In 2010, a telephone call from basic training delivered the news of Reality Leigh Winner’s career path; her parents learned she would become an Air Force linguist.
In 2017, a telephone call from a Georgia jail delivered news that their daughter’s life had changed; Winner had been arrested on charges of transmitting classified documents.
The federal government alleged Winner had printed a copy of a classified document regarding Russian cyber attacks during the 2016election and mailed it to the online publication The Intercept. According to court documents, she was one of six employees at NationalSecurity Agency Georgia at Fort Gordon who had printed the document at work.
After an internal investigation, the NSA said Winner was the only one of the six to have contact with the news agency, but her parents said the charges don’t make sense.
“She worked in Middle Eastern languages,” said Billie Winner-Davis, Winner’s mother. “How would she even know where to look for a report about Russian hacking? Why would she have access to that from where she worked?”
She said none of the charges seem to match up. But even Winner’s parents only have access to public documents in the case.
“The only things we know about the case are the same things everyone else has seen through the media,” Winner-Davis said. “They said she contacted the news outlet twice, but she did that to request a copy of a podcast transcription about climate change.”
Winner-Davis said her daughter had been visiting with U.S. Sen. David Perdue, of Georgia, to discuss her concerns over climate change.She said Winner had gone to the senator’s office and posted a picture to her social media accounts. Winner-Davis said her daughter was showing leadership and was putting action into her concerns rather than complaining through digital platforms.
After her arrest, messages from across the nation poured into her Facebook page. Some voiced support for her actions as a patriot who kept the people informed, said many messages were negative or violent. Posters called for a life sentence for treason, and some advocated her death. By Wednesday, Winner’s Twitter and Facebook accounts had both been deactivated.
Winner-Davis said her daughter wanted time away from school after high school in Texas and wanted to serve. Her parents said she turned down a college scholarship and chose to join the Air Force.
“People ask us what she did in the Air Force,” Winner-Davis said. “I have a mental image but I don’t really know. She went to DefenseLanguage Institute and learned Farsi and Dari.” Farsi and Dari are languages spoken in Iran and Afghanistan.
“She never talked about the details,” said Gary Davis, Winner’s stepfather. “What she talked about was always very general.”
Her parents described her as highly intelligent, talented, caring and artistic. Last December, Winner separated from the Air Force and moved to Augusta. Her parents said she had been sent to Fort Gordon several years ago to work on a mission and loved the city. They said she moved before she even had a job.
Many of Winner’s social media photos depict her in a gym or doing yoga, and her parents described her as athletic. They said her fitness regimen helped her stay focused in her transition out of the Air Force.
Gwen Cho, a Marine Corps veteran and fitness enthusiast, said she spent time with Winner in the gym.
“The first thing I noticed about her is that she was quiet,” Cho said. “But as soon as you get her talking, you notice she is very intelligent. She had a lot of knowledge about fitness, yoga and weightlifting.”
Cho said Winner was always very friendly with others at the gym and would lend a hand to anyone. She called the charges surprising.
“When Reality called the first time from basic training, I just had an image in my head of someone standing next to her with a gun to her head or something,” Winner-Davis said with a chuckle. “She read from a script to tell us where we could send letters. I tried to tell her ‘I love you, baby,’ but she couldn’t go off script.”
They described her as a patriot who earned accolades and awards during her time in the Air Force. Her mother said Winner’s least favorite thing about her job as a civilian contractor was that she was kept strictly to 40 hours per week.
“She always wanted to finish what she started,” Davis said. “If her work hours were over for the day and there was something going on, she wanted to finish it and not pass it off to other people.”
They said she wanted to deploy to Afghanistan and had put in applications for jobs to do that. They said Winner moved to Augusta hoping NSA Georgia would provide her with that opportunity.
“She wants to help, she isn’t some kind of radical,” Davis said. “My daughter is just a young woman who wants to help everybody she meets as much as she can. She feels that every person is an instrument of change and can make the world a better place.”
Winner pleaded not guilty to charges of disseminating sensitive national security information last week, and a federal judge denied her bond Thursday. She faces up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
Despite her denial, the charges and the negative response on social media, Winners’ parents want the public to remember that she is still a human being and an American. As such, Davis said, she is entitled to due process.
“These charges don’t match up with her,” he said. “I hope all of the people leaving negative and angry posts on Facebook will remember she has a right to trial. She is innocent until proven guilty. That burden is on the U.S. government, because the charges just don't make sense to me.”
Added Cho: “I absolutely don’t agree with what she’s been charged with; it wasn’t the right thing to do. I know she hasn’t had a trial yet, but as far as the allegations, I don’t condone those kinds of things.”
Cho said she was taken aback when she saw Winner’s name connected with the charges.
“You’d think she would have really thought about the consequences of her actions before she did anything,” Cho said. “If she is found guilty of this, she’s messed up her entire life. And I just feel sad for her.”
Reach Thomas Gardiner at (706) 823-3339 or firstname.lastname@example.org.