[Note for TomDispatch Readers: A last reminder for those of you in New York City: Jeremy Scahill and I will be onstage Friday, 6-8 pm, at New York University's Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute discussing our American world (such as it is), his work, and my new book, The United States of Fear. Hope you'll drop by. For further information and directions on getting there, click here. Tom]One thing is obvious. No one ever joins the government in order to be a whistleblower or leaker. Whistleblowers are created, not born. To offer an example, as Peter Van Buren is happy to admit, before he spent a year on two forward operating bases in Iraq running a State Department provincial reconstruction team, he was "a more or less content Foreign Service Officer." It is perhaps typical of whistleblowers and leakers that something they are privy to simply pushes them over the edge.
In Van Buren's case, it was perhaps all those late nights on some desolate base thousands of miles from his family, thinking about the mad way your taxpayer money was being squandered -- millions of dollars, for instance, going into the building of an all-Iraqi chicken-plucking factory that would never be used to pluck chickens. It was the pure madness of the American occupation and "reconstruction" -- more like deconstruction -- of Iraq, seen up close and personal, that led him to start writing his own truth-telling book We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People (which just happens to be both unsettling and often bizarrely hilarious because, as a writer, he's a natural).
He had the urge to offer you an insider's view of your government in action in a distant land. Think of it -- perhaps of any whistleblowing -- as an act of personal "reconstruction," as a method of occupying yourself in a new way, even as it may also be deconstructing your career. Such acts are favors to the rest of us in what we still claim is a "democracy," even if the money of the truly wealthy rules the day and your state, the national security one, has moved beyond all accountability into a post-legal era.
Though the Obama administration has, from its first days, talked the talk of governmental openness and "sunshine," it's walked a very different walk. And while Van Buren hasn't, like other whistleblowers, been brought to court or imprisoned, he has learned, once again in an up close and personal fashion, how little "our" government wants even a penlight shown on its inner workings. Consider, then, Van Buren's view from the eye of the national security storm. (To catch Timothy MacBain's latest Tomcast audio interview in which Van Buren discusses what it means to be a governmental whistleblower, click here, or download it to your iPod here.) Tom
The Campaign Against Whistleblowers in Washington
By Peter Van Buren
On January 23rd, the Obama administration charged former CIA officer John Kiriakou under the Espionage Act for disclosing classified information to journalists about the waterboarding of al-Qaeda suspects. His is just the latest prosecution in an unprecedented assault on government whistleblowers and leakers of every sort.
Kiriakou's plight will clearly be but one more battle in a broader war to ensure that government actions and sunshine policies don't go together. By now, there can be little doubt that government retaliation against whistleblowers is not an isolated event, nor even an agency-by-agency practice. The number of cases in play suggests an organized strategy to deprive Americans of knowledge of the more disreputable things that their government does. How it plays out in court and elsewhere will significantly affect our democracy.
Punish the Whistleblowers
The Obama administration has already charged more people -- six -- under the Espionage Act for alleged mishandling of classified information than all past presidencies combined. (Prior to Obama, there were only three such cases in American history.)
Kiriakou, in particular, is accused of giving information about the CIA's torture programs to reporters two years ago. Like the other five whistleblowers, he has been charged under the draconian World War I-era Espionage Act.
That Act has a sordid history, having once been used against the government's political opponents. Targets included labor leaders and radicals like Eugene V. Debs, Bill Haywood, Philip Randolph, Victor Berger, John Reed, Max Eastman, and Emma Goldman. Debs, a union leader and socialist candidate for the presidency, was, in fact, sentenced to 10 years in jail for a speech attacking the Espionage Act itself. The Nixon administration infamously (and unsuccessfully) invoked the Act to bar the New York Times from continuing to publish the classified Pentagon Papers.
Yet, extreme as use of the Espionage Act against government insiders and whistleblowers may be, it's only one part of the Obama administration's attempt to sideline, if not always put away, those it wants to silence. Increasingly, federal agencies or departments intent on punishing a whistleblower are also resorting to extra-legal means. They are, for instance, manipulating personnel rules that cannot be easily challenged and do not require the production of evidence. And sometimes, they are moving beyond traditional notions of "punishment" and simply seeking to destroy the lives of those who dissent.
The well-reported case of Thomas Drake is an example. As an employee, Drake revealed to the press that the National Security Agency (NSA) spent $1.2 billion on a contract for a data collection program called Trailblazer when the work could have been done in-house for $3 million. The NSA's response? Drake's home was raided at gunpoint and the agency forced him out of his job.
"The government convinced themselves I was a bad guy, an enemy of the state, and went after me with everything they had seeking to destroy my life, my livelihood, and my person -- the politics of personal destruction, while also engaging in abject, cutthroat character assassination, and complete fabrication and frame up," Drake told Antiwar.com. "Marriages are strained, and spouses' professional lives suffer as much as their personal lives. Too often, whistleblowers end up broken, blacklisted, and bankrupted," said the attorney who represents Drake.
In Kiriakou's case, the CIA found an excuse to fire his wife, also employed by the Agency, while she was on maternity leave. Whistleblower Bradley Manning, accused of leaking Army and State Department documents to the website WikiLeaks, spent more than a year in the worst of punitive conditions in a U.S. Marine prison and was denied the chance even to appear in court to defend himself until almost two years after his arrest. Former chief military prosecutor at Guantanamo Morris Davis lost his career as a researcher at the Library of Congress for writing a critical op-ed for the Wall Street Journal and a letter to the editor at the Washington Post on double standards at the infamous prison, as did Robert MacClean for blowing the whistle on the Transportation Security Administration.