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Peter Van Buren: The Ultimate No-Fly List

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Headlined to H3 6/12/12

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The Obama administration has charged more people (six) under the Espionage Act for the alleged mishandling of classified information than all past presidencies combined. (Prior to Obama, there were only three such cases in American history, one being Daniel Ellsberg, of Nixon-era Pentagon Papers fame.) The most recent Espionage Act case is that of former CIA officer John Kiriakou, charged for allegedly disclosing classified information to journalists about the horrors of waterboarding. Meanwhile, his evil twin, former CIA officer Jose Rodriguez, has a best-selling book out bragging about the success of waterboarding and his own hand in the dirty work.

Obama's zeal in silencing leaks that don't make him look like a superhero extends beyond the deployment of the Espionage Act into a complex legal tangle of retaliatory practices, life-destroying threats, on-the-job harassment, and firings.  Lots of firings.

Upside Down Is Right Side Up

In ever-more polarized Washington, the story of Obama's self-serving leaks is quickly devolving into a Democratic/Republican, he-said/she-said contest -- and it's only bound to spiral downward from there until the story is reduced to nothing but partisan bickering over who can get the most advantage from those leaks.

But don't think that's all that's at stake in Washington. In the ever-skittish Federal bureaucracy, among the millions of men and women who actually are the government, the message has been much more specific, and it's no political football game. Even more frightened and edgy than usual in the post-9/11 era, bureaucrats take their cues from the top. So expect more leaks that empower the Obama Superman myth and more retaliatory, freelance acts of harassment against genuine whistleblowers. After all, it's all been sanctioned.

Having once been one of those frightened bureaucrats at the State Department, I now must include myself among the victims of the freelancing attacks on whistleblowers. The Department of State is in the process of firing me, seeking to make me the first person to suffer any sanction over the WikiLeaks disclosures. It's been a backdoor way of retaliating for my book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, which was an honest account of State's waste and mismanagement in the "reconstruction" of Iraq.

Unlike Bradley Manning, on trial under the Espionage Act for allegedly dumping a quarter million classified documents onto the Internet, my fireable offense was linking to just one of them at my blog. Just a link, mind you, not a leak. The document, still unconfirmed as authentic by the State Department even as they seek to force me out over it, is on the web and available to anyone with a mouse, from Kabul to Tehran to Des Moines.

That document was discussed in several newspaper articles before -- and after -- I "disclosed" it with my link. It was a document that admittedly did make the U.S. government look dumb, and that was evidently reason enough for the State Department to suspend my security clearance and seek to fire me, even after the Department of Justice declined to prosecute. Go ahead and click on a link yourself and commit what State now considers a crime.

This is the sort of thing that happens when reality is suspended in Washington, when the drones take flight, the worms turn, and the president decides that he, and he alone, is the man.

What Happens When Everything Is Classified?

What happens when the very definitions that control life in government become so topsy-turvy that 1984 starts looking more like a handbook than a novel?

I lived in Taiwan when that island was still under martial law. Things that everyone could see, like demonstrations, never appeared in the press. It was illegal to photograph public buildings or bridges, even when you could buy postcards nearby of some of the same structures. And that was a way of life, just not one you'd want.

If that strikes you as familiar in America today, it should. When everything is classified -- according to the Information Security Oversight Office, in 2011 American officials classified more than 92,000,000 documents -- any attempt to report on anything threatens to become a crime; unless, of course, the White House decides to leak to you in return for a soft story about a heroic war president.

For everyone else working to create Jefferson's informed citizenry, it works very differently, even at the paper that carried the administration's happy leaks. Times reporter Jim Risen is now the subject of subpoenas by the Obama administration demanding he name his sources as part of the Espionage Act case against former CIA officer Jeffery Sterling. Risen was a journalist doing his job, and he raises this perfectly reasonable, but increasingly outmoded question : "Can you have a democracy without aggressive investigative journalism? I don't believe you can, and that's why I'm fighting." Meanwhile, the government calls him their only witness to a leaker's crime.

One thing at stake in the case is the requirement that journalists aggressively pursue information important to the public, even when that means heading into classified territory.  If almost everything of importance (and much that isn't) is classified, then journalism as we know it may become" well, illegal.

Sometimes in present-day Washington there's simply too much irony for comfort: the story that got Risen in trouble was about an earlier CIA attempt to sabotage Iran's nuclear program, a plot which failed where Stuxnet sort of succeeded.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch Interviews (more...)
 
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