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Reality: History vs. Hollywood


Sydney Sweeney
Born: September 12, 1997
Spokane, Washington, USA

Reality Winner
Born: December 4, 1991
Birthplace: Alice, Texas, USA

Historical Accuracy (Q&A):

What did Reality Winner do in the military?

The Reality true story reveals that from 2010 to 2016, Reality Winner was a member of the U.S. Air Force, achieving the rank of senior airman as part of the 94th Intelligence Squadron. While enlisted, she received two years of language and intelligence training, eventually working as a cryptologic linguist at Fort Meade, Maryland. She was fluent in Dari, Farsi and Pashto, languages spoken in Afghanistan and Iran.

As a member of the controversial drone program during the Obama administration, Winner listened in on intercepted foreign communications and was awarded an Air Force Commendation Medal in part for "aiding in 650 enemy captures, 600 enemies killed in action, and identifying 900 high-value targets." However, she conveyed to 60 Minutes that she began to feel guilt after she saw in the news that their mission had a very high civilian casualty rating. Winner never saw any overseas combat during her time in the Air Force.

Who was Reality Winner working for when she leaked the classified NSA report?

Winner, who left the Air Force in December 2016, took a job at Pluribus International Corporation, a small government contractor that provides services to the National Security Agency (NSA). As seen in the Reality HBO movie, she had already possessed a top-secret security clearance from her time in the Air Force. She was assigned to work at the U.S. Army's Fort Gordon in February 2017, an installation near Augusta, Georgia. Her job was to translate Farsi in documents pertaining to Iran's aerospace program. It was while doing this work that she came across a five-page top-secret document outlining an attempt by Russia to interfere in the 2016 presidential election.

The real Reality Winner is pictured on the left. Actress Sydney Sweeney (right) portrays her in the HBO movie. Photos: Instagram @Reezlie / HBO Films

How did Reality Winner smuggle the top-secret NSA document out of the office?

While conducting our Reality fact-check, we confirmed that in Reality Winner's transcript of her FBI interview, she states that she "folded [the document] in half in my pantyhose."

Who gave her the name Reality Winner?

Her father, Ronald Winner, was the one who named her Reality. He had made a deal with her mother, Billie, that if she got to name their first child — Brittany — then he would get to name their second. He chose the name Reality after being inspired by a T-shirt that he saw in their Lamaze class that read, "I COACHED A REAL WINNER." He wanted to help ensure that his second daughter would be successful, so he felt that the name Reality Winner was a good start. Her mother honored their deal and did not raise any objections.

Her mother, Billie, worked for Child Protective Services and supported the family while her father, according to her mother, "collected degrees." Her parents split in 1999 when she was eight years old. Her father, though intellectually engaged, had never been employed during the marriage. The conversations he had with his daughters about geopolitics are what shaped Reality's view of the world. -New York Magazine

Is Reality Winner a fitness enthusiast?

Yes. The Reality movie true story confirms that in addition to her military contractor job as a translator for the NSA, Winner also worked as a CrossFit instructor and yoga trainer. In order to appear more like Winner, actress Sydney Sweeney trained to put on muscle mass. "I tried to gain as much weight, to bulk up as much as I could," Sweeney told The Hollywood Reporter. "I started working out with a trainer and lifting weights. I did a lot of the exercises that Reality would post on her Instagram. I was trying to go through her routine. She was also a yoga instructor, so I would do yoga. I tried to physically become Reality as much as possible."

Pictured on the left is Reality Winner during a workout in 2017 and on the right is actress Sydney Sweeney. Photos: Instagram @Reezlie / HBO Films

To which media outlet did Reality Winner leak the classified NSA document?

In researching how accurate is the Reality HBO movie, we learned that on May 9, 2017, federal contractor Reality Winner leaked the classified NSA report about Russian election interference to The Intercept, an American news website cofounded by Glenn Greenwald.

What was in the top-secret document that Reality Winner leaked?

The top-secret NSA report that Reality Winner leaked to The Intercept described Russian interference in the lead-up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Specifically, the report, dated May 5, 2017, outlined a Russian military intelligence-initiated cyber attack on a U.S. voting software supplier, and the sending of malware emails to over a hundred election officials. The opening summary from the leaked NSA document is included below:

(TS//SI//OC/REL TO USA, FVEY/FISA) Russian General Staff Main Intelligence Directorate actors [REDACTED TEXT] executed cyber espionage operations against a named U.S. Company in August 2016, evidently to obtain information on elections-related software and hardware solutions, according to information that became available in April 2017. The actors likely used data obtained from that operation to create a new email account and launch a voter registration-themed spear-phishing campaign targeting U.S. local government organizations. The spear-phishing emails contained a Microsoft Word document trojanized with a Visual Basic script which, when opened, would spawn a PowerShell instance and beacon out to malicious infrastructure. In October 2016, the actors also created a new email address that was potentially used to offer election-related products and services, presumably to U.S.-based targets. Lastly, the actors sent test emails to two non-existent accounts ostensibly associated with absentee balloting, presumably with the purpose of creating those accounts to mimic legitimate services.

You can read all five pages of the leaked NSA report below, minus redactions (click to enlarge):

Did the NSA document that Reality Winner leaked prove that Russian interference affected the outcome of the 2016 presidential election?

No, nor does the HBO movie assert that. In reality, the Russian interference outlined in the leaked NSA document did not result in any actual "hacking of the vote." Rather, the leaked document was the most detailed U.S. government account of attempted Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election that had to come to light.

Is The Intercept to blame for why leaker Reality Winner was caught?

The Reality true story confirms that much of the blame for why she was caught fell on The Intercept, the news website to whom Winner leaked the top-secret document. A reporter at The Intercept provided a photocopy of the original document to the NSA for verification, and they turned it over to the FBI. The document contained clues that enabled agents to trace the leak back to Winner, including the fact that it "appeared to be folded and/or creased," which indicated to the FBI that it had likely been printed and carried out of a secure space by hand.

"Reality believed that she was going to be anonymous and that she'd be protected," actress Sydney Sweeney told The Hollywood Reporter. "She truly did not comprehend or even realize until the FBI showed up that that was not the case." Reality Winner's mugshot is displayed below.

The cofounding editor of The Intercept, Glenn Greenwald, called Reality Winner's exposure "a deeply embarrassing newsroom failure," noting on his SubStack that he had been excluded from the process from the start, despite other employees at the outlet being more than happy that he was taking the blame. The Intercept conducted an internal review of its handling of the top-secret document and concluded that its "practices fell short of the standards to which we hold ourselves" (Rolling Stone). In 2020, Greenwald resigned from the organization after editors censored an article he wrote that was critical of President Joe Biden.

On the left is Reality Winner's mugshot and on the right is Sydney Sweeney as Winner in the HBO movie. Photos: Lincoln Co. Sheriff's Office / HBO Films

Did having to listen to Fox News at work stress Reality Winner out so much that it made her steal the classified document?

At the beginning of the HBO movie, we see Reality (Sydney Sweeney) at work surrounded by TVs playing Fox News. While exploring the Reality fact vs. fiction, we confirmed that in real life, when prosecutors pressed her on why she allegedly leaked classified material, it's true that she claimed having to listen to Fox News stressed her out to the point that it contributed to her stealing the documents.

In the FBI Reality Winner transcript filed by prosecutors, Winner said in her interview, "And I guess it's just been hard at work because. And I've-I've filed formal complaints about them having Fox News on, you know? Uh, just at least, for God's sake, put AI Jazeera on, or a slideshow with people's pets. I've tried everything to get that changed." Special Agent R. Wallace Taylor (portrayed by Marchánt Davis in the movie) replies that it doesn't matter which side you're watching, they're all pretty bad. He tells her "the pets may be the way to go," to which she replies, "The pets would have been great. Uhm, but just having that every day, and then... [REDACTED]."

Did Reality Winner hate President Trump?

While researching the true story, we learned that Reality Winner's disdain for President Donald Trump was revealed in social media posts that she made prior to her arrest. Some of this hatred stemmed from the fact that she was a passionate environmentalist who opposed the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines. The following are some of the social media posts she made in which she expressed her feelings about President Trump and other topics. She posted on Twitter under the pseudonym Sara Winners.

There have been protests for months, at both the drilling site and outside the White House. I'm losing my mind. If you voted for this piece of s---, explain this. He's lying. He's blatantly lying and the second largest supply of freshwater in the country is now at risk. #NoDAPL #NeverMyPresident #Resist. | Reality Winner, Facebook, February 2017
There are many Americans protesting US govt aggression towards Iran. If our Tangerine in Chief declares war, we stand with you! | Sara Winners (@Reezlie), Twitter, February 7, 2017
the most dangerous entry to this country was the orange fascist we let into the white house | Sara Winners (@Reezlie), Twitter, February 11, 2017
@kanyewest you should make a shirt that says, "being white is terrorism" | Sara Winners (@Reezlie), Twitter, February 26, 2017

According to the New York Post, on election night 2016, she tweeted, "Well. People suck." after it was clear that Trump was the winner. Her social media footprint includes support for Bernie Sanders, as well as other progressive figures, including Michael Moore. She later responded to Trump's immigration policies by tweeting, "Have you ever met an Iranian?" adding, "Why burn a flag? Donald Trump thinks crosses burn much better." Her Twitter account @Reezlie no longer exists. She now posts under the handle @reazlepuff.

Did Reality Winner suffer from the eating disorder bulimia?

Yes. A Reality movie fact-check reveals that she had been diagnosed with bulimia in her early 20s while still in the Air Force and working in the drone program at Fort Meade. She also battled illness and depression at the time (60 Minutes). During her 2018 sentencing, she told the judge that bulimia is "the most pressing internal challenge in my day-to-day survival" (The Intercept).

Did the FBI question Reality Winner about her pets?

Yes, as seen in the Reality HBO movie, the FBI's interrogation, which unfolded 25 days after she leaked the document, featured almost-comic detours, including questions about her pets, her CrossFit exercise routine, and a recent holiday. There are numerous pages of the FBI's Reality Winner interview transcript dedicated to discussing her dog and her cat. They also asked her about her pink and black AR-15. The movie includes a verbatim account of the transcript of the interrogation, with the redacted words in the transcript acknowledged with moments of glitchy visual distortion.

Why did Reality Winner leak the classified documents?

In an interview with 60 Minutes after her release from prison in 2021, Winner said of leaking the NSA report that outlined Russian interference in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, "I just kept thinking, 'My God, somebody needs to step forward and put this right. Somebody.' ... I knew it was secret, but I also knew that I had pledged service to the American people. And at that point in time, it felt like they were being led astray."

In her petition to the Biden administration for a Presidential Pardon, she said "the people needed to know that a hostile foreign government actually had made serious encroachments into the infrastructure of our elections." Winner was aware that she had violated her oath, but explained, "my breach did not compromise any human assets, or put troops or our allies at risk or in danger."

When she pleaded guilty in Federal District Court in June 2018 to one felony count for illegally sharing classified information, she told the court, "All of my actions I did willfully, meaning I did so of my own free will" (The New York Times).

While considering her motivations for releasing the top-secret NSA document, it's also worth noting the political climate in the country at the time. Hilary Clinton, the Democrat Party, and many in the media were all falsely claiming that Donald Trump had colluded with Russian agents to influence the 2016 election and win the presidency. The movie depicts Reality Winner (Sydney Sweeney) sitting at her desk while working as a contractor for the NSA and FOX News is blaring on the TVs nearby. A female voice on the TVs can be heard saying, "The Russians attacked our democracy and the President's campaign may have participated in it." Clearly, the film is implying that the accusations against President Trump were a motivating factor in Winner's decision to leak the document.

The release of the Durham Report in 2023 proved once and for all that claims that President Trump had colluded with Russia were false and allegedly built on a lie propagated by the Hilary Clinton campaign to essentially paint Donald Trump as a traitor. The Durham Report states, "On July 26, 2016, Clinton allegedly approved a proposal from one of her foreign policy advisors to tie Trump to Russia as a means of distracting the public from her use of a private email server." The Trump-Russia accusation led to a two-year investigation conducted by special prosecutor Robert Mueller that cost tens of millions. Reality Winner leaked the NSA document on Russian interference in early May 2017 during the build-up to the Mueller investigation, which began later that month. To be exact, she leaked the document on May 9, 2017, the same day that President Trump fired FBI Director James Comey.

"What I did when I broke the law was a political act at a very politically charged time," Winner told NBC News in September 2022 from her home near Corpus Christi, Texas.

Are the two FBI agents in the movie, Justin C. Garrick and R. Wallace Taylor, depicted accurately?

Not entirely. Physically, the real R. Wallace Taylor was white, not black. However, the movie draws from the actual FBI transcript of Reality Winner's interrogation on June 3, 2017. "These are the words they said on the day, from the coughs to the sneezes to them clearing their throats," actor Marchánt Davis told The Guardian.

What was Reality Winner's punishment for leaking the top-secret intelligence document?

While performing our Reality fact-check, we learned that Winner was arrested in June 2017 and charged with violating the Espionage Act of 1917, 18 U.S.C. § 793(e), which states that an individual who transmits classified documents can face significant punishments if "the possessor has reason to believe" that the documents "could be used to the injury of the United States or to the advantage of any foreign nation." She pleaded guilty to violating the Espionage Act and on August 23, 2018, she was sentenced to 63 months (5 years and 3 months) in prison, followed by 3 years of supervised home release. Her sentence was the longest ever handed out to a civilian for leaking classified information to the media.

Did Reality Winner express radical beliefs?

In federal court, prosecutor Jennifer Solari said that the FBI found notebooks in Reality Winner's Augusta, Georgia residence in which she made radical comments, including, "I want to burn the white house down, find someplace to live in Jordan or Nepal. Ha ha. Maybe" (New York Magazine). Solari made it clear that the government was not trying to connect Winner to terrorism, telling the judge, "The government is not in any way suggesting the defendant has become a jihadist or that she is a Taliban sympathizer" (CBS News).

In an August 2018 phone interview from prison, Reality Winner told CBS This Morning, "I love my country. I'm a patriot. I care about this country and I wanna make it as good as it can get, but taking little words or statements out of context, you know, they were able to try to damage my character, and it took everything I had not to kind of believe their narrative, because when you're sitting there in that orange uniform and they're the ones telling you who you are, it's surreal. You start to believe them. If I didn't have the support of my family or people around the world saying, 'We see through this,' I would have been lost."

"I was a very introspective individual," Winner told NBC News in September 2022, 15 months after her release. "I wrote down my thoughts. I didn't act on my thoughts and I would read them later and laugh at them."

Did President Trump express support for Reality Winner?

Yes. In a roundabout way, Trump expressed support for Winner in an August 24, 2018 Tweet, stating that her crimes are "small potatoes compared to what Hilary Clinton did!" He called her conviction a "Double Standard" that is "so unfair."

Reality Winner responded to President Trump's Tweet a few days later from prison, telling CBS This Morning, "Even our commander-in-chief, President Trump, has kind of come out and said, 'Wait a minute, this is really unfair. There's this double standard here.'" She continued, "For that, I can't thank him enough, because for 16 months, those words, 'so unfair,' were actually not allowed by either myself, or my team, or my family to really say out in the public. So I just can't thank him enough for finally saying what everybody has been thinking for 16 months."

Is Reality on HBO based on the stage play about Reality Winner?

Yes. The film is directed by Tina Satter and was adapted from her 2019 stage play titled Is This a Room, a reference to one of the questions Reality is asked by her FBI interrogators. -Financial Times

Did Reality Winner serve her full sentence?

While exploring the Reality movie true story, we discovered that in June 2021, Winner was released early from prison to a halfway house due to good behavior. She had spent approximately four years behind bars. After her release from the halfway house, she noted on Twitter that she was still serving her sentence of three years supervised home release and was unable to travel to compete in CrossFit competitions. She is required to report to a probation officer and will remain under court-ordered supervision until November 2024.

Is convicted leaker Reality Winner seeking a pardon?

Yes. On June 29, 2022, Reality Winner's attorney, Alison Grinter, submitted a letter along with Winner's application for a Presidential Pardon request to the U.S. Department of Justice. In Grinter's letter, she asks that the five-year waiting period for the pardon be waived. The contents of the letter again reveal Reality and her lawyer's disdain for the former President, Donald Trump. Written by her attorney on her behalf, it stated, in part:

...the fact that she was given the longest ever sentence at the time for a civilian releasing classified information to the press, was undoubtedly a political choice undertaken to please former President Trump.
The choice to prosecute Reality Winner under the Espionage Act was a statement to Americans and to the world. It was a choice to protect a hostile foreign government that sought to undermine our foundational democratic structure by demonizing the American who brought the public the details of the attack. It was a choice to protect the images of Vladimir Putin and President Trump and make an example of the retribution that would await anyone else in government who might seek to expose the truth.
We are asking that the waiting period be waived on this application for pardon because as the former President has been shown to have had no respect for our democratic institutions and norms and has shown a willingness to subvert, manipulate, and hide the truth, now is the right time to forgive those who brought us the truth when we needed to know it.

As of the writing of this article, the Biden administration has not indicated whether he is planning to pardon Reality Winner prior to the end of his presidency, but the Reality HBO movie will likely help her cause. The Durham Report, which condemned the FBI and exonerated President Trump pertaining to false allegations that he colluded with Russia, could lessen the impact of Reality Winner's appeal for clemency, including her petition to waive the five-year waiting period for a Presidential Pardon. However, given that the Biden administration and many in the media have largely shrugged off the Durham Report, along with the fact that a surprising 44% of Americans still believe that Trump colluded with Russia and that the Steele Dossier is a true story (Harvard CAPS/Harris Poll), Reality Winner's pardon application just might make it to Biden's desk for approval after all.

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