Federal judge Brian Epps of Augusta, Georgia has denied bail for alleged whistleblower Reality Winner in an aggressively worded ruling that claims the 25-year-old intelligence contractor “hates the United States and desires to damage national security.” Epps also cited social media comments by Winner that she”admires Edward Snowden and Julian Assange” as evidence against her bond request.
Reality Winner faces an Espionage Act charge for allegedly passing classified material to media outlet The Intercept. The documents in question summarise the NSA’s view at the time of evidence suggesting Russia’s military intelligence attempted to interfere in the 2016 US presidential election.
In a ruling that reads like a prosecutor’s character assassination, Epps willfully misrepresents Winner’s statements, accepts government talking points as fact, and adds Winner to “the side of Assange and Snowden” to paint her as a duplicitous traitor who was determined to damage national security. Epps ignores Winner’s six years of service with the Air Force as a translator and ignores the substance of the material she allegedly disclosed in his effort to malign her character. A disinterested judge would observe basic facts about Winner’s case, including the nature of the disclosure and her previous service, rather than the prosecution’s deliberate misrepresentation’s of her casual comments in deciding whether she would be a threat if released on bail. Judges in other US whistleblower cases, it’s worth noting, have managed not to appear quite so partisan.
Epps’ ruling continues to allow the prosecution to set the terms of debate throughout Reality’s case. Back in August, the judge sided with prosecutors in ruling the defense would not be allowed to mention “any information deemed classified by the government, even if it has been widely reported in local, national and international media publications.”
None of this bodes well for Winner’s trial, which is now scheduled for March 2018. Reality will remain in detention until then, with all the hardships that implies. Neither does Judge Epps’ ruling suggest that Reality will receive a fair hearing when her case does finally come to trial, where she faces a potential sentence of 10 years in prison. If the judge is already this predisposed against Winner’s character, and this willing to accept prosecutorial misrepresentations as established fact, how will he fairly adjudicate whether Winner breached the Espionage Act? Not only does Judge Epps appear unwilling to consider that Winner’s alleged leak might have aided public understanding of a major political issue, he seems already prepared to accept the opposite without much debate, that Winner merely sought to harm the United States.
Epps’ ruling is all the more significant given the heavily politicised atmosphere in the United States, led by the Trump Administration’s virulent rhetoric on journalists and their sources. Reality Winner’s is the first media leak prosecution to be brought under a president who has claimed willingness to extend and expand the war on whistleblowers to include prosecution of publishers. It’s reasonable to assume that whatever happens, Winner’s case will give us an indication of the trials ahead for national security reporting in the United States.