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Silent State: Washington’s Campaign Against Whistle-Blowers

Posted on Feb 9, 2012
125o4 (CC-BY)

By Peter Van Buren, TomDispatch

This piece originally appeared at TomDispatch.

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.)


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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 “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.

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vector56's avatar

By vector56, February 12, 2012 at 5:23 pm Link to this comment

Without informed “citizens who step up and take responsibility for their government Whistle-blowers are just whistling in the dark!

Like Sacco and Vanzetti, Bradly Manning and the other 6 Whistle Blowers Obama has doomed the Left will just watch at a safe distance as Gazelles watch lions devour their comrade.

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By berniem, February 11, 2012 at 4:10 pm Link to this comment

Is there something new here? Our own government, namely “elected” officials, the political flacks and appointees around them, as well as the military, all so nicely bought and owned by the corporate fascist economic system, are the true terrorists confronting our freedoms and way of life and the security state is solely for the protection of the ruling establishment. The Bill of Rights and the Constitution no longer are worth the parchment they’re written on because there is no system of enforcing their provisions as designed to protect us from our own despots and tyrants. Voting means nothing and those who run for office must pass muster with the corrupt establishment to even get on the ballot. If elected they quickly join the game or are jettisoned at the pleasure of one or another power group which is not comprised of the voters but the monied interests that truly run things. Elections are meaningless with results predetermined by those who work at Diebold. FREE BRADLEY MANNING!!!!!

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By gerard, February 11, 2012 at 3:10 pm Link to this comment

Quote-Unquqote:  “[Disclaimer: The views expressed here are solely those of the author in his private capacity and do not in any way represent the views of the Department of State, the Department of Defense, or any other entity of the U.S. government. The Department of State most certainly does not approve, endorse, or authorize this article.]”
  Tags like this one definitely, though they are aimed at pacification (I suppose), nevertheless sew seeds of distrust far and wide. They threaten by casting shadows of possible illegitimacy and/or unreliability whereas, as a matter of fact, this article contains accounts of personal experiences and opinions related to retaliation without proven evidence of illegal behavior.
  What is at stake here of course is that citizens are guaranteed the right of free speech by the Constitution whereas governments are not guaranteed the right of secrecy by the Constitution except in the most stringently regulated matters of State
  Ironically, although the State is also quaranteed the right of free speech, it refuses to use it by withholding information from the public, yet uses its right to withhold information to punish those who use their right to speak freely.
  What, therefore, would prevent the State from becoming completely impervious by declaring all of its processes as “secret” and preventing citizens from knowing anything at all?
  Obviously, democracy presumes and demands a just balance between freedom and license, and that balance serves us, the nation, better if it errs on the side of openness because secrecy offers shelter from discovery of error and encouragement to covering up crimes.
  Correct me if I’m wrong here.

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By Jay Lindberg, February 11, 2012 at 10:28 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)


You should try exposing corruption in the War on
Drugs some time.  I called it in the trenches and
this is what it looked like from my book,  “DRUG WAR
ECONOMICS”  If anyone is interested in a copy of the
book, send me an email. I’ll send you a copy as a PDF

Thought For the Day

If you are old enough to be lied to, you are old
enough to know the truth. (2000)

In the trenches is just what it says. These are the
battles being fought in the streets to make this
country a safer place for us all.

When you go after corruption in society and
government, you are hunting illegitimate power.
Citizenship doesn’t get much more dangerous than
this. Dr. Rosema, Geoffrey Hill and Judge Mclaughlin
were terminated with prejudice in San Bernardino
County last year.


A year ago, Dr. Rosema was killed in front of his
house, Tyisha Miller style, with law enforcement guns
blazing. The local media kept the fact he worked in
the Coroner’s Office (Motive)and investigating
corruption (motive) in that office out of the press.
The San Bernardino Sun and the Press Enterprise did
not pull the trigger of the officers that
assassinated him but the killing could not have
happened without their cooperation.

Some of the bullets that ripped through his body,
belonged to them.

The logistics of this killing tells me this. Someone
in the press had to be notified before the killing
and agreed to keep the motive for the shooting out of
the local newspapers. I seriously doubt this one is
covered under the First Amendment.

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By kazy, February 10, 2012 at 9:08 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

It occurred to me after examining the response that our government has on whistleblowers, it makes our government LOOK GUILTY of the charges.

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By kazy, February 10, 2012 at 8:52 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

This was a harrowing story to read - and very frightening to know how much we’ve become a “Big Brother” government. It is not hyperbole to say we are behaving like a totalitarian regime. This is horrifying. Maybe we were always like this but now with the Internet people are actually exercising their Constitutional rights only to find out we really don’t have those rights when it comes to challenging Big Brother.

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By BeReal, February 10, 2012 at 7:25 pm Link to this comment

You sir, are one of the few and I honor your integrity! I have filled the same role more than once, though not in government, and have run into the same response. I look forward to more of us waking up from the somnambulism we have been manipulated into!

To the rest who are still sleeping .. read up on the Milgram Experiment ... it is most telling!

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By Aarky, February 10, 2012 at 6:46 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Just one of the instances of waste and stupidity that Van Buren wrote about, “How Yout Tax Dollars Financed
Reconstruction Madness in Iraq”.

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By gerard, February 10, 2012 at 11:06 am Link to this comment

One obvious inconsistency about “whistle-blowing” is that it’s a one-way street:  The government never blows the whistle on itself; only on conscientious citizens who have the guts to speak up. But if the government had the guts to blow its own whistles on its crimes and errors, citizens wouldn’t have to do it!

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By LVC, February 9, 2012 at 9:20 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I see this pictured “Whistle Blower” tag every time I see a train (nearly every day in
the Pacific NW). There is usually a whistle, date and small message. Watch the
ends of cars of a train next time you are stopped at a crossing.

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By Writeonwater, February 9, 2012 at 8:01 pm Link to this comment

There is something quite disturbing in this article. I commend Mr Van Buren for writing it. This particular statement…

“an agency ignoring its own rules,”

I believe the word expediency is the one that white washes the consequences he puts so clearly. This is having its counterpart in the law. In California a high court just “changed the rules” in terms of mortgage law. What had been a mater of State law has now been changed to fed law. The banks are the ones who win in this case. In a word they are immune from consequences.

When legal expectations become suborned to what appears to be, at best caprice and at worst something which Hesiod addressed when he said around the 7-8 Century BC…

…Judges lull’d by thee
The sentence gave and stamp’d the false decree:
Oh fools! who know not in their selfish soul
How far the half is better than the whole:

The Whistle-blower policy of Obama’s is one of the biggest stains he cannot hide.

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