Reality Winner has received the longest sentence ever given in federal court for leaking information to the media. Winner is a whistleblower and this outrageous sentence, which the prosecution has boasted is meant to send a message to would be whistleblowers, is just the latest escalation in the US government’s war on whistleblowers.
After pleading guilty to violating a single count of the Espionage Act, whistleblower Reality Winner has been sentenced to 63 months in prison followed by 3 years of supervised release. This is a draconian sentence, the longest ever given for leaking information to the media in a federal court.*
Winner was concerned with the integrity of US elections. In order to alert the public to what she believed was a critical threat to our election infrastructure, she gave classified information to The Intercept.
The government claims Winner harmed national security, but these claims, as claims of the government so often are, are laughably false. The Intercept, at the request of the National Security Agency, redacted the name of a Russian intelligence unit in the documents obtained from Winner. Yet, as Trevor Timm points out, the unit–GRU unit 744550–has been named in one of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s indictments. According to Timm, “The indictment went on to reveal information almost identical to that contained in the document Winner admits to disclosing[…]”
Winner, like all whistleblower wrongfully charged under the Espionage Act, faced nearly an impossible battle. The Espionage Act allows for no public interest defense and rulings by the judge in the case severely curtailed Winner’s ability to defend herself. On top of that, Winner has been held without bail–thanks to government disinformation painting her as a danger–in a country jail for over a year. In short, the government has gone to great lengths to try to break Winner’s spirits.
This is just the latest government escalation in a long running war on whistleblowers. This war was begun by President Obama who normalized the practice of charging whistleblowers under the Espionage Act, a statute intended for spies, not truth tellers. With Trump, an authoritarian minded man obsessed with leaks, in charge we can only expect this war to continue to escalate.
We support Winner, because we support whistleblowers. As we explained in a statement on Winner’s plea deal:
Defending Rights & Dissent has long championed the rights of whistleblowers. We organized one of the first protests in support of Chelsea Manning and continued advocating for her release until Obama granted her clemency. We organized one of the first demonstrations in response to Edward Snowden’s revelations about illegal NSA spying. We awarded CIA whistleblower John Kiriakou with our Patriot Award. Recently, we released a statement, signed by whistleblowers Thomas Drake and John Kiriakou, condemning the Trump-Sessions Justice Department’s prosecution FBI whistleblower Terry Albury.
Whistleblowers are heroes. They are courageous people who seek to tell the public the truth at tremendous risk to themselves. They are not criminals, spies, or traitors. And it’s time our government ends its abuse of the Espionage Act to terrorize them.
* Chelsea Manning, who was sentenced to 35 years in prison, was tried in a military court.