Not to brag (OK, I’m bragging) but I am invited to the Playboy Mansion on May 22 to attend the Hugh Hefner First Amendment Awards. It is as good a place as any to hang out while one of this year’s award winners, Colonel Morris Davis, waits (and waits…) for justice as he struggles to protect his and our right to speak out against the government.
Morris Davis v. Thomas Jefferson?
Morris Davis is not some dour civil servant, and for most of his career, unlikely to have been a guest at the Playboy Mansion. Prior to joining the Library of Congress, he spent more than 25 years as an Air Force colonel. He was, in fact, the chief military prosecutor at Guantánamo and showed enormous courage in October 2007 when he resigned from that position and left the Air Force. Davis stated he would not use evidence obtained through torture. When a torture advocate was named his boss, Davis quit rather than face the inevitable order to reverse his position.
Morris Davis then got fired from his research job at the Library of Congress for writing an article in the Wall Street Journal about the evils of justice perverted at Guantanamo, and a similar letter to the editor of the Washington Post. (The irony of being fired for exercising free speech while employed at Thomas Jefferson’s library evidently escaped his bosses.) With the help of the ACLU, Davis demanded his job back. On January 8, 2010, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the Library of Congress on his behalf. In March 2011 a federal court ruled against the Obama Administration’s objections that the suit could go forward (You can read more about Davis’ struggle.)
Justice Postponed is Justice Denied
Moving “forward” is however a somewhat awkward term to use in regards to this case. In the past two years, forward has meant very little in terms of actual justice done. At about the same time in 2011 that Colonel Davis notified the government that he was going to be called as a defense witness for Bradley Manning, the Department of Justice filed a motion to dismiss Davis’ lawsuit against the government, actually seeking to make him pay the government’s court costs, and hinted at potential criminal charges because he copied some unclassified files from his office computer. Of course three years had passed since these alleged 2010 criminal acts and DOJ’s 2013 threats, so perhaps the timing was coincidence, but Colonel Davis said in an interview with me that he believes it was an attempt to discredit him and thus negate any help he could offer Manning.
Despite DOJ’s clumsy efforts, the good news is that at a hearing about a month ago a federal judge denied the government’s stalling motion and the case is moving “forward” again. However, DOJ is again seeking to stall things with multiple delaying motions that require multiple responses, and the motions alone won’t be heard by a court until August. After that comes a lengthy discovery period that will likely take the case to the four year mark. Colonel Davis hopes he’ll get to trial before the five year point. He is a strong man, navigating more successfully between the empowering anger and the consuming bitterness than most people struggling against the government of the United States can manage. Still, it is hard for him to rationalize the amount of time and effort his own government is spending to limit the free speech rights of federal employees.
Hugh M. Hefner First Amendment Awards
The government’s ability to limit free speech, to stopper the First Amendment, is perhaps the most critical issue our republic can face. If you were to write the history of the last decade in Washington, it might well be a story of how, issue by issue, the government freed itself from legal and constitutional bounds when it came to torture, the assassination of U.S. citizens, the holding of prisoners without trial or access to a court of law, the illegal surveillance of American citizens, and so on. In the process, it has entrenched itself in a comfortable shadowland of ever more impenetrable secrecy, while going after any whistleblower who might shine a light in. All that stands in counter to the government’s actions is the First Amendment, exactly as the Founders designed it to be.
The Hugh M. Hefner First Amendment Awards were established in 1979 to honor individuals who make significant contributions to protect First Amendment rights for Americans. Since the inception of the awards, more than 100 individuals including high school students, lawyers, librarians, journalists and educators have been honored. I am very proud that two of last year’s winners, whistleblowers Tom Drake and Jesselyn Radack, are my friends, and that Radack helped defend my right to speak against the Department of State.
So congratulations to Colonel Davis. He earned this award and I’ll be proud to watch him receive it from Christie Hefner on May 22. He is in good company, as Daniel Ellsberg, the Vietnam War era’s version of Bradley Manning, is also being honored. By standing up against a government that is doing wrong, and seeking to bring those wrongs into daylight, both men have earned the privilege to be called patriots. All that said, it is an odd state of things. The only mainstream introspection of the government takes place on Comedy Central. Of all the possible ways I dreamed of getting into the Playboy Mansion over the years, this was not one of them. Nasty business, fighting for one’s First Amendment rights these days. Strange times make for strange bedfellows, even at the Playboy Mansion.
Copyright © 2017. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
For those who woke a week ago to discover the First Amendment is under attack, I lost my job at the Obama/Clinton State Department in 2012 for writing We Meant Well, a book the government did not like, and needed the help of lawyer Jesselyn Radack and the ACLU to push back the threat of jail.
My book was critical of actions in Iraq under both the Obama and Bush administrations. One helped protect the other.
Braver people than me, like Thomas Drake, Morris Davis, and Robert MacLean, risked imprisonment and lost their government jobs for talking to the press about government crimes and malfeasance. John Kiriakou, Chelsea Manning, and Jeff Sterling went to jail for speaking to/informing the press. The Obama administration tried to prosecute reporters from Fox and the New York Times for stories on government wrongdoing.
Ray Maxwell at the State Department went public with information about Clinton’s email malfeasance before you had even heard of her private server. The media called him a liar, an opportunist, and a political hack and he was pressed into retirement.
Indeed, Obama prosecuted more federal whistleblowers under the Espionage Act than all previous United States presidents combined, including Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.
The Obama administration also set a record (77%) for redacting government files or denying access to them in fiscal year 2014 under the Freedom of Information Act.
More than any previous administration, Obama took longer to turn over files, said more often it could not locate documents, and refused a record number of times to turn over time-sensitive files quickly, requiring years-long legal actions to be brought to force the government’s hand. In the case of Hillary Clinton, files considered “unclassified” in one context were redacted in whole in another.
Though the backlog of unanswered requests grew by 55%, the administration cut the number of full-time Freedom of Information Act employees by 7.5%. Despite the critical nature of the documents to the election, the State Department was allowed to do its Freedom of Information Act screening of the Clinton emails largely with an ad hoc crew of retirees. The impact on journalists, and the right of the people to know, was immeasurable.
So spare me. The war on our freedoms was well under way before last week. Where the hell were you and your safety pins then?
Copyright © 2017. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
The Hugh M. Hefner First Amendment Awards were established in 1979 to honor individuals who have made significant contributions to protect the First Amendment rights of Americans. They are looking for nominees for this year’s awards, and I’d like to send them a name.
Who should it be?
Nominees traditionally come from the fields of journalism, arts and entertainment, education, publishing, and law and government. They are honored at a reception at the Playboy Mansion, and receive $5,000 to continue their work. Readers here know some of the past awardees: Whistleblowers Thomas Drake, Morris Davis, Norman Lear, Michael Moore, Bill Maher — the whole list back to 1980 is here.
I suspect Edward Snowden and those connected to him as journalists and lawyers will already have a long line of people ready to nominate them. Any would be people who deserve the honor. But let’s put our heads together and see if we can come up with someone not so much in the public eye, someone working for our rights who could really use the attention that even being nominated will bring.
Ideas? Put them in the comments. If the person is not well-known, a link would be helpful.
Copyright © 2017. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
I joined fellow whistleblower and former chief Guantanamo prosecutor Colonel Morris Davis on the BBC’s World TV recently to speak out against torture.
Because most “journalism” these days defines objectivity as having people from bizarrely opposite sides of an issue yell at each other until time is up, I found myself “rebutting” a handful of nut jobs whose argument was basically that torture is good, or maybe useful, or vengeful, or whatever, as long as it hurts dirty brown Muslims because, 9/11. Witches deserved it. Also, torture works.
Torture Worked at Salem
Torture does indeed work, if your goal is simply to punish, humiliate or extract false confessions. One example of torture’s very successful use in American history was with the Salem witch trials. Innocent women in 17th century America were brutalized until they admitted to being witches. In one ingenious twist of logic worthy of their post-9/11 successors, the torturers devised a 100 percent effective strategy: hold a suspected witch under water until she either drowns (oops, not a witch, exonerated) or magically floats (confirming she is a witch) and then execute her. One way or another, you’re always correct!
The logic holds for our modern day torturers. We learned than some 26 men held by the United States and tortured, some for years, truly had no connection to terrorism. Everytime they were waterboarded, threatened with death or beaten, they told the truth: they were not terrorists. However, their denials of culpability were taken merely as signs that more torture was needed to get them to confess.
9/11 Left Us with No Choice
One of the other points the troglodytes supporting torture, from the other guests on the BBC show to the Director of the CIA and the President, have brought up is the urgency and seriousness of the post-9/11 environment. They insist torture must be viewed in that light, not from the soft comfort of 2014. America had been attacked, and only through any and all means necessary could we protect her.
Many other times America faced dire circumstances, most far more dangerous to the nation, when government-sponsored torture on a massive scale somehow wasn’t needed to prevail. The American Civil War, and WWII, especially in the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor, are two examples that come to mind. What made a handful of jihadis more dangerous?
Ticking Time Bomb Scenario
OK, OK, the ticking time bomb scenario. This one pops up as regular as bowel movements. Isn’t torture justified under a situation where a captured terrorist knows information that would stop a bus full of patriotic orphans from being blown up?
Of course, no such scenario has ever existed, and is unlikely ever to exist. For a real 24 TV-like ticking time bomb scenario to exist, here’s what would need to fall into place: the U.S. would have to capture a terrorist in a timely fashion who knew the full, precise details (Monday morning, corner of 5th and Main, Columbus, Ohio, bad guy in white Prius), the U.S. would need to know that the terrorist indeed possessed this information, the U.S. would have to know only torture would elicit the information, the terrorist would need to “break” and give up the full, true information in a timely manner and the information would need to be transmitted to the appropriate law enforcement authorities wherever they were and they would need to act conclusively under whatever time pressures existed, and be successful in their intervention.
Absent even one of those elements, there is no ticking time bomb scenario. It is a false argument for torture, as they all are.
17th Century Morality
But at the end of the day, what troubled me most was not the odd idea that the venerable BBC had stooped to scouring the world to find advocates of torture and given them an audience larger than those they normally addressed from under the rocks they live hidden beneath, or that journalism stoops so low now.
The saddest thing of all is that in what is supposed to be the enlightened 21st century, with so many cries of “never again” echoing in our historical background, we are still forced to defend the notion that a country like the United States should not torture people. We have reverted to a 17th century morality.
Cross-posted with TomDispatch.com
What do words mean in a post-9/11 world? Apart from the now clichéd Orwellian twists that turn brutal torture into mere enhanced interrogation, the devil is in the details. Robert MacLean is a former air marshal fired for an act of whistleblowing. He has continued to fight over seven long years for what once would have passed as simple justice: getting his job back. His is an all-too-twenty-first-century story of the extraordinary lengths to which the U.S. government is willing to go to thwart whistleblowers.
First, the government retroactively classified a previously unclassified text message to justify firing MacLean. Then it invoked arcane civil service procedures, including an “interlocutory appeal” to thwart him and, in the process, enjoyed the approval of various courts and bureaucratic boards apparently willing to stamp as “legal” anything the government could make up in its own interest.
And yet here’s the miracle at the heart of this tale: MacLean refused to quit, when ordinary mortals would have thrown in the towel. Now, with a recent semi-victory, he may not only have given himself a shot at getting his old job back, but also create a precedent for future federal whistleblowers. In the post-9/11 world, people like Robert MacLean show us how deep the Washington rabbit hole really goes.
The Whistle Is Blown
MacLean joined the Federal Air Marshal Service (FAMS) in 2001 after stints with the Air Force and the Border Patrol. In July 2003, all marshals received a briefing about a possible hijacking plot. Soon after, the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA), which oversees FAMS, sent an unencrypted, open-air text message to the cell phones of the marshals cancelling several months of missions for cost-cutting reasons. MacLean became concerned that cancelling missions during a hijacking alert might create a dangerous situation for the flying public. He complained to his supervisor and to the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general, but each responded that nothing could be done.
It was then that he decided to blow the whistle, hoping that public pressure might force the TSA to reinstate the marshals’ flights. So MacLean talked to a reporter, who broadcast a story criticizing the TSA’s decision and, after 11 members of Congress joined in the criticism, it reversed itself. At this point, MacLean had not been identified as the source of the leak and so carried on with his job.
A year later, he appeared on TV in disguise, criticizing the TSA dress code and its special boarding policies, which he believed allowed marshals to be easily identified by other passengers. This time, the TSA recognized his voice and began an investigation that revealed he had also released the 2003 text message. He was fired in April 2006. Although the agency had not labeled that message as “sensitive security information” (SSI) when it was sent in 2003, in August 2006, months after MacLean’s firing, it issued a retroactive order stating that the text’s content was indeed SSI.
A Whistleblower’s Catch-22
That disclosing the contents of an unclassified message could get someone fired for disclosing classified information is the sort of topsy-turvy situation which could only exist in the post-9/11 world of the American national security state.
Under the 1989 Whistleblower Protection Act (WPA), a disclosure prohibited by law negates whistleblower protections. That, of course, makes it in the government’s interest to define disclosure as broadly as possible and to classify as much of its internal communications for as long as it possibly can. No wonder that in recent years the classification of government documents has soared, reaching a record total of 92,064,862 in 2011.
Officially, the U.S. government recognizes only three basic levels of classification: confidential, secret, and top secret. Since 9/11, however, various government agencies have created multiple freestyle categories of secrecy like “SSI,” “Law Enforcement Sensitive,” “Sensitive But Unclassified,” and the more colorful “Eyes Only.” All of these are outside the normal codification system; all are hybrids that casually seek to incorporate the full weight of the formal law. There are currently 107 designations just for “sensitive” information. In addition to those labels, there exist more than 130 sets of extra “handling requirements” that only deepen the world of government secrecy.
At issue for MacLean was not only the retroactive classification of a text message already in the public domain, but what classified could possibly mean in an era when everything related to the national security state was slipping into the shadows. Such questions are hardly semantic or academic. MacLean’s case hinges on how they are answered.
The case against Army Private Bradley Manning and WikiLeaks is, for example, intimately tied up in them. The military hides behind classification to block access to Manning’s “public” trial. With WikiLeaks, despite more than 100,000 U.S. State Department diplomatic cables being available to anyone anywhere on the web, the government continues to insist that they remain “classified” and cannot even be rereleased in response to requests. Potential federal employees were warned to stay away from the cables online, and the State Department even blocked TomDispatch from its staff to shield them from alleged WikiLeaks content (some of which was linked to and discussed, but none of which was actually posted at the site).
With author Tony Shaffer, the government retroactively classified its own account of why he was given the Bronze Star and his standard deployment orders to Afghanistan after he published an uncomplimentary book about American actions there. The messy case of alleged “hacktivist” Barrett Brown includes prosecution for “disclosing” classified material simply by linking to it at places where it had already been posted online; and, while still at the State Department, I was once accused of the same thing by the government.
In MacLean’s case, over a period of seven years, the legality of the TSA firing him for using an only-later-classified text was upheld. Legal actions included hearings before administrative judges, the Merit Systems Protections Board twice, that interlocutory appeal, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. The sum of these decisions amid a labyrinth of judicial bureaucracies demands the use of the term Kafkaesque. MacLean, so the general judgment went, should have known that the text message he planned to leak was a classified document, even when it wasn’t (yet). As a result, he should also have understood that his act would not be that of a whistleblower alerting the public to possible danger, but of a criminal risking public safety by exposing government secrets. If that isn’t the definition of a whistleblower’s catch-22, what is?
What such a twisted interpretation by the various courts, boards, and bodies meant was chillingly laid out in an amicus brief on behalf of MacLean filed by the United States Office of Special Counsel (a small, lonely U.S. government entity charged with protecting whistleblowers):
“Whistleblowers should not have to guess whether information that they reasonably believe evidences waste, fraud, abuse, illegalities or public dangers might be later designated as SSI [unclassified sensitive security information] and therefore should not be disclosed. Rather than making the wrong guess, a would-be whistleblower will likely choose to remain silent to avoid risking the individual’s employment.”
Seven Years Later…
In 2011, five years after he had been fired as an air marshal, MacLean’s case finally reached the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. Two full years after that, in April 2013, the court handed down a decision that may yet provide justice for Robert MacLean — and for future whistleblowers. While awkwardly upholding previous decisions that the government can indeed retroactively classify information, even documents in categories like SSI that exist outside the government’s official framework for classification and secrecy, the court tackled a more basic question: Was Robert MacLean a whistleblower anyway, entitled to protection for his act of conscience?
Here lies the conflict at the heart of just about every whistleblower case — between the public’s right (and need) to know and the (at times legitimate) need for secrecy. The government typically argues that individuals should not be allowed to decide for themselves what remains secret and what doesn’t, or chaos would result. At the same time, in a post-9/11 world of increasing secrecy, the loss of the right to know, and the massive over-classification of documents, the “conflict” has become ever more one-sided. If everything can be considered a classified secret document too precious for Americans to know about, and nothing classified can be disclosed, then the summary effect is that nothing inside the government can ever be shown to the public.
The court found that while the Transportation Safety Administration could legally apply any classification it wanted to information any time it wanted, even retroactively, simply slapping on such a label did not necessarily prohibit disclosure. Absent an actual law in MacLean’s case mentioning SSI, a term created bureaucratically, not congressionally, there could be no Whistleblower Protection Act-excepting prohibition. In other words, MacLean could still be a whistleblower.
One of MacLean’s lawyers, Tom Devine, told me the decision “restored 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 WPA rights.”
“With this precedential decision,” MacLean explained to me, “agencies can no longer cancel out Whistleblower Protection Act rights with their semi-secret markings like SSI, Law Enforcement Sensitive, etcetera.”
In a concurring opinion, United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit Judge Evan Wallach was even clearer: “Mr. MacLean presented substantial evidence that he was not motivated by personal gain but by the desire to protect the public… I concur to emphasize that the facts alleged, if proven, allege conduct at the core of the Whistleblower Protection Act.”
MacLean’s case now returns to the Merit Systems Protection Board. The board is a complex piece of bureaucracy inside the already complicated federal government personnel system. In simple terms, it is supposed to be a place to appeal personnel actions, such as alleged unfair hirings and firings. It thus serves as a kind of watchdog over the sprawling federal human resources empire. The Board now has the court-ordered specific charge to “determine whether Mr. MacLean’s disclosure qualifies for WPA protection.”
Note as well that this case could continue without end for years more, traveling on “appeal” back through the federal judicial bureaucracy and the courts. And remember that this, too, is an advantage to a government that wants ever less known about itself. If, as a federal employee, you are watching a case like MacLean’s (or Thomas Drake’s, or Franz Gayle’s, or Morris Davis’s, or John Kiriakou’s, or even my own small version of this), then you can’t help noticing that the act of whistleblowing could leave you: a) out on your ear; b) prosecuted for a criminal act and/or c) with your life embroiled for years in the intricacies of your own never-ending case. None of this is exactly an encouragement to federal employees to blow that whistle.
Whistleblowers and Secrecy
Threats to whistleblowers abound, so any positive step, however minimalist or reversible, is important. Entering the White House pledging to head the most transparent administration in history, Barack Obama has, in fact, gone after more national security whistleblowers, often using the draconian Espionage Act, than all previous administrations combined.
His Justice Department has repeatedly tried to prosecute whistleblowers, crudely lumping them in with actual spies and claiming they endanger Americans (and sometimes “the troops”) by their actions. In addition, through the ongoing case of Berry v. Conyers, Obama has sought to expand the definition of “national security worker” to potentially include thousands of additional federal employees. Many employees who occupy truly sensitive jobs in the intelligence community (for example, real-world spies at the CIA) are exempt from being granted whistleblower status. They also cannot appeal to the Merit Systems Protection Board if fired. By seeking to expand that exemption to a significantly larger group of people who may work at some federal agency, but in non-sensitive positions, Obama is also functionally moving to shrink the pool of potential whistleblowers. In Berry v. Conyers, for example, the persons Obama seeks to exempt as occupying sensitive jobs are merely an accounting technician and a commissary worker at an Air Force base. Neither of them even hold security clearances.
What happens with MacLean’s case potentially affects every future whistleblower. If the mere presence of a pseudo-classification on an item, even applied retroactively, negates whistleblower protections, it means dark days ahead for the right of the citizenry to know what the government is doing (or how it’s misbehaving) in its name. If so, no act of whistleblowing could be considered protected, since all the government would have to do to unprotect it is classify whatever was disclosed retroactively and wash its hands of the miscreant. Federal employees, not a risk-taking bunch to begin with, will react accordingly.
This is what gives MacLean’s case special meaning. While the initial decision on his fate will occur in the bowels of the somewhat obscure Merit Systems Protections Board, it will set a precedent that will surely find its way into higher courts on more significant cases. Amid a lot of technical legal issues, it all boils down to something very simple: Should whistleblower protections favor the conscience of a concerned federal employee willing to risk his job and the freedom to inform the public, or should they dissolve in the face of an unseen bureaucrat’s (retroactive) pseudo-classification decision?
Procedurally, there are many options ahead for MacLean’s case, and the government will undoubtedly contest each tiny step. Whatever happens will happen slowly. This is exactly how the government has continually done its dirty work post-9/11, throwing monkey wrenches in the gears of the legal system, twisting words, and manipulating organizations designed to deliver justice in order to deny it.
MacLean smiles at this. “I did seven years so far. I can do seven more if they want. There’s too much at stake to just give up.”
Colonel Morris Davis was the Chief Prosecutor for the terrorism trials at Guantanamo Bay for more than two years. He resigned rather than be forced to use information obtained by torture in his prosecutions.
More than 160 men who have never been charged with any offense, much less convicted of a war crime, remain at Guantanamo with no end in sight. There is something fundamentally wrong with a system where not being charged with a war crime keeps you locked away indefinitely and a war crime conviction is your ticket home. Over 100 of the 166 men who remain in Guantanamo are engaged in a hunger strike in protest of their indefinite detention. Twenty-one of them are being force-fed and five are hospitalized.
Some of the men have been in prison for more than eleven years without charge or trial. The United States has cleared a majority of the detainees for transfer out of Guantanamo, yet they remain in custody year after year because of their citizenship and ongoing political gamesmanship in the U.S.
This year, for Mom’s sake (you know she’ll be proud of you!), help Davis tell the President it is time to end Guantanamo. What you need to do is simple: add your name to Davis’ petition right now.
We’re instituted full background checks, body scanners and cavity searches at my home for all guests, which keeps me pretty busy, so this will be a short post. You can’t be too careful! Because they hate our freedoms, we’ve taken them away for safekeeping.
Here’s a fun thing for today while we’re all reflecting. I guess the cool political thing to do is ask “Are you better off now?” so let’s just do that:
State of Things September 11, 2001
Iraq opposed Iran, helping establish a balance of power in the Middle East. Any danger Saddam was worth was contained by the no-fly zones and had been, successfully, since 1991.
Iraq had no WMDs.
Iran’s plans were cooled by an enemy on its western border, Iraq, and one on its eastern border, the Taliban.
Al Qaeda was active in Afghanistan.
The Taliban controlled much of Afghanistan.
The US was not at war, and 4,486 Americans had not died in Iraq and 1,935 had not died in Afghanistan. A bunch o’ brown people were still alive. Suicide was not the most common cause of death in our military.
The US had a chunky budget surplus and had not spent three trillion dollars on wars. Americans got a tax rebate we had so much cash.
The US was not well-known among nations as a torturer, a keeper of secret prisons, an assassin with drones.
America was represented abroad primarily by diplomats.
Americans at home were secure, protected from abuses by their government by the First and Fourth Amendments.
Iraq had no WMDs.
Gas was about $1.50 a gallon in the US.
State of Things September 11, 2012
Iran has become a dominant power in the Middle East, with well-established ties into Iraq and Afghanistan.
China has also made healthy economic inroads in Afghanistan, as well as Africa. They hold a good chunk of America’s debt.
Al Qaeda is active in Afghanistan. Also Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan and many other places the franchise never held ground in before 9/11.
The Taliban control much of Afghanistan.
The US national debt is over $16 trillion dollars and growing growing growing growing…
The US has assets in the fight in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, all over Africa, Guatemala, Yemen, used to in Libya, probaly in Syria, and has suffered drone strikes on all sort of other places, including the Philippines.
The US government ctively and continuously spies on Americans, particularly through electronic means. Once aimed only abroad, the NSA now devotes a substantial portion of its mighty resources inside the US.
The US government drone assassinates American Citizen abroad without trial.
America is represented abroad primarily by soldiers.
Iraq still has no WMDs. But other new places do or soon will.
The amount of oil flowing from Iraq is about the same as it was in 2001.
Gas is about $4.00 a gallon in the US.
So, are you better off? The traditional anniversary gift for an eleventh anniversary is something made of silk or linen, so for you America, here is a linen hankie to cry into. Can’t afford a silk one.
For a more sober reflection on how far we have fallen from 9/10/01, have a look at Morris Davis’ latest article.
I’ll be talking live with WZBC-FM Radio News’ John Grebe today at about 12:10, discussing the Morris Davis case (see below) and more.
Interested listeners can tune in:
– In Greater Boston to 90.3 FM
– Live web stream
– Archived online.
Here’s the First Amendment, in full: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Those beautiful words, almost haiku-like, are the sparse poetry of the American democratic experiment. The Founders purposely wrote the First Amendment to read broadly, and not like a snippet of tax code, in order to emphasize that it should encompass everything from shouted religious rantings to eloquent political criticism. Go ahead, reread it aloud at this moment when the government seems to be carving out an exception to it large enough to drive a tank through.
As the occupiers of Zuccotti Park, like those pepper-sprayed at UC Davis or the Marine veteran shot in Oakland, recently found out, the government’s ability to limit free speech, to stopper the First Amendment, to undercut the right to peaceably assemble and petition for redress of grievances, is perhaps the most critical issue our republic can face. If you were to write the history of the last decade in Washington, it might well be a story of how, issue by issue, the government freed itself from legal and constitutional bounds when it came to torture, the assassination of U.S. citizens, the holding of prisoners without trial or access to a court of law, the illegal surveillance of American citizens, and so on. In the process, it has entrenched itself in a comfortable shadowland of ever more impenetrable secrecy, while going after any whistleblower who might shine a light in.
Now, it also seems to be chipping away at the most basic American right of all, the right of free speech, starting with that of its own employees. As is often said, the easiest book to stop is the one that is never written; the easiest voice to staunch is the one that is never raised.
It’s true that, over the years, government in its many forms has tried to claim that you lose your free speech rights when you, for example, work for a public school, or join the military. In dealing with school administrators who sought to silence a teacher for complaining publicly that not enough money was being spent on academics versus athletics, or generals who wanted to stop enlisted men and women from blogging, the courts have found that any loss of rights must be limited and specific. As Jim Webb wrote when still Secretary of the Navy, “A citizen does not give up his First Amendment right to free speech when he puts on a military uniform, with small exceptions.”
Free speech is considered so basic that the courts have been wary of imposing any limits at all. The famous warning by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes about not falsely shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater shows just how extreme a situation must be for the Supreme Court to limit speech. As Holmes put it in his definition:
“The question in every case is whether the words used… are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent.”
That’s a high bar indeed.
The Government v. Morris Davis
Does a newspaper article from November 2009, a few hundred well-reasoned words that appeared in the conservative Wall Street Journal, concluding with these mild sentences, meet Justice Holmes’s high mark?
“Double standards don’t play well in Peoria. They won’t play well in Peshawar or Palembang either. We need to work to change the negative perceptions that exist about Guantanamo and our commitment to the law. Formally establishing a legal double standard will only reinforce them.”
Morris Davis got fired from his research job at the Library of Congress for writing that article and a similar letter to the editor of the Washington Post. (The irony of being fired for exercising free speech while employed at Thomas Jefferson’s library evidently escaped his bosses.) With the help of the ACLU, Davis demanded his job back. On January 8, 2010, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the Library of Congress on his behalf. In March 2011 a federal court ruled that the suit could go forward.
The case is being heard this month. Someday, it will likely define the free speech rights of federal employees and so determine the quality of people who will make up our government. We citizens vote for the big names, but it’s the millions of lower-ranked, unelected federal employees who decide by their actions how the laws are carried out (or ignored) and the Constitution upheld (or disregarded).
Morris Davis is not some dour civil servant. Prior to joining the Library of Congress, he spent more than 25 years as an Air Force colonel. He was, in fact, the chief military prosecutor at Guantánamo and showed enormous courage in October 2007 when he resigned from that position and left the Air Force. Davis had stated he would not use evidence obtained through torture back in 2005. When a torture advocate was named his boss in 2007, Davis quit rather than face the inevitable order to reverse his position.
In December 2008, Davis went to work as a researcher at the Library of Congress in the Foreign Affairs, Defense and Trade Division. None of his work was related to Guantanamo. He was not a spokesperson for, or a public face of, the library. He was respected at work. Even the people who fired him do not contest that he did his “day job” as a researcher well.
On November 12, 2009, the day after his op-ed and letter appeared, Davis was told by his boss that the pieces had caused the library concern over his “poor judgment and suitability to serve… not consistent with ‘acceptable service'” — as the letter of admonishment he received put the matter. It referred only to his op-ed and Washington Post letter, and said nothing about his work performance as a researcher. One week later, Davis was fired.
But Shouldn’t He Have Known Better Than to Write Something Political?
The courts have consistently supported the rights of the Ku Klux Klan to use extreme and hateful words, of the burners of books, and of those who desecrate the American flag. All of that is considered “protected speech.” A commitment to real free speech means accepting the toughest cases, the most offensive things people can conceive of, as the price of a free society.
The Library of Congress does not restrict its employees from writing or speaking, so Davis broke no rules. Nor, theoretically at least, do other government agencies like the CIA and the State Department restrict employees from writing or speaking, even on matters of official concern, although they do demand prior review for such things as the possible misuse of classified material.
Clearly, such agency review processes have sometimes been used as a de facto method of prior restraint. The CIA, for example, has been accused of using indefinite security reviews to effectively prevent a book from being published. The Department of Defense has also wielded exaggerated claims of classified material to block books.
Since at least 1968, there has, however, been no broad prohibition against government employees writing about political matters or matters of public concern. In 1968, the Supreme Court decided a seminal public employee First Amendment case, Pickering v. Board of Education. It ruled that school officials had violated the First Amendment rights of teacher Marvin Pickering when they fired him for writing a letter to his local paper criticizing the allocation of money between academics and athletics.
A Thought Crime
Morris Davis was fired by the Library of Congress not because of his work performance, but because he wrote that Wall Street Journal op-ed on his own time, using his own computer, as a private citizen, never mentioning his (unrelated) federal job. The government just did not like what he wrote. Perhaps his bosses were embarrassed by his words, or felt offended by them. Certainly, in the present atmosphere in Washington, they felt they had an open path to stopping their own employee from saying what he did, or at least for punishing him for doing so.
It’s not, of course, that federal employees don’t write and speak publicly. As long as they don’t step on toes, they do, in startling numbers, on matters of official concern, on hobbies, on subjects of all sorts, through what must be an untold number of blogs, Facebook pages, Tweets, op-eds, and letters to the editor. The government picked Davis out for selective, vindictive prosecution.
More significantly, Davis was fired prospectively — not for poor attendance, or too much time idling at the water cooler, but because his boss believed Davis’s writing showed that the quality of his judgment might make him an unsuitable employee at some future moment. The simple act of speaking out on a subject at odds with an official government position was the real grounds for his firing. That, and that alone, was enough for termination.
As any devoted fan of George Orwell, Ray Bradbury, or Philip K. Dick would know, Davis committed a thought crime.
As some readers may also know, I evidently did the same thing. Because of my book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, about my experiences as a State Department official in Iraq, and the articles, op-eds, and blog posts I have written, I first had my security clearance suspended by the Department of State and then was suspended from my job there. That job had nothing to do with Iraq or any of the subjects I have written about. My performance reviews were good, and no one at State criticized me for my day-job work. Because we have been working under different human resources systems, Davis, as a civil servant on new-hire probation, could be fired directly. As a tenured Foreign Service Officer, I can’t, and so State has placed me on indefinite administrative leave status; that is, I’m without a job, pending action to terminate me formally through a more laborious process.
However, in removing me from my position, the document the State Department delivered to me darkly echoed what Davis’ boss at the Library of Congress said to him:
“The manner in which you have expressed yourself in some of your published material is inconsistent with the standards of behavior expected of the Foreign Service. Some of your actions also raise questions about your overall judgment. Both good judgment and the ability to represent the Foreign Service in a way that will make the Foreign Service attractive to candidates are key requirements.”
There follows a pattern of punishing federal employees for speaking out or whistle-blowing: look at Davis, or me, or Franz Gayl, or Thomas Drake. In this way, a precedent is being set for an even deeper cloud of secrecy to surround the workings of government. From Washington, in other words, no news, other than good or officially approved news, is to emerge.
The government’s statements at Davis’s trial, now underway in Washington D.C., do indeed indicate that he was fired for the act of speaking out itself, as much as the content of what he said. The Justice Department lawyer representing the government said that Davis’s writings cast doubt on his discretion, judgment and ability to serve as a high-level official. (She also added that Davis’s language in the op-ed was “intemperate.” One judge on the three-member bench seemed to support the point, saying, “It’s one thing to speak at a law school or association, but it’s quite a different thing to be in The Washington Post.” The case will likely end up at the Supreme Court.
Free Speech is for Iranians, not Government Employees
If Morris Davis loses his case, then a federal employee’s judgment and suitability may be termed insufficient for employment if he or she writes publicly in a way that offends or embarrasses the government. In other words, the very definition of good judgment, when it comes to freedom of speech, will then rest with the individual employer — that is, the U.S. government.
Simply put, even if you as a federal employee follow your agency’s rules on publication, you can still be fired for what you write if your bosses don’t like it. If your speech offends them, then that’s bad judgment on your part and the First Amendment goes down the drain. Free speech is increasingly coming at a price in Washington: for federal employees, conscience could cost them their jobs.
In this sense, Morris Davis represents a chilling precedent. He raised his voice. If we’re not careful, the next Morris Davis may not. Federal employees are, at best, a skittish bunch, not known for their innovative, out-of-the-box thinking. Actions like those in the Davis case will only further deter any thoughts of speaking out, and will likely deter some good people from seeking federal employment.
More broadly, the Davis case threatens to give the government free rein in selecting speech by its employees it does not like and punishing it. It’s okay to blog about your fascination with knitting or to support official positions. If you happen to be Iranian or Chinese or Syrian, and not terribly fond of your government, and express yourself on the subject, the U.S. government will support your right to do it 110% of the way. However, as a federal employee, blog about your negative opinions on U.S. policies and you’ve got a problem. In fact, we have a problem as a country if freedom of speech only holds as long as it does not offend the U.S. government.
Morris Davis’s problem is neither unique nor isolated. Clothilde Le Coz, Washington director of Reporters without Borders, told me earlier this month, “Secrecy is taking over from free speech in the United States. While we naively thought the Obama administration would be more transparent than the previous one, it is actually the first to sue five people for being sources and speaking publicly.” Scary, especially since this is no longer an issue of one rogue administration.
Government is different than private business. If you don’t like McDonald’s because of its policies, go to Burger King, or a soup kitchen, or eat at home. You don’t get the choice of federal governments, and so the critical need for its employees to be able to speak informs the republic. We are the only ones who can tell you what is happening inside your government. It really is that important. Ask Morris Davis.
After publishing the piece above, TomDispatch and I received two emails (both were signed but names removed here):
I enjoyed your piece on the Davis case and largely agree with your point of view, but am surprised to see you repeatedly refer to Davis as a “researcher.” He was a senior manager at CRS (my boss, in fact) and research was at no time among his job duties. Also, my understanding is that CRS does, indeed, restrict outside writing by employees when such writing takes policy positions on any issue that may be or come before Congress. This can be taken as harmful to the central CRS mission of objectivity. So Davis wasn’t fired for his position, he was fired for taking a position.
Second email, different author:
There was no free speech violation against Moe Davis at LC and anybody who comes in actual contact with Davis realizes he is quite a fraud and liar. I worked at LC over 20 years and ran, on my own, the LCPA Veterans Forum. I brought 50 speakers of the Left and Right and it was a very respected program. I had scheduled Lynndie England as well as her prosecutor (at a later date) who had also published a book. Davis told me I should cancel her appearance (!). I told him both were coming and, since she had the guts to appear in public, he should tell her what he thought of her.
I am a Viet Vet with my own opinion about her behavior, but that is beside the point in bringing speakers to LC. Davis then went to the WSJ, which then interviewed me, making him look like an ass. He then resorted to threats and getting others to send threats to me and LC. I forwarded all to the police and IG. The event was cancelled over my objections, I then cancelled the Forum due to lack of free speech and retired early out of disgust. Davis wrote on LC time and stated who he was, as well as calling me in print a “veteran without values.” Yeah, I did a year in Vietnam and was a paratrooper with 27 jumps; he never mussed his hair in 25 years. David violated all the rules and laws and was told he would be fired if he did not follow the rules. CIA, FBI, etc., all have to conform to rules on publishing and have writings vetted. Davis simply refused. Read what he said about Khadr while at Gitmo as that is much different than his story now. He also tried to have a defense attorney arrested, resulting in a rebuke from the judge. Davis belongs in Iran issuing fatwas against authors he does not like.
One last point: Davis likes to say “popular outrage” cancelled Lyndie, but tons of calls came in support of free speech and condemning Davis and his violence-threatening pals. I received quite a few calls from other vets, who wrote complaints to their Senators about Davis. NOTE: you may publish all or any of my response.
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