Sydney Sweeney stars as Reality Winner in HBO Max’s film Reality. The film details the FBI’s interrogation of Reality Winner on suspicion that she leaked classified material collected from the National Intelligence Agency. Reality rarely strays from the Reality Winner’s true story, using dialogue pulled from FBI transcripts and culminating in the protagonist’s arrest.
Reality Winner lives with her parents in Texas after securing early release from prison
Reality Winner lives free in Texas with her parents, Biller Winner-Davis and Ronald Winner. She told 60 Minutes she works as a yoga and fitness instructor and cares for her pets. Winner told the outlet she’s tried to ‘have a sense of accomplishment in having survived prison’. She continued:
“I try so hard not to frame things as being worth it or not worth it. What I know is that I’m home with my parents. And we take over lives every day moving forward as being richer in knowing what to be grateful for.”
Winner worked as a translator for the Air Force before securing employment as a contractor at an NSA office in Augusta. In May 2017, Winner printed a document detailing Russia’s attempt to hack American voting software ahead of the 2016 election. She smuggled it out of the facility and sent it to The Intercept.
The Intercept mailed a copy of the document to the NSA before publishing it. Audit reports showed that six people had printed copies. The FBI narrowed the suspect list to one after discovering that Winner had exchanged emails with The Intercept using her work computer.
Winner was detained two days before The Intercept published the document. The Justice Department charged her under the Espionage Act, an ancient law that criminalized the disclosure of secrets that could be used to harm the United States. Winner told 60 Minutes that she thought she could secure an acquittal.
However, unlike other suspects charged with similar crimes, Winner was denied bond. Prosecutors alleged that her diary entries showed sympathy towards terrorists – which Winner denied – and expressed her desire to burn down the White House. Winner’s Twitter feed showed she wasn’t a fan of President Trump: she referred to him as, among other things, an ‘orange fascist’.
Eventually, Winner pleaded guilty to leaking a top-secret government report. The judge sentenced her to five years and three months in prison, the longest prison sentence ever imposed in federal court for the release of government information to the media, prosecutors said.
Winner said she hopes to obtain clemency
Winner viewed her sentence as politically motivated; she considered it a retaliatory move from a President she’d criticized. Robert Cattanach, a former Justice Department lawyer, described the sentence as an outlier. He told The New York Times:
“No one was endangered, no one’s identity was revealed, the Russians just learned that when they penetrate our systems, we can track them, which they already knew. I think this kind of sentence, if anything, is designed to have a chilling effect.”
Winner said her mental and physical health suffered as she awaited trial and while serving her sentence. She said she considered suicide but decided against it because of her loved ones. Winner maintains that she did the right thing. She told 60 Minutes:
“The truth wasn’t true any more. The public was being lied to. I knew it was secret. But I also knew that I had pledged service to the American people. And at that point in time, it felt like they were being led astray.”
“I am not a traitor – I am not a spy,” Winner insisted. “I am somebody who acted out of love for what this country stands for. I thought this was the truth but also did not betray our sources and methods, did not cause damage, did not put lives on the line. It only filled in a question mark that was tearing our county in half in May 2017…I meant no harm.”
Winner was released for good behavior in June 2021 to a halfway house program. Five months later, she was released on probation. Winner’s attorney, Alison Grinter Allen, told 60 Minutes that they would pursue clemency for Winner. “A pardon for Reality is the right thing for the country,” Allen said.