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Peter Van Buren, Obama's War on Whistleblowers Finds Another Target

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

 

Sometimes, it's hard to grasp just how our world has been transformed since September 11, 2001. But here's a little exchange at NBC Nightly News a few days back -- just part of the humdrum flow of TV news-chat -- that somehow caught my attention.  News anchor Brian Williams and Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent Andrea Mitchell were discussing how the Obama administration was dealing with NSA leaker Edward Snowden, then reportedly somewhere in the bowels of Moscow's international airport.  Here was the exchange:

"Williams: The U.S. can say whatever it wishes and the press secretary can get angry and so on, what real power does the United States have here?

"Mitchell:  It's got a lot of leverage against Russia and China. They're working behind the scenes, but short of rendition -- and that's not going to happen getting him out of Russia -- there's isn't anything physical that they can do.  So they have to just exert the pressure and hope that diplomacy works, but Vladimir Putin is a tough customer."

It was that reference to "rendition" -- to, that is, the kidnapping of terror suspects by American forces (usually the CIA) off global streets (or highways or backlands) and their "rendering" to the United States, or to U.S. Navy ships in global waters, or to the prisons of allied regimes willing to torture any "suspect" and share whatever information (or misinformation) might be extracted with Washington. For a while, this practice was called "extraordinary rendition," but it's now so deeply embedded in our American world that it's become highly ordinary rendition.  In any case, the implication of Mitchell's passing comment was that the U.S. wouldn't "render" someone from an airport in the capital of a major power, but if that wasn't "going to happen getting him out of Russia," I think it's hard not to complete Mitchell's sentence with something like "it might be a perfectly reasonable option for Washington in, say, Ecuador."

We are, in other words, in a new world where practices that once would have shocked have become the norm of news and pundit chitchat.  TomDispatch, however, refuses to consider any of this "normal."  We have over these last years regularly focused on the way Washington's most oppressive powers have been wildly enhanced and on people we now know as "whistleblowers," people like Bradley Manning, who saw something truly, unnervingly different in our American world and decided they just had to do something about it. TomDispatch regular Peter Van Buren is one of them and today he considers what Snowden might be going through. Tom

Edward Snowden's Long Flight
What a Whistleblower Thinks a Fellow Whistleblower Might Have Thought
By Peter Van Buren

As a State Department whistleblower, I think a lot about Edward Snowden. I can't help myself. My friendships with other whistleblowers like Tom Drake, Jesslyn Radack, Daniel Ellsberg, and John Kiriakou lead me to believe that, however different we may be as individuals, our acts have given us much in common. I suspect that includes Snowden, though I've never had the slightest contact with him. Still, as he took his long flight from Hong Kong into the unknown, I couldn't help feeling that he was thinking some of my thoughts, or I his. Here are five things that I imagine were on his mind (they would have been on mine) as that plane took off.

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I Am Afraid

Whistleblowers act on conscience because they encounter something so horrifying, unconstitutional, wasteful, fraudulent, or mismanaged that they are overcome by the need to speak out. There is always a calculus of pain and gain (for others, if not oneself), but first thoughts are about what you've uncovered, the information you feel compelled to bring into the light, rather than your own circumstances.

In my case, I was ignorant of what would happen once I blew the whistle. I didn't expect the Department of State to attack me. National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Tom Drake was similarly unprepared. He initially believed that, when the FBI first came to interview him, they were on his side, eager to learn more about the criminal acts he had uncovered at the NSA. Snowden was different in this. He had the example of Bradley Manning and others to learn from. He clearly never doubted that the full weight of the U.S. government would fall on him.

He knew what to fear. He knew the Obama administration was determined to make any whistleblower pay, likely via yet another prosecution under the Espionage Act (with the potential for the death penalty). He also knew what his government had done since 9/11 without compunction: it had tortured and abused people to crush them; it had forced those it considered enemies into years of indefinite imprisonment, creating isolation cells for suspected terrorists and even a pre-trial whistleblower. It had murdered Americans without due process, and then, of course, there were the extraordinary renditions in which U.S. agents kidnapped perceived enemies and delivered them into the archipelago of post-9/11 horrors.

Sooner or later, if you're a whistleblower, you get scared. It's only human. On that flight, I imagine that Edward Snowden, for all his youthful confidence and bravado, was afraid. Would the Russians turn him over to Washington as part of some secret deal, maybe the sort of spy-for-spy trade that would harken back to the Cold War era?

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Even if he made it out of Moscow, he couldn't have doubted that the full resources of the NSA and other parts of the U.S. government would be turned on him. How many CIA case officers and Joint Special Operations Command types did the U.S. have undercover in Ecuador? After all, the dirty tricks had already started. The partner of Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, who broke Snowden's story, had his laptop stolen from their residence in Brazil.  This happened only after Greenwald told him via Skype that he would send him an encrypted copy of Snowden's documents. 

In such moments, you try to push back the sense of paranoia that creeps into your mind when you realize that you are being monitored, followed, watched. It's uncomfortable, scary. You have to wonder what your fate will be once the media grows bored with your story, or when whatever government has given you asylum changes its stance vis-a-vis the U.S. When the knock comes at the door, who will protect you? So who can doubt that fear made the journey with him?

Could I Go Back to the U.S.?

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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 (more...)
 

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