Reality Winner, the former NSA entrepreneur and Air Force veteran who leaked documents on Russian interference in the 2016 elections, probably shouldn’t be in jail. The US government was quick to arrest him in 2017 and sentenced her to five years in prison after she pleaded guilty a year later, but the moral justification for her imprisonment has run out. Winner admitted to distributing classified materials to the press, but his act shed light on how Russian intelligence has infiltrated an American voting software company. This information, which was played down by the Trump administration, proved that the core of American democracy was easily threatened by foreign agents.
The documentary Winner of USA vs. Reality, which premiered at SXSW this week, fights against the unfairness of Winner’s treatment and the need to strengthen whistleblower protections. Directed by Sonia Kennebeck, the film covers Winner’s childhood, her potential motivations for leaking the document, and how her family continues to fight for her release. The centerpiece is the never-before-seen audio of Winner’s FBI interrogation, where several armed agents came to her home and interrogated her without reading any rights from Miranda. It’s a spooky sequence where overly friendly federal agents attempt to coax more information, and possibly a confession from Winner before she can contact a lawyer.
Sadly, this is the only truly revealing footage in the film, which primarily functions as a dumping ground for people who haven’t followed Winner’s case. There’s the awaited comment from fellow whistleblower Edward Snowden, which revealed far more damning details about the government’s global monitoring program. The film would have been better served with an actual interview with Winner, who is currently set to be released from prison in November. And, unsurprisingly, there are no further comments from the US government. After all, why would they contribute to a project to defend a notorious whistleblower?
The documentary places much of the responsibility for Winner’s arrest on Interception, as did many journalists at the time. The news organization, which broke news of Russia’s attempt to hack US voting software, claims to have received a confidential document from the NSA in the mail. But Intercept reporters also apparently sent the original document to the government for validation, which included metadata that allegedly pointed directly to Winner. She was arrested the same day the report was released.
If anything, Winner of USA vs. Reality serves as a summary of the determination with which the government attempted to punish the former intelligence specialist. During her trial, federal prosecutors used sarcastic texts between Winner and her incredibly supportive sister Brittany to portray her as a terrorist hating Americans. This is what led to a series of stories saying she wanted to “burn down the White House”, and was probably part of what led to her receiving the longest sentence of anyone charged under the Espionage Act of 1917. The scale of her sentence is particularly irritating after seeing how gently the authorities have treated those involved in the January 6 Capitol riot.
“When she goes out, 63 months [of jail time] it’s going to seem very short in the context of the story that will honor him, for his service, ”says Snowden towards the end of the film.
Even without speaking to the government or Winner herself, the documentary would be stronger if it questioned the United States’ harsh treatment of whistleblowers in general. After all, there is a difference between someone disclosing classified information to rival countries and Daniel Ellsberg and Anthony Russo’s publication of the Pentagon Papers, which exposed the government’s lies about the Vietnam War. Snowden’s commentary adds weight to the film, but further investigation would have resulted in a truly essential documentary, rather than a merely educational documentary.