With former President Trump pleading not guilty to a 37-count indictment in court on Tuesday, June 13, many commentators have weighed in with their view of the historical and contentious upcoming trial, and reporters have reached out to numerous others for comment.

NBC News reached out to Reality Winner, a former National Security Agency contractor and Air Force veteran who was the first person prosecuted by the Trump administration for leaking a top-secret document on Russian hacking to an internet publication. She was subsequently convicted and sentenced to five years in federal prison.

Now out of prison, Winner, 31, told an NBC reporter she was “blown away” by the Trump indictment. “This is probably one of the most egregious and cut-and-dry cases,” Winner, who is not a lawyer, told a reporter in a phone interview with NBC News.

READ MORE — Andy Bloom: Second Trump indictment has merit — that doesn’t mean it isn’t political

Even if Trump is found guilty of all counts, his case is very different from Winner’s. She released a classified document to The Intercept, which in turn published the document as they received it, with sensitive sources and methods attached.

Revealing sources and methods have gotten people killed in the past.

Among other charges, Trump is charged with willful retention of national defense information, which is part of the Espionage Act. There is no evidence that Trump released the classified information to the press or to a foreign nation.

Coincidentally, I watched the HBO Max film “Reality,” which is about the interrogation and subsequent arrest of Reality Winner, only days before I read her comments on Trump’s case. 

The film is interesting, as it covers the 104-minute interrogation of the 25-year-old translator by two FBI special agents in her home before they arrested her. The FBI agents suspected Winner of having released a classified document about Russian interference in the 2016 election to The Intercept. Having known and interviewed many FBI agents, I found their portrayal to be believable and fair. 

The film is based on writer-director Tina Satter’s 2019 play “This is a Room,” which like the film, features dialogue pulled directly from the transcript of the FBI interrogation of Winner.

The film and the good actress who portrayed Reality Winner almost made me feel sorry for her. 


Having spent a good part of my life protecting classified information and briefing, debriefing and training others on protecting classified information, first as a young sailor in the U.S. Navy and later as a civilian Defense Department employee, I felt that Reality Winner got what she deserved. 

I followed the Winner case closely as it unfolded. Winner, a former U.S. Air Force translator, was employed as a National Security Agency contractor in May 2017 when she decided to print out a classified document and sneak it out of the federal building in Georgia. She then mailed the classified document to The Intercept. Winner later said she was motivated as she believed the American people were being misled. She said she meant no harm.

Intelligence is a complicated business, and no military, Defense Department civilian employee, or contractor has the right to decide what classified information can be released to the press and the public, unless they have the proper declassification authority to do so.

Revealing sources and methods have gotten people killed in the past.

When I was an eighteen-year-old sailor serving on an aircraft carrier off the coast of North Vietnam in 1970 and 1971, I had a top-secret security clearance and I handled highly sensitive wartime messages. Like many senior and junior military people at the time, I didn’t agree with the way the Vietnam War was being conducted, with restricted rules of engagement, a war of attrition with the enemy and the containment of the communist North Vietnamese Army. Like many of the military people I served with, I felt we should go all out and win the war, using the massive air power of the aircraft carrier and other military means.

But my strong personal views did not propel me to take a seabag full of classified documents off the warship at Hong Kong or other ports of call and sell them, like Michael Walker (son of Navy spy John Walker) did in 1985, or release them to the press, like Reality Winner did in 2017.

Reality Winner was sentenced to five years and three months in prison on August 23, 2018.

“This defendant used her position of trust to steal and divulge closely guarded intelligence information,” said U.S. Attorney Bobby L. Christine at the time of the sentencing. “Her betrayal of the United States put at risk sources and methods of intelligence gathering, thereby offering advantage to our adversaries.”

“When obtaining Top Secret clearance as a government employee or contractor, the handling of top-secret information is clearly spelled out along with the ramifications of mishandling such information,” added Special Agent in Charge of the Atlanta Filed Office J.C. Hacker. “Revealing sources and methods to the advantage of our adversaries and to the detriment of our country will never be acceptable.”

While others may regard classified leakers like Reality Winner, former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, and former Army Private Manning as heroic whistleblowers, I regard them as criminals who recklessly endangered American lives and national security. 

Paul Davis, a Philadelphia writer and frequent contributor to Broad + Liberty, also contributes to Counterterrorism magazine and writes the On Crime column for the Washington Times.

3 thoughts on “Paul Davis: The reality of convicted leaker Reality Winner”

  1. Paul,

    I just watched [HBO] Max’s “Reality”.

    I think she is more analogous to the late Daniel Ellsberg than Edward Snowden, although all three were primarily motivated by a belief that the U.S. Government were misleading the American People.

    At the same time, I think she was irresponsible to share the material with the Intercept as opposed to a publication such as Lawfare or Global Security, both of which probably would have published the material in question without revealing sources and methods.

    On the advice of counsel, Ms. Winner pled guilty. In so doing she showed considerable character.

  2. Very good article and thank you for sharing your experienced perspective. These cases show double standards (maybe it is unfair, or maybe there is a valid reason – such as establishing deep cover – who knows?)
    1. In the case of Manning, the judge’s decision to impose a 35-year sentence roughly split the difference between what the prosecution had requested — 60 years — and the 20 years that Private Manning had exposed himself to before the trial began when he pleaded guilty to a lesser version of the charges he was facing. Under the military system [at the time], convicts sentenced to more than three decades in prison are eligible for parole after 10 years, and Manning received 1,294 days credit — a little more than three years — for time in custody and for a 112-day period in which the judge ruled [s]he was mistreated during pretrial confinement.
    2. In 2012, former Army general and CIA Director David Petraeus gave notebooks of top-secret information to an author who was his mistress. He was charged with misdemeanor mishandling of classified information and never spent a minute in jail.
    3. In 2008, Gregg Bergersen, a Pentagon employee, was convicted of selling secrets to the Chinese. He was seen in FBI surveillance getting his pocket stuffed with cash. His sentence was six months shorter than Reality Winner’s.
    Bottom line is there is a whole lot of corruption at the top levels of US society – in the federal agencies, the government, and in the finance sector. Yes, President Trump was helped by the Russians in 2016 – most people have to admit that. My question, so 51 former “intelligence” officials cast doubt on The Post’s Hunter Biden laptop stories in a public letter in a proven effort that they were just desperate to get Joe Biden elected President. And more than a year later, even after their Deep State sabotage has been shown again and again to be a lie, they refuse to own up to how they undermined an election. Biden has boasted about interfering in Ukraine as VP, and billions of US tax dollars have been laundered in Ukraine, and countless lives lost. The Pentagon lied about labs in Ukraine and was too lazy to realize those lab budgets were posted on .gov websites. Now the Biden administration is doing everything in their power to railroad a presumptive nominee for President. Why should We the People continue to think the Russians are the problem?

  3. “Yes, President Trump was helped by the Russians in 2016 – most people have to admit that.”

    No, we don’t have to admit that unless you’re referring to a couple hundred thousand dollars worth of Facebook ads with negligible, if any, effect. Show your work.

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