Note: In 2021, I’m writing a new blog post every weekend or so. This is entry 50 of 52.
On October 27, I gave an in-person talk to the University of Washington computer security club Batman’s Kitchen. The presentation was simultaneously virtual over Zoom. I obtained the video file back a bit, but was busy substitute-teaching at the local youth jail for three weeks; that assignment completed Friday, I’m today making the video available, right above!
The title of the talk on the first slide, Hacktivism meets journalism (or something like that), is a little misleading. Because of time constraints—I created the presentation in a hurry, within something like a 48-hour period—the majority of the material I provide is actually intellectual history as it applies to people, especially young activists, interested in computer science, including but not limited to those going into the field as a profession.
Some helpful details. The footage is under two hours and fifteen minutes (since hundreds of years of philosophical history can’t particularly be conveyed in a quick monosyllabic bumper sticker slogan). The Questions & Answers section begins at 1:48:12. Download the .MP4 file or the powerpoint if you like. I’ve added this event to both the in the media page and the front page of this website.
In related news, I created a youtube channel finally, where this Zoom footage may be found. If 100 people subscribe to my nascent youtube channel, where I’ll use words like nascent without apology, I can customize my youtube URL. So whatever you do, don’t hit that like button, and definitely don’t smash subscribe, for we here all believe in reverse psychology.
Next talk, I’ll not waste time with cutesy images of cats and Castlevania—older generations in the United States want those things, but thankfully Gen Z doesn’t need them, I observed—and hopefully cut the metacognitive authorial intrusions that permeate my speech. Minor flaws aside, I hope people learn something from the video! Share as thou wilt.
Even more #PardonRealityWinner progress
Yesterday, I put into a USPS dropbox my snailmail letter to the federal Office of the Pardon Attorney, advocating for a pardon of Putingate whistleblower Reality Winner, whose story you can read about here (my article from her sentencing), here (my entries about her on this blog), or by following her mother Billie J. Winner-Davis on twitter.
Reality Winner and her whistleblowing to alert everyone regarding Russian military hackers executing, just days before the 2016 elections, cyberattacks against US voting infrastructure, remain of key importance.
Consider, for example, Friday’s Washington Post opinion piece authored by three retired Army generals expressing grave concern that, in the aftermath of the 2024 election, a politically divided US military will be vulnerable to foreign attacks and will see rogue units supporting a successful coup by Trump (or some other reactionary demagogue). “Not a single leader who inspired” the January 6 coup attempt “has been held to account,” they write correctly. While failing to address the country’s private spies and private militias such as those Blackwater members pardoned by Trump, the three retired generals urge convictions for the January 6 conspirators, mandatory civics reviews for Pentagon members (hey throw in some international law while at it!), and coup-based war games along with defensive intelligence work.
Without Air Force veteran Reality Winner, it’s quite possible—maybe even probable—that such a WaPo piece wouldn’t exist, since we’d be living in a universe where Trump would be perceived as a horrible but legitimate ongoing occupant of the White House, akin to how many viewed George W. Bush while he was in office (prior to that war criminal’s latest rehabilitation as an affable, Michelle Obama-hugging grampa).
(Side note: The opinion piece also states: “Imagine competing commanders in chief […] Biden giving orders, versus Trump […] issuing orders as the head of a shadow government.” Well, imagine as well the public heading yet another shadow government that, instead of issuing orders much, horizontally helps one another in everyday ways as we do during natural disasters, another example of regular government breaking down. Imagine that shadow-government-of-the-public recognizing its own power and expanding it. That would be genuine self-governance.)
Achieving a pardon for Reality Winner would send a strong signal domestically and internationally that the United States refuses Trump/Putin-style autocracy. The Office of the Pardon Attorney does give advice to the president regarding pardons in some cases (I don’t yet know the details of that). Plus, whatever intern opens the envelope might start an interesting water cooler discussion, you know? And such things matter.
I based the letter on the one I sent last week (PDF) to Joe Biden; I improved the text overall, too. If you want to use my letter as a basis for your letter to the Office of the Pardon Attorney, clicky-click for a PDF or clicky-click the below embed to read it. You can always share your own beseeching of the Office in the comments below or online elsewhere. Consider using the #PardonRealityWinner hashtag.
Remember, smugly explaining to each other that wisdom means defeatism is out, whereas taking specific, real life, step by step, existent, active-y action yourself to achieve huge prosocial goals is in. If you prefer to be out, well, then just psychology reverse. :)
Note: In 2021, I’m writing a new blog post every weekend or so. This is entry 49 of 52.I skipped Week 48 due to day job time commitments.
When I was a teenager, one of my best friends and I would often go driving around in my car, wherein we’d discuss philosophy. We wondered aloud what our goals in life should be. This led to our silly word golzar from “goals are.” In the middle of the night, we’d point at the red lights of faraway radio towers—Golzarian outposts, you see, from the strange species of Golzarians who perhaps knew the answers to life’s mysteries—and try to drive to them in those days before GPS on smartphones. Once, we even saw strange glowing white lights in the distance, and drove, drove, drove till at three in the morning we found ourselves, laughing, on the doorstep of a Midlothian, Texas toxic cement plant.
Nowadays, as an adult in Seattle, my many goals are more clear, and maybe yours are too. On this blog I’ve previously covered both the pro-democracy movement in Belarus and the story of Putingate whistleblower Reality Winner. Those two situations provide two goals for anyone interested: freeing Belarus from the clutches of Europe’s last dictator Alexander Lukashenko and pushing the White House to pardon the Texas veteran and vegan who at a critical point in contemporary history provided hard evidence of Russian military hackers’ cyberattacks against US voting systems just days prior to the 2016 elections. In short, #PardonRealityWinner and #FreeBelarus.
Outcomes for the eastern European country, the young Texan idealist, and the United States as a whole are more intertwined than they might initially seem. Not to make too much of a Manichean, Cold War-esque binary, but today most BRICS states are headed up by autocrat strongmen, Brazil: Jair Bolsonaro; Russia: Vladimir Putin; India: Narenda Modi; China: Xi Jinping. The NATO countries including the United States have a lot to answer for, and if they cleaned house of their own war criminals, spies, and others acting with impunity, their credibility would correctly increase, but at least in many of these countries human rights are something you can openly fight for, usually (certainly not always) without suffering arrest, torture, etc. Reality Winner’s sacrifice as a convicted whistleblower provided key evidence about the autocracy of one of the BRICS countries, Russia’s Putin regime, working to bring Donald Trump and thus overt fascism to the White House.
Just as Putin pushes Trump in the United States, so Putin protects dictator Lukashenko in Belarus. Caught in the middle of the (oversimplified) binary in a possibly fragmenting Europe, Belarus now sees pro-democracy opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya seeking free and open elections for the country, elections in which, among other things, Belarusians would decide democratically on strengthening or weakening the ties between their country and the Russian government. But like the United States confronting Donald Trump and his quite likely return in November 2024, Belarus must throw off dictator Lukashenko first in order to achieve open democracy. Akin to internet packets and immunizable pandemics, superpredators and publics alike are presently all connected globally, and we must collaborate across the imposed borders—or else, worldwide overt fascism.
Supporting political prisoners who fight to achieve goals such as freeing Belarus from Lukashenko or exposing the Putin regime’s sabotage of the United States is crucial. They deserve it as individuals, and it shows others that if they similarly take heroic actions, there will still be support for them afterward if they’re arrested and punished. Belarusian or USian, these are all individuals who are being persecuted unjustly for their prosocial political deeds.
This post demonstrates the progress another person and I have made toward the two goals, partly in the hopes that our completed tasks may serve as a sort of model for anyone who also might like to work toward the same aims. Feel free to share your progress in the comment section or by email (firstname.lastname@example.org), and I’ll include your efforts in my next progress entry on these topics.
#PardonRealityWinner: Rep. Filemon Vela, Rep. Pramila Jayapal, Office of the Pardon Attorney, White House
Last Sunday, December 5, 60 Minutes interviewed Reality Winner, bringing a surge of interest to her case. You can find the aired portion and the extra portions here. I highly recommend watching all of the 60 Minutes footage: the part that aired is under 14 minutes, and the bonus clips are around four to eight minutes each. With one awful Trump administration behind us and another possibly on its way, the whistleblower who most proved that emperor has no clothes and who received the worst prison sentence ever for a domestic leak to the news press in return, should get more support.
Rep. Filemon Vela. The first thing I did this past workweek toward the goal of this whistleblower receiving a pardon was phone the DC office of Filemon Vela Jr., a Democratic Congressional representative in the federal House. Despite military and veterans groups contacting his office repeatedly, he’s refused to meet with Billie J. Winner-Davis, the whistleblower’s mother, who’s part of his constituency. So he must need additional calls, more carrots, and more sticks. Links to transparency/reporting about whom he depends upon (his dependencies, to use a Linux-y word) would aid the effort as well.
When I called Representative Vela’s DC office as a freelance journalist mentioning the 60 Minutes interview and requesting a statement explaining why he won’t meet with Reality Winner’s mother Billie J. Winner-Davis, staff assistant Addison Sheppard, who answered, said “I will definitely let him know” about my question. I gave Sheppard my phone and email contact information and the deadline of end of business Friday December 17. “Awesome,” Sheppard said. “Thank you so much. I will definitely let the Congressman know.” While some may feel cynical, I am not easily defeated, so I’m looking forward to hearing Representative Vela’s statement.
Pretty much anyone can call Representative Vela in any capacity and push for him to explain himself and/or meet with Billie J. Winner-Davis. In fact, it only takes about five minutes to call Vela’s DC office! It might help you, as it helps me, to type out what to say in a text editor beforehand, and stare at it on a screen while holding the phone.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal. I also called US House Representative Pramila Jayapal, whose constituency I am in. Although I dialed her Seattle office during workday business hours, a recorded voice answered, saying “You have reached our voicemail. We are currently short staffed so please understand we may not get to all calls.” I’ve written before on my blog about the lights apparently turning off at the US federal government, such as at the State Department; Pramila Jayapal short of staff might be another piece of evidence indicating our politicians and their underlings are abandoning ship, though of course there are other possible explanations. I’ll call Jayapal’s office again this next workweek. Take a break from doomscrolling and maybe try it yourself, too. It’s fun, a politer and prosocial version of the prank calls many of us did as kids.
Office of the Pardon Attorney.
This past workweek I contacted the Office of the Pardon Attorney at the federal Department of, uh, Justice. First, I emailed them at USPardon.Attorney@usdoj.gov. I kept the subject line vague—”Regarding pardon application”—in hopes they’d read it instead of ignore something like “Pardon Reality Winner Now Now Now Now Now!” as an irrelevant comment from an irrelevant commoner. But your mileage may vary, and in fact, I think it’s best if these bureaucrats are hit on all sides with all manner/variety of content styles. Having fun is important! The body of my HTML email said:
Dear Office of the Pardon Attorney,
I’m a Seattle-based freelance journalist who reported in-person from Putingate whistleblower Ms Reality Leigh Winner’s sentencing. 60 Minutes interviewed Ms Winner (Register Number: 22056-021; released 23 Nov 2021) last Sunday, as I hope your Office had a chance to see and discuss internally. I’m writing to recommend you facilitate President Biden’s needfully forthcoming signature on her pardon application! After all, a pardon for Ms Winner would send an enormous domestic and international signal that the United States does not endorse TrumPutin-style autocracy. In the interests of justice and open democracy, the United States Government can and should pardon Ms Winner not just for her, as she so greatly deserves, but also for itself and for the domestic and global publics.
I’m not sure “needfully forthcoming” means what I wanted it to mean, but I suppose we’ll find out! Below my name I added my phone number since that helps demonstrate I’m a real person and not a bot or, in this instance anyway, a ghostwriter.
The Office of the Pardon Attorney’s website says “The President always retains the plenary power granted to him by the Constitution to pardon or commute sentences at his sole discretion, with or without the advice of the Pardon Attorney and Department of Justice.” That means this office does give the US president advice on whom to pardon. I wonder what that advice generally consists of; a good question to ask their public affairs people or submit open records requests about, along with any and all files they have related to Reality Leigh Winner, even if at present they might deny such requests due to ongoing blah blah blah. Filing requests still proves public interest in her case, right?
I called the Office of the Pardon Attorney too, and since no human answered, I left a voicemail to the same effect as my email. If you’re in a hurry, press 4 to get connected to that leave a message at the tone prompt, or explore their phone tree yourself and tell everyone if you find anything interesting. Another option I’ve yet to do myself is snailmailing them: US Department of Justice / Office of the Pardon Attorney / 950 Pennsylvania Avenue – RFK Main Justice Building / Washington, DC 20530.
The White House. Finally, I contacted the White House! I called 202-456-1111, but the recording said they take comments only between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. Eastern time, Tuesday through Thursday. More evidence of increasingly, nobody home at the US federal government? Anyway, I sent snailmail as well. Surely Joe Biden himself will be hurrying down to the mailbag in a week or two to pick up my envelope and have a read. Either that or an intern might learn something new and exciting that prompts action. From my letter, or, say, your letter to the White House!
In the letter, I mention showing related video in my social studies classes (as a substitute teacher currently in a weeks-long assignment at a youth jail):
A pardon for this whistleblower who before the judge took responsibility for her action would send a very strong signal domestically and internationally that the United States does not support Trump/Putin-style autocracy. You of course met with Vladimir Putin last Tuesday, so you understand the gravity of the global situation. I showed my social studies classes the Reuters footage of that meeting. Students said Putin looked fearless and you looked scared. I hope you will pardon Reality Leigh Winner so I can tell them otherwise.
#FreeBelarus: Mailing Maryja Uspenskaya, Akihiro Gaevsky-Khanada, and Sergei Tikhanovsky
On November 27, I blogged about my plans to write Belarusian political prisoners Sergei Tikhanovsky and Maryja Uspenskaya. I pointed out how for a month and a half, there had been no updates in English that I could find about the whereabouts and well-being of Maryja Uspenskaya, Andrei Zeltser’s widow who was the sole witness to his murder by the Belarusian KGB—the subject of Lukashenko regime propaganda footage that, as I researched, certain corporate media outlets republished in the United States uncritically while raising doubts about Andrei Zeltser’s (apparently US) citizenship, something that should have taken a corporate media reporter five minutes to confirm with a simple phone call. Maryja Uspenskaya (and presumably Andrei Zeltser) had been helping collect signatures for pro-democracy opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya’s challenge to Lukashenko’s faked 2020 presidential win. That activism seems to have been the cause of the attack on them by the Belarusian KGB, though there could be more to the story for sure. After the death of her husband, whose telegenic/demographic appearance should have ensured a huge news story in the United States especially given his employment with a (pro-opposition) Pennsylvania-based IT company, Maryja Uspenskaya was sent to a psychiatric hospital. The last English update on her had apparently been October 22. The day after I promoted my blog post on social media with the #StandWithBelarus and #FreeBelarus hashtags—I’d also noted Maryja Uspenskaya’s absence from lists of Belarusian political prisoners—the opposition leader herself tweeted that the psychiatric patient is (now) recognized as a political prisoner:
Maryja Uspenskaya. So I wrote her! With another person providing some edits, a random friendly redditor translated my English letter, about 150 words, into Russian on my behalf, free of charge. I took the translated letter to the benevolent Alki Mail shop here in West Seattle. They sent it via the United States Postal Service. Alki Mail’s computer required me to give the return and destination addresses in English (not Russian); hopefully the snailmail still goes through. While US prisons do not allow snailmailers to include free stamps and other letter-writing supplies for their pen pals to write back with, apparently Belarusian prisons (and psychiatric hospitals?) do, but where exactly am I going to obtain Belarusian postage? The internet, of course. But I haven’t yet. Given time constraints, I decided to send my snailmail to Maryja Uspenskaya and Sergei Tikhanovsky anyway, despite the two concerns, since I can do more research in the future as to how to address the envelopes in Russian and how to best include Belarusian letter-writing supplies. Now, some outside Belarus write political prisoners via activist-run online services, but I wanted to send international snailmail physically myself as an interesting and tangible experiment. It was, however, expensive: $71.68 for a single envelope. Well, life is short, and this is fun!
Another person aiming to #FreeBelarus, who prefers to remain anonymous, found Akihiro Gaevsky-Khanada to write by searching through Viasna’s database, looking for non-white Belarusian political prisoners. A son of a Belarusian karate coach father (Svyatoslav Gaevsky) and a Japanese mother (Tomoko Hanada) who’s a secretary of culture for Japan’s embassy in the eastern European country, Akihiro Gaevsky-Khanada is an anarchist of about twenty-one years in age. He was beaten by the KGB and arrested for his participation in the August 2020 protests against Lukashenko’s faked election victory (the dictator has been illegitimately holding onto power in Belarus since 1994). Despite peaceful protest, Akihiro Gaevsky-Khanada was charged under Part 2 of Article 293 of the Belarusian Criminal Code for alleged “participation in riots” and later in a separate criminal case under Part 2 of Article 285 of the Belarusian Criminal Code for alleged “participation in a criminal organization in any other form.” He’s also the recipient of a special scholarship fund for gifted students. You can write him by snailmail at: Akihiro Hayeuski-Hanada / Zhodino st. Sovetskaya 22a / 222163 ST-8 / Belarus. Or, as the person who prefers to remain anonymous did, you can type a message to him via vkletochku, whose activists will forward your letter on your behalf, and optionally send back to you any replies. Below, a screenshot the anonymous person took of their vkletochku virtual letter to Akihiro Gaevsky-Khanada.
You can find out more about Akihiro Gaevsky-Khanada here, here, or here.
Sergei Tikhanovsky. The husband of pro-democracy opposition leader Sviatlana Tikhanovsky and the father of her two children, Sergei Tikhanovsky is a popular vlogger in his forties who in 2019 started the youtube channel “A Country for Life” to advocate for a better Belarus. He was arrested right after announcing his presidential candidacy against Lukashenko in May 2020, at which point his wife Sviatlana stepped in to run for president against Lukashenko herself (she’s now exiled in Lithuania).
My process of snailmailing Sergei Tikhanovsky was very similar to my process of snailmailing Maryja Uspenskaya. The same random friendly redditor translated my English letter of about 150 words into Russian, with another person providing some edits. Then I went down to Alki Mail who put the letter into a USPS priority mail envelope. Same steep price: $71.68 USD. Same two issues: the Alki Mail computer (the software or the keyboard, tho?) required addressing the envelope in English and I had no Belarusian stamps or other supplies to insert into the envelope. Well, we’ll see what happens. Hopefully I get a letter back from him and Uspenskaya both!
Success is for those who seek it
Defeatism isn’t the flex the cynical think it is. If all the relevant legislative and executive federal bureaucrats are surrounded at work and at home every single day with crowds demanding a pardon for Reality Winner, things will change. If USians deface Belarusian regime websites, discuss books about Belarus (can anyone recommend good ones in English?), figure out ways to protect Belarusian political prisoners, uncover and object powerfully to connections between the Belarusian dictator and local companies, and openly determine what options will have the most impact in dethroning Lukashenko, maybe we won’t have to deal with TrumPutin in 2024 after all. And our sense of self will expand far beyond the usual walls.
There’s a cornucopia of wild daring tactics anyone can experiment with to pursue the two goals, #PardonRealityWinner and #FreeBelarus. Although it can be helpful and enjoyable to compare notes with others, to ask for and receive suggestions, to join letter-writing parties, or even to read and provide lists of ideas and steps, for huge goals like these, no individual needs to wait around for hierarchical orders, or to beg agreement for consensus votes, to make progress. To oversimplify, the indirect collaboration of stigmergy means picking goals and pursuing them as you youself see fit. That’s it. Just do it!
I’ll give the next-to-last words to Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, what she said in a 47-second video she uploaded in a December 11 tweet:
Recently, I heard from one foreign minister I’ve met “We did everything we could and nothing worked.” There was frustration and fatigue in his voice, unfortunately. But Belarusians can’t say We did everything we could and nothing worked. We cannot go home. Our home is taken from us. And until we get it back, we will not stop. Ladies and gentlemen, supporting democracy, supporting Belarusians is a process, not a one-time action. The international community is much more powerful than it pretends to be.
The same goes for #PardonRealityWinner: the international community can support her (including by sending emails and snailmails) from outside the United States, just as those outside Belarus can support the pro-democracy movement there.
Note: In 2021, I’m writing a new blog post every weekend or so. This is entry 46 of 52.
You probably remember the name Reality Winner and at least some of her story: in May 2017, when Trump fired then-FBI director James Comey for his investigation into the Putin regime’s interference with the presidential election on behalf of a certain cheeto-colored demagogue, a whistleblower in her twenties leaked a classified document detailing how the Russian military hacked US election systems just days before the November 2016 election. I reported in person from her August 2018 sentencing in Augusta Georgia, where, in the Trump administration’s first espionage case against a domestic whistleblower, Reality Winner was given the longest prison term ever for a disclosure to the media.
This week, news in the United States — whether social, corporate, or other — will likely focus on Reality Winner again since the Bureau of Prisons on Tuesday is changing her status from her current home confinement situation (began June 9) to three years of supervised release, phase similar to the more familiar, state-level term parole, which technically no longer exists on the federal level. Her ankle monitor will finally be removed. Recent and ongoing media of various types continue to focus on her case, especially this week.
As a result of the news, the public may have a lot of questions. This post provides an overview of her case, the leaked document and its implications, as well as the surrounding media discourse, plus definitions of relevant Bureau of Prisons jargon and a menu of actions you can pick from to help Reality Winner gain a pardon, the chief goal her family is calling for help with.
Who’s Reality Winner again? What was that document about?
Reality Winner is an idealistic, intelligent, and altruistic Texan. The two best sources of information about her as a person are probably the 2017 New YorkMagazine profile titled “The World’s Biggest Terrorist Has a Pikachu Bedspread” and the twitter feeds of her family: her mother Billie J. Winner-Davis, her sister Brittany Winner, and her (step)father Gary Davis. If you’re interested, follow those accounts, or at least know how to search their tweets. A good rule of thumb for whistleblower cases: get your information not from the social-climbers and co-opters, but from their families, loved ones, and lawyers like Reality Winner’s attorney Alison Grinter. (The whistleblowers themselves are usually under gag orders.)
Winner is also an Air Force veteran who, at the time she snailmailed the restricted document to The Intercept, was working for Virginia-based spy contractor Pluribus International. You might know the US spy agencies — rebranded intelligence agencies especially following 1970s revelations of scandals such as Operation Mockingbird — are mostly staffed by contractors, whose trade secrets and other private properties are exempt from public oversight due to the laws of biz. In other words, the so-called intelligence community, its structure if not particular individuals within, is motivated not by public safety, but by profit and worse. For Pluribus International, the multilingual Winner translated into English surveilled terrorist communications from languages such as Farsi and Pashto. As Trump was firing Comey, a secret network board system, akin to a classified version of Reddit and accessible by Pluribus International staff, ranked a certain document highly, indicating wide interest in it.
The document, and The Interceptarticle about it, describes cyberattacks, carried out just days before the 2016 elections, by Russian military hackers against more than 100 local election officials in the United States and at least one U.S. supplier of software used to manage voter rolls in multiple counties. In short, Winner gave everyone information required for self-governance, gave everyone necessary knowledge otherwise unavailable. That includes any voting vendor staff who, without security clearances, would not have been able to access such protective classified information unless it appeared in open discourse. Computer security expert Bruce Schneier, a fellow at Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, wrote in a June 9, 2017 post on his personal website that the cyberattacks disclosed by Reality Winner “illustrate the real threats and vulnerabilities facing our elections, and they point to solutions.”
Such computer vulnerabilities ultimately show how state, corporate, or other criminal actors (or combinations thereof), anywhere in the world, can manipulate elections, anywhere in the world, to secretly condition the public into believing lies. As philosopher and former Wikileaks Central editor Heather Marsh explains in my article from Winner’s sentencing:
“This document is more than just evidence of Russian interference. In many ways, the US election is a high-profile, long-term investigation into the nature of how democracies work today. Opinions are manipulated by organizations such as Cambridge Analytica in conjunction with intelligence collection by organizations such as Wikistrat. These are problems which have plagued all democracies for years now–Canada’s 2011 voter suppression robocalls and Andrés Sepúlveda’s decade-long manipulation of Latin American elections are two earlier reported examples of modern election interference.”
Marsh’s quotation continues in my article from her sentencing. The public’s understanding of TrumPutin wouldn’t have developed to the extent it did, had Winner not gifted us (and Congress) with the secret document.
In that same article of mine, long-time elections integrity activist Bev Harris explains the cyberattacks described Winner’s in disclosure are part of the same cyberattacks that make up the last count in then-special counsel Robert Mueller’s ’12 Russians’ indictment against the Putin regime’s military hackers. The top prosecutorial agency in the United States issuing an international criminal indictment drawing in part from the deed of this imprisoned whistleblower, an individual in her mid-twenties wrongly called by that same agency’s lawyer Bobby L. Christine “the quintessential example of an insider threat,” suggests, as do many other things, that Winner deserved a medal, not a prison sentence, and at the very least deserves a pardon now.
Sinners in the hands of an angry audience
FOX News ran a paint-by-numbers campaign tarring Winner, the arguments of which are easy to dismantle. The TV hosts, typically on whatever forms of speed — just hit pause and look at their eyes; also, how do you think they manage to broadcast nonstop? — raged about how on social media, Winner called Trump an “orange fascist” and messaged her sister about hating America. Besides considering Trump’s actual fascism and horrible things done by the United States (for instance, by the CIA), just imagine for an analogy that you’re waiting at Discount Tire for the mechanics to finish with your car. In the morning, a caffeine-deprived mechanic in the back employee area, perhaps a decorated veteran like Winner, grouses to another mechanic about hating Discount Tire’s early start times and lack of vegan food in the break room. As afternoon arrives, the same mechanic and a third mechanic talk together about how the company does offer them good things too, including the opportunity to tinker with a steady stream of various automobiles. By evening, the mechanic says they have mixed feelings about Discount Tire and the company should make some improvements. That’s essentially what the comments of Winner and everyone else venting about politics on social media boil down to. It isn’t difficult for those outside tunnel vision to understand.
Meanwhile, on the mainstream US left, comfy members of the public have seemingly decided that nothing is possible except voting for evil on un-auditable computerized election infrastructure while making fun of whistleblowers’ unusual names. If horrific human rights violations happen every day and humanity goes extinct, well, the thinking seems to go, at least they got a few more moments to [insert distractions here]. Expecting lifelong entertainment, these audiences will get angry when instead they’re presented with education.
Bottom line, fight for justice: don’t be a newb whose biggest ‘contribution’ this week is shitposting lazy remarks about Reality Winner’s excellent aptronym; instead, learn more about her case (below) and select a way to help her get a pardon (also below).
Recent or ongoing media offering more about the whistleblower and/or the document she disclosed
Reality Winner is the subject of Is This A Room, a new Broadway stageplay based on the transcript of her FBI interrogation, during which she was not Mirandized: she was not read her rights, not for remaining silent, not for a lawyer’s presence. This (il)legal sleight of hand was pulled off in the courtroom by the prosecutors denying the context and insisting Winner “would have felt free to terminate the encounter.” But the eleven FBI agents, each male and almost all of them armed, pressured her in many ways, tantamount to coercion, including by bullying her into the titular seven-by-nine-foot unfurnished back room she told them was “creepy” and “weird.” With her cramped into the claustrophobic space, they blocked the doors and proceeded with the supposedly voluntary interrogation. According to reviews, the stageplay — I’ve yet to see it — reunites the transcript and the context, helping to alter our crazymaking world into something new that actually drives people sane.
(Such isolation and control as the FBI agents’ is similarly employed elsewhere in our lives to produce bogus psuedo-realities. To take one example out of zillions, consider an antidepressant trial started when the COVID-19 pandemic started. How’s the confound of a terrifying pandemic removed from the analysis of the psychopharmaceutical’s efficacy? Likewise, the context of study participants being paid and promised better lives, is likewise snipped out by contractor scientists who sometimes even hold conflict-of-interest patents on the pills in question, since unlike salaried scientists, contractor scientists, akin to those contractors staffing spy agenices, are exempt from disclosure requirements, that is, transparency and accountability requirements.)
Given the success of the stageplay, the Broadway Podcast Network recently launched a series entitled This Is Reality. With more on the way, they presently offer four full episodes, released between October 18 and November 17. I recommend listening for great, up-to-date information about Reality Winner, her case, and more, including how the 1917 Espionage Act, more than a century old, is used federally not to prosecute individuals for sharing military movements with foreign enemies, but to prosecute domestic whistleblowers for sharing restricted knowledge with the public (usually via the media), i.e. the enemy of authoritarians is the public, you and me.
The DC-based Dworkin Report, hosted by politico Scott Dworkin, cofounder of The Democratic Coalition political action committee, offers a trio of recent interviews. First, from August 4, an interview with Winner’s lawyer, Dallas-based Alison Grinter. Second, from October 5, an interview with the whistleblower’s sister, Brittany Winner. Third, from October 7, an interview with Billie J. Winner-Davis, Reality Winner’s mother who on social media fiercely advocates for her family every single day. Those Dworkin Report links have been going down sometimes, so if they’re temporarily unavailable, try elsewhere: first interview, second interview, third interview. Make sure you listen to Scott Dworkin’s interview of Billie J. Winner-Davis, the whistleblower’s mother. I’ll note two things about it. First, she calls upon Biden to grant her daughter clemency (a pardon is a form of clemency). Second, about Glenn Greenwald. After I spearheaded a successful effort to drag him in 2014 long before it became popular to do so (see here, here, here, here, and elsewhere), I switched to just ignoring Greenbacks, since that’s often the most effective way to turn someone’s volume down. However, Billie J. Winner-Davis says something in the third interview that I think is worth making an exception for, worth amplifying. Reality Winner was burned (arrested) as a source for The Intercept because (as the official story goes, anyhow), journalists there not only talked with government officials trying to confirm the document’s veracity (which is fine), but also sent them the document itself (which isn’t fine), enabling them to track the whistleblower down from various clues associated with the document. Asked about that, Billie J. Winner-Davis told Scott Dworkin:
“Glenn Greenwald is, I mean, he’s hard to figure out; he likes to use Reality to create, you know, a social media storm. But that’s what he’s doing: he’s using her. I wish he would just stop. You know, I have gotten so much support from people from The Intercept and from First Look Media who have reached out to me personally who have expressed the regret about what happened to Reality and who have expressed their support for her and for our family. Glenn Greenwald is not one of those people, and I just wish he would go away.”
I predict that during this new decade, revelations will arrive of popular US-based or US-ish lefty journalists being on the take (receiving illicit money from) the BRICS regimes such as Putin’s. Occasionally I look at job openings at tiny “radical news” outlets and see the high pay and think, yeah, this doesn’t add up. As Spock might say, simple logic. An important byproduct of Winner’s leak has been the reactions of others, exposing who cares about inflating themselves as Great Men while supporting red-brown alliance (red commies cliquing up with brown fascists as oft black-clad anarchists go on as DIY as ever) and BRICS interests (here’s looking at you, clan Assadnge), versus who cares about human rights, including for whistleblowers who are women (and thus too often downplayed or ignored), as well as open democracy over authoritarianism.
Finally, my August 2018 article from her sentencing is the only detailed narrative from the courtroom, and one of the very few written detailed analyses, besides the original Intercept article, of the leaked document. I’ve also written posts about her case here, which you can find via clicking my blog’s Reality Winner tag. I have some additional unpublished investigative material I plan to pull together for release soon.
Frequently asked vocabulary
Like any bureaucracy, the carceral industry and the Bureau of Prisons in particular have their own specialized, intentionally impenetrable jargon. Since these terms will be thrown around this workweek — and in the future regarding other federal whistleblower cases — here’s a quick glossary explaining what the lingo actually means on the federal level and how it pertains to Reality Winner.
Note: To follow the below, it helps to understand the timeline of Winner’s imprisonment: after sentencing, she was moved to incarceration at FCC Carswell in Fort Worth. Then on good time earned, she was moved a little early to incarceration in person at a halfway house. Next, on June 9, she moved to home confinement, still considered incarceration, involving conditions such as a buzzing electronic ankle monitor, and requiring frequent reporting to the halfway house for drug testing and the like. Then Tuesday she’s no longer incarcerated, but on three years of supervised release, basically the federal equivalent of parole.
Now the definitions. On Monday I asked Winner’s lawyer Alison Grinter about these terms, but any mistakes are mine.
Supervised release) A period of time after incarceration that’s supposed to help prisoners re-integrate back into society. Sort of a midpoint between full Bureau of Prisons custody and living out in the free world. It’s close to the more familiar, state-level concept of parole, which no longer exists on the federal level. If a prisoner on supervised release is held to have violated conditions, the Bureau of Prisons can yank them back behind bars for the remainder of the sentence.
Halfway house) To be exact, halfway house is an umbrella term that encompasses a few different types of facilities. Generally, though, and in Reality Winner’s case, a halfway house means what the Bureau of Prisons calls a Residential Reentry Center (RRC), unsurprisingly run by a private contractor. Typically, federal prisoners go to these halfway houses directly after incarceration and physically stay there. Later, during home confinement, the prisoners frequently report to the halfway houses, which set the conditions of their home confinement period.
Home confinement) Still considered incarceration, home confinements see prisoners living at home with a heavy electronic ankle monitor. They’re expected to obey strict conditions and report to the halfway house periodically.
Clemency) Formally speaking, clemency isn’t a federal concept. Informally, though, it refers to the remedies an executive can give prisoners, among them commutations and pardons. Reality Winner asks for clemency, specifically (and more precisely) a pardon.
Commutation) A commutation is a federal remedy that essentially speeds up a prisoner’s sentence. A commuted sentence is stopped early; prisoners’ sentences are over sooner than they would have been otherwise. But with the behind bars, halfway house, and home confinement phases over on Tuesday, Reality Winner is no longer seeking a commutation; instead, she’s seeking a pardon.
Pardon) A convict receiving a federal pardon is no longer a felon; in the eyes of the law at least, they’re fully and completely forgiven. Yet there’s no federal expungement: the pardoned individual’s case still happened. The point of the pardon is that legally, any and all the felony conviction disabilities, as the adverse consequences are called, are removed. That said, what specific employers or apps choose to do regarding a pardoned former felon, may be up to them.
Expungement) This isn’t available at the federal level. Expungement is a state-level remedy. For example in Texas, an expungement (“expunction” in the Texas statutes) means files about a crime are destroyed and the offense is removed from the person’s criminal record.
Parole) A state-level concept. Parole technically no longer exists at the federal level; it’s been replaced by the concept of supervised release. For general audiences, though, it’s fair enough to imprecisely refer to someone’s supervised release as parole, but for the more exact among us, supervised release is correct.
Probation) This doesn’t relate to Reality Winner’s case. Probation is something imposed in place of incarceration. For example, at a sentencing, a federal judge might impose two months of probation on a defendant as opposed to two years in prison.
Office of Probation and Pretrial Service) Also known as the U.S. Probation and Pretrial Services System, this is the bureau in the judicial branch that not only administers probation, but also administers supervised release.
Probation officer or supervised release officer) Employed by the Office of Probation and Pretrial Service, this person is the one making the day-to-day decisions about a felon’s supervised released conditions. Technically, they’re called a supervised release officer. They might refer to themself as a probation officer, given their employer. That may even be true of Reality Winner’s officer, despite her being on supervised release, not probation.
Those are the vocabulary terms for how the federal carceral system is supposed to work, although as a May 2017 article I wrote for The Cryptosphere shows, things may play out differently in practice, suggesting a strange mix of incompetence and/or decision-makers who aren’t on the up and up, to say the least.
It’s important to recognize that even on supervised release and afterward, Reality Winner, though outside prison walls, isn’t free. Her felony record and plea agreement will continue to prevent her from fully speaking out about her case and the leaked document and its implications. On Monday, I asked Winner’s lawyer Alison Grinter about that adverse consequence of her conviction and the additional adverse consequences I describe in the two paragraphs below, but again, any mistakes are mine.
While Winner’s on supervised release for three years, she must obey strict conditions, which may vary according to her supervised release officer’s interpretations or caprices. To legally dispute the officer requires expensive, time-consuming, and stressful requests to the court in Augusta Georgia. Winner on supervised release has a curfew (can’t leave before 6 a.m. and has to be home by 10 p.m.) and must remain physically within the Southern District of Texas, though it’s the Augusta Georgia court that convicted her that ultimately calls the shots. The officer may choose to continue the surveillance of her smartphone. References in interviews to dating apps blocking her as a user revolve not around the supervised release conditions, but rather those apps querying databases and determining she’s a felon and thus barred from swiping.
Without a pardon, Winner will suffer what lawyers refer to as the disabilities of being a felon. For example, she’s banned from certain federal lands (the specifics are complicated). She’s not eligible for various federal benefits such as housing. She can’t own weapons (not uncommon in rural Texas), nor, in a strange provision, may she own body armor. Certain other countries may forbid entry or permanent residency to a U.S. felon. The list goes on.
A pardon would delete all of the above problems and restore Reality Winner’s freedom. It would allow her to share the full story. Like the full story, a pardon would also send an enormous domestic and international signal that the United States does not endorse TrumPutin-style autocracy. In other words, in the interest of open democracy, the United States Government has the need and ability to pardon Reality Winner not just for her, but also for itself and the public. Obama commuted the sentence of, but did not pardon, whistleblower Chelsea Manning; that suggests a pardon for Reality Winner can indeed happen under the Biden administration, but it will take significant effort.
Here are several ways to make #PardonRealityWinner happen:
Correspond with the US Pardon Attorney by phone +1 202 616 6070, by email USPardon.Attorney@usdoj.gov, and/or by snailmail: U.S. Department of Justice / Office of the Pardon Attorney / 950 Pennsylvania Avenue – RFK Main Justice Building / Washington, DC 20530. It would be very helpful for them to be deluged with international messages explaining how a pardon for Reality Winner would improve the international standing of the United States after the Trump administration convicted her for keeping the investigation into Russian interference alive.
Share articles and posts about pardoning Reality Winner, including in places other than your most familiar/comfortable social media sites. For example, during offline conversations, on social media sites you aren’t yet familiar with, via art such as graffiti or music, and so on.
If you know more than one language, translate and share articles and posts about pardoning Reality Winner.
Politely badger elected officials about Reality Winner, always pushing for the goal: pardoning her. Schedule appointments, call, donate a small amount to get them to actually reply (hey if corporate interests can bribe so can constituents). I’ve talked about Reality Winner with Kamala Harris at one of her campaign stops; I’ve talked to federal staffers, etc. If you haven’t done similar already in your life, you should, even just for the interesting experience.
Anything else you can dream up. Don’t listen to the naysayers boasting of their cynicism to promise themselves it was wise to have given up in life. Beautiful Trouble is a handy resource book / toolkit for learning nonviolent tactics.
Note: In 2021 I’ll publish at least one blog post per week, ideally on Wednesdays, but more practically, whichever day I get to it. Here’s entry 7 of 52.
Note: I haven’t forgotten about Biden! I’ll post about him next week.
Note: You should probably skip this review if you want zero spoilers.
On Monday I finally finished reading the 2003 novel Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts. The semi-autobiographical bestseller came to my attention because Putingate whistleblower Reality Winner, whose August 2018 sentencing I reported on in person, included it in her art from the FMC Carswell prison in Fort Worth Texas, specifically in the piece reproduced below. The book is 933 large pages in the paperback edition I have (pictured left), so it took me quite a while to finish. Here’s what I gained from it, what I didn’t like, and my thoughts on whether you should consider reading Shantaram, if you haven’t already.
First, a quick summary. The story revolves around the main character Lin, who, after escaping imprisonment in his home country of Australia, where he’d robbed banks to maintain a drug habit, arrives in India with a false passport to live as a fugitive. There he participates in many areas of life unfamiliar to many Westerners or non-travelers, among them a restaurant-and-bar where fairly well-off migrants from Western countries reflect, as Lin sits at their table, on the ups and downs of their shifting fortunes and gossip about Mumbai. Lin meets the goofy and basically nonstop-happy Prabaker, an Indian taxi driver whose characterization is an offensive Sambo caricature, not a careful depiction of a fully realized individual. Prabaker becomes a sidekick for Lin and invites him, when the fugitive’s chips are down, to live in the city’s friendly Colaba slum. The Australian accepts, and then provides improvised medical services to the slum dwellers, an endearing (but also borderline stereotyped) section of the novel that shows the inhabitants of Colaba owning little, yet helping each other tremendously with little to none of the war of all against all common in the so-called civilized world. In other news, Lin somewhat randomly meets an elder statesman of a large gang/mafia, the oddly philosophical Abdel Khader Khan. Lin’s in love, too, with one of the restaurant-and-bar crowd, a Swiss woman named Karla who’s in the habit of offering purplish one-liners about life. The fugitive assists her in liberating her friend Lisa from the vile Madame Zhou’s prostitution/slavery den. Zhou retaliates by getting Lin thrown into a wretched prison once more, this time in India. After the Australian suffers much behind these new bars, Khader bribes the authorities to free him. In gratitude, and to learn skills for revenge, Lin goes to work for Khader in Mumbai’s criminal underworld, swapping out currency and trading passports on the black market, plus physical training and fistfighting members of a rival gang. This dark side of Lin increasingly comes to dominate over the slum doctor side, culminating in the fugitive travelling to Afghanistan as a gun-runner for Khader. Due to battling in that country, he barely makes it back to India, where he soon heads to Zhou’s for revenge. At the novel’s climax, he finds Zhou already a wreck, and, changing his mind, chooses to let her live. Lin muses that the cheerful slum dwellers, not the macho criminals, are the truly heroic ones — which doesn’t stop him a single inch, for another 100-or-so gratuitous pages after the climax, from continuing to fistfight members of rival gangs and promising those men in his particular gang that he’ll go on future missions beyond Mumbai with them, presumably a setup for the sequel I haven’t read, The Mountain Shadow.
As many reviews have noted, the best aspect of the novel is its vivid, lively depictions of various places. These off-the-beaten-path settings include Prabaker’s native village of Sunder, the Colaba slum, Zhou’s slave den, the Australian prison (in flashback), the prison in India, Bollywood sets, Afghanistan mountains and caves, a temporary settlement built atop a skyscraper, and more. The author’s personal experience of the environments enrich his portrayal of them, as when you stumble upon a Reddit post by a stranger who’s not dedicated to writing, but who’s suddenly putting together gorgeous, moving prose because they’re talking about something they’re profoundly invested in personally and know all the fascinating details of. For audiences starved of adventures, Shantaram seems as good a way as any, short of actual travel, to experience unfamiliar locations. But, then again, I unfortunately haven’t read many realist stories set outside Britain, Europe, and the United States. To read about India in English, there are probably many worthy alternatives to Shantaram out there; it’s simply a matter of finding them.
The novel is also enjoyable when it focuses on a bank-robbing druggie gone wrong changing for the better, into a compassionate doctor living and practicing among the friendly dwellers of the largely ignored, but massive, slum village in Mumbai. At these points, the book seems, or did to me, spiritually uplifting, and it really piqued my curiosity about this slum and similar parts of the planet, not that I know how accurately Gregory David Roberts depicts Colaba. In these portions, the novel reads like a modern-day Les Misérables, the 1862 French novel (and mainstay Broadway musical) about the ex-convict Jean Valjean who similarly improves his lot and turns to helping others. (I don’t know, but given reporting about Reality Winner’s numerous altruistic endeavors throughout her life, I imagine this component of the novel might appeal to her especially.)
Sadly, the Les Mis-esque portions of Shantaram don’t win out. As the pages mount up, Lin becomes heavily invested in the drug lord Abdel Khader Khan, treating him as a father figure godsend. Now that he’s in thrall to Khader, Lin’s altruistic side fades away, leaving readers to wade through seemingly endless tough-guy scenes of macho dialogue and beat ’em up. The book gives the impression that each twist and turn of these rival gangs scheming and warring against each other are of utmost importance to Roberts, but readers more interested in thoughtful humanity will probably lose sympathy with the suddenly swaggering Lin, as I did, and hang on only for the descriptions of the unusual Afghanistan setting, where the Australian’s warlike side emerges full blown, without any real apology. Toward the end of Shantaram, I was reminded of author Peter Straub’s Blue Rose crime novels from 1988-1993, in which again, labyrinthine complexities of plot are supposed to be gripping, yet really, reading, trying to keep track of the reversals and revelations, having my patience and memorization capacity taxed, I was just hoping for Straub to go rogue from corporate expectations and write something that simply interests or amuses him, as he did in his 1999 novel Mr. X, namely the fun scene, wholly unnecessary to the plot no one remembers anyway, of a college kid on amphetamine, sleeplessly blazing through tests and causing assorted humorous troubles (as best I can recall from having read that book a decade or so ago, anyway. Also, still waiting for a Peter Straub comedy of manners novel.) It isn’t really required for fiction to be a Rube Goldberg machine of cloaks, daggers, and derring-do to maintain audience interest, but living in a world of easily digestible intellectual abstractions and unnoticed emotional hypervigilance, that’s what audiences today are trained to look for from corporate entertainment: whether it’s the banging jolts and high-pitched shrieking of the ubiquitous cartoons everyone from toddler to adult seems to watch nowadays, or the action-heavy, fatal exploits of weapon-toting superheroes in blockbuster movies, characters in film will switch sides, chase MacGuffins, navigate ridiculous plot twists, and try to kill each other for hours and hours, and since all this is usually folks’ starting point with art, other options aren’t always readily salient. Anyway, to sum up Shantaram along with its reliance on needless hyperstimulating plot machinations, Lin first gains reader sympathy, going from gun-waving druggie to altruistic slum doctor, then loses it, dwindling into a cardboard gangster character working his studly way through the forgettable mazes of noir plot. The fugitive’s climactic forgiveness bestowed upon Madame Zhou, as predictable as a million other Christian-esque forgiveness stories (see for instance the Star Wars movies, where blowing up inhabited planets, committing mass genocide, is no significant obstacle to redemption: no trials, no reparations, no transformations, no nothing), makes little lasting impact on Lin after quick passages of him standing before her musing yet more aphorisms before returning to beat ’em up (where sure, he sometimes muses additionally, but he keeps on in the gang, doesn’t he). Among other things, Lin blames his second imprisonment for his downfall, but as I’ll conclude below, I think there’s more to his dark side coming out on top than the novel openly expresses.
The poor characterizations are another problem with Shantaram. Lin’s sidekick, Prabaker with the never-ending flashbulb smiles, was already mentioned briefly; he’s largely a troubling Sambo caricature, the offensive stereotype that paints people who aren’t white and are classed far below the colonial rulers and their offspring as happy and loyal and stupid untermensch. The women, Karla and Lisa among them, are routinely described in terms of their attractive physical appearances, and their roles are mostly delimited to how they impact the Australian and his sex drive. I suppose both these flaws were regrettably par for the course in 2003, prior to the widespread adoption of social media, but I’m glad white male authors can’t so easily escape with this sort of unaware, compulsive thing anymore.
Finally, I want to talk about how Lin seems, to me, unreal, depersonalized. I’d imagine someone who robs banks, busts out of prison, and travels the world to be a person of great strength, for good or ill. Maybe I’m wrong, and there are more things in heaven and earth than dreamed of in my philosophy, but I’d expect such a fugitive to have bold opinions, disciplined willpower, and definite preferences. Yet Lin floats, without much volition, as if pushed by undescribed waves, from healing doctor to warlike gun-runner, to someone listening to music on a beach or drinking in a bar, to many other roles, with little explanation of his zigzagging path beyond obvious observations in his first-person narration to the effect that, say, strutting gangsters want attention and aren’t happy in themselves. Duh. Papering over this depersonalized way Lin comes across are corny aphorisms from Karla and the-author-speaking-through-Lin. Many reviews have mocked these purple groaners, but just to give one example, I’ll open to a random page in the middle of my copy. Page 451: “there’s an innocence, essential and unblinking, in the heart of every determination to serve.” Huh? Essential and unblinking? Well, maybe? After reading hundreds of these easy-on-the-ears, yet ultimately cryptic, assertions, one or three every few pages, I lost my hopeful tolerance that I might learn from them something profound, and began to grow exhausted with them and the book overall. The one-liners seem to cover for the lack of a real Lin — Why did he gain that doctoring ability in the first place? Why India, or Karla for that matter? — so Roberts shoehorns the aphorisms into just about every available spot, apparently trying to create the illusion that meaningful things are happening. Lin turns to Khaled as a father figure, hoping the drug lord (who himself spouts paragraphs of undergraduate-sounding metaphysical theories into the eager ears of the fugitive) will provide something of substance, perhaps an understanding of life that Lin lacks. But Khaled is himself just some puffed-up mob boss, impressive only because the author repeatedly insists through Lin that it is so. The understandings never really come — except as more charlatan’s aphorisms. It isn’t just that Lin was pissed off to get imprisoned again, and so became a gangster when he should have remained with the friendly folks at the slum. It’s more crucially that, despite what we’re told of the prison-break and doctoring abilities and other superhuman attributes, there isn’t actually much of a Lin to begin or end with; referring himself to the ignoble Khaled for answers is just one dead end he tries of several. So in the absence of a more real, perhaps more determined individual to follow, the author instead fills too much of the novel with the supposedly cool scenes of rival gang fights. With all his anxious musings and flailing, flip-flopping soul-searches, Lin certainly doesn’t know himself truly, not even by the end of the novel, which to be fair is the first released in a planned quartet — if readers have the patience for whatever the grand total page count and grand total aphorism count end up at.
For all its problems, the novel does cohere quite well, and Roberts’ evocative, vibrant descriptions of the unfamiliar-to-me settings are worth the price of admission. They make me want to visit India even, and might be very enjoyable for you as well. The book includes a sampling of fun curios, from dancing bears to commentary on the challenging and sometimes dangerous peculiarities of Mumbai transportation. However, given all the complaints against the book described above, including the automatic turn-offs of weak/caricature characterization, there are probably better works about India and Afghanistan in English out there, more deserving of 900 pages’ worth of reading time. I definitely decided against reading the sequel (The Mountain Shadow), which racks up nearly another 900 pages. Reviews of the sequel say that with the autobiographical material burnt through and thus unavailable to him after Shantaram, Roberts piles on the aphorisms even worse in The Mountain Shadow, as the crime plots continue their needless complexities that don’t even titillate successfully. Beyond the setting descriptions, expressed sufficiently in Shantaram, I don’t think there’s more to learn from Roberts. So as 2021 gets underway, I’m now turning to read all of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea fiction. There’s only so much time.
Note: In 2020, I’m writing 52 blog posts, one per week, released on Mondays or so. Here’s today’s post, the one for Week 6.
Today, US senator and former Democratic presidential candidate Kamala Harris tweeted:
Reading Jonathan Simon’s Code Red or Bev Harris’ Black Box Voting or the Brennan Center for Justice’s “The Machinery of Democracy” impresses upon you the full knowledge that votes in the United States are typically captured (by touchscreen, optical device scanning ballots, or other) and counted (by Dominion, Command Central, or other) in pitch dark: by corporations and contractors running without transparency, with closed source. Often, not even election administrators can audit details.
Unlike Australians, Germans, the Dutch, and others around the world who vote on hand-marked paper ballots hand-counted in public, and who have successfully fought off the recent far-right electoral wave, basically nobody in the United States these days receives any hard evidence at all that their ballot scribbles/tappings mattered. If on Election Day your goal is to change electoral outcomes, rather than to merely perform a civic religion ritual, then of course informed action is required to safeguard election systems, though continuing to replace the whole current governance system itself would be wiser and here’s how that’s already underway.
Exceptions aside, securing elections means securing both vote capture (i.e., how your vote is recorded) and vote counting (i.e., how your vote is added to the totals, nowadays in secretive faraway computer systems) — so that there is hard evidence of both how your vote was captured and how it was counted. Interestingly, and unfortunately, in her tweet today Harris mentions only the vote capture part, and not the vote counting part.
With the topic of safeguarding elections likely to keep bubbling up throughout this year, it helps to keep in mind writer Jennifer Cohn’s advice that election integrity advocates diligently put the adjective “hand-marked” in front of the noun phrase “paper ballots” because:
Kamala Harris’ tweet reminded me of Russiagate whistleblower Reality Winner now behind bars, because in the past few years, public interest in the topic of elections integrity and hand-marked paper ballots (public interest partially required for a major politician to take on any subject) has certainly increased, partly a result of Winner leaking to the media intelligence revealing Russian military hackers executed cyberattacks against US election systems just days before November 2016’s voting. You can learn more about Winner’s case and supporting her clemency petition here or watch this CSPAN video to see how her deed kept Russiagate and elections integrity in the public discourse.
What most of all strikes me about today’s tweet from Kamala Harris is that the Bureau of Prisons, who currently confines Reality Winner, has denied journalists, such as CNN and me, access to interview her in person behind bars — so, who oversees the Bureau of Prisons (part of the Department of Justice) — the House Judiciary Committee and the Senate Judiciary Committee, the latter of which Kamala Harris sits on!
So with Kamala Harris’ tweet juxtaposed against Reality Winner’s story, we have:
1. US senator Kamala Harris calls for incomplete elections integrity reform
2. While the Bureau of Prisons is silencing the whistleblower who helped make that conversation possible in the first place
3. The senator in question, by virtue of sitting on the Senate Judiciary Committee, is tasked with overseeing the Bureau of Prisons, and hasn’t done anything for Reality Winner (not that I’m aware of)
4. Even though I told the senator face to face about the Bureau of Prisons silencing Reality Winner at Harris’ September 27, 2019 event in Seattle
Underneath the glitzy world where a top senator grabs thousands of retweets by offering an incomplete solution to a problem, without assisting the whistleblower confined in silence for pointing the issue out … a public who knows better daydreaming that the thoughts and prayers of evidence-free voting will somehow victoriously sneak-attack presidential administrations tearing apart everything else, so why would they refuse to further corrupt the vote captures and vote countings …
Even though voting landslides might win elections (by overpowering whatever rigging is done), it’s still completely mandatory that we achieve public, observable vote counting, as WeCountNow offers, insofar as the failed concept of millions trying to come to consensus on topics that often don’t affect them much or at all and that they often don’t know much or anything about, is to continue. Help WeCountNow and/or join others in continuing to implement newconcepts?
As for Reality Winner: open, participatory governance means none shall be silenced and all must have the right to communicate. Otherwise, not everyone is included, not everyone’s input is available. Since the Bureau of Prisons has blocked journalists from interviewing Reality Winner, preventing the public from hearing her at scale, the current within-the-system remedies remaining are: apply again for interview access (the Bureau of Prisons told me they consider each interview request separately), try the judicial branch (lawsuits etc), or pressure the federal legislature (members of the House Judiciary Committee and the Senate Judiciary Committee seem the right place to start).
I’ll post more about my efforts toward interviewing Reality Winner in a few weeks. If anyone else makes related efforts, please let me know in the comments!
Note: In 2020, I’m writing 52 blog posts, one per week, to be self-published every Monday. Here’s today’s, the second of 52.
Note: This post was updated Tuesday 4 February 2020, mostly to incorporate an updated version of my support letter. I changed “unusually severe” to “unduly severe” to better match the clemency consideration standards, I changed the reference to US citizens to US residents, and I added a line about our right to communicate, in order to connect Winner’s case with everyone else’s who’s being silenced anywhere in the world.
Reality Winner climbing a tree in Texas, Christmas 2015. Photo by Brittany Winner, her sister (Source)
Especially in light of current news, you should remember Russiagate whistleblower Reality Winner, the Air Force veteran who in 2017 as an employee for a National Security Agency contractor leaked classified intelligence to The Intercept regarding Russian military hackers, in 2016, executing cyberattacks against more than 100 local election officials in the United States and against at least one U.S. supplier of software used to manage voter rolls in multiple counties. Computer security expert Bruce Schneier, a fellow at Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, wrote in a June 9, 2017 post on his website that the cyberattacks disclosed by Reality “illustrate the real threats and vulnerabilities facing our elections, and they point to solutions.” These cyberattacks also constitute evidence in former special counsel Robert Mueller’s “12 Russians” indictment from 2018 and in his Mueller report from 2019.
For The Public, an online and print news outlet in Buffalo, New York, I reported in person from Reality’s final, August 2018 hearing in Augusta, Georgia where she was sentenced to 63 months in prison, the longest term ever imposed on a federal defendant for a disclosure of national security information to the media. That article of mine tells a great deal of her story and explains the importance of her deed. It quotes human rights activist and author Heather Marsh explaining that evidence in the leak helped generate the public support necessary for the investigation into not just Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election but more broadly into the nature of the world’s democracies today, an investigation that “could have quietly disappeared and the public would never have been any wiser.”
Reality Winner sketch art, from prison, of the Augusta federal courthouse. (Source)
Now, about halfway through her prison term, 28-year-old Reality Winner will very soon be filing a petition for clemency. If granted, clemency would result in her early release from prison, similar to whistleblower Chelsea Manning’s successful clemency petition. Reality is a vegan and is amazingly maintaining that while locked up, in the face of oppression; her release would mean, among other things, that she could once again access healthy food in line with her beliefs. Because there’s a long line of clemency petitions to be considered, and because Reality’s release date is at this point 23 November 2021, it is unclear which president(‘s staff) will consider her petition and when.
I wrote a letter in support of Reality’s clemency petition. Below, I’ve embedded my one-page, signed letter as a PDF. Further below, I’ve put the body of my letter with links added. The embedded PDF of my letter doesn’t include links, and it isn’t possible to clipboard-copy text from it, so if you want either, please refer to the further below section of this post where the body of my letter is repeated. Reading my letter will give you more information about her case and why I think clemency is justified. Also I describe briefly how Federal Medical Center Carswell, the prison in Fort Worth, Texas where she is housed, has blocked my efforts (and CNN’s) to interview Reality in person behind bars.
Best of all, you can write a letter in support of Reality’s clemency petition. On 11 January 2020, her team had 4,206 letters of support, a little more than 84% of the way to their goal of getting 5,000 letters. Reality was the subject of Chris Hayes’ weekly podcast on 7 January 2020, which hopefully should assist with getting her more letters.
You can either quickly sign online a pre-provided letter at the StandWithReality.org website by giving your name and email address, plus your county and state, or you can write your own letter and email it in to Liz Miner. Instructions and more information about both options are available here: StandWithReality.org: Letter of Support for Clemency. To share that webpage quickly, you can use this shortened URL, which leads there: Bit.ly/RWSupportLetter.
In her 1973 short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” Ursula K. Le Guin describes a utopia built on the suffering of a single imprisoned person, and utopia residents who must confront that suffering only once and then decide whether to keep living in the wonderful city or leave. To a large extent, the Russiagate investigation is likewise built on a single individual now imprisoned. There remains an ethical imperative that this person, upon whose shoulders so much has rested, not continue to be ignored by so many and silenced and caged by the Bureau of Prisons.
I write in support of the clemency petition of Reality Leigh Winner, a Bureau of Prisons inmate, register number 22056-021. For The Public, a news outlet in Buffalo, New York, I reported in person from Ms. Winner’s August 23, 2018 hearing in Augusta, Georgia where Chief District Judge J. Randal Hall imposed a 63-month prison term on Ms. Winner. Department of Justice attorney Bobby L. Christine described the punishment as the longest sentence ever imposed on a federal defendant for a disclosure of national defense information to the media. This unduly severe punishment resulted from Ms. Winner, an Air Force veteran and intelligence contractor with no prior criminal record, sending to the media classified intelligence describing cyberattacks by Russian military hackers against over 100 local election officials in the United States and at least one U.S. supplier of software used to manage voter rolls in multiple counties. The cyberattacks took place just days before the 2016 U.S. elections. With great idealism, Ms. Winner gave everyone information required for self-governance, gave everyone necessary knowledge otherwise unavailable. That includes any voting vendor staff who, without clearances, would not have been able to access such protective classified information unless it appeared in the public discourse. Computer security expert Bruce Schneier, a fellow at Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, wrote in a June 9, 2017 post on his personal website that the cyberattacks disclosed by Ms. Winner “illustrate the real threats and vulnerabilities facing our elections, and they point to solutions.”
Ms. Winner’s unduly severe sentence and unfair treatment behind bars is unjust to her and indeed, to all. She has a long, admirable history of public service: donating to poor families, volunteering for Athletes Serving Athletes, and more. Her ongoing confinement blocks her from continuing this service to the wider world. She is unjustly denied broad communication with the public by Carswell Federal Medical Center staff, including Warden Michael Carr. The staff has forbidden journalists, such as CNN and me, from interviewing her in person. They have provided no meaningful explanation for her isolation from the mass media. For months, my requests for meaningful details, and my requests for negotiations to meet any Carswell Federal Medical Center concerns, were ignored or subjected to run-around. In her allocution, Ms. Winner demonstrated her intelligence and perceptiveness. Caging her incommunicado harms her and deprives the public of her gifts. Everyone globally, in prisons or whatever other cages, must have the right to communicate, including to appeal for help from the world, as directly as possible.
Ms. Winner took responsibility for her action’s criminality at her final hearing. While sentencing her, Judge Hall indicated he saw no evidence she will become a repeat offender: “the Court has no sense […] that there is a need to protect the public from any further crimes of the defendant.” As an inmate, Ms. Winner has pursued studies toward her college degree and has worked several jobs within the Carswell Federal Medical Center system. She has served roughly half of her 63-month sentence already, and she has not had a single infraction.
I firmly believe a commutation of Ms. Winner’s sentence is in the best interest of the United States, U.S. residents, and justice. She and her loved ones suffer each day she is kept locked up. I ask you to grant Reality Leigh Winner’s clemency petition and her immediate release from prison.