One of the first things Reality Winner did when she was released from federal prison in June was start building a paddock for a horse named Trouble, and a small shed for her gym equipment beside it.
Winner, a former NSA contractor, was training for a powerlifting competition when she was arrested in June 2017, accused of leaking classified information to The Intercept. When the FBI showed up at her house that day, her main preoccupation was getting her perishable groceries into the fridge and figuring out who would feed her cat and foster dog if she came in for questioning. She hadn’t processed the fact that, not only would she miss the competition, she wouldn’t go home for years.
Inside the shed, where she spends most of her time these days, she’s got three hundred pounds of bumper plates, dumbbells, barbells, a kettlebell, pull-up bars, gymnastics rings, a nine-foot steel rig for doing squats and bench presses, a jump box, a rowing machine and stationary bike, all gifted by friends and supporters ahead of her release. Between reps, she’ll run out and give Trouble a scratch on his nose.
“I built my workout shed right by the side of his pasture, so he’s always creeping by,” Winner says. “It’s one of those moments where it’s, like, I’m doing deadlifts and petting my horse between sets? My life is perfect right now.”
‘Perfect’ is a relative term coming from someone who has spent the last four years in federal prison. For the next three years, Winner, who had her court-mandated ankle monitor removed on Tuesday, will still be on probation, which means mandatory drug tests every two weeks, a 10 p.m. curfew, and securing permission from her probation officer for any overnight trip she’d like to take. (Getting that permission is not a given, either — Winner’s P.O. already turned down her request to run a half marathon in San Antonio next month because it would mean traveling outside the federal district where her case is located.)
“It enrages me,” Winner says, comparing the terms of her parole to those of friends she made inside the system. One was serving time for a gun charge she got while trafficking drugs for an Aryan gang, the other did 11 years for armed robbery. “She’s not going to have these conditions,” Winner says. “He does overnight trips, he goes across state lines, he’s moved three times over the summer. He doesn’t have a curfew.”
Winner was just 25 years old when she printed a single classified document — one that described Russian military efforts to spear-phish dozens of local election officials ahead of the 2016 election — smuggled it out of the NSA facility where she worked and mailed it to The Intercept. (For comparison, Edward Snowden provided at least 10,000 documents to, among others, Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, who later went on to co-found The Intercept. The NSA has claimed he took more than 1.7 million files.) Winner was ultimately sentenced to sixty-three months in prison for the leak, the longest prison term ever imposed for an unauthorized release of government information to the media.
The Intercept was widely criticized for its handling of the document Winner leaked—in particular, the decision to show the leaked document to the U.S. government. While attempting to verify its authenticity with the NSA, an Intercept reporter inadvertently revealed its provenance. According to an FBI affidavit, the document had a telltale crease in it, indicating it had been printed and folded. An FBI agent assigned to the case would later testify that a total of six people had printed the document. The pool of potential leakers was further narrowed to one — Winner — when investigators discovered she’d emailed The Intercept from her work computer. The Intercept would go on to conduct an internal review, which found that, in Winner’s case, its “practices fell short of the standards to which we hold ourselves” when it came to protecting sources. Poitras and Greenwald were both among those who were deeply critical of the Intercept’s conduct — Poitras later claimed she was fired by the media outlet’s parent company over that criticism. It’s a claim The Intercept strongly rejects, noting that she hadn’t been involved in the website in several years.
After her arrest, First Look Media, which owns The Intercept, pledged to support Winner’s legal defense, but Winner says that support stopped shortly after her sentencing in August 2018. Nonetheless, she says, lawyers retained by First Look Media continued to advocate for her, even filing a petition for compassionate release “basically pro bono” after billionaire eBay founder Pierre Omidyar’s nonprofit news outfit “fell behind” on payments to the firm. (Through a representative, Winner’s former lawyer, Joe Whitley, formerly of the firm Baker Donelson, declined to comment for this story.)
According to Winner, the last time she discussed the matter with her then-legal team, First Look owed the legal team “30 percent of the original agreed cost” of her legal defense. David Bralow, legal director of First Look Media’s Press Freedom Defense Fund, strongly disputed Winner’s characterization. “As is standard practice in legal cases, we negotiated a fee agreement with the lawyers representing Ms. Winner and fully satisfied that amount,” Bralow said, adding that between the fees paid to Baker Donelson, Winner’s original legal team in Georgia, and expert witnesses brought to testify at her trial, the organization spent more than $2 million dollars on Winner’s case — the most of any case they have provided support for. Bralow added the organization “remained involved” in Winner’s case after sentencing and “covered some expenses” related to post-conviction relief.
“I was angry at First Look Media. I was just angry at the whole system… Of course First Look Media fell behind. You know what I mean? They don’t have to pay anymore. No one wants to know about this,” Winner says of her case. She remembers telling her then-lawyers, “Just keep billing them every time you call… Just keep running up the tab. Fuck them. They’re going to pay eventually.”
In 2017, when Winner first came across the document on an internal NSA server, she chose to share it with The Intercept in large part because of her admiration for the disclosures Edward Snowden made with Greenwald and Poitras’ help, but also because of skepticism about Russia’s attempts to influence in the 2016 election.
Today, Winner is wary of what she sees as The Intercept’s contribution to an increasingly polarized media landscape. She has been especially stung by what she sees as Greenwald’s assertions that her own mistakes — including failing to follow guidelines for leakers outlined on The Intercept’s website, like specific advice not to contact the outlet either from work or by email — contributed to her arrest. (Greenwald, who was not involved in reporting the story, resigned from The Intercept in 2020, accusing the outlet of censoring an article critical of Joe Biden’s son, Hunter.)
Like Chelsea Manning, Winner says she’s been surprised by what she views as a cynical change in Greenwald’s public persona. Greenwald, she says, is “addicted to negative press…He’s willing to have whatever message is going to generate the most attention… Glenn isn’t the problem, he’s a symptom, and they’re all going to wind up like him.” (She adds: “If Glenn Greenwald has anything to say to me, he’s more than welcome to get his ass on a plane and come back to the United States and tell me face to my face how stupid he thinks I am, but he knows better than that. He wants to hide out in Brazil on his private beach or whatever.”)
Reached by email, Greenwald said, “The only point I ever made about Reality Winner is that even if The Intercept had acted responsibly, Reality Winner would have been caught anyway — not because she’s ‘stupid’ but because the US government has created such a pervasive surveillance system that it is very difficult for any inside source to evade detection if the government is determined to find them.” (He added: “I’m not ‘hiding out’ anywhere. I live in Brazil because my husband and children are Brazilian and at the time we married, Bill Clinton’s Defense of Marriage Act prevented us from getting immigration rights to live in the US. I’m in the US frequently.”)
Greenwald, Winner says, “used to represent integrity in journalism, and a lot of The Intercept people used to.” After her experience these last four years, she is much more cynical about both, particularly the outlet she leaked to.
“I wasn’t the first source that they burned and I definitely wasn’t the last — two other people have done prison time [due to] them being extremely sloppy,” Winner says, referring to Daniel Hale, sentenced to 45 months in prison earlier this year after he pled guilty to leaking documents about the U.S. military’s drone program, and Terry Albury, sentenced in 2018 to four years in prison after leaking documents concerning the bureau’s use of informants. “Every time one of their sources goes to prison, that’s another headline for them. That’s how they stay relevant — by burning sources, instead of the journalism that they once believed in.”
In a statement, Betsy Reed, editor in chief of The Intercept, said, “As we’ve acknowledged before, in preparing the story on Russian election interference in 2017, we made errors in the course of verifying a document that came to us anonymously. We honor her courage and feel awful about what she went through… We have learned from Reality’s case and we work hard to minimize the risks whistleblowers face.” Separately, Reed said she wasn’t aware of any evidence that The Intercept had made missteps in its reporting in either Hale or Albury’s cases.
Reflecting on her own situation, Winner says, “They made a huge mistake with me, and not just because I went to prison. I knew what I was doing, I faced the consequences. That’s fine. It’s their attitude towards it. It’s the sloppiness… I have a lot of bitterness in my heart towards them.”
Over her four years in prison, Winner says she was abused by a female prison guard, developed and kicked a drug habit, and contracted and recovered from a case Covid-19. The night she was finally released, she couldn’t sleep. ”It was the first time in four years that I have been in a room by myself at night, or been in a room that got dark at night.” Instead, she stayed up on the phone with her high school boyfriend, just listening to him play video games. “I just couldn’t handle being alone,” she says.
For now, Winner is more focused on rebuilding her life than reliving the past six years. She hasn’t watched the documentary about herself or accepted invitations to see the Broadway show that was made out of the transcript of her FBI interrogation. Her sister and lawyer were on Full Frontal with Samantha Bee earlier this year. She tried to watch, but she says, “I had a physical reaction to it — I started shaking really bad. Whenever I see a news clip about me or read something about me in the third person, I still have a really, really traumatic response to it.”
Instead, Winner is taking comfort in the relative anonymity of life in Kingsville, the tiny South Texas town where she grew up. “No one in my hometown recognizes me,” she says. There are a few exceptions — the father of a high school classmate (“He knew my story — he was thankful for the political shit or whatever”), and a neighbor who recently dropped off a bale of hay as a “thank you” for everything she did.
“There’s a little bit of support, but it’s just another example of how Twitter bubbles are not real,” Winner says. In Kingsville, “I can walk around and be completely anonymous.” When she spoke to Rolling Stone last week, Winner said she was hoping, once her ankle monitor was removed, to apply for a job at a CrossFit gym in town. “They are looking for a coach,” she says. She hasn’t told them about her past, and if they recognized her name they didn’t comment on it. “I didn’t want to be like, “Oh yeah, I’m a felon on an ankle monitor,” she says. Instead, she told them: “I’ll be in town next week and I’ll be able to stop by and just see if I’m going to be a good fit for the gym.”
UPDATE 3:39 PM: This story has been updated to note that The Intercept disputes Poitras’ claim that she had been fired and to remove an erroneous reference about Winner requesting the transcript of a podcast about Russian interference.