Air Force Vet Reality Winner Freed from Prison After 4 Years, Attorney Says

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Reality Winner’s U.S. Air Force basic training graduation photo.
Reality Winner’s U.S. Air Force basic training graduation photo from 2010. (U.S. Government via Wikimedia Commons)

Reality Winner, a former U.S. Air Force language analyst who was serving a 63-month sentence at a Fort Worth, Texas, federal prison after pleading guilty to leaking classified National Security Agency, or NSA, information, has been released.

Alison Grinter, Winner's attorney, posted a statement Monday on Twitter announcing that she is now in the residential reentry process. Winner has not been granted a pardon from either President Joseph Biden or the Justice Department, she added.

"She is still in custody in the residential reentry process, but we are relieved and hopeful," Grinter said. "Her release is not a product of the pardon or compassionate release process, but rather the time earned from exemplary behavior while incarcerated."

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Winner, now 29, is still barred from speaking to the media, Grinter said. The family has asked for privacy during this time "as they work to heal the trauma of incarceration and build back the years lost," she added.

Grinter first filed an application for clemency, or a commutation of Winner's sentence, with the Department of Justice pardon attorney in 2020.

In 2018, Winner was found guilty of violating the 1917 U.S. Espionage Act and sentenced to more than five years in prison. She was convicted of sending classified NSA information on Russia's alleged efforts to undermine the 2016 election -- a topic that dominated national discourse and brought to light the challenges of safeguarding the voting process -- to The Intercept website.

Prosecutors said at the time it was the longest sentence ever imposed for an unauthorized distribution of government information to a media outlet.

Winner, a cryptologic language analyst with the 94th Intelligence Squadron at Fort Meade, Maryland, separated from active duty in 2016 after serving six years and receiving the Air Force Commendation Medal. According to New York Magazine, she used her linguistic skills -- she is fluent in Dari, Farsi and Pashto -- as part of the Air Force's drone program to aid pilots targeting enemy combatants in the Middle East.

Following her separation, she was hired by Pluribus International Corp. under an NSA contract to work out of Fort Gordon, Georgia. While employed by the security firm, she printed a classified report detailing how Russian cyber hackers targeted American voting software on local election systems.

She mailed the documents to The Intercept. In an attempt to verify the information with the NSA when asking for comment, the online publication inadvertently revealed clues about who had transmitted the leak and how -- all but ensuring Winner would be tracked down quickly, according to The New York Times. She was arrested on June 3, 2017 -- two days ahead of the news outlet's publication of the information -- and held for more than a year before her guilty verdict in 2018.

"Mistakes were made," Winner's mother, Billie Winner-Davis, told Military.com in March. "I don't think she covered her tracks, but the mistakes made by The Intercept made it easier for the FBI to find and corner her."

"[The prosecution] created this sort of obfuscation around [her case], and she was treated as a terrorist," Grinter said during an interview. "The process was incredibly opaque. Here is an American telling the American people about threats to our country. This is absolutely the opposite of what the Espionage Act was designed to prosecute."

Winner accepted a plea deal, pleading guilty before a federal judge in Augusta, Georgia, to avoid a 10-year sentence. The judge sentenced her to more than five years at Federal Medical Center Carswell in Fort Worth.

Opinions on Winner's actions have been mixed. Social media pages on Facebook and Reddit are filled with users, including veterans, praising her courage, while others have vilified her as someone who should have known better than to leak classified information and compromise national security.

But over the last few years, especially on Twitter, support grew to #FreeRealityWinner, gaining high-profile backers including Walter Shaub, former director of the Office of Government Ethics under the Obama administration; Justin Amash, a former Republican congressman from Michigan; Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump's ex-attorney; and "Star Wars" actor Mark Hamill.

Earlier this year, a documentary, "United States vs. Reality Winner," from Sonia Kennebeck, an independent filmmaker and investigative journalist, showed how Winner became the first whistleblower of the Trump era, painting her as "collateral damage" amid the Russia investigation, according to The Washington Post.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at Oriana.Pawlyk@Monster.com. Follow her on Twitter @oriana0214.

Related: #FreeRealityWinner: Behind the Growing Push to Pardon an Imprisoned Air Force Vet

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