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Silencing Whistle-Blowers Obama Style

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Posted on Mar 6, 2014

Photo by RebeccaBarray

By Peter Van Buren, TomDispatch

(Page 2)

The government’s post-9/11 desire to classify more and more information ran head on into the limits of classification as enacted by Congress. The response by various agencies was to invent a proliferation of designations like SSI that would sweep unclassified information under the umbrella of classification and confer on ever more unclassified information a (sort of) classified status. In the case of the TSA, the agency even admits on its own website that a document with an SSI stamp is unclassified, but prohibits its disclosure anyway.

Imagine the equivalent at home: you arbitrarily establish a classification called Spouse Sensitive Information that prohibits your partner from seeing the family bank statements. And if all this is starting to make no sense, then you can better understand the topsy-turvy world Robert MacLean found himself in.

MacLean Wins a Battle in Court

In 2013, after a long series of civil service and legal wrangles, the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit handed down a decision confirming the government’s right to retroactively classify information. This may make some sense—if you squint hard enough from a Washington perspective. Imagine a piece of innocuous information already released that later takes on national security significance. A retroactive classification can’t get the toothpaste back in the tube, but bureaucratically speaking it would at least prevent more toothpaste from being squeezed out. The same ruling, of course, could also be misused to ensnare someone like MacLean who shared unclassified information.

The court also decided that, retrospective classification or not, MacLean was indeed entitled to protection under the Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989. That act generally limits its protections to “disclosures not specifically prohibited by law,” typically held to mean unclassified material. This, the court insisted, was the category MacLean fit into and so could not be fired. The court avoided the question of whether or not someone could be fired for disclosing retroactively classified information and focused on whether a made-up category like SSI was “classified” at all.

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The court affirmed that laws passed by Congress creating formal classifications like “top secret” trump regulations made up by executive branch bureaucrats. In other words, as the Constitution intended, the legislative branch makes the laws and serves as a check and balance on the executive branch. Congress says what is classified and that say-so cannot be modified via an executive branch memo. One of MacLean’s lawyers hailed the court’s decision as restoring “enforceability for the Whistleblower Protection Act’s public free speech rights. It ruled that only Congress has the authority to remove whistleblower rights. Agency-imposed restraints are not relevant for whistleblower protection rights.”

The ruling made it clear that the TSA had fired MacLean in retaliation for a legally protected act of whistleblowing. He should have been offered his job back the next day.

Not a Happy Ending But a Sad New Beginning

No such luck. Instead, on January 27, 2014, the Department of Justice petitioned the Supreme Court to overturn the lower court’s decision. If it has its way, the next time a troublesome whistleblower emerges, the executive need only retroactively slap a non-reviewable pseudo-classification on whatever information has been revealed and fire the employee. The department is, then, asking the Supreme Court to grant the executive branch the practical power to decide whether or not a whistleblower is entitled to legal protection. The chilling effect is obvious.

In addition, the mere fact that the DOJ is seeking to bring the case via a petition is significant. Such petitions, called writs of certiorari, or certs, ask that the Supreme Court overturn a lower court’s decision. Through the cert process, the court sets its own agenda. Some 10,000 certs are submitted in a typical year. Most lack merit and are quickly set aside without comment. Typically, fewer than 100 of those 10,000 are chosen to move forward for a possibly precedent-setting decision. However, only a tiny number of all the certs filed are initiated by the government; on average, just 15 in a Supreme Court term.

It’s undoubtedly a measure of the importance the Obama administration gives to preserving secrecy above all else that it has chosen to take such an aggressive stance against MacLean—especially given the desperately low odds of success. It will be several months before we know whether the court will hear the case.

This Is War

MacLean is simply trying to get his old air marshal job back by proving he was wrongly fired for an act of whistleblowing.  For the rest of us, however, this is about much more than where MacLean goes to work.

The Obama administration’s attacks on whistleblowers are well documented. It has charged more of them—seven—under the Espionage Act than all past presidencies combined. In addition, it recently pressured State Department whistleblower Stephen Kim into a guilty plea (in return for a lighter sentence) by threatening him with the full force of that act. His case was even more controversial because the FBI named Fox News’s James Rosen as a co-conspirator for receiving information from Kim as part of his job as a journalist. None of this is accidental, coincidental, or haphazard.  It’s a pattern.  And it’s meant to be.  This is war.


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