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‘United States vs. Reality Winner,’2021 SXSW FF Review:

Reality Winner in 'United States vs. Reality Winner,' directed by Sonia Kennebeck, 2021 SXSW FF (courtesy of Codebreaker Films)
Reality Winner in ‘United States vs. Reality Winner,’ directed by Sonia Kennebeck, 2021 SXSW FF (courtesy of Codebreaker Films)

This chilling documentary directed by Sonia Kennebeck indicates how far government goes to hide damning information. Using video clips of interviews and access to information not released before, the director exposes the facts about Reality Winner’s arrest and incarceration for leaking classified information. Ultimately, Kennebeck elucidates the scurrilous intent of the former Trump Administration to lie and cover-up Russian interference to get Trump elected. In 2017, the 25-year-old Reality Winner took a stand. United States vs. Reality Winner in its World Premiere at 2021 SXSW FF reveals what happened.

Reality Winner leaked the documents shining a spotlight on Trump and the 2016 election. When Trump commented to the contrary about Russia’s help, extensively investigated in the Mueller Report, we can thank Reality Winner’s patriotic, courageous actions. Her whistleblowing led to a high U.S. alert on election security in 2020. However, she still suffers retaliation with the longest prison sentence of its kind under the Espionage Act. Created in the early 20th century, Kennebeck reveals how misapplying the Act in Reality’s case speaks to injustice, punishment and retaliation. Not only did Reality not receive bail, she currently sits in prison today under a plea deal. Her jailing and labeling as a traitor for heroism to alert the public about Putin breaching election security identifies as cruel and unusual punishment.

Kennebeck obtained access to Reality Winner’s interrogation by suing the FBI in a FOIA request a few years ago. Happily, the Biden administration had the tapes released just in time. Acutely editing the audio tapes, Kennebeck intersperses them with audio of a phone call with Reality in prison. To supplement with salient information she uses video clips of interviews with NSA whistleblowers Thomas Drake and John Kirakou. Throughout, the director includes interviews with Reality’s parents, family and friends. In a full revelation Reality’s story comes to light.

Reality Winner in 'United States vs. Reality Winner,' directed by Sonia Kennebeck, 2021 SXSW FF (courtesy of August Chronicle)
Reality Winner in ‘United States vs. Reality Winner,’ directed by Sonia Kennebeck, 2021 SXSW FF (courtesy of Augusta Chronicle)

When we hear the FBI agents questioning her alone outside and inside her house, we empathize. And we especially note her answers with no lawyer present.

Clearly, the documentarian portrays her risks, the danger and her isolation. Additionally, the director, whistleblowers Drake and Kiriakou excoriate the betrayal by the reporters Matthew Cole and Richard Esposito. Winner mailed a copy of the classified document to The Intercept. Unconscionably, to “verify” the document, Cole and Esposito contacted the FBI, as if they didn’t understand it. Coded, encrypted, dated, the FBI knew exactly who had access to it. Of course this led to Winner’s subsequent arrest and being held without bail. That Donald Trump enjoyed election favor by Putin and received his hacking help and interference clarifies in light of this film and Winner’s brave actions.

When agents visited her house, tipped off by The Intercept reporters, their presence shocked her. Believing The Intercept stood by its sources, advertising themselves as a highly credibly online journal, she anonymously sent the document to them. She should have gone to The Washington Post which appears to be one of the soundest, most secure papers for whistleblowers. The Intercept made famous by Edward Snowden, Laura Poitres and others discredited itself by harming Thomas Drake and John Kiriakou. Indeed, the Intercept leaked those NSA whistleblowers to the FBI. During video interviews, Drake and Kiriakou disclose that Matthew Cole’s and Richard Esposito’s integrity as journalists remains questionable. They hint at subterfuge.

The audio tape discloses how the agents calmly, with benign manner questioned her conversationally. Conveniently, they didn’t read her her Miranda Rights. And the questioning lasted for hours. Later, when Kennebeck asked why Winner cooperated, Reality reveals her fear. She feared that they might harm her cat Mina. And she considered that she, herself, might be harmed. In other words, she remained calm, however, alone, she felt she had no recourse but to speak to them. Both Thomas Drake and John Kiriakou, who understand the terror of interrogation, back Reality. Pointedly they and others discuss that the moment the FBI stood on her property, unofficially they cast the net to pressure an arrest. Reality knew that. They had all of the information they needed before they went to her house because of The Intercept.

Reality Winner in 'United States vs. Reality Winner,' 2021 SXSW FF (courtesy of Codebreaker Films)
Reality Winner in ‘United States vs. Reality Winner,’ 2021 SXSW FF (courtesy of Codebreaker Films)

After the arrest, Reality’s parents held protests and spoke to the media. Taking a stand for our free elections, punished with a five-year prison sentence, seems harsh and politically motivated under the guise of “endangering national security.” A foreign power endangered national security. Reality blew the whistle and told the public to heighten the alert to national security. Indeed, those like Paul Manafort, Roger Stone, Michael Flynn convicted for their criminal service to protecting Trump paved the way for Russian meddling and quid pro quos. Yet, Reality’s service to our democracy and the American people in warning us about breaches in election security deserves jail for being a traitor. The reversal is mind-boggling.

Kennebeck highlights Reality’s background, military service, brilliance with languages and qualifications. Indeed, she deserved her high security clearance. In contrast the former administration handed out security clearances undeservedly to unqualified friends and family like candy. On the one hand Reality leaks a document jeopardizing her clearance for a vital moral imperative. Anonymously, she made public election penetration by a foreign power. That attack by Russia remains an extreme danger for our democracy. However, in a corrupt, criminal political culture, the morally bankrupt and corrupt distort right from wrong. Thus, Reality’s justified, heroic action to preserve our elections, the corrupt in the courts and the Department of Justice (Trump) judged as a crime.

Ironically, Kennebeck interviews Edward Snowden from his perch in Russia, the place of the meddling. His presence as a former whistleblower rings hollow. In contrast Thomas Drake who supports Reality with the true grit of one who has been through suffering and retaliation, who stayed and fought for his nation, deserves a National Medal of Freedom. Of course, this won’t happen. However, an impartial, non partisan eye would consider it and for John Kiriakou also. But above all, Reality Winner indirectly delivered our 2020 election alerting us that Russia meddling occurred and it must not happen again. In helping to preserve our democratic process of free elections, she lost her vote. If that isn’t worthy of a National Medal of Freedom, I don’t know what is.

In United States vs. Reality Winner the director raises vital questions.When does leaking a document serve the public interest? Should exposing corruption be retaliated against? Indeed, the film levels judgment against those corrupt who support Reality’s jail time, despite the law breaking and hypocrisy of the former administration. Kennebeck’s laudatory work is a must see. Look for updates on this website about the next screenings. https://www.codebreakerfilms.com/

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