Winner parents: She's afraid she'll be disappeared

“I’m terrified, I’m terrified that she’s not going to be treated fairly,” the mother of accused leaker Reality Sara Winner told CBS News after her daughter’s arrest under the Espionage Act for stealing Top Secret documents and passing them along to a media outlet. Billie-Jean Davis says her daughter is afraid that law enforcement will “make her disappear,” but then at the same time claims that the US government wants to make an example of Winner. “That’s not fair,” she tells CBS:

The mother and stepfather of 25-year-old Reality Leigh Winner, the NSA contractor accused of leaking government secrets, are speaking out about their daughter. The Air Force veteran has been in federal custody since Saturday and faces up to 10 years in prison for allegedly passing a classified document to a news outlet.

Winner’s family says she’s not a traitor. …

“Her words to me were that she was really scared that they would make her disappear,” Davis said. …

“I’m terrified. I’m terrified that she’s not going to be treated fairly and that they’re going to try to make an example of her and that’s not fair. Sorry,” Davis said, crying.

No one wants to denigrate the Davises, who are clearly in pain for their daughter, and who are trying to demonstrate loyalty to her in a crisis, but most of this is sheer nonsense. The US does not “disappear” criminals; that’s something that regimes like Iran do on a regular basis. Perhaps Winner should have kept that in mind when pledging her own loyalty to Iran’s foreign minister Javad Zarif on Twitter. Her stepfather claims in this interview that Winner’s a “patriot,” but pledging support to a regime that regularly declares “death to America” and exposing top-secret material to serve one’s own petty political passions are not the acts of patriots.

So now she’s “frightened” and “really scared,” which pretty much describes anyone after getting caught committing a felony. The charges she faces are not “an insult to her and her service,” as her stepfather declares — they are a legitimate consequence of breaking the law. Anyone with a security clearance gets briefed ad nauseam on the consequences for violating the laws and regulations for handling classified material, and those warnings escalate as the clearance level goes up. A person with a Top Secret clearance will have not just been repeatedly warned about the potential for prosecution for violating the Espionage Act, they will undoubtedly have been briefed on recent prosecutions for such violations, as was common when I held a lower clearance in the mid-1980s. Winner was not some clerical stooge who had no concept of 18 USC 793 and its implications.

As for making an example of Winner, that’s precisely what the government needs to do, especially in this instance. There may be times when a whistleblower needs to go outside the chain of command with classified information to expose a specific instance of government wrongdoing, but Congress is still a much more legitimate option than the media. Even if that is true in principle, that has nothing to do with what Winner did. She wasn’t exposing government wrongdoing after trying to raise red flags internally — she exposed Top Secret information to satisfy her own sense of outrage over the results of an election. If Winner goes unpunished for that, we’ll have a deluge of leaks for similar reasons in every administration from here on out, and every president will serve at the whim of 25-year-old extremists in the intelligence agencies or their contractors. That’s not just untenable, it’s undemocratic — and at its core, un-American.

If the Reality Winners of the world think that it’s unfair to get prosecuted for violating the Espionage Act, then there’s a very good way to avoid being made an example: don’t break the law. And if you do, don’t expect the rest of us to feel much sympathy for your fright, your plight, or your take on the general unfairness of life.