You may have seen her name trending on social media and assumed an unscripted series you’d never heard of had crowned a new champion.
But the fact of the matter is, the story of Reality Winner more closely resembles a narrative you’d find on The Americans than on American Idol, and the jokes about her unique moniker belie the gravity of this young woman’s very grim predicament.
Reality Leigh Winner is a 25-year-old Air Force veteran, who’s been charged with mailing classified NSA documents to media outlet the Intercept in an effort to reveal the extent of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
Until this week, Winner was an employee of Pluribus International Corp., a private defense and intelligence contractor with top-level government security clearance.
Winner is accused of sending documents to the Intercept that allege Russian government hackers targeted 122 local election officials a few days before last November’s election.
Officials involved in her arrest say that Winner “admitted intentionally identifying and printing the classified intelligence reporting from her office space, retaining it, and mailing it from Augusta, Georgia, to the News Outlet, which she knew was not authorized to receive or possess the documents.”
According to her Instagram page, Ms. Winner spent the past week hiking, preparing vegan meals, and blogging about her CrossFit goals.
Now, she’s behind bars, awaiting charges of mishandling classified information.
So how did federal investigators link Winner to the leaked documents so quickly?
According to Vice, the documents published by the Intercept were encoded with metadata – in this case, dots of yellow ink imperceptible to the human eye – that identified them as being printed from Winner’s work computer.
Winner’s mother Billie Winner-Davis describes her daughter as “passionate” about her beliefs, but not overtly political.
She says she spoke to Reality Sunday night after her arrest, but adds that they did not discuss the details of her case:
“She asked if we could help out with relocating her cat and dog,” Winner-Davis said, adding:
“I don’t know what they’re alleging.”
It may be months before Winner’s case goes to trial, and as she lacks the advantages that saved previous high-profile whistleblowers, her future looks quite bleak indeed.
Winner was unable to escape to a nation or embassy with a favorable extradition policy like Edward Snowden and Julian Assange, and it’s unlikely that she’ll find much sympathy at the top levels of government like Chelsea Manning.
In comments to the Guardian, Reality’s mother seemed to recognize the severity of her daughter’s predicament:
“I think she’s trying to be brave for me,” Winner-Davis said.
“I don’t think she’s seeing a light at the end of the tunnel.”