Amnesty International USA urges President Trump to release whistleblower Reality Leigh Winner. The COVID-19 pandemic and Winner’s underlying medical conditions underscore the urgent need for President Trump to act without delay. Winner has filed a petition for commutation of her sentence, and it should be considered immediately.
Winner is an Air Force veteran and former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor who pled guilty to “unlawful retention and transmission of national defense information” and was sentenced in August 2018 to over 5 years in prison, with credit for time served since her arrest in 2017. She shared a classified NSA report about Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election with The Intercept.
According to The Intercept, the NSA report showed that “Russian military intelligence executed a cyberattack on at least one U.S. voting software supplier and sent spear-phishing emails to more than 100 local election officials just days before” the election. According to The Intercept, “Russian hacking may have penetrated further into U.S. voting systems than was previously understood”. Yet, despite its clear public interest, the government had failed to make this information public.
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a treaty the U.S. has ratified, protects the right to freedom of expression, which includes the right to seek, receive and impart information of all kinds. While international human right law allows governments to place certain restrictions on their employees to prevent unauthorized disclosures of confidential information, national security cannot be a blanket justification to withhold information about wrongdoing or other information of public interest.
States have a clear obligation under international human rights law to protect whistleblowers who expose wrongdoing that threatens human rights or disclose other information in the public interest from any form of reprisals. Throughout history, whistleblowers have been essential in alerting societies of uncomfortable information governments had wanted to suppress, including human rights abuses, corruption, dangers to public health and the environment, and abuses of public office.
And yet, Winner was charged under the Espionage Act — a deeply problematic law from 1917 that has been used punitively against many other whistleblowers, including Chelsea Manning. As we have seen in other similar cases, Winner was denied the possibility of presenting as a defense in her trial that the disclosure was in the public interest.
Winner’s petition for commutation states that her intention was to act only to inform the public and notes that her disclosure did not jeopardize the security or safety of human lives or made public any strategic information that could have put national security at risk. The petition also points out that Winner has acknowledged and taken full responsibility for her actions.
Winner has already served the majority of her sentence and she has been diagnosed with depression, anxiety and bulimia, conditions that may put her at higher risk in the context of COVID-19. Yet, as her lawyers have told us, she has not received adequate treatment at the Federal Medical Center in Carswell, Texas, where she is being held. To make matters worse, as of May 12th, 2020, the facility has confirmed one death of an incarcerated person due to COVID-19 and one active case.
Prisons are dangerous hotspots for COVID-19. The conditions in which prisoners are held, often in overcrowded facilities and without proper access to sanitation, makes it impossible for detainees to effectively take preventive steps against the disease. In the U.S., as of May 12th, at least 2,818 people held in federal prisons have tested positive for COVID-19 and 50 people held have died.
Given the totality of the circumstances, including the time she has already served, the lack of a public interest defense granted to her and the risk posed by COVID-19, Winner should be released as soon as possible. Almost 15,000 people have signed a petition to President Trump supporting Winner’s release and you can call, Tweet, email and write President Trump reiterating that message.
Of course, Winner is not the only person in US custody who should be freed or at least provided with alternative non-custodial measures, especially in light of COVID-19.
On March 26, 2020, U.S. Attorney General William Barr issued guidelines on releasing people in federal facilities to home confinement in light of COVID-19, taking a number of criteria into account, including age and underlying medical conditions. However, Barr said that as of May 1st “just short of 5,000” people held in federal custody had been released to home confinement.”
This is far from enough. According to The Prison Policy Initiative, as of March 24th, there were 226,000 people in federal prisons and jails, and 2.3 million people confined across the country. Appallingly, the U.S. has approximately 25% of the world’s prison population, more than any other country — and U.S. mass incarceration disproportionately impacts black and brown people, and people experiencing poverty. It’s a human rights crisis, one made even more deadly by COVID-19.
Amnesty International USA has issued human rights guidance related to the release of people in light of COVID-19 — the U.S. should follow it: Those with underlying medical conditions and older people should be immediately considered for alternatives to detention if they do not pose a threat to society, and there should be a presumption of release for people charged with a crime and awaiting trial, as well as of children generally. Governments should also consider amending sentencing guidelines to recommend non-custodial measures for people who have been convicted of lesser criminal offenses and to defer the intake of new arrivals to prison.