Winner, 29, was sentenced in 2018 to five years in federal prison for leaking a classified National Security Agency document to the media that exposed Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
The former U.S. Air Force linguist and intelligence specialist who worked as an NSA contractor was denied compassionate release from a Texas medical prison in April. She tested positive for the coronavirus last month, along with at least 510 female inmates at the Federal Medical Center, Carswell in Fort Worth. The facility has one of the largest COVID-19 outbreaks in the nation, with some 40% of the prison population infected.
Winner appears to be doing better now after suffering significant pain from the virus, her mom, Billie Winner-Davis, told HuffPost in an interview Wednesday.
Winner-Davis called her daughter’s treatment “cruel” and “vindictive” in contrast to former Trump aides who sparked national security concerns over their links to Russia and have since been released from prison or have avoided it altogether.
“They didn’t want that information out there; they wanted to set an example to others,” she said of the White House’s interest in keeping her daughter behind bars.
“This has really opened my eyes to how very corrupt our government is, and it’s way worse under Trump,” she told HuffPost.
Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort, who owed at much as $17 million to pro-Russian interests while working on the campaign, was released in May to home confinement to serve out his 7.5-year sentence because of the risks of COVID-19 in prison. He served less than 30% of his sentence for conspiracy, fraud and tax evasion behind bars.
The U.S. Department of Justice is also currently battling to dismiss a case against Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn, even though he pleaded guilty — twice — to lying to FBI agents about his secret negotiations with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S.
Former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates testified Wednesday before a Senate committee that Flynn undermined U.S. interests in calls shortly before Trump took office as he assured the ambassador not to worry about sanctions. “The purpose of the sanctions was both to punish and deter” Russia from interfering in U.S. elections, Yates testified. When Flynn said “nevermind on those sanctions,” it undercut that message, said Yates.
And Trump just weeks ago commuted the 40-month sentence of longtime adviser and felon Roger Stone, who communicated with Russian intelligence officers during Trump’s presidential campaign, according to the FBI. Those officers were linked to the publication of Democratic emails hacked in a Kremlin-backed operation to manipulate the U.S. presidential election.
The NSA document Winner leaked has been linked to a story in The Intercept about a monthslong hacking effort by Russian military intelligence to undermine the election. It included details about a cyberattack on at least one U.S. voting software supplier and phishing emails to more than 100 local election officials.
Winner-Davis said her daughter believed getting the document out was the right thing to do at the time. “She felt like the truth had to be told, and she’s not the type to walk away,” her mom told HuffPost.
Winner spotted the document she later leaked as she was reading classified information sent to workers with top security clearance, according to a transcript of her FBI interrogation in 2017 at her home in Georgia, where she was working at the time. The word-for-word transcript has since been made into a play (check out the video up top).
“Seeing that information that had been contested back and forth and back and forth in the public domain for so long, trying to figure out, like, with everything else that keeps getting released and keeps getting leaked, why isn’t this getting out there? Why can’t this be public?” Winner told an agent.
“To sit back and watch ... and think, ’Why do I have this job if I’m just going to sit back and be helpless? … I just thought that it was the final straw.”
Winner’s penalty for leaking a classified document was the longest known sentence in American history for leaking a document to the press under the Espionage Act, sparking outrage from First Amendment advocates.
“Reality Winner’s long prison sentence is proof that the U.S. government cares more about hiding information from the public than it does about its citizens’ rights to the First Amendment,” Margaux Ewen, the North America bureau director of Reporters Without Borders, said in a statement at the time.
PEN America said that Winner’s sentence had “troubling ramifications for national security whistleblowers and the public’s access to information.”
Winner-Davis is relieved her daughter is doing better after her COVID-19 diagnosis. “She sounded much better this week and started to laugh again,” she said.
Those with COVID-19 are considered “recovered” after 10 days at the prison, though they’re not tested again, Winner-Davis said. But newly ill inmates are mixed in with the rest of the population, risking more contagion, she said.
The Federal Medical Center, Carswell has been locked down since early April because of COVID-19. Inmates are not allowed to go outside and typically eat in their crowded cells, said Winner-Davis. It’s no longer possible for her daughter to work outside her cell or to participate in extra programs, such as taking college classes, she said.
“Reality, like many other non-violent first offenders, doesn’t deserve this,” Winner-Davis told CNN last month. “This is torture. This could possibly even be a death sentence.”
Winner is due to be released from prison in November 2021.