Three days before Americans voted last November, Reality Winner joked with her sister online that Moscow’s efforts to influence the US presidential election could have an upside for her as a keen weightlifter.
“When we become the United States of the Russian Federation,” she said on Facebook, “Olympic lifting will be the national sport.”
Seven months later, Winner, 25, called home to Texas on Saturday to let her family know that the Russian hacking saga had ended up landing her in a far more serious situation.
“She said that she had been arrested by the FBI and that she couldn’t really talk about it,” her mother, Billie Winner-Davis, told the Guardian in a telephone interview. “I am still in shock.”
Two days later, and having rushed to Georgia for Winner’s first court appearance on Monday for charges of leaking a classified document to reporters, her family remains confused.
Winner-Davis said she was unaware that her daughter had allegedly already admitted, when questioned, to taking the top-secret document. Nor had she heard of the Intercept, the media outlet reported to have been the leak’s destination. And she really did not know why Reality would have done it.
“I never thought this would be something she would do,” Winner-Davis said. “I mean, she has expressed to me that she is not a fan of Trump – but she’s not someone who would go and riot or picket.”
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Winner’s posts on social media over recent months suggest, however, that she, like many other Americans, had become increasingly agitated over some extraordinary developments in national politics.
She posted disparagingly on Facebook about Donald Trump’s pledge to build a wall along the Mexican border, about his draconian criminal justice plans, and about his assault on the Environmental Protection Agency. In February, she referred to the president as “piece of shit”.
Prosecutors allege that last month, Winner, who was working for the defense contractor Pluribus International Corporation, printed an NSA document detailing how Russia had hacked a voting equipment vendor in Florida and was trying to breach local election systems right up until the days before November’s vote.
Winner was born in Texas in December 1991. She was raised in Kingsville, a small city in the south of the state, about 40 miles from Corpus Christi. She has a sister, Brittany, who is studying for a PhD in Pharmacology and Toxicology at Michigan State University and did not respond to an email.
Reality began working for Pluribus in Augusta, Georgia, in February this year, according to court filings. She previously served in the US air force since January 2013 and held a top-secret security clearance.
Her mother said Reality had been a linguist for the air force. “She speaks the middle eastern languages – Farsi, Dari and Pashto,” said Winner-Davis, who laughed when asked if she had taught them to her daughter. “No, she did it all on her own,” she said.
Winner-Davis said that her daughter had joined the military soon after graduating from H M King high school. As well as being bright academically, she excelled in tennis and athletics. “But she had gotten a little tired of school,” said her mother, and decided against continuing with college.
Winner appeared to be enjoying Augusta, posting photographs to Instagram of good meals she had eaten and videos of herself happily working out. She recently took a trip to Belize. Then her spell in Georgia was abruptly cut short over the weekend.
On Monday evening, her mother struggled to say whether her daughter’s alleged leak would constitute an act of bravery or a painful mistake. “I don’t know, I don’t know,” Winner-Davis said. “I don’t know what the hacking thing all means. Has it made a difference in the election? Who knows.”
Her family knows little except that they are bewildered and concerned about the possible 10-year prison sentence that Winner could receive if convicted. “She’s a beautiful girl,” said her mother. “Everyone who meets her loves her, and she’s kind.”
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