SXSW 2021: The United States Versus Reality Winner

This expose of the persecution of Reality Winner (yes, that is really her name) was made possible  because of a Freedom of Information Act that finally  resulted in the release of the audio of Reality’s interrogation by eleven FBI agents.

The director of this based-on-fact film is Sonia Kennebeck. A famous name, Wim Wenders, the 75-year-old thrice-Oscar-nominated German director, served as executive producer.

Another famous face and voice is that of international whistleblower Edward Snowden, interviewed onscreen,  who released NSA classified documents to the Washington Post and The Guardian in June of 2013 and has been in exile ever since. Snowden makes the point that the only thing the authorities want to hear from you in such a case is a “yes” or a “no” to the question of whether or not an NSA employee with a Top Secret Security Clearance voluntarily released information.

Reality Winner—so named by her deceased father, because his wife picked the name of their firstborn, so he was allowed to select the second child’s name—was a supporter of Bernie Sanders. In the course of her work in Augusta, Georgia, she came into possession of the documents that proved that Russia was trying to meddle in the presidential race of 2016 at a time when this fact was being disputed by the Republican party.

Reality was held over a year in jail without bond and charged with the crime in violation of 18 USC/793, the Espionage and Censorship Act, written in 1917 for World War I. The law makes it a crime to provide national defense information to a foreign government, even though the document did not endanger national security.

Despite the fact that Reality Winner had a spotless background and had, in fact, served 6 years in the Air Force, her decision to make public the document that proved Russian meddling has cost her everything—her freedom, her job, her life. She not only was held one full year without being granted bond, she is one of only 8 people ever to be sentenced under the act. She received the toughest sentence of any of them: 63 months in prison, plus 3 months of supervised release.

At first, Reality denied sending the document to “The Intercept.” She said she remembered she had folded the document and put it in the burn bag. After being held in jail without bond and without trial for a year, she admitted that she folded the piece of paper and smuggled it out in her pantyhose. She sent it (with a Georgia postmark) to The Intercept for publication. Matthew Cole and Richard Esposito, two reporters for “The Intercept” contacted the FBI. Another such individual (who spent 2 years in prison for a similar crime), said, “They single-handedly got her arrested.”

When the eleven agents swooped down on Reality’s home, they were aware that she had written online, “The most dangerous thereat is the orange threat we let into the White House.” They knew of her support for Bernie Sanders. They did not, however, ever bother to read her her Miranda rights and did their best to get her to confess guilt in a casual fashion.

Then, the government sat on the documents for over 2 years. The document that proved Russia’s involvement in meddling in our presidential election is now public. It never imperiled our national security. It is fairly obvious that Reality Winner was going to be made into an example to dissuade “leakers” within the Trump Administration. She was recently denied a pardon on compassionate grounds.

The feeling you come away with after the film is that Reality Winner was trying to live up to a patriotic ideal that her father and mother had imbued in her since birth. She held out for a very long time before admitting to the mailing of the document. Conviction was a foregone conclusion, as the paperwork bore a certain “code” that would prove it had been her duty to handle it (she usually handled questions about Iranian air space and spoke Farsi, Darsh and Pashto). The details about the folded paper, plus the postmark, marked this native of Kingsville, Texas for a tough road ahead. As Reality said to her sister, “That’s my whole life. That’s all I had.”

She did put up a good fight, writing, from jail, “This is the worst summer camp ever.  There aren’t even any bears.”

Reality was 25 when indicted and her actions at no time put United States security into jeopardy, but her actions did clear up the unanswered question about whether or not the Russians were actively working to subvert our free and fair elections. The revelation put us in a much better position to safeguard our 2020 election from any foreign interference.

It’s a cautionary tale for our time. It’s certainly not the last or only unfair thing we are learning about Donald J. Trump’s time in office.

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About Connie Wilson

Connie (Corcoran) Wilson (www.ConnieCWilson.com ) was the Quad City Times film and book critic for 15 years and has continued reviewing film uninterruptedly since 1970. She also publishes books in a variety of genres (www.quadcitieslearning.com), has taught writing or literature classes at 6 Iowa/Illinois colleges or universities as adjunct faculty, was Yahoo's Content Producer of the Year 2008 for Politics, is the author of It Came from the 70s: From The Godfather to Apocalypse Now, and writes on a variety of topics at her own blog, www.WeeklyWilson.com. Weekly Wilson is also the name of her podcast on the Bold Brave Media Global Network on Thursday nights at 7 p.m. (CDT).

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