This week Index on Censorship, an organisation campaigning for freedom of expression, held a webinar ‘Whistle-blowers: the lifeblood of democracy’ to mark the launch of the summer 2021 edition of ‘Index on Censorship’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ixGnSlTq-98

As the pre publicity pointed out, whistle-blowers are extraordinary people, who take incredible risks to bring the rich and powerful to account. This often exacts a terrible personal price, with whistle-blowers losing their livelihoods, their mental health and even their freedom.

Speakers at the event were Daniel Ellsberg, the well-known whistle-blower who exposed US involvement in Vietnam and Brittany Winner, sister of Reality Winner, the former US intelligence specialist who leaked details of Russian interference in the 2016 American election. The discussion was chaired by Martin Bright, editor of Index on Censorship who I first met at the turn of the century when he covered the David Shayler trial see: https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2001/apr/08/davidshayler.martinbright

Two years later Martin, then a journalist on The Observer, broke the story about the leak of top secret information by whistle-blower Katharine Gun, who worked as a translator at the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in Cheltenham. Katharine’s revelation concerned a request by the United States for compromising intelligence on diplomats from member states of the 2003 Security Council who were due to vote on a second UN resolution on the prospective invasion of Iraq. She was charged under the Official Secrets Act, but the case against her was dropped in February 2004. In March 2009 Katharine gave evidence to the Commons Administration Committee which makes fascinating reading see: https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200809/cmselect/cmpubadm/c83-v/c8302.htm

In 2019 the story was told in the excellent film ‘Official Secrets’.

Not so well known in the UK is the story of Reality Winner, a former US intelligence specialist. In 2018, she was convicted of “removing classified material from a government facility and mailing it to a news outlet”. Her story was told to the Index webinar by her sister Brittany, as Reality, who was recently released from prison, is banned from speaking about the case.

Reality was the first person during the Trump presidency to face criminal charges for leaking government data and was working as a linguist at the National Security Agency (NSA) in Georgia when she was detained and charged under the draconian Espionage Act. The government data she revealed alleged that Moscow’s military intelligence services had attempted cyber-attacks on at least one US voting software supplier days before the US presidential election in 2016. It also accused Russia of sending emails to more than 100 local election officials. However, there was no suggestion in the document that the hackers were successful. She had mailed a copy of a document about Russian hacking attempts against US elections systems to investigative news outlet The Intercept in 2016.

On Reality’s release her lawyer Alison Grinter Allen gave an interview to the Independent on 14 June 2021.explaining that Reality ‘…remains in custody and is in a residential re-entry process, she said in a statement. Reality is being housed with a Residential Re-entry Management centre in Texas, according to the Bureau of Prisons.

“Her release is not a product of the pardon or compassionate release process, but rather the time earned from exemplary behaviour while incarcerated,” Ms Allen said.

Winner’s family is pressing for a full pardon from President Biden, arguing that “Reality has served a lot of time and gone through quite a bit of trauma to fight for essentially one man’s feelings about his election’s validity.

“It’s the only way to make this right,” Ms Allen told The Independent.”

While the Obama administration used the Espionage Act against a record number of leakers, see: https://www.cato.org/commentary/barack-obamas-war-free-press# none received a sentence (five years) as long as Winner’s, who pleaded guilty rather than face what could have been an even longer sentence if the case had gone to trial and she had been found guilty.

You can read more at: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/us-politics/reality-winner-prison-release-biden-b1865677.html

You can sign the petition in support of Reality at: https://actionnetwork.org/petitions/pardon-whistleblower-reality-winner