligence more than
doubled and the intelligence community, once concentrated in
and around greater Washington, D.C., spilled over into
places like St. Louis and Salt Lake and San Antonio. It is a
pair of coordinates in the "alternative geography" described
at length by Dana Priest and Bill Arkin in their 2010 "Top
Secret America" series for the Washington Post, one small
part of a huge, hidden world of mile-long business parks,
unmarked city buildings, and ghost floors in bland suburban
I only say I hate America three times a day. I'm no

Surveillance requires surveillors; mass surveillance
requires more of them. In 2011, according to a document
leaked by Edward Snowden, the number of people who worked
for the 16 agencies that the government considers to be part
of the intelligence community was 104,905. But that number
doesn't include contractors, to which most intelligence
funding -- 70 percent, according to a PowerPoint leaked to
investigative journalist Tim Shorrock -- now accrues.
Precisely how many Americans are involved in the country's
$70 billion intelligence project remains unknown, probably,
even to members of the inner circle; senior officials marvel
at its size and redundancy. The intelligence contractors
Booz Allen Hamilton, CRSA, and SAIC each employ well over
15,000 people, and there are hundreds of smaller companies
like the one for which Reality worked. A single Army
research-laboratory contract inked in 2010 involved 11
"prime" contractors and 180 subcontractors. This contract,
and these numbers, also come to us via leak.

With so many having access to so much, the fabric of secrecy
is stretched thin, vulnerable to puncture. And so the Obama
administration launched an unprecedented crackdown against
whistle-blowers, charging more of them under the Espionage
Act of 1917 than all previous administrations combined. To
"detect and prevent" potential leakers, the Obama
administration introduced something called "insider threat"

"What do insider threats look like?" asks a student guide
prepared by the Center for Development of Security
Excellence. "They look like you and me."

Materials used for this training encourage employees to look
out for co-workers who "display a general lack of respect
for the United States." The phrase "way of life" comes up
frequently, as in "Through unauthorized disclosures ... we
all risk losing our way of life," and "When you protect
classified information you are protecting our nation's
security, along with the warfighters who defend our American
way of life."

Reality characterized her own insider-threat training as
"five hours of bitching about Snowden."

"I have to take a polygraph where they're going to ask if I
plotted against the government," she messaged her sister in
February. "#gonnafail."

"Lol! Just convince yourself you are writing a novel."

"Look, I only say I hate America three times a day. I'm no

Reality Winner would have been making the best money of her
life at Pluribus, but she had never been particularly
interested in what money can buy. She rented, sight unseen,
an 800-square-foot house in a part of Augusta the Atlanta
Journal-Constitution calls "hardscrabble" and her
ex-boyfriend calls "blighted"; her neighbors parked their
cars on brown, patchy lawns. ("I did not look at a map when
I signed the lease," she'd later tell the FBI, "but I'm well
armed.") The rooms were filled with workout equipment,
sneakers, and sticky notes on which were scrawled workout
regimes ("Bench 5x5, Back Squat 5x5") but also stray
thoughts about issues with which she was preoccupied
("Peace-making is less of a rational-economic model of
dividing resources and territory fairly"; "Further research:
Deserts versus rainforest"). Months later, when her mother
walked me through the house, she'd point to Reality's room
and say, "The world's biggest terrorist has a Pikachu

Reality was searched for thumb drives and cell phones every
morning as she walked into the Whitelaw Building; her lunch,
security guards noted as they pawed through it, was very
healthy. She translated Farsi in documents relating to
Iran's aerospace program, work for which she had no
particular affinity and which seems to have bored her. For
those mornings when she did not feel like reading more
documents about Iran's aerospace program, she evidently had
access to documents well outside her area of expertise. She
had access, for example, to a five-page classified report
detailing a Russian attempt to access American election
infrastructure through a private software company. This
would be, ultimately, the document she leaked. According to
the analysis in the report, Russian intelligence sent
phishing emails to the employees of a company that provides
election support to eight states. After obtaining log-in
credentials, the Russians sent emails infected with malware
to over 100 election officials, days before the election,
from what looked like the software company's address.

In November, the man Reality referred to as "orange fascist"
became president of the United States. That fall, Reality
and her then-boyfriend Matt Boyle stopped seeing one
another, and four days before Christmas, her father died.
Though she kept it to herself at the time, she would later
tell her sister that she would cry for 30 minutes a day,
every day, during the weeks after his death. ("That sounds
like Reality," says Boyle. "She would give herself exactly
30 minutes.") "I lost my confidant," she later wrote in a
letter, "someone who believed in me, my anger, my
heartbreak, my life-force. It was always us against the
world ... It was Christmastime and I had to go running to
cry to hide it from the family. 2016 was the year I got
really good at crying and running."

Her father had always talked about going to Belize to see
the ruins, and so she decided to go on a three-day trip in
memory of him. She returned to a workplace at which she was
increasingly unhappy. It bothered her that the screens at
NSA Georgia were always tuned to Fox News, and it bothered
her enough that she filed a formal complaint. In her free
time, she sought out the staff of David Perdue, the U.S.
senator from Georgia, and arranged a 30-minute meeting to
discuss climate change and the Dakota Access Pipeline; on
Facebook, she explained that she had drawn for Perdue's
staff "a parallel between the 2011 interview of President
Bashar al Assad claiming utter ignorance of the human rights
violations his citizens were protesting" and Trump's claim
that the White House had received no calls about the Dakota
Access Pipeline.

In those first months on the job, the country was still
adjusting to Trump, and it seemed possible to some people
that he would be quickly impeached. Reality listened to a
podcast called Intercepted, hosted by the left-wing
anti-security-state website the Intercept's Jeremy Scahill
and featuring its public face, Glenn Greenwald, and listened
intensely enough to email the Intercept and ask for a
transcript of an episode. Scahill and Greenwald had been,
and continue to be, cautious about accusations of Russian
election meddling, which they foresee being used as a
pretext for justifying U.S. militarism. "There is a
tremendous amount of hysterics, a lot of theories, a lot of
premature conclusions being drawn around all of this Russia
stuff," Scahill said on the podcast in March. "And there's
not a lot of hard evidence to back it up. There may be
evidence, but it's not here yet."

There was evidence available to Reality.

The document was marked top secret, which is supposed to
mean that its disclosure could "reasonably be expected" to
cause "exceptionally grave damage" to the U.S. Sometimes,
this is true. Reality would have known that, in releasing
the document, she ran the risk of alerting the Russians to
what the intelligence community knew, but it seemed to her
that this specific account ought to be a matter of public
discourse. Why isn't this getting out there? she thought.
Why can't this be public? It was surprising to her that
someone hadn't already done it.

Those who criticize whistle-blowers often suggest that the
offender ought to have followed a more "responsible" course
-- what Obama once called in his criticism of Snowden the
"procedures and practices of the intelligence community."
There are reasons notorious leakers have stopped doing so,
and those reasons involve a man named Thomas Drake. In 2002,
Drake had concerns about a wasteful and unconstitutional $1
billion warrantless-wiretapping program later revealed to be
among the worst and most expensive failures in the history
of U.S. intelligence. He alerted the NSA's general counsel,
informed Diane Roark, a Republican staffer on the House
Intelligence Committee in charge of NSA oversight, and,
anonymously, informed congressional committees investigating
the mistakes that led to 9/11. He alerted the inspector
general of the Department of Defense, which launched an
investigation. Colleagues warned him that he ought to stop.
Eventually, the FBI raided Drake's home and the Justice
Department charged him with "willful retention of national
defense information." An assistant inspector general later
claimed that the Pentagon was punishing Drake for
whistle-blowing and had improperly destroyed material
related to his defense. Drake lost his job, his pension, and
his savings. His marriage fell apart. He now works at the
Apple store in Bethesda, Maryland.

William Binney, a longtime NSA technical director, went to
both the inspector general of the Department of Defense and
Roark, with complaints about massive amounts of wasteful
spending; the FBI raided his home, pointed a gun at him
while he was in the shower, and revoked his security
clearance. He was 63. (For good measure, they raided Roark's
house, too.)

Drake and Binney, among others, had attempted to work
through the system, only to be retaliated against. But
something shifted in 2010, when a 22-year-old private named
Bradley Manning sent a trove of secrets straight to
WikiLeaks. Snowden, 29, went to particular journalists he
trusted (one of whom was Greenwald). These whistle-blowers
spent far less time at their respective agencies or
contractors and had considerably less faith that their
superiors might be sensitive to their concerns. They were in
their 20s, a time of great ideological foment for many
intelligent people, and an age at which many are at their
most ideologically rigid. Snowden and Manning were not
career service people who had grown concerned with the way
some work being done by colleagues violated the values of
the institution in which they still believed, but newcomers
-- an IT contractor and a soldier -- suddenly face-to-face
with the whole system of American surveillance. And Snowden,
in particular, knew exactly what happened to people who
followed proper channels.

"The disclosure system, the whistle-blower system, the
ability to bring wrongdoing and questions about policy, is
fraught with corruption," says Drake, who speaks mostly in a
kind of outraged abstraction. "It does not protect the
whistle-blower, the truth-teller. It's designed to ferret
them out and hammer them from within."

For those inside the web of secrecy, that makes a bad mood
on a bad day, a snap decision in the midst of a quarter-life
crisis, potentially catastrophic.

The classified report on the Russian cyberattack was not a
document for which Reality had a "need to know," which is to
say she wasn't supposed to be reading it in her spare time,
let alone printing it, and were she to print it for some
reason, she was required to place it in a white slatted box
called a "burn bag."

Why do I have this job, Reality thought, if I'm just going
to sit back and be helpless?

Reality folded up the document, stuffed it in her pantyhose,
and walked out of the building, its sharp corners pressing
into her skin. Later that day, President Trump fired James
Comey, who had been leading an investigation into Russian
election-meddling. Reality placed the document in an
envelope without a return address and dropped it in a
standing mailbox in a strip-mall parking lot. Court
documents suggest she also sent a copy to another outlet,
though which one we don't know.

When the envelope first arrived at the Intercept, there was
considerable doubt that the document within it was real. The
reporters decided, per standard journalistic practice, to
contact someone who could verify its authenticity. What is
less standard -- what Thomas Drake calls "abhorrent" and Tim
Shorrock calls "just shameful" and investigative journalist
Barton Gellman called "egregious" -- is for a reporter to
provide a copy of the document itself, which could help
reveal precisely who had provided it. On May 30, according
to court filings, an unnamed reporter sent pictures of the
document to a contractor for the U.S. government and told
the contractor that they'd been postmarked in Augusta. The
contractor initially said that the documents were fake but,
after checking with someone at the NSA, reported that they
were real. (The Intercept declines to comment for this
story, though its parent company is contributing to
Reality's defense.)

On June 5, under the headline "Top Secret NSA Report Details
Russian Hacking Effort Days Before 2016 Election" and
bylined by four reporters, the Intercept published a scan of
the leaked document with some redactions. The document it
had incidentally given to the NSA -- which had then sent it
to the FBI -- and which was now freely available on the
internet, shows creases that suggest it was printed, folded,
and carried, rather than submitted online. It contains
watermarks indicating that it was printed on May 9, 2017, at
6:20 a.m., from a printer with the serial number 535218 or
29535218. The NSA knew, from its internal surveillance, that
only six people had printed the document. Of those six, only
one had emailed the Intercept asking for a transcript of a
Reality Winner exercising at the Lincoln County Detention
Center in Lincoln, Georgia, on June 12. Photo:

Reality quickly confessed to the FBI agents who came to her
home to get her, a confession she would later contest
because she was not read her Miranda rights. As she awaited
her bail hearing, she was held in the Lincoln County
Detention Center, an afterthought of a holding cell in
small-town Georgia. Seven other women, all of whom were
there on drug offenses, passed their days alongside Reality
in a single room stacked with bunk beds, loud with the blare
of television. This would be the place Reality would have to
await trial -- a process that would take many months -- if
she were not granted bail at a preliminary detention

She called her sister and sounded terrified. "Oh, boy,
Britty, I screwed up," she said. "I don't know if I'm
getting out of this one ... I just, I can't even get over
the little things, like I was supposed to teach yoga today,
I was supposed to be on a date last night. I know it's
stupid, but that's my whole life, that's all I had--"

"It's not stupid," said Brittany, and pointed out that her
husband's first concern was that Reality would refuse to eat
any of the jail food.

"I was like, 'The only thing she eats is kale, so ...' "

"I know, I feel absolutely terrible, there's so much white
bread here, I ... I--"

"I'm sorry I'm laughing at you," said Brittany, laughing.

They joked about Orange Is the New Black, and Reality,
embarrassed but unable to shake the worry of obligation,
asked her sister to arrange for a substitute for a cycling
class she taught, then returned to feelings of

"I feel like I'm being a diva," she said, "like there are
freakin' Syrian refugees that have nothing but still go from
one day to the next."

"I think it's still going to be okay," said Brittany.

"I didn't think. I did not think of the consequences for
even a second."

"You're going to get through this."

"I keep telling myself to act more like I did something
wrong," said Reality, and laughed.

"Well, maybe you're right," said Brittany, "I don't mean to
discount the effect of being pretty and white and blonde.
I'm kidding."

"I'm definitely playing that card. I'm going to look cute
like ..."

Brittany was laughing.

"I'm going to--"

"Cry a lot."

As an advocate for children at Child Protective Services,
Billie Winner was familiar with courtrooms and proceedings.
Reality, she reasoned, was not a flight risk. She could
safely come home and await trial. It would all work out.

Reality, blonde hair in a bun, in an orange jumpsuit with
the words inmate stitched in yellow on the chest, was led
into the courtroom in handcuffs by two armed U.S. Marshals.
Inside the room, her cuffs and a chain around her waist were
removed, but the Marshals stood before her the entire time.
Her mother and stepfather waited outside the room to be
called in.

Reality had written everything down. Assistant prosecutor
Jennifer Solari described journals the FBI had seized from
Reality's home: notes she had made in a foreign language the
prosecutors could neither read nor identify, jobs abroad she
wanted to apply for, "two notebooks containing ... numerous
doodles of the defendant's own name." Among the minutiae of
her life, the workouts and the worries, scribblings about
dental insurance at her new job, prosecutors also found
this: "I want to burn the white house down, find someplace
to live in Jordan or Nepal. Ha ha. Maybe." She had written,
elsewhere, "Perhaps bin Laden was the Judas to Omar's
Christ-like vision of a fundamental Islamic nation. Yaqoob
would know. Where is Yaqoob? Pakistan."

Billie was the first to take the stand. She was asked why
her daughter "took up an interest at the age of 17 in
learning Arabic or Farsi or Dari or any of those?" and
whether she had ever heard her daughter make plans to meet
with the Taliban. She was asked whether her daughter had
ever been in trouble, and she told the old story of the
eighth-grade food fight Reality had insisted not be on
spaghetti day.

Over the course of the hearing, the prosecution pointedly
used the phrase "not criminal, but ... of interest." It's
not criminal, but it is "of interest," to know how to change
a sim card. It's not criminal, but it is "of interest," to
own "four phones, two laptops, and one tablet." And then
there was the fact of a woman's traveling alone to Belize
"by herself for only three days, including travel. Nothing
criminal about that, Your Honor, but it seems odd."

The prosecution cross-examined Reality's stepfather; when
they called her his stepdaughter, he corrected them: my

"You and your wife were largely unaware of what your
daughter did in terms of her employment," the prosecutor

"She carried a Top Secret security clearance."

"Right. So you really didn't know what it was--"

"They can't discuss what they do."

There was also the question of character, and here the
prosecution made frequent reference to jailhouse calls
between Reality and her sister, which, it turned out, had
been recorded: There was the conversation about Orange Is
the New Black. "This defendant has shown her intent and her
plan to manipulate this court," said Solari, "by playing a
cute white girl with her cute little braids and perhaps
shedding some tears."

I've spoken to Billie about her daughter for hours at a
time, and it's only the memory of the bail hearing that
brings her to tears. "They took her words," says Billie,
lifting her glasses, closing her eyes, pressing her
fingertips to her brows, "and they twisted them around."

This is perhaps the most surprising thing about the story of
Airman Reality Winner, linguist, intelligence specialist, a
woman who spent years of her life dropping in on
conversations among people this country considers potential
enemies: It did not occur to her, in a moment of crisis,
that someone might be listening.

Since her June arrest, Reality's access to the outside world
has been severely circumscribed; she is only allowed to see
people for a single hour on Saturday and Sunday mornings,
and those people, friends and family, must be on a list of
nine that she gives the jail in advance.

In September, in a letter that included a hand-drawn heart
under the valediction "peace and love," Reality agreed to
add me to that list, and a few weeks later I flew to Atlanta
and drove three hours to the small town where she is being
held. At the town center of Lincolnton, Georgia, sits a
monument to the Confederacy. Attached to the courthouse,
described by the state tourism board as "in the
neo-classical revival style" -- behind it and not visible
from the road, in what is best described as "riotproof
institutional"-- is a one-story brick box lined with wire
fencing. This is the Lincoln County Detention Center, a
decidedly strange place to hold a federal prisoner on
national-security charges, where the first person to be
charged under the Espionage Act during the Trump
administration watches Breaking Bad with women doing time
for methamphetamine abuse. The jail is attached to a fenced
concrete platform topped with coiled barbed wire, which I
recognized immediately because I had seen it in pictures of
Reality published on TMZ under the headline "Reality Winner
Still Working Out Behind Bars."

In jail, Reality continues to be the kind of person who
would order a boyfriend to read a particular number of books
a week. She teaches yoga in the space between beds, frets
about the low calorie intake of a pregnant inmate, asks her
mother to contribute to the commissary funds of the others.
She is teaching herself Latin from a textbook in order to
read Ovid in the original; above her bunk, stuck to the wall
with toothpaste, is a picture of Nelson Mandela. During
Bible-study sessions, she asks so many challenging questions
of the instructor that the others have begun to see her as a
useful distraction; they can get some extra sleep while she
takes up the teacher's time. In letters to friends and
family and to me, she throws side-eye to her captors. "I
hope this finds its way to you expediently," she writes,
"--looks at the vague, yet menacing government agents--"

On the Saturday morning in October when I came to visit
Reality, the day was bright and warm, but through a set of
double doors, in the fluorescent-lit waiting room of the
Lincoln Country Detention Center, weather ceased to exist. A
guard behind glass took my license through a slot, checked
it against Reality's visitor list. She led me into a narrow
room and disappeared.

Reality and I spoke between glass on thick black phones tied
to the wall by silver cords. She smiled shyly and spoke in
complete sentences aphoristic in their tidiness. She was
disappointed because when she had asked on Friday to go
outside to have her allotted 30 minutes on the concrete
platform surrounded by electrified wire, she had been told
no. There was no outside time on weekends, so she would have
to wait until Monday to ask again for the privilege of
seeing some natural light. Alone in the room, on a recorded
line, we talked, for a few brief minutes, about Kingsville,
life in captivity, her father.

"He never shied away from ideology," she said of their
post-9/11 conversations. "Even though we were 10, 12, he
told us exactly what they believed."

As she took me through his thinking, the guard who had let
me in opened the door and began to watch us.

"I had a map of the world above my bed," said Reality, "but
I didn't know that--"

"Are you a reporter?" asked the guard.

"What's going on?" Reality said, snapped out of calm into

Forced back into the waiting room, I pleaded with the guard,
who never stopped, during our interaction, slowly shaking
her head. To talk to Reality, I would have to talk to a
sheriff, who was not available and would in any case refer
me to the Feds, who would refer me to a byzantine and
self-evidently impossible process for obtaining the state's
permission to interview her. That Reality clearly wanted to
tell her story was not sufficient reason to let her. Moments
after I left, she called her mother. "They're silencing me,"
she said.

If her case goes to trial as scheduled in March, it will be
watched by a growing class of intelligence professionals
burdened by knowledge of a surveillance state, its programs
and excesses, its featureless physical structures. They will
watch as Reality's lawyers struggle to defend her, because
she likely will not be able to argue that leaking evidence
of Russian interference in an American election is in the
interest of the American public. In recent Espionage Act
cases, prosecutors have successfully argued that the
intention of the leaker is irrelevant, as is the perceived
or actual value of the leak to the public. Accused, Reality
finds herself trapped in this strange logic of secrecy, in
which her dutiful discretion with members of her family is
taken to be evidence that her family cannot defend her
character, and the only room in which her intentions do not
matter is the one in which she is set to be tried.

I drove out of Lincolnton, not without relief, past the
concrete block surrounded by wire in which Reality was
hoping to be allowed, out of sight of the courthouse, into a
warm autumn morning, the leaves turning, and past a lush
lawn canopied by oak trees where a large family was
preparing for some kind of party. There were tablecloths on
the foldout tables. This seemed to me amazing, to be outside
and having a party, to have thought of tablecloths. I was
headed to Augusta to talk to Reality's mother and see the
house where Reality had been seized. I was headed toward
Fort Gordon, where the Army is building another Cyber
Command center, next to the one in which Reality worked,
where receivers will suck more conversations from the air
and more cleared linguists will translate them. I was headed
to the Savannah River, and when I got there, I pulled off.
On the banks of this river, I was aware, the state of
Georgia had begun building a massive high-tech training
center to support the NSA.

I didn't want to see the river and think about satellites,
just as I didn't want to think about intimate conversations
in Iran violated by linguists in Georgia, or sisterly banter
on Facebook probed by prosecutors in Washington, so I
thought about a story the family had told me, about a
vacation to SeaWorld when Reality and Brittany were just
girls. The Winners took in a show, watched sleek gray
dolphins leap in unison, their sweet-sounding squeals
elicited on command. Brittany was loving it. At which point
her little sister -- ever the explainer, ever the scold --
declared that in captivity, the dolphins' signals bounce
crazily off the walls; their capacity for echolocation
drives them mad. For Brittany, the show was ruined. It had
been easier not to know what was hidden below the visible,
beneath the bright surface of the cage.

*This article appears in the December 25, 2017, issue of New
York Magazine.

Posted on RetroBBS II

o The Story of Reality Winner, America's Most Unlikely Leaker

By: Anonymous on Sun, 24 Dec 2017

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