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James Risen: Reality Winner’s Sentence Is One of the Worst Miscarriages of Justice in Recent History

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NSA whistleblower Reality Winner was handed the longest sentence ever imposed in federal court for leaking government information to the media Thursday. She is the first person to be sentenced under the Espionage Act since President Trump took office. Winner was arrested by FBI agents at her home in Augusta, Georgia, on June 3, 2017, two days before The Intercept published an exposé revealing Russian military intelligence conducted a cyberattack on at least one U.S. voting software company just days before the U.S. presidential election. The exposé was based on a classified NSA report from May 5, 2017, that shows that the agency is convinced the Russian General Staff Main Intelligence Directorate, or GRU, was responsible for interfering in the 2016 presidential election. For more, we speak with Kevin Gosztola, managing editor of Shadowproof Press, and James Risen, The Intercept’s senior national security correspondent and former New York Times reporter.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We’re talking about the latest on NSA whistleblower Reality Winner, who’s just been sentenced to more than five years—63 months in prison—the longest sentence ever imposed in federal court for leaking government information to the media. Reality Winner is 26. She’s the first person to be sentenced under the Espionage Act since President Trump took office. Her sentencing came Thursday, after she pleaded guilty in June to transmitting a top-secret document to a news organization. She had faced up to 10 years in prison.

Our guests are Reality’s mom, Billie Winner-Davis. We’re also going to be speaking with Jim Risen of The Intercept, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. But first, right now, we’re going to Kevin Gosztola, who was in the courtroom yesterday. Kevin, this is the longest-ever sentence of this type. Please explain.

KEVIN GOSZTOLA: Yes, and it should be emphasized that the Justice Department was quite gleeful about this accomplishment. And people should recognize that Reality Winner is going to jail for a single count under the Espionage Act. There have been other leak cases. And in most of those cases, the Justice Department has been able to charge those individuals with several offenses, multiple counts under the Espionage Act. In the case of Jeffrey Sterling, a CIA whistleblower, he was sentenced for, I believe it was, seven counts of violating the Espionage Act, ended up with a total of 42 months in prison. So, just divide that up, and you can tell that’s way less than five years for a single violation of the Espionage Act. John Kiriakou, CIA whistleblower, he had a plea agreement for 30 months and did time in federal prison. And while that was for an Intelligence Identities Protection Act violation, he was prosecuted under the Espionage Act and eventually was able to bargain out a much, much lower and less severe sentence. So, it does seem like this is extraordinary when you view Reality Winner’s case.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to a statement from Betsy Reed, editor-in-chief of The Intercept, who wrote, “The vulnerability of the American electoral system is a national topic of immense gravity, but it took Winner’s act of bravery to bring key details of an attempt to compromise the democratic process in 2016 to public attention. Those same details were included in the July indictment of alleged Russian military intelligence operatives issued by Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Instead of being recognized as a conscience-driven whistle-blower whose disclosure helped protect U.S. elections, Winner was prosecuted with vicious resolve,” Betsy Reed wrote, again, editor-in-chief of The Intercept.

We’re going to go right now to Jim Risen, who is a reporter now with The Intercept, The Intercept's senior national security correspondent, best-selling author and former New York Times reporter. Also, First Look Media's Press Freedom Defense Fund, he’s director of that, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist.

Jim, you, too, were in the courtroom yesterday. Can you respond to the sentence that Reality Winner received?

JAMES RISEN: I think it was outrageous. I think what has been done by the Trump administration to Reality is just terrible, and it’s one of the worst miscarriages of justice I’ve seen in a long time. What Reality Winner did was a public service. The disclosure of the document in this, that The Intercept published, was—it provided a really important wake-up call to the American people that the Russian—that Russian intelligence was hacking into the election systems of states. And the Senate Judiciary Committee, in a report earlier this year, wrote that the Homeland Security Department had failed to adequately warn state election officials about the Russian hacking threat, and said, in their—in the Senate report, it said it was only because of press disclosures that state officials began to be alerted to the Russian threat, cyberthreat, which shows that even Congress recognizes that what Reality Winner did was a public service.

And so, I think one of the things that we at the Press Freedom Fund want to try to push for is to try to get the government to stop using this draconian Espionage Act against whistleblowers in the way that they have been. It’s an archaic World War I-era law that the government uses because it’s so vague that you can charge almost anybody for anything. And it’s not being used against spies anymore. It’s only being used against people who actually talk to American reporters to reveal important matters.

AMY GOODMAN: In a recent sentencing memorandum, prosecutors argued Reality Winner deserved the unprecedented sentence because, quote, “the defendant’s unauthorized disclosure caused exceptionally grave harm to our national security.” Jim Risen, your response?

JAMES RISEN: That’s just not true. If you look at the indictment of the 12 Russian intelligence operatives, virtually the entire information in there is the same information made public in the—it was based on some of the same information that was in that NSA document. And the Robert Mueller indictment reveals that the Russian intelligence operatives that were targeted in this indictment were already aware, as of 2016, that the U.S. was investigating them and that they were alerted to that not by the leak to The Intercept, but by other actions taken by the U.S. government, and that the Russian official who was in charge of the hacking of election systems in that Russian unit had taken steps in 2016 to protect himself from American intelligence, which shows that a year before this document was published by The Intercept, other actions had already been taken by the U.S. government to alert the Russians that they were being monitored by the United States, which gives the lie to the idea that somehow anything that we published at The Intercept had anything to do with alerting the Russians about the American intelligence surveillance of them, and shows that there was no damage caused by this leak.

AMY GOODMAN: Earlier this morning, Jim, President Trump tweeted, saying, “Ex-NSA contractor to spend 63 months in jail over 'classified' information. Gee, this is 'small potatoes' compared to what Hillary Clinton did! So unfair Jeff, Double Standard,” of course, referring to Jeff Sessions, who he wants to oust as attorney general. What do you make of this tweet? Because also you could argue that this is a political attack on her because she was talking about Russian interference with the 2016 election, something President Trump doesn’t like discussed.

JAMES RISEN: Well, first of all, Donald Trump is a psycho and shouldn’t be president. He’s crazy. And so he tweets in the middle of the night about stuff he knows nothing about, every day. So you have to discount this because of that.

But he is correct that there is a double standard. It’s just not a double standard with Hillary Clinton. The double standard is that low-level people in the intelligence community are the ones who are prosecuted, and not high-level people. If you look at the—the real double standard here is between the way the Justice Department dealt with someone like David Petraeus, who was the CIA director, who leaked lots of information to his former mistress and then was never sent to jail and was given probation, and the way that they’ve—this draconian sentence against Reality Winner, which is an absurd double standard. That’s the real double standard.

The other thing I would say is that the thing that Trump doesn’t want to admit is that he has politicized the Justice Department to such a degree that the two of the first three prosecutions of whistleblowers under his administration are about leaks of information about the Trump and Russia case, both in this case, which involved the Russian—the investigation of Russian election meddling, and in the case of Jim Wolfe, the Senate intelligence security officer who has been charged with allegedly leaking information about Carter Page and the Russia investigation. So, two out of three investigations are about matters that directly relate to Donald Trump and his campaign. And so I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the Justice Department has been highly politicized already on these kind of cases.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you have Trump tweeting this comment about Reality Winner, talking about a double standard, and then you have the fact that Trump could pardon her. In fact, once he tweeted this, this was the response in social media, talking about—saying, “OK, pardon her.” How likely is this?

JAMES RISEN: Well, I think that would be great. I mean, that would show a level of mercy that we haven’t seen from Donald Trump. But I think that would be great if he does that. She shouldn’t be in jail in the first place. What she did was a public service. So, anything that can be done to help her, I’m all for.

AMY GOODMAN: Kevin Gosztola, you wrote a long piece earlier this week about how the government tried to break Reality’s spirit. Can you explain?

KEVIN GOSZTOLA: [inaudible] when she was arrested, the FBI agents backed her into a corner in a back room of her home. They coerced a confession from her. They didn’t read her her Miranda rights. She then, from that point, was immediately put under this model where you treat a person not like they’re a leaker, not like they’re someone who spoke to the press, but like they’re a terrorist. She was denied bond immediately. The prosecutors were lying. They fabricated claims based on alleged conversations between Reality Winner and her family members. They took texts out of context. It’s important to note that that phrase about hating America came from a joke. And so, if we believe in freedom of speech or if we believe in reason, they were deliberately misinterpreting or lying about her views toward America. They made her as if she was somebody who was a Taliban sympathizer who wanted to go abroad and help people in the Middle East who would like to do this country harm. They took her Air Force service and turned it into something that was a negative aspect of her, and they used it to justify keeping her in prison and denying her bail, even though she committed a nonviolent offense. And there are people who have committed violent crimes who do not go to jail before they are convicted.

From that point onward, she was kept in a county jail in Lincolnton County, and there she suffered an assault by a state inmate. She’s a federal inmate. So she had to take this and lie down in the fetal position, and she couldn’t fight back, because she didn’t want any additional charges to be added to her case. Onward, whenever she wanted to go to the courthouse to work on her case, as Reality’s mother has discussed, she was strip-searched, very arbitrarily, not necessarily because they had suspicion that she’s someone who would traffic contraband, but because that’s just the way in which they wanted to show they had control over Reality Winner. And so you put someone in a situation where you wear them down when it comes to working on their own defense. You make it impossible for them to get subpoenas to put together a valid defense. You make it impossible for someone to put on a public interest defense to argue why they released the leak, to put on any kind of whistleblower defense. And then, eventually, you get the person to a point where they accept a plea deal, because it’s much better than going to prison for 10 years. You’ll take five years with the possibility of getting out of jail soon.

AMY GOODMAN: As you to listen to that description, your comments? And also, talk about how this relates to your being head of the First Look Media’s Press Freedom Defense Fund.

JAMES RISEN: Well, we at the Press Freedom Fund, we’ve been very proud to help fund Reality’s legal defense. It’s one of the first cases that we’ve funded since I took over the fund last fall. And I think it’s a real good case for—of press freedom, because what she did, or what she is alleged to have done, as I said earlier, is a public service. And it really was one of the few moments in the last year and a half where the American people got a clear warning that their election systems were being hacked by the Russians. It was no longer just a hack of the Democratic committee’s emails; this was a direct hack of the American election system. The Russians were attempting to change voting patterns by getting into voting machines. And the United States government had failed to adequately warn anyone that that was going on, until this document was released. The idea that that is somehow a bad thing is ridiculous. It shows you how absurd and Kafkaesque this entire prosecution has become. And so, we’ve been very proud to help pay her legal defense.

AMY GOODMAN: Has this case changed the way The Intercept receives documents? And explain what she pled to. She mailed a document—she had said this is the case, is that right—to The Intercept?

JAMES RISEN: I’m sorry, I couldn’t hear you there. Sorry.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what Reality Winner has pled to. She said she mailed a document to The Intercept, that she had access to as an NSA contractor with this corporation, Pluribus—I think it’s called Pluribus International Corporation—

JAMES RISEN: Right, right.

AMY GOODMAN: —in Augusta.


AMY GOODMAN: And has it changed how The Intercept receives and then reveals documents, having placed that document then online, The Intercept did?

JAMES RISEN: Well, I think—I can’t really discuss how we handle things internally. But I think it’s safe to say that this has been an important—this was important for us, because it really, as I said, was an important and great story. I think the idea that The Intercept—we receive, actually, quite a bit of anonymous information, and we continue to receive a lot of documents and other information from a number of sources anonymously and from people who are named. And so, we’re going to continue to always try to deal with that in the best way possible. And I think we have a—as you mentioned earlier, I just came from The New York Times last year, and I can tell you that The Intercept handles material that is sensitive, that comes from sources, as well as any other news organization in the United States, and has a very high standard for the way in which they handle internal security on such sensitive matters, and will continue to do so.

AMY GOODMAN: Jim, you yourself were subpoenaed, not under the Trump administration, but under the Obama administration. Can you just explain your own case—because even as you were reporting and winning a Pulitzer Prize on covering the Obama administration, they were going after you—and how that resolved?

JAMES RISEN: Yeah. I mean, actually, I was first subpoenaed by the Bush administration, and then the Obama administration continued it and got new subpoenas. I was first subpoenaed in a grand jury—for a grand jury, to testify about sources for my book State of War, that came out in 2006. And I was subpoenaed in 2008 by the Bush administration to testify before a grand jury. And then the Obama administration renewed that subpoena, and the judge quashed it—actually, quashed two grand jury subpoenas. And then they subpoenaed me to testify at a trial in—later, after, in that same case, and that subpoena was quashed by the judge.

But the Obama administration appealed that to the appeals court. And in their appeal, they wrote a brief saying that there was no such thing as a reporter’s privilege, which meant that they believed there was no legal right for a reporter not to be forced to testify about their sources. And the court of appeals agreed with the Obama administration on that. And then I took the case to the Supreme Court, because—and the Supreme Court refused to take the case. And then, in 2015, I was—I had to appear at a pretrial hearing to determine whether or not I was going to testify or not. And I said I would not. And the Obama administration, at the last minute, backed off and decided not to send me to jail. And so the case ended at that point.

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