Spoiler alert: We already know that the contract linguist was given the longest prison sentence ever imposed for an unauthorized leak of classified information to the media. What you may not know are the intimate details of the FBI’s transcripts. Now, thanks to an HBO DocuDrama, you do.
The opening scene shows Reality Winner in her cubicle within in a SCIF as a reporter recounts the Attorney General’s recommendation to release James Brien Comey, American lawyer who was the seventh director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) from 2013 until his dismissal in May 2017. Twenty five days later in Augusta, GA, Winner heads to her car to drive home like any other citizen, with pursed lips, pausing at stop signs. The bumper stickers on her car look like most other everyday millennials.
What makes this feature compelling is the disclaimer that “the FBI documented the following events with an audio recorder” and the dialogue from the movie was taken directly from the transcript.
As the two initial FBI agents flip their badges and note “possible mishandling of classified information” as the reason for their visit, with the warrant to search Winner’s apartment and car, Winner is only concerned about her pets inside the home.
The typewriter filling the manuscript on your TV screen along with photographs, audio soundbites, and visuals of Winner’s social media accounts makes you feel like you are a fly on the wall in this true story docudrama.
THE CASE OF REALITY WINNER
Winner was a Pashto, Dari, and Farsi linguist, starting her career in the U.S. Air Force. FBI agents note her impressiveness through the conversation, and her backhanded humor throws comments like “English is hard.”
Working for the National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Pluribus, Winner printed the document that showcased how Russian intelligence hacked a supplier of voting software and tried to break into 100+ local election systems before the polls closed in 2016. She sent the document to The Intercept, and apprehensions were subsequently raised on their handling of the material.
In the film, 37 minutes into recording at 4:07 PM, the feature moves to the back room of Winner’s home where the interrogation took place as other agents photograph personal items throughout the home.
‘Garrick’, one of the FBI agents from the film notes, “So, your clearance just kind of passed through?” after asking how she obtained one and was able to maintain it as a contractor post-military.
With classified leaked documents being a continuing headline as of late, it’s good to remember that the problem isn’t the vetting, and is more so protecting the data in documents and in your facility, but also ensuring you have a workforce qualified for the critical national security function.
REDACTED INFORMATION IN THE MOVIE
Many scenes cut to redacted information which the audience learns of later – a clear Hollywood tactic at tickling the public’s fancy. The audience discovers in the nail-biter film that Winner was looking up NSA Pulse documents about Russia, then printed out a specific article related to Russia’s influence in U.S. elections. (*NSA Pulse is a website for users with a security clearance under the Defense Industrial Base Net and Homeland Security Information Network web portals.)
With the actual search terms redacted from the commentary, Sydney Sweeney, the actress who plays Reality Winner, says she kept it on her desk for three days and then put it in the burn bag.
INSIDER THREAT PROGRAMS
Whether it’s political, financial, or just out-right looney motivations, vetting cannot catch all of these problem children and insider threat programs are what help to weed out the bad apples.
A recent article from the Intelligence and National Security Alliance (INSA) Insider Threat Committee, Emerging Threat Working Group, says that “One apparent reason for the disconnect between the presence of numerous insider threat risk indicators and prevention is a lack – or breakdown – of a holistic insider threat program at the government facility, despite Executive Order 13587.”
Insider threat programs are critical to any company, but especially those doing business with the federal government or agencies supporting national security.
The film ends with the quote that Winner is “the quintessential example of an insider threat.”
While she violated the rules of employment, the DOJ certainly tried to make an example out of her and the violation of her oath to retain classified information within the SCIF. But Hollywood has perpetuated the story of her as a victim, or a whistleblower seeking to inform citizens of Russian activities with respect to U.S. elections.
Eighty-seven minutes into the drama, we see Sweeney playing with a snail on the window as she notes she has a Tor browser, which prevents someone watching your connection from knowing what websites you visit, but it is not a lawless domain. “It was right there, and I didn’t care about myself at that point. Honestly, I figured whatever we were using was compromised. This report would just be a drop in the bucket.”
Treading the line as a “whistleblower” and violating the Espionage Act are two very different things and may be tough when you have access to information outside of the public domain. Keep in mind ‘Reality’ is a true story, with a few degrees of separation from real life events.
My take? I liked the movie. Even though they pulled straight from the recording for the dialogue, it viewed as a story with a consistent plot, climax, etc. I read a review that it was an intense thriller even though you knew the end of the story – couldn’t agree more (it was eerie at parts)!