A new documentary about Reality Winner provides a stark reminder of the dangers that whistleblowers face. It also serves as a cautionary tale to future whistleblowers about the risk of sacrificing their anonymity when making disclosures to the media, even when the media doesn’t intentionally release their name.
The film by Sonia Kennebeck, titled United States vs. Reality Winner, examines how a gifted crypto-linguist for the National Security Agency (NSA) ended up serving the longest-ever sentence for espionage in U.S. history. Winner was a 25-year-old NSA contractor when she printed a top-secret report detailing Russian attempts to hack into U.S. election infrastructure in May 2017. Winner mailed it to The Intercept, the online news outlet that published NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden’s revelations about the agency’s global surveillance programs years earlier.
An Intercept reporter contacted the NSA to verify the report’s authenticity, not knowing the document contained microscopic identifiers of printing time and location. FBI investigators were able to trace the leak to Winner before the document was made public.
Winner was charged with one count of “unauthorized transmission of national defense information” under the Espionage Act, which makes it a felony to disclose potentially harmful national security information to anyone not authorized to receive it. The law, which carries a maximum sentence of ten years, was created during World War I and does not distinguish between foreign spying and whistleblowing.
The use of the law prompted criticism from whistleblower advocates for being excessively punitive and failing to acknowledge Winner’s public service motives. Winner was sentenced to five years in prison for unauthorized release of government information to the media, the longest sentence ever imposed in federal court for such charges.
The Intercept may not have intentionally compromised Winner’s identity, but the case shows how easy it is to lose control of information once it enters the public sphere. Another recent example is the National Intelligence Agency employee who filed a whistleblower complaint with the Inspector General for the Intelligence Community in 2019 alleging that former President Donald Trump attempted to involve the Ukrainian president in U.S. election fraud.
The Inspector General verified the credibility of the whistleblower and released a redacted version of the complaint to the public. But the New York Times reported additional details about the whistleblower’s identity, such as the agency where he worked and his area of expertise, that many whistleblower advocates say unnecessarily jeopardized the whistleblower.
At times, media exposure can help whistleblowers elevate public concern about the problems they are exposing and stimulate official action. However, it’s critical that before going public with wrongdoing, whistleblowers first understand their legal rights. These rights can differ depending on where the whistleblower works, what type of information they are exposing, even where they live.
Releasing information without understanding these protections can undermine a whistleblower’s credibility, endanger their future legal outcomes, and even place them at personal risk. That’s why the National Whistleblower Center always counsels whistleblowers to first consult a qualified whistleblower attorney. Finding someone who understands the full range of laws available is crucial. We also offer guidance to journalists on how to work with whistleblowers.