Is Reality a Winner?

Reality, the new film about whistleblower Reality Winner, who secreted a single NSA classified document to The Intercept, while working for military contractor Pluribus in 2016, is a peculiar depiction of her arrest by the FBI and her confession to them without a lawyer present. The film emphasizes that its dialogue is based entirely on a transcript of the FBI interrogation at Winner’s home on June 3, 2017. There are some cutscenes to her Pluribus office cubicle, where Fox News is on “all the time” (FBI Director Comey has been fired by Trump), and where we will watch her stuff the folded classified article down her panty hose to sneak it out. The document purportedly provides “proof” that the Russians interfered with the 2016 US presidential election. There’s some dramatic visualization, but it’s almost entirely a re-enactment of the recorded conversation between Winner and the feds.

Reality stars Sydney Sweeney, who has played to critical success in The Handmaid’s Tale (2018), Euphoria (2019), and The White Lotus (2021). Agent Garrick and Agent Taylor, the FBI agents, are played by Josh Hamilton and Marchánt Davis. Winner has a cat and a foster dog, who hates men (the previous owner beat her). She lives in a seemingly quiet residential neighborhood of Augusta, Georgia, although we discover that she was recently accosted by a stranger as she returned home. She has three weapons in her house for protection — a pink AR-15, a 9 Glock, and a 15 gauge. (Agent Taylor, a black man, quips in response to her cache of weapons, “You sound like my house.”) Once the dog is put in a cage out back, the search warrant is executed (a small army of feds show up for the search) and the interview/interrogation of Reality Winner takes place.

What’s happened is that The Intercept has published a highly valued whistleblower document that derives from the NSA and purports to detail how the Russians set up an operation to meddle in the 2016 presidential election by contacting voting officials and gaining access to voting machinery, with a view to changing voting results. The top secret report, dated May 5, 2017 “is the most detailed U.S. government account of Russian interference in the election that has yet come to light,” claims the Intercept. Reality Winner was outraged when she saw this NSA document online at her Pluribus office and, as she describes in the film, she couldn’t fathom how this information of such public importance had not made it to the MSM. The suggestion being that Winner feels that the NSA document is suggesting that the Russians helped put Donald Trump in the White House. This is what president Obama had been implying in the days leading up to Trump’s January 2017 inauguration, while he told viewers that the US could “do stuff” to Putin.

At the time of the piece, The Intercept featured the prize-winning journalists who’d found the alternate-to-the-MSM news site, Glenn Greenwald (No Place to Hide), Jeremy Scahill (Blackwater), Laura Poitras (Citizenfour), as well as defector star reporters from the MSM, such as James Risen and Eric Lichtblau (the NYT had quashed, as a favor to NSA head Michal Hayden, their bombshell StellarWind story in the run-up to the 2004 presidential election; StellarWind would not be reported in detail for another nine years when Ed Snowden revealed everything), and even the editor-in-chief, Betsy Reed, had come from now-respectable lefty stock, The Nation (they were somewhat edgier in the days of Alexander Cockburn’s Beat the Devil columns).

The FBI interrogation of Reality takes place at the back of the house in a spare, clean well-lighted room. They are all standing, until towards the end, when Reality breaks down. As a script of how the feds play it, it is excellent; in this case, their good cop / good cop approach is designed to allow the officers to probe her emotions around the periphery, looking for fissures they can exploit, without ever putting her on the defensive. Reality gets comfortable and settles into denying that she’s done anything wrong.

Although the actors did a reasonably good job with the re-enactment, there are few creative flourishes.  Probably they even listened to the tape, so basically did a mimic job here. Sydney Sweeney was svelte and suave and an attractive proxy for Reality, but no Oscars are coming her way for this; it wasn’t what you’d call a euphoric experience, angst-ridden neither. I was trying to remember what the 80-odd minute scene reminded me of.  All I could think of was Clint Eastwood’s 2019  depiction of the FBI interview of Richard Jewell, the security guard at Centennial Park during the July 1996 Olympics in Atlanta who was falsely accused of setting off a bomb that killed people. That interview was at Jewell’s home and followed a similar pattern of semi-scripted questions designed to make Jewell rat himself out. But this ain’t that.

Since we know the outcome of the interview (arrest and conviction), one wonders what import the film was trying to deliver. I found it worth watching, if for no other reason than I didn’t carefully follow the Reality Winner whistleblowing saga.  Maybe her name put me off, laughing; I can be shallow, too. This was a chance to understand the facts of the case. Strange film. Nothing really happens for the first 25 minutes or so. We know that when the FBI arrives, it ain’t no fishing expedition: They got a warrant (car, cellphone, house) and probable cause and have already narrowed her down as the prime suspect of the crime that they want her to tell them more about, without them telling her what the allegation is right away. She fully cooperates with The Man; no lawyer is summoned; they don’t suggest that she call one. The dialogue begins to tighten:

Special Agent Garrick: Okay. Uhm-and I mean, you’ve kind of already answered this-have you ever taken anything out of, uh, the NSA facility? I mean, you mentioned the PKI, but –

RW: Yes.

SAG: -outside of that, have you ever taken anything out of the facility?

RW: No.

SAG: No? Uh, whether it’s a piece of paper. Have you downloaded anything? Emailed anything out?

RW: No.

SAG: No? Okay. Mm.


SG: So you’re positive you’ve never printed anything out that was outside of your work role?

RW: Trying to think.


SG: Okay. Reality, what if I said that I have the information to suggest  that you did print out stuff that was outside of that scope?

RW: Okay. I would have to try to remember.

Then Agent Taylor brings the interview to a pause, seems to give Reality a chance to lawyer up, when he outs the cat from the bag:

Reality-uh-you know-we obviously know a lot more than-than what we’re telling you at this point. And I think you know a lot more than what you’re telling us at this point. I don’t want you to go down the wrong road. I think you need to-to stop and think about what you’re saying and what you’re doing. Uhm, you know-I-I think it’s a-an opportunity to maybe tell the truth. Because, uh, telling a-telling a lie to an FBI agent is not going to be the right thing.

It’s time to lawyer up. But, crucially, she goes on to confess. And in the end, after all is banally said and said, and Reality offers up her head, Miranda is surely too late to matter, if she continues. She continues. They ask her about a previously unexamined incident at another federal facility, where she previously worked, involving a thumb drive, which she seemed to be scheming to use to exfiltrate secret information from a server. She admits she tried but failed and “threw the stupid thumb drive away.” So, with the PKI, the NSA document, and now this thumb drive incident, the FBI has established a pattern of criminal intent.

They circle back to the motivation behind the Intercept subscriber’s desire to fold and tuck the secret NSA document down her pantyhose (the scene is depicted). She’s already told us that she’s “no spy,” and “I wasn’t trying to be a Snowden or anything.” The FBI agents push her to reveal why she ‘went postal’ that fateful day and mailed the top secret NSA document to the Intercept. Fox News, on all the time, doesn’t help. (“For God’s sake, put A1 Jazeera on, or a slideshow with people’s pets,” she recounts her exasperation.) And then the document screams at her: The Russians meddled in our election and may have helped Trump ascend deviantly to the presidency.  Inside her, a tea kettle lost its mind and blew its steamy whistle. How come They weren’t reporting this information about spear-phishing and last minute shenanigans at the polls? Why? Why? Reality whips out a stamp and licks it. We’ll see ‘bout dat.

The five-page document was published online at Intercept and is deeply uninteresting. It is full of hesitant analytical language and comments that suggest caution to conclusions drawn. We read words: “likely used data (p.1),”  “potentially used (p.2),” “ostensibly associated with  (p.2),” “presumably with the purpose of (p. 2),”  “appeared to be designed (p.2),”  and “it is likely that (p.3).”  And the top secret is sprinkled commentary which generally runs along tis flavor line:

Given the content of the malicious email it was likely that the threat actor was targeting officials involved in the management of voter registration systems. It is unknown whether the aforementioned spear-phishing deployment successfully compromised the intended victims, and what potential data could have been accessed by the cyber data.

Where Reality saw as under-reported villainy, I saw a chance for a chuckle festival. WTF garbage is this I wondered as I read, and why did Intercept publish a document from NSA and categorize it in their lede as evidence of anything? I’m a subscriber, too, I thought. What about me and my needs? Check it out:

RUSSIAN MILITARY INTELLIGENCE executed a cyberattack on at least one U.S. voting software supplier and sent spear-phishing emails to more than 100 local election officials just days before last November’s presidential election, according to a highly classified intelligence report obtained by The Intercept.

What, are you shitting me? This is Voice of God nonsense. True because they say so. God, here, is the NSA and all its presumed moral authority, backed by collected (illicitly, little doubt) data points and packages that Ed Snowden, the inspiration for the establishment of The Intercept, referred to in the title of besieged memoir as a Permanent Record. Think: God and Judgement Day and the shit you posted or allowed on your timeline years ago now coming back like that proverbial little red rooster coming home to fuck you.  Had they already forgotten Risen’s Intercept piece about his tenure at the NYT that included the paper’s kowtowing to the NSA and killing the important StellarWind story?  Have I gone mad? Am I to end up lost as Lear without a fool to see me home?

What Reality had right was the question of how it is possible that this material never made it to the MSM? It’s that fucking banal. But, as it is so hesitant, it never would have gotten past decent editing. The article did go on to reassure the public (while, at the same time, undermining the value of the top secret report), by confidently stating:

That review did not attempt to assess what effect the Russian efforts had on the election, despite the fact that “Russian intelligence obtained and maintained access to elements of multiple US state or local electoral boards.” According to the Department of Homeland Security, the assessment reported reassuringly, “the types of systems we observed Russian actors targeting or compromising are not involved in vote tallying.”

So, in other words, the Russians weren’t really meddling in the election a couple days before, as implied, and as grasped by Reality, after all. For a moment, I felt like the love-glowy Jesus crucified between two thieves — the “loveable” Turd Blossom, Karl Rove, who provided us with the prospect of a future of rolling pearlharbors, and his even more loveable progenitor, Charles Colson, who, when he was released from the federal pen for his role in Watergate, was allowed to vote in the 2000 Florida election, despite so many of his fellow felons, all black, having been denied by Jeb Bush’s regime.

What’s immediately a wonder is how Intercept subscriber Reality Winner missed out on Glenn Greenwald’s pieces that laughed at and excoriated the Russiagate disinformation campaign that flooded the MSM and was assisted by networks hiring members of the Intelligence Community (IC), such as the liar-liars John Brennan and James Clapper who provided play-by-play claptrap.  Intercept co-founder Greenwald would eventually quit the publication, citing its “censorship” of a piece he wrote in October 2020, a couple of weeks before the election showdown between Trump and Joe Biden.  Greenwald, as the NY Post had already done, wanted to flout evidence of Biden family corruption found on a laptop computer left at a shop by Hunter.  Greenwald hissed at the diss:

The final, precipitating cause is that The Intercept’s editors, in violation of my contractual right of editorial freedom, censored an article I wrote this week, refusing to publish it unless I remove all sections critical of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, the candidate vehemently supported by all New-York-based Intercept editors involved in this effort at suppression.

The censored article, based on recently revealed emails and witness testimony, raised critical questions about Biden’s conduct. Not content to simply prevent publication of this article at the media outlet I co-founded, these Intercept editors also demanded that I refrain from exercising a separate contractual right to publish this article with any other publication.

The controversial blogger left folks wondering if he preferred four more years of Trump over the grizzled Joe. Did he mean to play James Comey at the last minute, who probably did more to harm Hillary than any pretended Russian involvement in her electoral demise?

But, more importantly, investigative journalist Greg Palast had already quite convincingly provided stats and analysis that detailed how Trump had stolen the 2016 by means of Republican secretaries of state determining at the last minute which provisional and mail-in votes would count, mostly from Democratic-leaning minorities (Blacks, Latinos and Native Americans) and university students. Palast showed how this had been an especially effective strategy in the so-called swing states. Trump’s enablers had done it in 2016 and they would do it again in 2020, he argued.

Indeed, Trump was caught on tape trying to squeeze more votes than he was entitled to by ‘losing’ some minority ballots out of voting officials in Georgia (they are considering going after him for it). The strategy is so effective, because, technically, it’s legal to question how chad hangs. Dang, but Trump, despite extra scrutiny of votes, almost won in 2020 anyway (four states had to be recounted). The Russians? How about the Republicans, instead? With the help of the Democrats.

But funnier, Trump has more recently complained that voting machines had been meddled with in 2020 by nefarious agents of cynicism on the Left (presumably) to keep him from returning to his Rightful throne. Trump specifically accused Dominion machines of having flipped and switched — without evidence — losing him hundreds of thousands of votes.  Depressingly obese, according to NPR, only three companies dominate the market of voting software suppliers in the US. They are: Election Systems & Software (ES&S), Dominion Voting System, Hart InterCivic.  The “EVID” references in the NSA top secret document almost certainly refer to ES&S proprietary voting tabulators.

ES&S has a history of tabulation problems that have been reported in the past without reference to Russians. Dominion used to be owned by the notorious Diebold, which helped give us the debacle in 2000 in Florida and again in 2004 in Ohio. However, Anderson Cooper, who Reality Winner is sweet on (she has his signed  picture on her desk at work),debunks the Dominion huff-and-guff. Nevertheless, and as agent Taylor kids Reality, “The man cuts a figure, what can you say?,” despite Anderson’s willy-producing wiles, plenty of scrutiny is going onto the three main voter software suppliers, all owned by Republican partisans.

Further depressing evidence that there has been on-going worry, from citizens who still care, that voting machines are inadequately secured, and that that knowledge is known, and, therefore, rife for exploitation by the crypto-fascists who hate democracy. At the 2018 Def Con Hackathon, according to a piece in US News and World Report,

Thirty-five kids ages 6 to 17 were able to hack into mock voting websites, voting machines and a voter registration database during a hacking conference over the weekend.

Kidsplay.  An embedded video in the piece answers the posed question: Can States Stop Election Hacking?  A year later, a Wired piece tells us that not only have the recommendations for improving security been ignored, in some cases the problem has worsened. The title says it all: Some Voting Machines Still Have Decade-Old Vulnerabilities.

But whether such hacking takes place in great numbers is so far merely speculative.  If it happens, it is clearly most likely to be domestic interference and not foreign. Greg Palast believes we should ignore the call to get all caught up in the kind of voter fraud Trump has alluded to:

Forget the stuff about [hacking voter machines]. And when Trump brings it up, it’s no more credible than when some of my friends on the Left bring it up. It doesn’t happen. Never happened, OK? That’s not the problem. The problem is that we block people from voting. The biggest way you steal votes in America is before the election, not on Election Day. You steal it mainly by blocking people from voting.

And, as we’ve seen with Trump trying to steal 12000 votes in Georgia in 2020, it’s at the registration level and vote count level that we are most likely to catch culprits who can be convicted.

Reality Winner has made quite a fuss about how her whistleblowing was handled by The Intercept, feeling that they did little to nothing to protect her as a source (let alone a more converted whistleblower). In a 2021 Rolling Stone piece, “‘Bitter,’ ‘Angry,’ ‘Enraged’: Reality Winner Blasts the Intercept After 4 Years in Jail,” Tessa Stuart believes it was worse than mere negligence:

While attempting to verify its authenticity with the NSA, an Intercept reporter inadvertently revealed its provenance. According to an FBI affidavit, the document had a telltale crease in it, indicating it had been printed and folded. An FBI agent assigned to the case would later testify that a total of six people had printed the document. The pool of potential leakers was further narrowed to one — Winner — when investigators discovered she’d emailed The Intercept from her work computer.

So, as we see in the film, as soon as Reality mentions that she folded the print-out to put down her pantyhose, she’s toast.  It’s the turning point of the film.

Certainly, Glenn Greenwald believed that the staff at Intercept seriously botched the Winnerlude.  In his intensely incensed first post at his new Substack site, Greenwald laid into The Intercept for its politically-motivated handling of the Reality Winner document and aftermath:

It was Intercept editors who pressured the story’s reporters to quickly send those documents for authentication to the government — because they were eager to prove to mainstream media outlets and prominent liberals that The Intercept was willing to get on board the Russiagate train. They wanted to counter-act the perception, created by my articles expressing skepticism about the central claims of that scandal, that The Intercept had stepped out of line on a story of high importance to U.S. liberalism and even the left. That craving — to secure the approval of the very mainstream media outlets we set out to counteract — was the root cause for the speed and recklessness with which that document from Winner was handled.

This is vintage Greenwald. It’s his best scathe since he was bitch-slapped in Brazil in 2020.

The NSA top secret document is so pointless in its scope and revelation that I had to wonder if Reality hadn’t been used as a tool for some latter day Turd Blossom who set her up. Why call her a whistleblower?  What was she revealing that the government was hiding that we didn’t already know from assertions by Obama and Hillary and the whole Russiagate apparatus? That whole retarded narrative is now falling apart, with indications of potential FBI malfeasance and the recent Durham report that says ‘mistakes were made’ and remembering the Columbia Journalism Review’s piece earlier this year that excoriated the MSM for its slack coverage of the Trump-Russia debacle?

The NSA document itself points to some seemingly ridiculous claims — spear-phishing one’s way to electoral manipulation. This seems insane, even on the surface. It reminds me of the 2012 appearance before Congress of Kevin Mandia (Mandiant) where he told legislators that more than 90 % of Fortune 500 companies he contacted first learned from the US government that their network security had been breached. Consider the implications of that statement.  And he told Congress that the main varmint of the breaches was “spear-phishing.” I had to be propped up and brought out of my whooze with smelling salts.

And Mandiant, shortly after implicating the Chinese in breaching the accounts of the NYT, WaPo and the WSJ, went on to be rewardingly absorbed by FireEye, a company with ties to the CIA, with Kevin Mandia made CEO.  Crowdstrike is associated with the FBI, thanks to Chief Security Officer Shawn Henry’s former role as executive associate director of the FBI who, as he says in his biog on the site, “oversaw all FBI criminal and cyber investigations worldwide.” The tandem have been there for major breaches, most recently the Colonial pipeline farce (the colonial  pipeline ransomware server was discovered in NYC!!! by Mandiant!!!) and, back in 2016, they helped sell the DNC Russia intrusion story together.

Furthermore, Kevin Mandia used to work under Crowdstrike’s CEO George Kurtz at Foundstone, closed down by a scandal described by Fortune magazine’s Richard Behar: “The use of unlicensed software is a global problem — estimates of lost revenues range up to $13 billion a year — but it’s rare among companies whose business is safeguarding intellectual property.”  It’s easy to see how Reality Winner could have been used and abused by such global players. There’s no proof for that, but Winner’s gobsmackment at the mild revelations of a document, only titularly top secret, has one speculating. I must stop. Stop it.

The Reality Winner piece was a losing proposition for The Intercept. Not too long afterward, Greewald quit because he felt he’d been censored by editor-in-Chief Betsy Reed. Along the way, Laura Poitras also quit over a salary dispute (she complained that fellow founders Greenwald and Scahill were getting six figure salaries to her five figures. See my review: Snowden’s Box). And most recently Reed has jumped to the Guardian.

Winner is correct to be outraged to be prosecuted under the Espionage Act.  No doubt more political chicanery is afoot.  Reality does not come off as a sympathetic character (though Sweeney does an excellent job enacting her interrogation transcript), as she lies, when she should have had more sense to call for a lawyer.  And I find it difficult to believe that anyone who is ga-ga over Anderson Cooper could also be a subscriber to The Intercept. C’mon. Stop fucking with me. I get edgy.

John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelancer based in Australia.  He is a former reporter for The New Bedford Standard-Times.