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in the room

Reality Winner’s Story Was Never About a Leak

Tina Satter’s film “Reality” on HBO captures the cruelty of the surveillance state.

Courtesy of HBO
Sydney Sweeney as Reality Winner in Tina Satter’s film “Reality”

The number of Americans who hold top secret security clearances—an estimated 1.2 million—likely exceeds the number who live in Montana. In June 2017, one of them, a 26-year-old Air Force linguist with the stranger-than-fiction name of Reality Winner, decided to print out a classified report from the National Security Agency and mail a copy to journalists. Specifically, she chose The Intercept, the left-leaning news site launched by Glenn Greenwald—after he won a Pulitzer for publishing Edward Snowden’s leaks about NSA surveillance—with the core mission of soliciting and publishing similar leaks from within the national security state.

But both Winner and staffers at The Intercept mishandled the documents, and within days the FBI showed up with a search warrant at Winner’s home in Augusta, Georgia. After extracting a confession from Winner with no attorney present and without reading her Miranda rights, they arrested her—before the article based on her leak had even been published*—and she was sentenced under the Espionage Act to five years and three months in federal prison, the longest such sentence ever imposed for leaking classified documents to the media (thanks to good behavior, she was released after three years).

The specific issue Winner was attempting to inform the public about, Russia’s interference campaign in the 2016 presidential election, was a national obsession in 2017, but interest in it has mostly dried up since Robert Mueller’s much-anticipated report failed to end Donald Trump’s presidency. To the extent that “Russiagate” is still in the news, it’s because the right, along with certain parts of the left, now argues that the entire scandal was a hoax engineered by Democrats, the media, and the deep state to discredit Trump. But however regrettable the liberal hysteria, hyperbole, and conspiracizing that came in its wake, there was a real Russian campaign to bolster Trump that took multiple documented forms—from direct influence over key figures in Trump’s orbit and hacking and releasing the private emails of Democratic National Committee staffers, to a spear-phishing campaign targeted at local election officials.

It was the last of these, a matter of basic election security, that Winner decided to risk her career and her freedom to inform the public about. She surely never intended or expected that her own story would turn out to be of more lasting interest than the contents of the leak, but that’s what happened. In 2019, the playwright Tina Satter adapted the FBI transcript of its interrogation and arrest of Winner into a stage play, Is This a Room, and now, four years later, that play in turn has been adapted as an HBO original movie called Reality, starring Sydney Sweeney in the title role.

Spanning 83 minutes and proceeding in real time, with just a handful of speaking roles, Reality fulfills the double meaning of its title—every line of dialogue is authentic, everything happened just as portrayed, and Sweeney consulted with Winner extensively to capture her exact mannerisms—and succeeds at turning a simple recording into riveting human drama. The result is sufficiently plausible that Winner, despite her cooperation, has said she can’t bring herself to watch and relive what must have been one of the worst moments of her life.

The intimate, unsensationalized approach allows for a close read of how the security state polices itself. Winner’s FBI interrogators, played by Marchánt Davis and Josh Hamilton, both prefer to assume the good cop role and spend at least half the film’s running time attempting to establish rapport with a terrified Winner. Winner lives alone in a somewhat rough neighborhood with a cat and a dog and several firearms; she does competitive CrossFit and yoga; and she signed up to serve her country, all of which her cheerful interlocutors profess to find relatable. She’s not so different from them, they seem to be saying. When she requests that she be able to put her groceries in the fridge or to attend to her pets, they do their best to accommodate her even as they scour her home for incriminating evidence.

We learn that Winner is a talented linguist who has learned Dari, Pashto, and Farsi to help carry out America’s “war on terrorism” (per her authorized “Stand With Reality” website, prior to her arrest Winner “provided over 1,900 hours of enemy intelligence exploitation and assisted in geolocating 120 enemy combatants”); she seems scared not only for her freedom but for her career, which up until now has been full of promise. When the Feds finally get around to what they suspect she’s done, they insist to her again and again that they don’t think she’s a spy but rather a public servant who made one uncharacteristic mistake. There’s a gently couched threat to make her situation much worse if she won’t own up to that mistake, which she persists for as long as she can in not doing. But she knows, and we know, that she’s trapped no matter what she says, and that the menace of the carceral state lurks behind all the superficial pleasantries.

The viewer can only speculate about what makes Winner different from the FBI agents who arrest her, or from countless other ordinary servants of the deep state who would never dream of leaking classified information for any reason. Her actions, though undoubtedly well intentioned, never had the same impact on the public debate as those of her fellow leakers Snowden or Chelsea Manning. Greenwald, whose Snowden coverage helped inspire Winner, has been a vocal Russiagate skeptic and had no involvement in the Winner story, though he has been happy to criticize his now-former colleagues for their failure to protect her, and has been dismissive of the substance of her leak. In December 2017, just months after Winner’s arrest, Greenwald made the first of what would be dozens of friendly appearances on Fox News over the next several years, usually hosted by the pro-Trump demagogues Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham. Winner, for her part, was apparently driven to leak by her supervisors in Augusta playing Fox News in the background while she worked in her cubicle. She saw how right-wing media was trying to deny that Russia had intervened on Trump’s behalf, and she wondered why the public couldn’t know the same relevant facts she was privy to.

Winner comes across as a sympathetic figure and a martyr, but Satter leaves ambiguous what exactly she’s been martyred for. There’s no question as to her factual guilt, and while there’s a clear public interest argument for what she chose to leak (and no evidence she put anyone in danger by doing so), the case that her leaks helped anyone is far less clear. One suspects that if she weren’t young, female, and white, she might have gotten a more overtly hostile interrogation than she did. In her own mind, perhaps she was resisting an encroaching Trump dictatorship (Satter has Winner linger on a Confederate flag she spots across the street, suggesting her fundamental discomfort in the Trump-era Deep South), but there’s no reason to think she would have been treated any more leniently by the FBI under Obama or Biden.

If Winner is a martyr, then, it might be to the classification of information in general. Daniel Ellsberg, arguably the most influential leaker in the history of the U.S. national security state, has said that overclassification is rampant, and that only a small percentage of what gets classified meets legal criteria for secrecy. The trend over time has been toward a larger and larger bureaucracy, more and more of which is manned by private contractors (Winner was working for one such contractor at the time of her arrest, which is how she had access to NSA reports), supervising a larger and larger amount of arbitrarily classified information—essentially, a whole parallel section of American society with no pretense of free speech or open debate, where information doesn’t want to be free and the consequences for freeing it anyway are brutally repressive. Winner, in theory exactly the kind of earnest and gifted individual the U.S. government should want working for it, was quickly brought down by the contradictions of a self-perpetuating system that values conformity and mediocrity over talent and initiative.

Reality arrives at a curious time, when interest in its subject matter would seem to be at a low ebb. The “war on terrorism,” though it never truly ends, has been deprioritized, and the languages Winner diligently learned are of limited professional use since the Biden administration’s military withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021. Russiagate feels like yesterday’s news, as does the apocalyptic political climate of Trump’s presidency, when dissidents across the federal government felt compelled to take career risks. Winner herself is no longer in prison; though she’s not exactly free, her situation lacks urgency. Despite all this, Reality is undeniably compelling cinema, and it raises some implicit questions about what qualities we do and don’t value in public servants. This is a story about a young woman who felt an idealistic impulse to serve her country, and how her country crushed that idealism.

*The article originally misstated the timing of the article based on Reality Winner’s leak.