I’ll probably get clipped for saying this — I may even deserve it! — but after reading Kerry Howley’s NYMag profile, I think Reality Winner and Heather Heyer (killed by a Nazi in Charlottesville) would’ve been friends. “Not every leaker is an ideological combatant like Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning. Reality Winner may be the unlikeliest of all”:
Reality Winner grew up in a carefully kept manufactured home on the edge of a cattle farm 100 miles north of the Mexican border in a majority-Latino town where her mother, Billie, still lives. From the back porch, a carpet of green meets the horizon, and when a neighbor shoots a gun for target practice, a half-dozen local dogs run under the trailer to hide. Billie worked for Child Protective Services, and in Ricardo, Texas, the steady income made her daughters feel well-off; the fact that they had a dishwasher seemed evidence of elevated social standing. Billie, a chatty redhead with the high-pitched voice of a doll, supported the family while her husband, Ronald, she says, “collected degrees.” It was Ronald who named Reality. The deal had been that Billie got to name their first — Brittany — but their second was his to choose. He noticed, on a T-shirt at their Lamaze class, the words I COACHED A REAL WINNER. He wanted a success story and felt that an aspirational name would increase his chances of producing one. Billie did not object; a deal is a deal.
Ronald was intellectually engaged, though never, during his marriage, employed, and Reality’s parents separated in 1999, when she was 8. Two years later, when the Towers fell, Ronald held long, intense conversations about geopolitics with his daughters. He was careful to distinguish for them the religion of Islam from the ideologies that fueled terrorism. “I learned,” says Reality, “that the fastest route to conflict resolution is understanding.” She credits her father with her interest in Arabic, which she began studying seriously, outside school and of her own accord, at 17. It was this interest in languages that eventually drew her into a security state, unimaginable before 9/11, that she chose to betray. Fifteen years after those first conversations with her father, Reality’s interest in Arabic would be turned against her in a Georgia courtroom, taken as evidence that she sympathized with the nation’s most feared enemies…
No one was surprised when Reality’s sister, Brittany, went on to college, absurd amounts of college, such that she walked out of Michigan State with a Ph.D. in pharmacology and toxicology last year. But Reality had then, and has now, a skepticism of academic degrees, which she recently described to me as “hundred-thousand-dollar pieces of paper that say you’ve never had a job.” (“It’s interesting,” her mother notes, “because of her father?”) She wanted her life to start. She wanted to make the biggest difference she could, as soon as she could. It wasn’t until she was getting on the bus for basic training that she told her mother she’d applied to engineering school at Texas A&M–Kingsville, received a full scholarship, and turned it down.
Based on her test scores, Reality was selected to be a cryptolinguist, which is to say she was tapped to help the military eavesdrop on people speaking languages other than English. She wanted Arabic, but the ones assigned to her were Dari and Farsi — languages of use to a military vacuuming up conversations from Afghanistan and Iran. She would spend two years becoming fluent and another year in intelligence training before she was sent to Maryland’s Fort Meade. Along the way, she’d be one of a few students admitted to a selective program in Pashto, yet another language in which she would become fluent.
In Maryland, her life, according to those closest to her, involved an exceptionally punishing exercise regimen, volunteer work, and 12-hour shifts listening to the private conversations of men and women thousands of miles away. There was also anxiety. Reality worried about global warming. She worried about Syrian children. She worried about famine and poverty all over the globe. Highly critical of her carbon-spewing, famine-ignoring fellow citizens, she nevertheless thought her humanitarian impulses were compatible with the military’s mission, and wished her fellow Airmen were not just more competent in their jobs but more motivated to do them well, to save the vulnerable from acts of terror…