Reality check: There but for a last-minute cancellation go I

Last week twenty-six-year-old Reality Winner was sentenced to five years in prison for leaking a classified document to the press.

The document in question--the nature of which was tellingly left out of the official criminal case against her and out of most media coverage--was a report on an NSA investigation into specific actions of the Russian government aimed at influencing the 2016 election in the United States.

Let's get one thing straight right off the bat here. Russia and the United States have been meddling in each other's elections for half a century--at the very least. This is not earth-shattering news to people in intelligence and media circles. 

Reality Winner.jpg

The thing about this particular document is that the report was warranted, but it was being suppressed. Essentially, you have a report saying that the Russians hacked into voting systems to influence the election in favor of Donald Trump, who then won and has since fired or threatened to fire multiple persons involved in investigations of the meddling. 

So, this young woman is going to prison for leaking a report that was being suppressed for clearly corrupt and unethical reasons. It was a timely and necessary warning of danger to the nation. 

People look at the baby-faced pictures of this pretty young woman and some say she's a traitor who broke the necessary code of secrecy she swore to. Others see a hero who put her life on the line to protect her country and is now willing to pay the price, even if it is unjust. 

I just see a young woman who could so easily have been me. And my stomach seizes up. 

May 1998

The phone on my dorm-room desk rang. When I answered a man's voice was on the line. He gave a name but it went right out of my head when he said the next words "from the CIA."

A thrill of adrenaline shot through me and intensified as he continued to speak. Yes, it was that CIA and he specifically wanted to talk to me, a senior in linguistics at a small university in the Midwest known for only one thing of note--having been a quiet training ground for intelligence operatives during the Cold War. 

I'd heard the stories from our old professor, a former CIA agent himself. The students in our tiny Old Church Slavonic classes loved it when he tossed the xeroxed grammar pages, lit a cigarette and proclaimed that today he'd tell stories about adventures in the old Soviet Union instead. 

But that was all in fun. This was the late 90's, and no one knew that the Cold War was over better than we did. 

And yet, the CIA was calling me. 

Creative Commons image by Jamie of

Creative Commons image by Jamie of

I wasn't fooled the year before when our professors told us we would now be studying Arabic in the Slavic linguistics department and it would be marked down vaguely as "a Slavic language" on our transcripts.

I snickered with my fellow students. Oh, how secret it all was. 

None of us was planning to work for intelligence or national security agencies as far as I knew. Least of all me. 

I was politically progressive, a scholarship kid from the backwoods of Eastern Oregon. I planned to go into journalism, travel Eastern Europe and write gritty magazine stories about social justice and war. I didn't care that such jobs don't pay. I was in it for the adventure.

And a discussion with a CIA recruiter was just that to my twenty-two-year-old self--an adventure. 

So, I'll admit that I led him on a little. He wanted to meet me at a Chicago job fair I had signed up for because Reuters was scheduled to be there. Thinking it might be an interesting experience, I agreed to stop by the CIA booth--though it was hilarious news to me that they had such a thing. 

The next day the DIA called. 

The Defense Intelligence Agency is a less famous cousin of the CIA. Most lay people don't realize it but there are more than a dozen US intelligence agencies. 

A few days after that Reuters cancelled. 

The trip to Chicago for the job fair would cost me about $70 and as I mentioned I was a scholarship kid. Before I came to that university four years earlier I hadn't even held that much money in my hand at one time. So, fun as it might have been, without a real reason to go, I cancelled too.

And the CIA--and the DIA--called again... and again. By this time the adrenaline was no longer fun. There was some gentle recruiting pressure. They each offered to pay for my trip. I'd heard of people being trapped by recruiters back home, where several of my peers had taken the military route out of poverty. 

My tune changed abruptly and I told them simply and in no uncertain terms that I wasn't interested and that I was going into journalism.

In one last-ditch effort the CIA recruiter said, "We have plenty of journalists working for us."

My hand was shaking. Yes, I knew they did even then.

And I would come to bitterly resent that fact when I did become an international journalist. Once I was kicked off of a bus on a remote and freezing mountain road in South America because someone suspected I might be just such a CIA agent mascarading as a journalist and a reporter friend was killed in Afghanistan on similar suspicion. 

I didn't go to Chicago and while I did learn to get along quite well with some intelligence people as sources once i was an reporter with a wide variety of contacts, I never went down that road.


But Reality Winner did. She too was a thinker and a linguistics student. I can't know her reasons but her published comments lead me to believe that national security work wasn't always her plan. In media interviews her family sounds hauntingly like mine. 

Even her name, which may sound odd to many people, reminds me of my roots. My middle name is Meadowlark. One brother is Forest and the other is Skye. We had that kind of parents too. 

And I know one thing without a doubt. If I had taken that road and if I had come across such clearly damning evidence of corruption and crime threatening the very bedrock of our democracy, I certainly hope I would have done something about it. 

It could so easily have been me in those fetters and it could easily have been my mother holding back tears on the news.