Reality Winner on Wednesday made her first public appearance since she was released from prison in June, taking part in a conversation at the Double Exposure Film Festival that centered around the ongoing campaign for President Joe Biden to pardon her. Winner pleaded guilty in 2018 to leaking a document about Russian interference in the 2016 election that she obtained through her work as a National Security Agency contractor.
The case is the subject of Sonia Kennebeck’s documentary “United States vs. Reality Winner,” which served as the opening night film of Double Exposure, a Washington, D.C. film festival dedicated to investigative reporting on film.
The film, which includes interviews with fellow NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, details the hardline approach federal authorities took in prosecuting Winner, whose leak was of far smaller scope than Snowden’s. The prosecution painted Winner as a traitor who hated her country, while Winner’s supporters say the information she brought to light served the public good.
Kennebeck and her producer, Ines Hofmann Kanna, captured the case through the eyes of Winner’s family. Kennebeck said she expected to be able to interview Winner, but Winner was held without bail for a year before her guilty plea, eventually serving a total of four years behind bars for a charge of violating the Espionage Act.
Winner, who appeared via Zoom next to her mother, spoke only once, at the end of the event.
“I just wanted to express my gratitude to anybody that’s even remotely interested — I couldn’t even sit down and do five minutes of my life, and I’m stuck in my life,” Winner said. “I just want Sonia to savor this moment, an actual theatrical release and viewing of her documentary that she has just slaved over. And of course, for my mom, my sister, and my attorney to be here tonight, I’m so grateful. I just wish it wasn’t about me. I wish this was not a story about me every day, but I’m just really glad that everyone’s here for me.”
Winner has been living with her mother and stepfather in Texas since her release in June. She is confined to a small area on their property until the end of November, at which point she’ll be on supervised release.
“Reality is still very much confined,” Winner’s mother, Billie Winner-Davis said during the Q&A. “She wears a heavy ankle monitor which reminds her every second of every day that she is still in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons and at any time they could find a reason to take her back (to prison). She has a lot of restrictions and rules that she has to live by.”
Winner’s family and attorney, however, exhibited a far greater sense of freedom in talking about the case. They’ve been working on an effort to get Biden to pardon Winner.
“It’s really the quest to get the attention of one person. With a lot of other court processes, you can tell when you’re making progress, you can tell what’s going on. But in this, in commutation and an executive clemency, it’s a black box until the day that you know that you have the attention of the president,” attorney Alison Grinter Allen said. “We are optimistic and we’re persistent, but it’s always going to be an uphill battle … fortunately in this case, this particular president is responsive to and listens to the folks that he respects and the people who advise him.”
Allen joined Winner’s legal team as part of an initial effort to seek clemency from former President Donald Trump: Her other lawyers were banned from speaking publicly about the case, the New York Times reported. That earlier effort included submitting over 4,500 letters of support for Winner’s clemency to Trump. The former president had tweeted that Winner’s punishment was “unfair,” but left office without taking any action on her conviction.
Brittany Winner said the fight for her sister continues in the next administration. “I have hope for the future,” she said. “She still desperately needs a presidential pardon from President Joe Biden, and we’re going to fight every day for that and we’re never going to stop.”
Brittany Winner told MSNBC in June that their efforts had been met by “radio silence” from the Biden administration. Winner-Davis said she has been contacting the White House daily and that Winner has a petition for clemency with the Department of Justice’s pardon attorney.