• With Whistleblowers Jesselyn Radack and Tom Drake

    April 16, 2016 // 8 Comments

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    Posted in: Democracy, NSA, Post-Constitution America

    jess and tom

    I am very proud to call these two people friends:


    Jesselyn Radack, who blew the whistle on Department of Justice malfeasance in the handling of the “American Taliban” John Walker Lindh. Jess went on to become a key part of Edward Snowden’s defense team (full disclosure: Jess was also one of my lawyers in my own whistleblower struggle with the State Department.)


    Tom Drake, who blew the whistle on NSA domestic spying in the years right after 9/11, and who is cited by Edward Snowden as an important example as he decided whether or not to further expose the unconstitutional acts of the National Security Agency. In return for his truth telling, Tom was rewarded by being prosecuted under the Espionage Act, a tactic the Obama administration has now used seven times against intelligence whistleblowers, more than all previous administrations combined.

    We had a terrific lunch, and if only the walls could talk…




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  • Radack, Drake Win Hugh Hefner First Amendment Award

    June 5, 2012 // 2 Comments

    Tags: , , ,
    Posted in: Democracy

    I am very pleased and proud that my attorney, Jesslyn Radack of the Government Accountability Project, and my friend and colleague Tom Drake, NSA Whistleblower, are the winners of this year’s Hugh M. Hefner Foundation First Amendment Awards. Radack and Drake are being acknowledged for their critical work exposing national security hypocrisy and abuses.

    The Hefner Foundation has given out the First Amendment Awards since 1980, honoring those who have made contributions to the protections afforded under the First Amendment. Radack and Drake join an impressive rank of winners, including the likes of Walter Karp, Studs Terkel, Cecile Richards, Michael Moore, John Seigenthaler, Bill Maher, and Molly Ivins.

    Tom Drake blew the whistle on fraud, waste and abuse within the NSA and was rewarded by being prosecuted under the Espionage Act, a tactic the Obama administration has now used six times against intelligence whistleblowers, more than all previous administrations combined. Radack, herself a Department of Justice whistleblower, represented Drake and played a vital role in winning his case in the court of public opinion.

    My congratulations to Jesslyn and Tom on the award, and here’s hoping that Jess soon adds a victory for free speech over the State Department in my own case to her impressive resume.



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  • Movie Review: The Post, or, History as 2018 Wants It to Be

    January 19, 2018 // 11 Comments

    Tags: , , , ,
    Posted in: Post-Constitution America, Trump



    Steven Spielberg’s “The Post,” starring Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, tells the story of the Washington Post’s decision in 1971 to publish parts of the Pentagon Papers, the government’s secret history of the Vietnam War. It’s a whimper of a movie, throwing bad history on the screen to make a clumsy but ever-so 2018 political point.

    So how do you make a two hour drama out of a decision? There are only so many scenes you can shoot, though Spielberg tries them all, of The Suits saying “You can’t publish!” while Meryl and Tom emote “We must!” Well, you more or less override real history in favor of a Lesson, whitewash a decision made in part to make the Post look better against its competition of the time the Washington Star, and sideline the real hero, Daniel Ellsberg.


    A bit of history. Ellsberg first leaked the Pentagon Papers exclusively to the New York Times; despite what “The Post” claims, the Washington newspapers were far too provincial to qualify as full peers. The Pentagon Papers were a 7,000 page classified history of the Vietnam War, 1945 to 1968, prepared under the order of Kennedy-Johnson Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. We know now McNamara, while publicly supporting the war, was privately consumed by doubt, and the Papers were his act of contrition. Times’ reporters spent three months reading and verifying the documents. Simultaneously, the Times set its legal team to preparing the now classic First Amendment defense it knew would be needed.

    The risks were huge — no one had ever published such classified documents before, and the senior staff at the Times feared they would go to jail under the Espionage Act (though only Ellsberg was actually charged as such.) The Nixon administration found a court to order the Times to cease publication after an initial flurry of excerpts were printed in June 1971, the first time in U.S. history a federal judge censored a newspaper. Things got so dicey the Times’ outside counsel actually quit the night before his first appearance in court, claiming the newspaper had indeed broken the law. It was only at that point the Washington Post actually obtained an excerpt from the Pentagon Papers.


    The movie brushes past the Times’ rigorous fact checking, raw courage, and masterful First Amendment legal defense to focus on the Post’s big risk: the paper was about to offer its stock publicly, and problems with the government might hurt share prices. Nixon shut down the Post’s publishing anyway after only two days, and the paper went to court. The Post’s lawyers made no First Amendment case, more afraid of being found in contempt of the injunction against the Times than the Espionage Act. The Supreme Court rolled their briefs into the Times’ case, and the landmark victory for the First Amendment was issued as New York Times Company v. United States. The Times won the Pulitzer Prize. The Post did not.


    But hell, you’re Steven Spielberg. You have the True Guardians of Liberal-Lite, Blue America’s mom and dad, Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks. What does history have to do with your movie anyway? It all begs the question of why Spielberg chose to tell the story of the Pentagon Papers, which is really the story of the New York Times with its spine still in place, via a secondary player, the Washington Post?

    “The Post” has no real interest in the Pentagon Papers except as a plot device, almost an excuse needed to make this movie. “The Post” simply takes a now universally praised, and thus middle America safe (for the same reason, “Saving Private Ryan” was set in the Good War instead of god-awful Vietnam) episode of journalism as a launching point to attack what it sees as the Trump Administration’s efforts to weaken a free press. Today’s WaPo, under the ownership of one of America’s richest liberal capitalists, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, has refashioned itself as the newspaper of #Resistance, declaring in undergraduate essay level pseudo Orwellian prose its motto to be “Democracy Dies in Darkness.”

    By setting the story back in ye olde timey 1971, Spielberg can appropriate Daniel Ellsberg, instead of Obama-era whistleblowers Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, who still hover near to traitor status for many. Tom Hanks himself gave the game away, calling Ellsberg a hero in an interview while refusing to characterize Snowden at all.

    What was clearly the right thing to do to help bring down (Trump stand-in) Richard Nixon can become all morally ambiguous when Obama is in the hot seat, hence the historical setting. The Obama administration charged more people under the Espionage Act for alleged mishandling of classified information than all past presidencies combined, including Nixon’s. But by more or less bypassing the core issue both whistleblowers and real journalists stare down — there are higher goals than obedience to government — Spielberg ducks the real lesson in favor of an easy shot at the current administration.

    “I think our country has a love-hate relationship with whistleblowers,” attorney Jesselyn Radack, who helped represent Manning, Snowden and, full disclosure, me, told The American Conservative. “I wish I could be optimistic about ‘The Post’ shifting the needle of public opinion. However, it’s a hopelessly mismatched tug of war when the entire apparatus of the U.S. government — whether led by Obama or Trump — holds one end of the rope.”


    Using the old Washington Post as the launching point for what is essentially just a trope-ish Op-Ed (Freedom of the Press, good! Republican Presidents, bad! Journos, Indiana Jones!) also allows Spielberg to show 1971 exactly as 2018 wants to remember it. Meryl and Tom, playing Katherine and Ben, are perfect role models for how men and women should work together, respectful and considerate, with no mansplaining or inappropriate remarks to be found.

    Meanwhile, the newsroom is era-appropriate white and male, but everyone is on their best behavior for the camera; no fanny slapping, no one addressing the clerical staff as “honey” or demanding coffee. The New York Times of 1971 was too male, and even Spielberg couldn’t shoe horn a female protagonist into that picture, never mind create a hit-you-over-the-head subplot of Katherine Graham morphing from Betty Crocker into a fierce, persistent 2018 role model for all women and girls (one of the later shots in the film shows Streep leaving the Supreme Court to gently part a crowd of adoring young women, adream in halo-like glow at her proto-feminism). There is no subtlety to the message. Spielberg might as well have costumed Streep wearing a pink pussy hat in the boardroom scenes.


    Nobody expects movies to be 100% historically accurate, but “The Post” twists facts to present a battle that really wasn’t fought this way at all. The film is an effective piece of polemic, taking full advantage of the skills of some of America’s most talented practitioners, who one imagines believe they made a Movie That Matters For Our Times. Spielberg, Streep, and Hanks, all supporters of Hillary Clinton, couldn’t get her elected, so they did the next best thing. They created a little confection likely to win multiple Oscars and play forever on Amazon Prime beating up the guy she lost to.



    Full Disclosure: Dan Ellsberg is a hero of mine.

     

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  • The War on the First Amendment Didn’t Start Last Week

    May 11, 2017 // 49 Comments

    Tags: ,
    Posted in: Democracy, Post-Constitution America

    HMH_programcover_v1.indd


    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?




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  • Film Review: National Bird Looks Deeply in the Drone War’s Abyss

    April 27, 2017 // 5 Comments

    Tags:
    Posted in: Afghanistan, Iraq, Military



    National Bird, a documentary film about America’s drone wars by filmmaker Sonia Kennebeck, airs May 1 at 10 pm on your local PBS station as part of the Independent Lens series.

    I had a chance to see the film in advance, and here’s why you should watch it: it is terrifying even in the quiet moments; it is most terrifying in the quietest moments.


    National Bird is a deep, multilayered, look into America’s drone wars, a tactic which became a strategy which became a post-9/11 policy. To many in Iraq, Afghanistan and throughout the world, America’s new national symbol is not the bald eagle, but a gray shadow overhead armed with Hellfire missiles.

    The Silence

    Scattered throughout the documentary are silent images from drones and aerial cameras, sweeping, hypnotic vistas taken from above both Afghan villages and American suburbs. The message could not be more clear: the tools used over there can just as easily be used over here, not merely for surveillance (as is already happening in America) but perhaps one day soon to send violence down from the sky. Violence sudden, sharp, complete and anonymous.



    The Americans

    The anonymity of that violence comes at a price, in this case in the minds of the Americans who decided who lives and dies. National Bird presents three brave whistleblowers, two former uniformed Air Force veterans (Lisa Ling, Heather Linebaugh) and a former civilian intelligence analyst (Dan), people who have broken cover to tell the world what happens behind the scenes of the drone war. There are ironic elements of “old hat” here, chilling in that we have sadly grown used to hearing that drone strikes kill more innocents than terrorists, that the people who make war justify their actions by calling their victims hajjis and ragheads, that America draws often naive young people into its national security state on the false promises of hollow patriotism and turns them into assassins.

    Heather suffers from crippling PTSD. Lisa is compelled to travel to Afghanistan with a humanitarian group to reclaim part of her soul, a victim of moral injury. Dan is in hiding as an Espionage Act investigation unfolds around him. A sobering side to this all is the presence of the whistleblowers’ attorney, Jesselyn Radack, who currently also helps defend Edward Snowden. Radack ties the actions of the drone whistleblowers into the larger post-9/11 narrative of retributive prosecutions and government attempts to hide the truth of America’s War on Terror from everyone but its victims.



    The Afghans

    The final layer of National Bird is what may be some of the first interviews with innocents who have suffered directly from drone attacks. The film interviews at length members of an Afghan extended family attacked from the air in a case of mistaken targeting even the Department of Defense now acknowledges.

    The family members speak six years after the fact as if still in shock. Here’s a boy who shows off his leg stump. Here’s a woman who lost her husband, the boy’s father, in the same attack. Here is another father discussing the loss of his own child. In a critical piece of storytelling, National Bird does not seek to trivialize the deaths in Afghanistan by weighing them against the psychological trauma suffered by the Americans, but rather shows the loss to everyone done in our names.

    (Full disclosure: Jesselyn Radack helped represent me in my own whistleblower fight against the U.S. Department of State in 2012)




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  • Film Review: National Bird Looks Deeply in the Drone War’s Abyss

    May 6, 2016 // 5 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Afghanistan

    national bird



    It is terrifying even in the quiet moments; it is most terrifying in the quietest moments.


    National Bird, a new documentary by filmmaker Sonia Kennebeck, co-produced with Errol Morris and Wim Wenders, is a deep, multilayered, look into America’s drone wars, a tactic which became a strategy which became a post-9/11 policy. To many in Iraq, Afghanistan and throughout the world, America’s new national symbol is not the bald eagle, but a gray shadow overhead armed with Hellfire missiles.

    The Silence

    Scattered throughout the documentary are silent images from drones and aerial cameras, sweeping, hypnotic vistas taken from above both Afghan villages and American suburbs. The message could not be more clear: the tools used over there can just as easily be used over here, not merely for surveillance (as is already happening in America) but perhaps one day soon to send violence down from the sky. Violence sudden, sharp, complete and anonymous.



    The Americans

    The anonymity of that violence comes at a price, in this case in the minds of the Americans who decide who lives and dies. National Bird presents three brave whistleblowers, two former uniformed Air Force veterans (Lisa Ling, Heather Linebaugh) and a former civilian intelligence analyst (Dan), people who have broken cover to tell the world what happens behind the scenes of the drone war. There are elements of “old hat” here, chilling in that we have grown used to hearing that drone strikes kill more innocents than terrorists, that the people who make war justify their actions by calling their victims hajjis and ragheads, that America draws often naive young people into its national security state on the false promises of hollow patriotism and turns them into assassins.

    Heather suffers from crippling PTSD. Lisa is compelled to travel to Afghanistan with a humanitarian group to reclaim part of her soul. Dan is in hiding as an Espionage Act investigation unfolds around him. A sobering side to this all is the presence of the whistleblowers’ attorney, Jesselyn Radack, who currently also helps defend Edward Snowden. Radack ties the actions of the drone whistleblowers into the larger post-9/11 narrative of retributive prosecutions and government attempts to hide the truth of America’s War on Terror from everyone but its victims.



    The Afghans

    The final layer of National Bird is what may be some of the first interviews with innocents who have suffered directly from drone attacks. The film interviews at length members of an Afghan extended family attacked from the air in a case of mistaken targeting even the Department of Defense now acknowledges.

    The family members speak six years after the fact as if still in shock. Here’s a boy who shows off his leg stump. Here’s a woman who lost her husband, the boy’s father, in the same attack. Here is another father discussing the loss of his own child. In a critical piece of storytelling, National Bird does not seek to trivialize the deaths in Afghanistan by weighing them against the psychological trauma suffered by the Americans, but rather shows the loss to everyone done in our names.

    National Bird is in limited film festival release, most recently at Tribeca in New York, before moving wider theatrical release in the U.S. this fall.



    (Full disclosure: Jesselyn Radack helped represent me in my own whistleblower fight against the U.S. Department of State in 2012)




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  • E.O. 12333: End-Running the Fourth Amendment

    September 22, 2014 // 7 Comments

    Tags: , , , ,
    Posted in: Democracy, Post-Constitution America




    Historians of the Constitutional Era of the United States (1789-2001, RIP) will recall the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, the one that used to protect Americans against unreasonable and unwarranted searches.

    The Supreme Court had generally held that searches required a warrant. That warrant could be issued only after law enforcement showed they had “probable cause.” That in turn had been defined by the Court to require a high standard of proof, “a fair probability that contraband or evidence of a crime will be found in a particular place.”

    The basic idea for more or less over 200 years: unless the government has a good, legal reason to look into your business, it couldn’t. As communications changed, the Fourth evolved to assert extend those same rights of privacy to phone calls, emails and texts, the same rules applying there as to physical searches.

    That was Then

    It was a good run. The Bill of Rights was designed to protect the people from their government. If the First Amendment’s right to speak out publicly was the people’s wall of security, then the Fourth Amendment’s right to privacy was its buttress. It was once thought that the government should neither be able to stop citizens from speaking nor peer into their lives. Folks, as our president now refers to us, should not have to fear the Knock on the Door in either their homes or The Homeland writ large.

    In Post-Constitutional America (2001-Present), the government has taken a bloody box cutter to the original copy of the Constitution and thrown the Fourth Amendment in the garbage. The NSA revelations of Edward Snowden are, in that sense, not just a shock to the conscience but to the concept of privacy itself: Our government spies on us. All of us. Without suspicion. Without warrants. Without probable cause. Without restraint.

    The government also invades our privacy in multiple other ways, all built around end-runs of the Fourth Amendment, clever wordplay, legal hacks and simple twisting of words. Thus you get illegally obtained information recycled into material usable in court via what is called parallel construction. You have the creation of “Constitution Free” zones at the U.S. border. The Department of Justice created a Post-Constitutional interpretation of the Fourth Amendment that allows it to access millions of records of Americans using only subpoenas, not search warrants, to grab folks’ emails by searching one web server instead of millions of individual homes. Under a twist of an old “privacy law,” doctors disclose your medical records to the NSA without your permission or knowledge. SWAT raids by local police designed to break into African-American businesses on harassment expeditions are also now OK.

    The Center of It All: Executive Order 12333

    The most egregious example of such word-twisting and sleazy legal manipulations to morph illegal government spying under the Fourth Amendment into topsy-turvy quasi-legal spying is the use of Executive Order 12333, E.O. 12333, what the spooks call “twelve triple three.” The Order dates from 1981, signed by Ronald Reagan to buff up what his predecessors limited in response to overzealous law enforcement activities. The Gipper would be mighty proud that his perhaps most lasting accomplishment was legalizing surveillance of every American citizen.

    Back to today. Despite all the secret FISA court decisions and as yet uncovered legal memos, most collection of U.S. domestic communications and data is done under E.O. 12333, section 2.3 paragraph C.

    Specifically, the one sentence that the government believes allows them to bypass the Fourth Amendment says the intelligence community can “collect, retain, or disseminate information concerning United States persons” if that information is “obtained in the course of a lawful foreign intelligence, counterintelligence, international narcotics or international terrorism investigation.”

    So, the work-around for the Fourth Amendment is as follows: NSA collects massive amounts of data on foreigners, often by hoovering up every fragment of electronic stuff flowing around the U.S. it can. So, while purportedly looking for a single terrorist email enroute to Yemen (“the needle”), the NSA collects every single email from Google, Yahoo and Microsoft (“the haystack.”) Thus, any American’s emails caught in that net are considered to have been collected “incidentally” to the goal of finding that one terrorist email. The NSA claims that the Executive Order thus makes its mass-scale violations of the Fourth Amendment legal.

    Tom Drake, perhaps the best-known NSA whistleblower prior to Edward Snowden, put it in simpler terms: “12333 is now being used as the legal justification for everything.”

    Oh and hey reformers: Executive Orders by one president stay in force until another president changes or negates them. We could have one at work today written by George Washington. What that also means is that Congress, should they regain consciousness, can’t change an E.O. Congress could in theory pass a law making the contents of an E.O. invalid, but that presumes someone in Congress knows the order exists and what it says. Many E.O.’s are classified and if they are not, such as 12333, the legal documents behind them and FISA interpretations of them, likely are.

    Snowden Knew

    Again, as a historical note, executive orders– basically dictates from the president– once did not trump the Constitution. However, in Post-Constitutional America, they do.

    As for this realization we have come upon, E.O. 12333, well, we’re all behind the curve. Edward Snowden, while still at NSA, wrote a now-famous email to the spy agency’s legal advisor, asking specifically whether an Executive Order has more legal force than an actual law passed by Congress, or indeed the Constitutional itself. The NSA’s answer was a bit convoluted, but said in a pinch the Constitution wins (wink wink), even while acting as if the opposite is true.

    As General Michael Hayden, then head of the NSA, said in a blistering blast of Newspeak, “I am convinced that we are lawful because what it is we’re doing is reasonable.”

    Ask Obama This Question

    So let’s make it simple: Journalists with access to the president, ask this question directly: Why is E.O. 12333 being used today, interpreted by the FISA court or any other means, stating that the NSA’s surveillance of U.S. citizens is “reasonable,” and thus no warrant is required for the surveillance to continue and remain constitutional under the Fourth Amendment?

    Of course getting an answer out of Obama will not happen. After all, he is the Constitutional law professor who studied the document the same way a burglar learns about an alarm system. TO BREAK IT BETTER.


    BONUS: The stuff above is real amateur-level writing on E.O. 12333. When you are ready to dig in deep, get over to Marcy Wheeler’s blog. She is the smartest person working in journalism today on the subject. My debt to her is hereby acknowledged.



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  • I Join the Advisory Board for ExposeFacts.org

    July 29, 2014 // 7 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Democracy, Embassy/State, Iraq




    I am quite pleased to have joined the Advisory Board of ExposeFacts.org.

    The group’s message is clear: encourage more government officials to blow the whistle. As said on their website, “ExposeFacts.org represents a new approach for encouraging whistleblowers to disclose information that citizens need to make truly informed decisions in a democracy. From the outset, our message is clear: “Whistleblowers Welcome at ExposeFacts.org.”

    I’m sort of amazed I fit in alongside the others working with ExposeFacts: Barbara Ehrenreich, Dan Ellsberg, Tom Drake, Jesselyn Radack, Michael Ratner, Matt Hoh, Coleen Rowley, Ann Wright and Ray McGovern. So there’s yer humble brag for today.

    I am also quite pleased that half a block from the State Department in Washington, at a bus stop used by America’s diplomats, ExposeFacts erected its first outdoor advertisement encouraging government employees to blow the whistle (photo above; that’s Matt Hoh there, not me). The ad shows Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg alongside the words “Don’t do what I did. Don’t wait until a new war has started, don’t wait until thousands more have died, before you tell the truth with documents that reveal lies or crimes or internal projections of costs and dangers. You might save a war’s worth of lives.”

    ExposeFacts will erect more such ads at other prominent locations in Washington and beyond. As an advisory board member, I’m glad to report that outreach to potential whistleblowers is just getting started.

    (For those new to the blog, I am a State Department whistleblower, so this all resonates with me personally as well as a concerned American. Learn more in my book We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People (American Empire Project))



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  • Media Profile: Defying the State to Publish His Story

    July 13, 2014 // 9 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: #99Percent, Economy, Minimum Wage

    Our Town, a New York City newspaper, recently published this article by Daniel Fitzsimmons, profiling me and my book, Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent.

    Peter Van Buren is an Upper East Sider and a 24-year veteran of the State Department. His experience there – including a one-year deployment to Iraq – led to him write his first book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People (MacMillan, 2011). Even before it was released, the book was frowned upon by higher ups at the State Department and they began proceedings against him for allegedly publishing classified information. He managed to beat the rap and retire with full benefits, with help from the same lawyers now representing Edward Snowden. For several years, however, Van Buren’s pension and the future of his family were at risk.

    During his legal battle with the State Department, Van Buren was forced to work in the low-wage retail sector of the American economy to make ends meet. That experience is the basis for his second book, a novel, Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99 Percent, published this year by Luminis Books. The book examines the social and economic changes in America between World War II and the decline of the blue collar middle class in the 1980s.

    Van Buren, 53, grew up in New York and now lives at 2nd Avenue and East 93rd Street.

    “I was born in New York, went to college in Ohio, and then moved around the world with my State Department job as a diplomat for 24 years,” he said. “After retirement, I wanted to leave Washington D.C. and re-immerse myself in this amazing city. Best decision I ever made.”


    What would you say the central thesis is of your first book? Why did you decide to write it and what were some of the obstacles you faced?

    We Meant Well’s thesis was two-fold: One, to document exactly how the U.S. failed in its hearts and minds mission in Iraq, the failure on the ground of the counter-insurgency “win over the people” plan of then-general David Petraeus and Secretary of State Condi Rice. The larger point was to offer lessons for how to better accomplish those goals in the hearts and minds campaign in Afghanistan. Given how poorly U.S. efforts are going in Afghanistan, now 13 years and $109 billion of reconstruction spending into the war, I guess no one took my advice. I’m actually thinking of franchising the title, We Meant Well, Too.


    It was published in 2011, how long after its release did you start receiving attention from the State Department? What was their case against you built upon?

    The State Department is a lot like the Mafia: rule number one is that you don’t talk about family business outside the family. I broke omerta and, through my book, pointed out in quite specific detail the things State did and did not do in Iraq that contributed to the failures there. Reaction from State was sharp, and began even before the book was officially published.


    Why did you decide to take a position with your book that you knew would be frowned upon by the administration?

    When anyone decides to blow the whistle and take on the entire resources of the U.S. government, it is motivated by conscience, the idea that what needs to be said is bigger than yourself. My whistle-blowing was nowhere close to what Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden did, and my punishment nowhere as severe, but the motivations are the same. I saw terrible waste and mismanagement in Iraq, wastes of money and, more significantly, both American and Iraqi lives. No one else was reporting on this; indeed, because of the way State presented itself, no one but someone from the inside could have reported it to the American people. It was on me to step up. I did.


    How, ultimately, were you able to withstand the State Department’s efforts against you and retire with full benefits?

    State tried first to stop the book, then to claim, falsely, that the book contained classified information, then to unsuccessfully prosecute me, then to fire me and take away my pension. I’ll admit, pre-Manning and pre-Snowden, I was naïve. I thought I’d get into some kind of trouble, but never saw the tsunami coming. I prevailed over the government thanks to the efforts of the Government Accountability Project, specifically Jess Radack and Kathleen McClellan. Both of these women now help represent Edward Snowden, by the way. I also was defended by the ACLU, who saw my struggle as a First Amendment issue, the right to publish. I won and the government lost. I went on to retire from State, and collect the benefits I earned from my 24 years of service.


    After your first book, how did you come to the decision to turn to domestic issues in Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99 Percent
    ?

    Following State, I went to work in the minimum wage economy, not planning on another book. But what I saw shocked me. In an odd way, I had my first taste of the life of the one percent while in Iraq: unlike most Iraqis, I had more food and amenities than I could squander, nearly unlimited funds to spend as I wished (as long as the spending supported us one-percenters) and plenty of Army muscle around to keep the 99 percent at bay.

    I returned to America to find another sort of regime change underway, only I wasn’t among the one percent for this one. I worked instead in America’s new minimum-wage economy, and saw firsthand what a life based on lousy wages and barely-adequate food benefits adds up to. There were no cruise missiles deployed to create the changes, but the cumulative effects of years of deindustrialization, declining salaries, absent benefits, decimated unions, the undertow of meth and alcohol abuse pulling at our people, the broad-based loss of jobs and of course wealth inequality on a radical scale was quite familiar. The willful destruction of a way of life in service to the goals of the one percent anywhere was hard to miss, but I still wanted a clearer picture. My research and experiences drive me to write about this all, and the result is Ghosts of Tom Joad.

    Ghosts of Tom Joad is a reimagining of Steinbeck’s classic Grapes of Wrath, brought into our own era. The book traces the dilution of our middle class, their replacement with the working poor, and examines the effects of this not just on our economy, but on our society, our nation, our America. Like Grapes of Wrath, Ghosts is a factual look at ourselves wrapped in fiction, in this case, a single Ohio family touched by the changes in America from the 1950s through today.

    I think of it as a good story, but with a conscience.



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  • New Whistleblower Documentary SILENCED World Premiere

    April 21, 2014 // 18 Comments

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    Posted in: Iraq

    I am very proud of my role as Associate Producer for the film SILENCED. Executive Produced by Susan Sarandon, directed by Oscar-nominated James Spione, the film premiered April 19 at the Tribeca International Film Festival here in New York.

    The film is about the war being fought between those who reveal the dark truths about the United States’ national security policies, and a federal government ever more committed to shrouding its activities in secrecy.

    According to the Justice Department, those who leak sensitive information to the public are a threat to the nation’s safety. We have seen under the Obama Administration more Espionage Act prosecutions than all previous presidents combined. Many of those pursued by the government risked their lives, their freedom and their honor to commit an act of conscience and tell the American people what their government is doing in their names.



    Exec. Producer Susan Sarandon

    SILENCED focuses on three patriotic Americans, all of whom I have written about here before, and all of whom I hold as friends (I was interviewed and was originally scheduled to appear myself in the film for my own whistleblowing, but ended up on the cutting room floor.)

    Jesselyn Radack blew the whistle on the Department of Justice’s attempts to cover up the unConstitutional treatment of the so-called American Taliban, John Walker Lindh. As a young lawyer, Radack fought for Lindh’s right to be represented as he was interrogated, then, after discovering the cover-up, told us all what happened. Radack went on to devote her career to defending whistleblowers (Disclosure: Radack was part of the team that defended me after the Department of State retaliated against me for my own whistleblowing), including the other two subjects of this film. She currently is part of Edward Snowden’s legal team.

    Thomas Drake blew the whistle on the NSA’s domestic spying programs years before Edward Snowden, and fought a bitter battle for his freedom. Almost immediately following 9/11, Tom began finding threads within the NSA leading to the unConstitutional spying on Americans that only now is being fully exposed. Tom was also one of the first U.S. government employees to go to Congress with evidence that the intelligence community might indeed have prevented 9/11 had they shared specific information already on file among various agencies.

    John Kiriakou was the first person associated with the CIA to publicly declare waterboarding is torture. He struggled to maintain his freedom, but ultimately was pressed into a plea bargain to avoid bankrupting his family. John is now serving a 30 month sentence in Federal prison for his whistleblowing. John’s wife was present at the premiere, and read aloud to the audience a letter John had sent her from prison.



    Director James Spione

    I’ll leave the review of SILENCED to others, but it’s pretty damn good. I am far from objective on this subject, for being associated directly with the project, for being a whistleblower myself, and because I remain a patriotic American deeply concerned about what our nation has become. As we continue our slide into a post-Constitutional America, it will be future whistleblowers who may be the only ones who will show us what a government once of the people now is doing.




    SILENCED will move from Tribeca through a tour of various film festivals. Wider distribution is in the works. Until then, here’s the trailer for the film (again, though I’m in the trailer, I’m not in the final version of the film.)






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  • Would You Have Chelsea Manning’s Courage When Called?

    February 19, 2014 // 13 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Embassy/State, Iraq

    The Sam Adams Associates for Integrity in Intelligence (SAAII; I am a proud voting member) have voted overwhelmingly to present the 2014 Sam Adams Award for Integrity in Intelligence to Chelsea Manning. The award ceremony will be held February 19, 2014 at Oxford University’s Oxford Union Society. Chelsea will send a statement, and SAAII members will be hosted for dinner at the Ecuadoran Embassy in London.

    With more than a little irony, while I was in Iraq working for the State Department, Chelsea Manning’s office was across the hall from mine. While I was winning the war by writing emails to the embassy, Manning was across the hall capturing the texts of hundreds of thousands of State Department cables, famously released by Wikileaks, showing that was could never be won.

    My war in Iraq ended in near-complete failure. What Manning did will have an impact far beyond that terrible struggle. In this video, I ask the question of why I didn’t do what Manning did, and challenge the audience: when faced with history, would you have the courage to do what Manning did?

    I didn’t.



    BONUS: Seated to my right on the panel is Daniel Ellsberg. On my immediate left is Michael Ratner, one of Manning’s attorneys. The woman on the end is Jesselyn Radack, who currently serves on Edward Snowden’s defense team, and is a whistleblower herself.



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  • NSA Hacks, Moves Snowden “Naughty” List; Tells Kids Santa Isn’t Real

    December 25, 2013 // 10 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Democracy

    (This post is not suitable for children)

    The NSA announced it successfully broke into the encrypted fiber optic cables connecting the North Pole to the Internet backbone. A spokesperson announced this was necessary to protect America against terrorism, or the Bolsheviks, or whatever it is you are irrationally afraid of, just make up something, we don’t care what you proles think anyway.

    Whilst inside Santa’s extensive database, NSA “hackers” accessed the critical Naughty and Nice lists. Referring to the Naughty information internally at NSA as “Santa’s No-Fly List,” the NSA operatives began a detailed data manipulation attack, shifting prominent whistleblowers and journalists such as Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, Daniel Ellsberg, Jess Radack, John Kiriakou, Tom Drake, Jim Risen, Glenn Greenwald, Janet Reitman, Laura Poitras, all of the Guardian and Channel 4 in the UK, and others, over to Naughty. Santa had classified these and other supporters of democracy as MOST NICE, under an eyes-only program codenamed SPLENDID.

    The NSA said they originally planned to have armed drones deliver the traditional coal into each of the SPLENDID stockings, until analysts discovered that even coal has some market value. “They get nothing, even those who don’t celebrate Christmas and might have been offended deeply by the coal,” exclaimed the NSA spokesperson on the condition of anonymity as he flew out of sight on leathery wings.

    Following these revelations, more information emerged about the extent of the NSA’s actions. Over the years, many children’s letters to Santa have switched over to email format. The NSA collected the millions of email addresses, many with monikers such as ilovepuppiesandkittiesandcandycanes(at)gmail.com, and sent each one a personalized reply:

    Dear Little Cindy-Lou Who: Santa is dead. He wasn’t even real to begin with but we tortured and killed him anyway. As we waterboarded him the last time, he moaned like a whore for mercy. Also, your parents lied to you about the flying reindeer and your mom ate the cookies herself Christmas Eve while you slept. So watch your parents more closely, and when you see them do more un-American things, tell your Uncle NSA. Also, be sure to leave your webcam on when you’re in the bath.

    The Grinch himself was quoted as saying “I give up. Every year I try and up my game, but I can’t compete with the NSA in pure evil, or technical skills. In fact, I’m in line at the freakin’ Apple store right now trying to get my jingtinglers, blumbloopas and floofloovers to boot.”

    At his North Pole home, Santa wept quietly for our nation’s loss.



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  • Whistleblowers Write Open Letter to Federal Employees after Snowden

    December 23, 2013 // 5 Comments

    Tags: , , , , , , , ,
    Posted in: Democracy



    I know you’re out there, and this is for you.

    Somewhere there is a Federal government employee who has witnessed an act of government waste, fraud, malfeasance or mismanagement and is unsure what to do next. Several former whistleblowers have written a letter to you. I fully endorse what they say (see my additional thoughts here), and encourage you to take the hard, right choice over staying silent.

    We’re all depending on you.

    (This open letter originally appeared in the UK’s Guardian newspaper; links added)

    The Letter

    At least since the aftermath of September 2001, western governments and intelligence agencies have been hard at work expanding the scope of their own power, while eroding privacy, civil liberties and public control of policy. What used to be viewed as paranoid, Orwellian, tin-foil hat fantasies turned out post-Snowden, to be not even the whole story.

    What’s really remarkable is that we’ve been warned for years that these things were going on: wholesale surveillance of entire populations, militarization of the internet, the end of privacy. All is done in the name of “national security”, which has more or less become a chant to fence off debate and make sure governments aren’t held to account – that they can’t be held to account – because everything is being done in the dark. Secret laws, secret interpretations of secret laws by secret courts and no effective parliamentary oversight whatsoever.

    By and large the media have paid scant attention to this, even as more and more courageous, principled whistleblowers stepped forward. The unprecedented persecution of truth-tellers, initiated by the Bush administration and severely accelerated by the Obama administration, has been mostly ignored, while record numbers of well-meaning people are charged with serious felonies simply for letting their fellow citizens know what’s going on.

    It’s one of the bitter ironies of our time that while John Kiriakou (ex-CIA) is in prison for blowing the whistle on US torture, the torturers and their enablers walk free.

    Likewise WikiLeaks-source Chelsea (née Bradley) Manning was charged with – amongst other serious crimes – aiding the enemy (read: the public). Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison while the people who planned the illegal and disastrous war on Iraq in 2003 are still treated as dignitaries.

    Numerous ex-NSA officials have come forward in the past decade, disclosing massive fraud, vast illegalities and abuse of power in said agency, including Thomas Drake, William Binney and Kirk Wiebe. The response was 100% persecution and 0% accountability by both the NSA and the rest of government. Blowing the whistle on powerful factions is not a fun thing to do, but despite the poor track record of western media, whistleblowing remains the last avenue for truth, balanced debate and upholding democracy – that fragile construct which Winston Churchill is quoted as calling “the worst form of government, except all the others”.

    Since the summer of 2013, the public has witnessed a shift in debate over these matters. The reason is that one courageous person: Edward Snowden. He not only blew the whistle on the litany of government abuses but made sure to supply an avalanche of supporting documents to a few trustworthy journalists. The echoes of his actions are still heard around the world – and there are still many revelations to come.

    For every Daniel Ellsberg, Drake, Binney, Katharine Gun, Manning or Snowden, there are thousands of civil servants who go by their daily job of spying on everybody and feeding cooked or even made-up information to the public and parliament, destroying everything we as a society pretend to care about.

    Some of them may feel favourable towards what they’re doing, but many of them are able to hear their inner Jiminy Cricket over the voices of their leaders and crooked politicians – and of the people whose intimate communication they’re tapping.

    Hidden away in offices of various government departments, intelligence agencies, police forces and armed forces are dozens and dozens of people who are very much upset by what our societies are turning into: at the very least, turnkey tyrannies.

    One of them is you.

    You’re thinking:

    ● Undermining democracy and eroding civil liberties isn’t put explicitly in your job contract.
    ● You grew up in a democratic society and want to keep it that way
    ● You were taught to respect ordinary people’s right to live a life in privacy
    ● You don’t really want a system of institutionalized strategic surveillance that would make the dreaded Stasi green with envy – do you?

    Still, why bother? What can one person do? Well, Edward Snowden just showed you what one person can do. He stands out as a whistleblower both because of the severity of the crimes and misconduct that he is divulging to the public – and the sheer amount of evidence he has presented us with so far – more is coming. But Snowden shouldn’t have to stand alone, and his revelations shouldn’t be the only ones.

    You can be part of the solution; provide trustworthy journalists – either from old media (like this newspaper) or from new media (such as WikiLeaks) with documents that prove what illegal, immoral, wasteful activities are going on where you work.

    There IS strength in numbers. You won’t be the first – nor the last – to follow your conscience and let us know what’s being done in our names. Truth is coming – it can’t be stopped. Crooked politicians will be held accountable. It’s in your hands to be on the right side of history and accelerate the process.

    Courage is contagious.

    Signed by:

    Peter Kofod, ex-Human Shield in Iraq (Denmark)
    Thomas Drake, whistleblower, former senior executive of the NSA (US)
    Daniel Ellsberg, whistleblower, former US military analyst (US)
    Katharine Gun, whistleblower, former GCHQ (UK)
    Jesselyn Radack, whistleblower, former Department of Justice (US)
    Ray McGovern, former senior CIA analyst (US)
    Coleen Rowley, whistleblower, former FBI agent (US)



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  • Edward Snowden’s Long Flight: What a Whistleblower Thinks a Fellow Whistleblower Might Have Thought

    July 19, 2013 // 15 Comments

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    Posted in: Democracy

    What a Whistleblower Thinks a Fellow Whistleblower Might Have Thought

    This article originally appeared on Huffington Post.

    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.

    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. 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?

    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.?

    Amnesty International was on target when it stated that Snowden “could be at risk of ill-treatment if extradited to the U.S.” As if to prove them right, months, if not years, before any trial, Speaker of the House John Boehner called Snowden a “traitor”; Congressman Peter King called him a “defector”; and others were already demanding his execution. If that wasn’t enough, the abuse Bradley Manning suffered had already convinced Snowden that a fair trial and humane treatment were impossible dreams for a whistleblower of his sort. (He specifically cited Manning in his appeal for asylum to Ecuador.)

    So on that flight he knew — as he had long known — that the natural desire to go back to the U.S. and make a stand was beyond foolhardy. Yet the urge to return to the country he loves must have been traveling with him, too. Perhaps on that flight he found himself grimly amused that, after years of running roughshod over international standards — Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, “enhanced interrogation techniques,” “black sites” — the U.S. had the nerve to chide Hong Kong, China, and Russia for not following the rule of law. He certainly knew that his own revelations about massive NSA cyber-spying on Hong Kong and China had deeply embarrassed the Obama administration. It had, after all, been blistering the Chinese for hacking into U.S. military and corporate computers. He himself had ensured that the Chinese wouldn’t turn him over, in the same way that history — decades of U.S. bullying in Latin America — ensured that he had a shot at a future in someplace like in Ecuador.

    If he knew his extradition history, Snowden might also have thought about another time when Washington squirmed as a man it wanted left a friendly country for asylum. In 2004, the U.S. had chess great Bobby Fischer detained in Japan on charges that he had attended a 1992 match in Yugoslavia in violation of a U.S. trade ban. Others suggested that the real reason Washington was after him may have been Fischer’s post 9/11 statement: “It’s time to finish off the U.S. once and for all. This just shows what comes around, goes around.”

    Fischer’s American passport was revoked just like Snowden’s. In the fashion of Hong Kong more recently, the Japanese released Fischer on an immigration technicality, and he flew to Iceland where he was granted citizenship. I was a diplomat in Japan at the time, and had a ringside seat for the negotiations. They must have paralleled what went on in Hong Kong: the appeals to treaty and international law; U.S. diplomats sounding like so many disappointed parents scolding a child; the pale hopes expressed for future good relations; the search for a sympathetic ear among local law enforcement agencies, immigration, and the foreign ministry — anybody, in fact — and finally, the desperate attempt to call in personal favors to buy more time for whatever Plan B might be. As with Snowden, in the end the U.S. stood by helplessly as its prey flew off.

    How Will I Live Now?

    At some point every whistleblower realizes his life will never be the same. For me, that meant losing my job of 24 years at the State Department. For Tom Drake, it meant financial ruin as the government tried to bankrupt him through endless litigation. For CIA agent John Kiriakou, it might have been the moment when, convicted of disclosing classified information to journalists, he said goodbye to his family and walked into Loretto Federal Correctional Institution.

    Snowden could not have avoided anxiety about the future. Wherever he ended up, how would he live? What work would he do? He’s just turned 30 and faces, at best, a lifetime in some foreign country he’s never seen where he might not know the language or much of anything else.

    So fear again, in a slightly different form. It never leaves you, not when you take on the world’s most powerful government. Would he ever see his family and friends again? Would they disown him, fearful of retaliation or affected by the smear campaign against him? Would his parents/best friend/girlfriend come to believe he was a traitor, a defector, a dangerous man? All whistleblowers find their personal relationships strained. Marriages are tested or broken, friends lost, children teased or bullied at school. I know from my own whistleblower’s journey that it’s an ugly penalty — encouraged by a government scorned — for acting on conscience.

    If he had a deeper sense of history, Snowden might have found humor in the way the Obama administration chose to revoke his passport just before he left Hong Kong. After all, in the Cold War years, it was the “evil empire,” the Soviet Union, which was notorious for refusing to grant dissidents passports, while the U.S. regularly waived such requirements when they escaped to the West.

    To deepen the irony of the moment, perhaps he was able to Google up the 2009-2011 figures on U.S. grants of asylum: 1,222 Russians, 9,493 Chinese, and 22 Ecuadorians, not including family members. Maybe he learned that, despite the tantrums U.S. officials threw regarding the international obligation of Russia to extradite him, the U.S. has recently refused Russian requests to extradite two of its citizens.

    Snowden might have mused over then-candidate Obama’s explicit pledge to protect whistleblowers. “Often the best source of information about waste, fraud, and abuse in government,” Obama then said, “is an existing government employee committed to public integrity and willing to speak out. Such acts of courage and patriotism… should be encouraged rather than stifled as they have been during the Bush administration.” It might have been Snowden’s only laugh of the flight.

    I Don’t Hate the U.S., I Love It Deeply, But Believe It Has Strayed

    On that flight, Snowden took his love of America with him. It’s what all of us whistleblowers share: a love of country, if not necessarily its government, its military, or its intelligence services. We care what happens to us the people. That may have been his anchor on his unsettling journey. It would have been mine.

    Remember, if we were working in the government in the first place, like every federal employee, soldier, and many government contractors, we had taken an oath that stated: “I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same.” We didn’t pledge fealty to the government or a president or party, only — as the Constitution makes clear — to the ultimate source of legitimacy in our nation, “the people.”

    In an interview, Snowden indicated that he held off on making his disclosures for some time, in hopes that Barack Obama might look into the abyss and decide to become the bravest president in our history by reversing the country’s course. Only when Obama’s courage or intelligence failed was it time to become a whistleblower.

    Some pundits claim that Snowden deserves nothing, because he didn’t go through “proper channels.” They couldn’t be more wrong and Snowden knows it. As with many of us whistleblowers facing a government acting in opposition to the Constitution, Snowden went through the channels that matter most: he used a free press to speak directly to his real boss, the American people.

    In that sense, whatever the fear and anxiety about his life and his future, he must have felt easy with his actions. He had not betrayed his country, he had sought to inform it.

    As with Bradley Manning, Obama administration officials are now claiming that Snowden has blood on his hands. Typically, Secretary of State John Kerry claimed: “People may die as a consequence to what this man did. It is possible that the United States would be attacked because terrorists may now know how to protect themselves in some way or another that they didn’t know before.” Snowden had heard the same slurs circling around Bradley Manning: that he had put people in danger. After the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, not to speak of the war on terror, there is irony too obvious to dwell upon in such charges.

    Flying into the unknown, Snowden had to feel secure in having risked everything to show Americans how their government and the NSA bend or break laws to collect information on us in direct conflict with the Fourth Amendment’s protections. Amnesty International pointed out that blood-on-hands wasn’t at issue. “It appears he is being charged primarily for revealing U.S. and other governments’ unlawful actions that violate human rights.” Those whispers of support are something to take into the dark with you.

    I Believe in Things Bigger Than Myself

    Some of the charges against Snowden would make anyone pause: that, for instance, he did what he did for the thrill of publicity, out of narcissism, or for his own selfish reasons. To any of the members of the post-9/11 club of whistleblowers, the idea that we acted primarily for our own benefit has a theater of the absurd quality to it. Having been there, the negative sentiments expressed do not read or ring true.

    Snowden himself laughed off the notion that he had acted for his own benefit. If he had wanted money, any number of foreign governments would have paid handsomely for the information he handed out to journalists for free and he would never have had to embark on that plane flight from Hong Kong. (No one ever called Aldrich Ames a whistleblower.) If he wanted fame, there were potential book contracts and film deals to be had.

    No, it was conscience. I wouldn’t be surprised if somewhere along the line Snowden had read the Declaration of the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal: “Individuals have international duties which transcend the national obligations of obedience. Therefore individual citizens have the duty to violate domestic laws to prevent crimes against peace and humanity from occurring.”

    Edward Snowden undoubtedly took comfort knowing that a growing group of Americans are outraged enough to resist a government turning against its own people. His thoughts were mirrored by Julian Assange, who said, “In the Obama administration’s attempt to crush these young whistleblowers with espionage charges, the U.S. government is taking on a generation, a young generation of people who find the mass violation of the rights of privacy and open process unacceptable. In taking on the generation, the Obama administration can only lose.” Snowden surely hoped President Obama would ask himself why he has pursued more than double the number of Espionage Act cases of all his presidential predecessors combined, and why almost all of those prosecutions failed.

    On that flight, Edward Snowden must have reflected on what he had lost, including the high salary, the sweet life in Hawaii and Switzerland, the personal relationships, and the excitement of being on the inside, as well as the coolness of knowing tomorrow’s news today.  He has already lost much that matters in an individual life, but not everything that matters. Sometimes — and any whistleblower comes to know this in a deep way — you have to believe that something other, more, deeper, better than yourself matters.  You have to believe that one courageous act of conscience might make a difference in an America gone astray or simply that, matter or not, you did the right thing for your country.




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  • Military Court Ruling to Have Impact on Bradley Manning?

    July 5, 2013 // 9 Comments

    Tags: , , , ,
    Posted in: Democracy, Iraq




    A decision by the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, the military’s highest court, overturning a Marine’s murder conviction based on violations of the Fifth Amendment, may have positive implications for Bradley Manning. The Court held that the Marine’s being held in solitary confinement for seven days without access to a lawyer, after refusing to incriminate himself, made his subsequent statements invalid as his Fifth Amendment rights were violated. The technicalities differ, but the similarity between that Marine’s situation and Manning’s may prove significant.

    The facts in Marine Lawrence Hutchins’ case are clear. On patrol in Iraq in 2006, Hutchins ordered his squad to kidnap and execute in cold blood an Iraqi civilian, and then make it look like they had ambushed a high-value insurgent in a “good shoot.” The squad would be praised for its work in the war on terror. The truth came out, and Hutchins was arrested in Iraq. After he refused to talk to investigators and asked for a lawyer, Hutchins was instead locked into a shipping container for seven days and nights, denied the chance to contact a lawyer, and held under mind-numbing solitary conditions. After seven days of this, and still without a lawyer, Hutchins was asked to consent to a search of his belongings, and started to incriminate himself.


    The Court of Appeals ruled that Hutchin’s Fifth Amendment rights were stomped upon when the investigators, after a seven day solitary confinement softening up, spoke to him again with a lawyer.


    Former Navy officer David Glazier, now a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, said “Here this guy’s conviction is overturned on the basis that he was mistreated by the government during his initial apprehension, and yet he’s already served five years in prison. If the conviction was unjust in the first place, it’s kind of appalling it’s taken the military justice system five years to resolve it.”

    That leaves us with the question of Private Manning. The military held him for three years, much of the time without a lawyer, much of the time under overtly inhumane conditions. While we don’t know what statements Manning did or did not make prior to seeing a lawyer, or at what point if any he invoked his Fifth Amendment rights, one would think his current attorney would be reading the Hutchins’ decision word-by-word today.

    And hey, Bradley Manning did not murder anyone.

    BONUS: Whistleblower Jesslyn Radack’s firing from the Department of Justice was based in large part on her assertions that the so-called American Taliban, John Walker Lindh, was held under inhuman conditions, interrogated without a lawyer even after he requested one, and thus denied his Fifth Amendment rights. DOJ fired her, and threw Lindh and most of the Constitution into prison.



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  • Dinner and a Speech with Daniel Ellsberg

    June 3, 2013 // 21 Comments

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    Posted in: Democracy

    It was one of my great pleasures to have dinner with Daniel Ellsberg (and several others supporting justice for Bradley Manning) this week.

    Ellsberg is the prototypical whistleblower, a former Marine and serious government official supporting the government’s way until something– in Ellsberg’s case, learning the truth about U.S. conduct in the Vietnam War– so shocked his conscience that he was compelled to speak out. In Ellsberg’s case, that resulted in the “Pentagon Papers” and the landmark legal decisions defending the right of the New York Times to publish them. That those same legal rights are now under attack by the Obama Administration, and likely to figure significantly in the Manning case, just emphasized the importance of what Ellsberg risked his freedom to do.

    I wrote an open letter to Dan, tracing a small part of my own political awakening to his brave actions. Maybe worth a read.

    In person Dan proved to still be an amazing intellect at age 82. Though his hearing has faded, his mind is razor. Talking politics with him, from Lyndon Johnson to Bradley Manning, was like playing chess against Fischer, discussing writing with Steinbeck or shooting pool against Fats.

    Dan also possesses an amazing stock of jokes, some a bit naughty, which he tells with some skill. One involved a leprechaun (you had to be there) and Ellsberg slipped in and out of an Irish accent as effortlessly as he skewed Richard Nixon moments earlier.

    The next night I joined Ellsberg, Jesselyn Radack, Michael Ratner, Tom Drake, Ethan McCord and others at the Unitarian All Souls Church in Washington DC to speak out for justice for whistleblower Bradley Manning. Manning’s trial, after his three years of confinement, finally begins June 3. The speeches were followed by interviews with the BBC Radio World Service. The American media, who certainly profited from Manning’s whistleblowing, skipped the event.

    Sorry to brag a bit, but losing one’s job at the State Department isn’t all bad when you get opportunities like this.




    Video of the support Manning speeches.




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  • Hanging Out at the Playboy Mansion While Colonel Davis Waits for Justice

    May 20, 2013 // 13 Comments

    Tags: , , , ,
    Posted in: Democracy

    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.





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  • Oh Poppycock!

    May 1, 2013 // 11 Comments

    Tags: ,
    Posted in: Embassy/State




    At an April 30 briefing regarding press reports that the State Department is seeking to intimidate or punish employees planning on blowing the whistle on Department incompetence surrounding the deaths at the Benghazi Consulate, deputy spokesman Patrick Ventrell said:

    The State Department would never tolerate or sanction retaliation against whistleblowers on any issue, including this one. That’s an obligation we take very seriously.

    To which I reply: Poppycock.

    State retaliated against my whistleblowing with all the joy and energy of a dog rolling in its own poop. Have a look here, or here to start.

    And by the way, any of you potential State Department whistleblowers need some advice, it is info(at)wemeantwell.com



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  • SILENCED – A new documentary from Oscar nominee Jim Spione

    February 14, 2013 // 13 Comments

    Posted in: Iraq

    I am very proud to announce that the first trailer for SILENCED, a new documentary on Washington’s war on whistleblowers, is now available online as part of a Kickstarter campaign. See it here.

    The film features whistleblowers Tom Drake, John Kiriakou, Jesslyn Radack and, well, an angry me.

    While all of us in this important film have given interviews before, none of us has opened up, in depth, the way we did with Jim. It is also important to note that none of us are profiting from this film or the Kickstarter campaign, unless you consider the telling of truth on a large and public scale to be our reward. (HINT: It freaking is our reward.)



    The director, Oscar-nominated Jim Spione, says this:

    SILENCED follows a group of high-profile truthtellers who dared to question official national security policy in post 9-11 America, and have endured harsh consequences. I became increasingly interested in the issue of government transparency and accountability, and the ongoing efforts to punish those who reveal information about official wrongdoing, when working on Incident in New Baghdad. That film featured incendiary footage of a controversial U.S. helicopter attack purportedly released by a young U.S. Army Specialist named Bradley Manning, who is currently facing a court martial on charges that could result in a life prison sentence.

    But Manning is not alone. Over the past several years, an arcane WWI era law called The Espionage Act has been used six times to bring charges against whistleblowers, not for revealing information to a foreign government, but for talking to the press. In fact, the current administration invoked this law more times than all previous administrations combined.

    What does it take for an individual of conscience to speak out in this environment? What kind of courage and character does it take to challenge the national security policies of the most powerful nation on Earth? Though Incident was not directly about Manning, the experience of making it got me to thinking about the power of information: who controls and classifies it, who is allowed to release it, who is rewarded for its use and who is punished.

    The targeting of whistleblowers raises profound questions that have implications far beyond the fates of the individuals profiled in this film. In an age where the spectre of terrorism is deemed an appropriate reason for the Executive branch to claim greater and greater powers, can the United States government maintain a commitment to the rule of law? How can a democracy that purports to champion human rights simultaneously attempt to quash criticism from within its ranks? What is the effect on our First Amendment right to dissent–and on the whole idea of a free press–when those in power single out whistleblowers for prosecution?



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  • John Kiriakou, Scooter Libby and the Myth of Justice

    January 28, 2013 // 23 Comments

    Tags: , , ,
    Posted in: Iraq

    John Kiriakou, a former CIA officer, pleaded guilty to leaking the identity of one of the agency’s covert operatives to a reporter and was sentenced on January 24, 2013 to two and a half years in prison. As part of a plea deal, prosecutors dropped charges that had been filed under the World War I-era Espionage Act.

    District Judge Leonie Brinkema noted the two and a half-year term was identical to that imposed on Scooter Libby, the chief of staff to former Vice President Dick Cheney. Libby was convicted of leaking the covert identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame in a politically-motivated attack on her husband in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. Libby’s sentence was commuted by President George W. Bush to zero, while Kiriakou will be required to serve his full time.

    In an America where the same crime is treated ever so differently– leak a name to help George W. Bush and get a reprieve, leak a name to expose torture and go to jail– Kiriakou’s story is worth repeating today.


    In a Galaxy Far, Far Away

    Here is what military briefers like to call BLUF, the Bottom Line Up Front: no one except John Kiriakou is being held accountable for America’s torture policy. And John Kiriakou didn’t torture anyone, he just blew the whistle on it.

    A long time ago, with mediocre grades and no athletic ability, I applied for a Rhodes Scholarship. I guess the Rhodes committee at my school needed practice, and I found myself undergoing a rigorous oral examination. Here was the final question they fired at me, probing my ability to think morally and justly: You are a soldier. Your prisoner has information that might save your life. The only way to obtain it is through torture. What do you do?

    At that time, a million years ago in an America that no longer exists, my obvious answer was never to torture, never to lower oneself, never to sacrifice one’s humanity and soul, even if it meant death. My visceral reaction: to become a torturer was its own form of living death. (An undergrad today, after the “enhanced interrogation” Bush years and in the wake of 24, would probably detail specific techniques that should be employed.) My advisor later told me my answer was one of the few bright spots in an otherwise spectacularly unsuccessful interview.

    It is now common knowledge that between 2001 and about 2007 the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) sanctioned acts of torture committed by members of the Central Intelligence Agency and others. The acts took place in secret prisons (“black sites”) against persons detained indefinitely without trial. They were described in detail and explicitly authorized in a series of secret torture memos drafted by John Yoo, Jay Bybee, and Steven Bradbury, senior lawyers in the DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel. (Office of Legal Counsel attorneys technically answer directly to the DOJ, which is supposed to be independent from the White House, but obviously was not in this case.) Not one of those men, or their Justice Department bosses, has been held accountable for their actions.

    Some tortured prisoners were even killed by the CIA. Attorney General Eric Holder announced recently that no one would be held accountable for those murders either. “Based on the fully developed factual record concerning the two deaths,” he said, “the Department has declined prosecution because the admissible evidence would not be sufficient to obtain and sustain a conviction beyond a reasonable doubt.”

    Jose Rodriguez, a senior CIA official, admitted destroying videotapes of potentially admissible evidence, showing the torture of captives by operatives of the U.S. government at a secret prison thought to be located at a Vietnam-War-era airbase in Thailand. He was not held accountable for deep-sixing this evidence, nor for his role in the torture of human beings.


    John Kiriakou Alone

    The one man in the whole archipelago of America’s secret horrors facing prosecution is former CIA agent John Kiriakou. Of the untold numbers of men and women involved in the whole nightmare show of those years, only one may go to jail.

    And of course, he didn’t torture anyone.

    The charges against Kiriakou allege that in answering questions from reporters about suspicions that the CIA tortured detainees in its custody, he violated the Espionage Act, once an obscure World War I-era law that aimed at punishing Americans who gave aid to the enemy. It was passed in 1917 and has been the subject of much judicial and Congressional doubt ever since. Kiriakou is one of six government whistleblowers who have been charged under the Act by the Obama administration. From 1917 until Obama came into office, only three people had ever charged in this way.

    The Obama Justice Department claims the former CIA officer “disclosed classified information to journalists, including the name of a covert CIA officer and information revealing the role of another CIA employee in classified activities.”

    The charges result from a CIA investigation. That investigation was triggered by a filing in January 2009 on behalf of detainees at Guantanamo that contained classified information the defense had not been given through government channels, and by the discovery in the spring of 2009 of photographs of alleged CIA employees among the legal materials of some detainees at Guantanamo. According to one description, Kiriakou gave several interviews about the CIA in 2008. Court documents charge that he provided names of covert Agency officials to a journalist, who allegedly in turn passed them on to a Guantanamo legal team. The team sought to have detainees identify specific CIA officials who participated in their renditions and torture. Kiriakou is accused of providing the identities of CIA officers that may have allowed names to be linked to photographs.

    Many observers believe however that the real “offense” in the eyes of the Obama administration was quite different. In 2007, Kiriakou became a whistleblower. He went on record as the first (albeit by then, former) CIA official to confirm the use of waterboarding of al-Qaeda prisoners as an interrogation technique, and then to condemn it as torture. He specifically mentioned the waterboarding of Abu Zubaydah in that secret prison in Thailand. Zubaydah was at the time believed to be an al-Qaeda leader, though more likely was at best a mid-level operative. Kiriakou also ran afoul of the CIA over efforts to clear for publication a book he had written about the Agency’s counterterrorism work. He maintains that his is instead a First Amendment case in which a whistleblower is being punished, that it is a selective prosecution to scare government insiders into silence when they see something wrong.

    If Kiriakou had actually tortured someone himself, even to death, there is no possibility that he would be in trouble. John Kiriakou is staring down a long tunnel of 30 months in jail because in the national security state that rules the roost in Washington, talking out of turn about a crime has become the only possible crime.


    Welcome to the Jungle

    John Kiriakou and I share common attorneys through the Government Accountability Project, and I’ve had the chance to talk with him on any number of occasions. He is soft-spoken, thoughtful, and quick to laugh at a bad joke. When the subject turns to his case, and the way the government has treated him, however, things darken. His sentences get shorter and the quick smile disappears.

    He understands the role his government has chosen for him: the head on a stick, the example, the message to everyone else involved in the horrors of post-9/11 America. Do the country’s dirty work, kidnap, kill, imprison, torture, and we’ll cover for you. Destroy the evidence of all that and we’ll reward you. But speak out, and expect to be punished.

    Like so many of us who have served the U.S. government honorably only to have its full force turned against us for an act or acts of conscience, the pain comes in trying to reconcile the two images of the U.S. government in your head. It’s like trying to process the actions of an abusive father you still want to love.

    One of Kiriakou’s representatives, attorney Jesselyn Radack, told me, “It is a miscarriage of justice that John Kiriakou is the only person indicted in relation to the Bush-era torture program. The historic import cannot be understated. If a crime as egregious as state-sponsored torture can go unpunished, we lose all moral standing to condemn other governments’ human rights violations. By ‘looking forward, not backward’ we have taken a giant leap into the past.”

    One former CIA covert officer, who uses the pen name “Ishmael Jones,” laid out a potential defense for Kiriakou: “Witness after witness could explain to the jury that Mr. Kiriakou is being selectively prosecuted, that his leaks are nothing compared to leaks by Obama administration officials and senior CIA bureaucrats. Witness after witness could show the jury that for any secret material published by Mr. Kiriakou, the books of senior CIA bureaucrats contain many times as much. Former CIA chief George Tenet wrote a book in 2007, approved by CIA censors, that contains dozens of pieces of classified information — names and enough information to find names.”

    If only it was really that easy.


    Never Again

    For at least six years it was the policy of the United States of America to torture and abuse its enemies or, in some cases, simply suspected enemies. It has remained a U.S. policy, even under the Obama administration, to employ “extraordinary rendition” — that is, the sending of captured terror suspects to the jails of countries that are known for torture and abuse, an outsourcing of what we no longer want to do.

    Techniques that the U.S. hanged men for at Nuremburg and in post-war Japan were employed and declared lawful. To embark on such a program with the oversight of the Bush administration, learned men and women had to have long discussions, with staffers running in and out of rooms with snippets of research to buttress the justifications being so laboriously developed. The CIA undoubtedly used some cumbersome bureaucratic process to hire contractors for its torture staff. The old manuals needed to be updated, psychiatrists consulted, military survival experts interviewed, training classes set up.

    Videotapes were made of the torture sessions and no doubt DVDs full of real horror were reviewed back at headquarters. Torture techniques were even reportedly demonstrated to top officials inside the White House. Individual torturers who were considered particularly effective were no doubt identified, probably rewarded, and sent on to new secret sites to harm more people.

    America just didn’t wake up one day and start slapping around some Islamic punk. These were not the torture equivalents of rogue cops. A system, a mechanism, was created. That we now can only speculate about many of the details involved and the extent of all this is a tribute to the thousands who continue to remain silent about what they did, saw, heard about, or were associated with. Many of them work now at the same organizations, remaining a part of the same contracting firms, the CIA, and the military. Our torturers.

    What is it that allows all those people to remain silent? How many are simply scared, watching what is happening to John Kiriakou and thinking: not me, I’m not sticking my neck out to see it get chopped off. They’re almost forgivable, even if they are placing their own self-interest above that of their country. But what about the others, the ones who remain silent about what they did or saw or aided and abetted in some fashion because they still think it was the right thing to do? The ones who will do it again when another frightened president asks them to? Or even the ones who enjoyed doing it?

    The same Department of Justice that is hunting down the one man who spoke against torture from the inside still maintains a special unit, 60 years after the end of WWII, dedicated to hunting down the last few at-large Nazis. They do that under the rubric of “never again.” The truth is that same team needs to be turned loose on our national security state. Otherwise, until we have a full accounting of what was done in our names by our government, the pieces are all in place for it to happen again. There, if you want to know, is the real horror.


    John Kiriakou maintains a personal web page, which includes information on how to donate to his legal expenses fund if you so wish.

    Kiriakou, alongside whistleblowers such as Tom Drake and myself, appears in the upcoming documentary SILENCED, now in production. The film explores the steep personal price paid by those who challenge national security policy in post 9-11 America.



    Originally published September 11, 2012 on TomDispatch.com, with updates on John’s sentencing.



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  • Torture and the Myth of Never Again: The Persecution of John Kiriakou

    October 24, 2012 // 19 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Democracy

    Originally published September 11, 2012 on TomDispatch.com

    John Kiriakou, a former CIA officer, pleaded guilty October 23, 2012 to leaking the identity of one of the agency’s covert operatives to a reporter and will be sentenced to more than two years in prison. As part of a plea deal, prosecutors dropped charges that had been filed under the World War I-era Espionage Act. They also dropped a count of making false statements.

    Under the plea, all sides agreed to a prison term of 2 1/2 years. U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema noted the term was identical to that imposed on Scooter Libby, the chief of staff to former Vice President Dick Cheney. Libby was convicted in a case where he was accused of leaking information that compromised the covert identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame, though Libby’s sentence was commuted by then-President George W. Bush.


    Here is what military briefers like to call BLUF, the Bottom Line Up Front: no one except John Kiriakou is being held accountable for America’s torture policy. And John Kiriakou didn’t torture anyone, he just blew the whistle on it.


    In a Galaxy Far, Far Away

    A long time ago, with mediocre grades and no athletic ability, I applied for a Rhodes Scholarship. I guess the Rhodes committee at my school needed practice, and I found myself undergoing a rigorous oral examination. Here was the final question they fired at me, probing my ability to think morally and justly: You are a soldier. Your prisoner has information that might save your life. The only way to obtain it is through torture. What do you do?

    At that time, a million years ago in an America that no longer exists, my obvious answer was never to torture, never to lower oneself, never to sacrifice one’s humanity and soul, even if it meant death. My visceral reaction: to become a torturer was its own form of living death. (An undergrad today, after the “enhanced interrogation” Bush years and in the wake of 24, would probably detail specific techniques that should be employed.) My advisor later told me my answer was one of the few bright spots in an otherwise spectacularly unsuccessful interview.

    It is now common knowledge that between 2001 and about 2007 the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) sanctioned acts of torture committed by members of the Central Intelligence Agency and others. The acts took place in secret prisons (“black sites”) against persons detained indefinitely without trial. They were described in detail and explicitly authorized in a series of secret torture memos drafted by John Yoo, Jay Bybee, and Steven Bradbury, senior lawyers in the DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel. (Office of Legal Counsel attorneys technically answer directly to the DOJ, which is supposed to be independent from the White House, but obviously was not in this case.) Not one of those men, or their Justice Department bosses, has been held accountable for their actions.

    Some tortured prisoners were even killed by the CIA. Attorney General Eric Holder announced recently that no one would be held accountable for those murders either. “Based on the fully developed factual record concerning the two deaths,” he said, “the Department has declined prosecution because the admissible evidence would not be sufficient to obtain and sustain a conviction beyond a reasonable doubt.”

    Jose Rodriguez, a senior CIA official, admitted destroying videotapes of potentially admissible evidence, showing the torture of captives by operatives of the U.S. government at a secret prison thought to be located at a Vietnam-War-era airbase in Thailand. He was not held accountable for deep-sixing this evidence, nor for his role in the torture of human beings.


    John Kiriakou Alone

    The one man in the whole archipelago of America’s secret horrors facing prosecution is former CIA agent John Kiriakou. Of the untold numbers of men and women involved in the whole nightmare show of those years, only one may go to jail.

    And of course, he didn’t torture anyone.

    The charges against Kiriakou allege that in answering questions from reporters about suspicions that the CIA tortured detainees in its custody, he violated the Espionage Act, once an obscure World War I-era law that aimed at punishing Americans who gave aid to the enemy. It was passed in 1917 and has been the subject of much judicial and Congressional doubt ever since. Kiriakou is one of six government whistleblowers who have been charged under the Act by the Obama administration. From 1917 until Obama came into office, only three people had ever charged in this way.

    The Obama Justice Department claims the former CIA officer “disclosed classified information to journalists, including the name of a covert CIA officer and information revealing the role of another CIA employee in classified activities.”

    The charges result from a CIA investigation. That investigation was triggered by a filing in January 2009 on behalf of detainees at Guantanamo that contained classified information the defense had not been given through government channels, and by the discovery in the spring of 2009 of photographs of alleged CIA employees among the legal materials of some detainees at Guantanamo. According to one description, Kiriakou gave several interviews about the CIA in 2008. Court documents charge that he provided names of covert Agency officials to a journalist, who allegedly in turn passed them on to a Guantanamo legal team. The team sought to have detainees identify specific CIA officials who participated in their renditions and torture. Kiriakou is accused of providing the identities of CIA officers that may have allowed names to be linked to photographs.

    Many observers believe however that the real “offense” in the eyes of the Obama administration was quite different. In 2007, Kiriakou became a whistleblower. He went on record as the first (albeit by then, former) CIA official to confirm the use of waterboarding of al-Qaeda prisoners as an interrogation technique, and then to condemn it as torture. He specifically mentioned the waterboarding of Abu Zubaydah in that secret prison in Thailand. Zubaydah was at the time believed to be an al-Qaeda leader, though more likely was at best a mid-level operative. Kiriakou also ran afoul of the CIA over efforts to clear for publication a book he had written about the Agency’s counterterrorism work. He maintains that his is instead a First Amendment case in which a whistleblower is being punished, that it is a selective prosecution to scare government insiders into silence when they see something wrong.

    If Kiriakou had actually tortured someone himself, even to death, there is no possibility that he would be in trouble. John Kiriakou is 48. He is staring down a long tunnel at a potential sentence of up to 45 years in prison because in the national security state that rules the roost in Washington, talking out of turn about a crime has become the only possible crime.


    Welcome to the Jungle

    John Kiriakou and I share common attorneys through the Government Accountability Project, and I’ve had the chance to talk with him on any number of occasions. He is soft-spoken, thoughtful, and quick to laugh at a bad joke. When the subject turns to his case, and the way the government has treated him, however, things darken. His sentences get shorter and the quick smile disappears.

    He understands the role his government has chosen for him: the head on a stick, the example, the message to everyone else involved in the horrors of post-9/11 America. Do the country’s dirty work, kidnap, kill, imprison, torture, and we’ll cover for you. Destroy the evidence of all that and we’ll reward you. But speak out, and expect to be punished.

    Like so many of us who have served the U.S. government honorably only to have its full force turned against us for an act or acts of conscience, the pain comes in trying to reconcile the two images of the U.S. government in your head. It’s like trying to process the actions of an abusive father you still want to love.

    One of Kiriakou’s representatives, attorney Jesselyn Radack, told me, “It is a miscarriage of justice that John Kiriakou is the only person indicted in relation to the Bush-era torture program. The historic import cannot be understated. If a crime as egregious as state-sponsored torture can go unpunished, we lose all moral standing to condemn other governments’ human rights violations. By ‘looking forward, not backward’ we have taken a giant leap into the past.”

    One former CIA covert officer, who uses the pen name “Ishmael Jones,” lays out a potential defense for Kiriakou: “Witness after witness could explain to the jury that Mr. Kiriakou is being selectively prosecuted, that his leaks are nothing compared to leaks by Obama administration officials and senior CIA bureaucrats. Witness after witness could show the jury that for any secret material published by Mr. Kiriakou, the books of senior CIA bureaucrats contain many times as much. Former CIA chief George Tenet wrote a book in 2007, approved by CIA censors, that contains dozens of pieces of classified information — names and enough information to find names.”

    If only it was really that easy.


    Never Again

    For at least six years it was the policy of the United States of America to torture and abuse its enemies or, in some cases, simply suspected enemies. It has remained a U.S. policy, even under the Obama administration, to employ “extraordinary rendition” — that is, the sending of captured terror suspects to the jails of countries that are known for torture and abuse, an outsourcing of what we no longer want to do.

    Techniques that the U.S. hanged men for at Nuremburg and in post-war Japan were employed and declared lawful. To embark on such a program with the oversight of the Bush administration, learned men and women had to have long discussions, with staffers running in and out of rooms with snippets of research to buttress the justifications being so laboriously developed. The CIA undoubtedly used some cumbersome bureaucratic process to hire contractors for its torture staff. The old manuals needed to be updated, psychiatrists consulted, military survival experts interviewed, training classes set up.

    Videotapes were made of the torture sessions and no doubt DVDs full of real horror were reviewed back at headquarters. Torture techniques were even reportedly demonstrated to top officials inside the White House. Individual torturers who were considered particularly effective were no doubt identified, probably rewarded, and sent on to new secret sites to harm more people.

    America just didn’t wake up one day and start slapping around some Islamic punk. These were not the torture equivalents of rogue cops. A system, a mechanism, was created. That we now can only speculate about many of the details involved and the extent of all this is a tribute to the thousands who continue to remain silent about what they did, saw, heard about, or were associated with. Many of them work now at the same organizations, remaining a part of the same contracting firms, the CIA, and the military. Our torturers.

    What is it that allows all those people to remain silent? How many are simply scared, watching what is happening to John Kiriakou and thinking: not me, I’m not sticking my neck out to see it get chopped off. They’re almost forgivable, even if they are placing their own self-interest above that of their country. But what about the others, the ones who remain silent about what they did or saw or aided and abetted in some fashion because they still think it was the right thing to do? The ones who will do it again when another frightened president asks them to? Or even the ones who enjoyed doing it?

    The same Department of Justice that is hunting down the one man who spoke against torture from the inside still maintains a special unit, 60 years after the end of WWII, dedicated to hunting down the last few at-large Nazis. They do that under the rubric of “never again.” The truth is that same team needs to be turned loose on our national security state. Otherwise, until we have a full accounting of what was done in our names by our government, the pieces are all in place for it to happen again. There, if you want to know, is the real horror.




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  • Torture and the Myth of Never Again

    September 23, 2012 // 5 Comments

    Tags: , , , ,
    Posted in: Democracy

    This article originally appeared on TomDispatch, HuffPo, Salon, the Nation and other sites on 9/11/12.

    Here is what military briefers like to call BLUF, the Bottom Line Up Front: no one except John Kiriakou is being held accountable for America’s torture policy. And John Kiriakou didn’t torture anyone, he just blew the whistle on it.


    In a Galaxy Far, Far Away

    A long time ago, with mediocre grades and no athletic ability, I applied for a Rhodes Scholarship. I guess the Rhodes committee at my school needed practice, and I found myself undergoing a rigorous oral examination. Here was the final question they fired at me, probing my ability to think morally and justly: You are a soldier. Your prisoner has information that might save your life. The only way to obtain it is through torture. What do you do?

    At that time, a million years ago in an America that no longer exists, my obvious answer was never to torture, never to lower oneself, never to sacrifice one’s humanity and soul, even if it meant death. My visceral reaction: to become a torturer was its own form of living death. (An undergrad today, after the “enhanced interrogation” Bush years and in the wake of 24, would probably detail specific techniques that should be employed.) My advisor later told me my answer was one of the few bright spots in an otherwise spectacularly unsuccessful interview.

    It is now common knowledge that between 2001 and about 2007 the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) sanctioned acts of torture committed by members of the Central Intelligence Agency and others. The acts took place in secret prisons (“black sites”) against persons detained indefinitely without trial. They were described in detail and explicitly authorized in a series of secret torture memos drafted by John Yoo, Jay Bybee, and Steven Bradbury, senior lawyers in the DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel. (Office of Legal Counsel attorneys technically answer directly to the DOJ, which is supposed to be independent from the White House, but obviously was not in this case.) Not one of those men, or their Justice Department bosses, has been held accountable for their actions.

    Some tortured prisoners were even killed by the CIA. Attorney General Eric Holder announced recently that no one would be held accountable for those murders either. “Based on the fully developed factual record concerning the two deaths,” he said, “the Department has declined prosecution because the admissible evidence would not be sufficient to obtain and sustain a conviction beyond a reasonable doubt.”

    Jose Rodriguez, a senior CIA official, admitted destroying videotapes of potentially admissible evidence, showing the torture of captives by operatives of the U.S. government at a secret prison thought to be located at a Vietnam-War-era airbase in Thailand. He was not held accountable for deep-sixing this evidence, nor for his role in the torture of human beings.


    John Kiriakou Alone

    The one man in the whole archipelago of America’s secret horrors facing prosecution is former CIA agent John Kiriakou. Of the untold numbers of men and women involved in the whole nightmare show of those years, only one may go to jail.

    And of course, he didn’t torture anyone.

    The charges against Kiriakou allege that in answering questions from reporters about suspicions that the CIA tortured detainees in its custody, he violated the Espionage Act, once an obscure World War I-era law that aimed at punishing Americans who gave aid to the enemy. It was passed in 1917 and has been the subject of much judicial and Congressional doubt ever since. Kiriakou is one of six government whistleblowers who have been charged under the Act by the Obama administration. From 1917 until Obama came into office, only three people had ever charged in this way.

    The Obama Justice Department claims the former CIA officer “disclosed classified information to journalists, including the name of a covert CIA officer and information revealing the role of another CIA employee in classified activities.”

    The charges result from a CIA investigation. That investigation was triggered by a filing in January 2009 on behalf of detainees at Guantanamo that contained classified information the defense had not been given through government channels, and by the discovery in the spring of 2009 of photographs of alleged CIA employees among the legal materials of some detainees at Guantanamo. According to one description, Kiriakou gave several interviews about the CIA in 2008. Court documents charge that he provided names of covert Agency officials to a journalist, who allegedly in turn passed them on to a Guantanamo legal team. The team sought to have detainees identify specific CIA officials who participated in their renditions and torture. Kiriakou is accused of providing the identities of CIA officers that may have allowed names to be linked to photographs.

    Many observers believe however that the real “offense” in the eyes of the Obama administration was quite different. In 2007, Kiriakou became a whistleblower. He went on record as the first (albeit by then, former) CIA official to confirm the use of waterboarding of al-Qaeda prisoners as an interrogation technique, and then to condemn it as torture. He specifically mentioned the waterboarding of Abu Zubaydah in that secret prison in Thailand. Zubaydah was at the time believed to be an al-Qaeda leader, though more likely was at best a mid-level operative. Kiriakou also ran afoul of the CIA over efforts to clear for publication a book he had written about the Agency’s counterterrorism work. He maintains that his is instead a First Amendment case in which a whistleblower is being punished, that it is a selective prosecution to scare government insiders into silence when they see something wrong.

    If Kiriakou had actually tortured someone himself, even to death, there is no possibility that he would be in trouble. John Kiriakou is 48. He is staring down a long tunnel at a potential sentence of up to 45 years in prison because in the national security state that rules the roost in Washington, talking out of turn about a crime has become the only possible crime.


    Welcome to the Jungle

    John Kiriakou and I share common attorneys through the Government Accountability Project, and I’ve had the chance to talk with him on any number of occasions. He is soft-spoken, thoughtful, and quick to laugh at a bad joke. When the subject turns to his case, and the way the government has treated him, however, things darken. His sentences get shorter and the quick smile disappears.

    He understands the role his government has chosen for him: the head on a stick, the example, the message to everyone else involved in the horrors of post-9/11 America. Do the country’s dirty work, kidnap, kill, imprison, torture, and we’ll cover for you. Destroy the evidence of all that and we’ll reward you. But speak out, and expect to be punished.

    Like so many of us who have served the U.S. government honorably only to have its full force turned against us for an act or acts of conscience, the pain comes in trying to reconcile the two images of the U.S. government in your head. It’s like trying to process the actions of an abusive father you still want to love.

    One of Kiriakou’s representatives, attorney Jesselyn Radack, told me, “It is a miscarriage of justice that John Kiriakou is the only person indicted in relation to the Bush-era torture program. The historic import cannot be understated. If a crime as egregious as state-sponsored torture can go unpunished, we lose all moral standing to condemn other governments’ human rights violations. By ‘looking forward, not backward’ we have taken a giant leap into the past.”

    One former CIA covert officer, who uses the pen name “Ishmael Jones,” lays out a potential defense for Kiriakou: “Witness after witness could explain to the jury that Mr. Kiriakou is being selectively prosecuted, that his leaks are nothing compared to leaks by Obama administration officials and senior CIA bureaucrats. Witness after witness could show the jury that for any secret material published by Mr. Kiriakou, the books of senior CIA bureaucrats contain many times as much. Former CIA chief George Tenet wrote a book in 2007, approved by CIA censors, that contains dozens of pieces of classified information — names and enough information to find names.”

    If only it was really that easy.


    Never Again

    For at least six years it was the policy of the United States of America to torture and abuse its enemies or, in some cases, simply suspected enemies. It has remained a U.S. policy, even under the Obama administration, to employ “extraordinary rendition” — that is, the sending of captured terror suspects to the jails of countries that are known for torture and abuse, an outsourcing of what we no longer want to do.

    Techniques that the U.S. hanged men for at Nuremburg and in post-war Japan were employed and declared lawful. To embark on such a program with the oversight of the Bush administration, learned men and women had to have long discussions, with staffers running in and out of rooms with snippets of research to buttress the justifications being so laboriously developed. The CIA undoubtedly used some cumbersome bureaucratic process to hire contractors for its torture staff. The old manuals needed to be updated, psychiatrists consulted, military survival experts interviewed, training classes set up.

    Videotapes were made of the torture sessions and no doubt DVDs full of real horror were reviewed back at headquarters. Torture techniques were even reportedly demonstrated to top officials inside the White House. Individual torturers who were considered particularly effective were no doubt identified, probably rewarded, and sent on to new secret sites to harm more people.

    America just didn’t wake up one day and start slapping around some Islamic punk. These were not the torture equivalents of rogue cops. A system, a mechanism, was created. That we now can only speculate about many of the details involved and the extent of all this is a tribute to the thousands who continue to remain silent about what they did, saw, heard about, or were associated with. Many of them work now at the same organizations, remaining a part of the same contracting firms, the CIA, and the military. Our torturers.

    What is it that allows all those people to remain silent? How many are simply scared, watching what is happening to John Kiriakou and thinking: not me, I’m not sticking my neck out to see it get chopped off. They’re almost forgivable, even if they are placing their own self-interest above that of their country. But what about the others, the ones who remain silent about what they did or saw or aided and abetted in some fashion because they still think it was the right thing to do? The ones who will do it again when another frightened president asks them to? Or even the ones who enjoyed doing it?

    The same Department of Justice that is hunting down the one man who spoke against torture from the inside still maintains a special unit, 60 years after the end of WWII, dedicated to hunting down the last few at-large Nazis. They do that under the rubric of “never again.” The truth is that same team needs to be turned loose on our national security state. Otherwise, until we have a full accounting of what was done in our names by our government, the pieces are all in place for it to happen again. There, if you want to know, is the real horror.


    [Note to Readers: What’s next for Kiriakou? The District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia will begin Classified Information Procedures Act hearings in his case on September 12. These hearings, which are closed to the public, will last until October 30 and will determine what classified information will be permitted during trial. Kiriakou has pled “not guilty” to all charges and is preparing to go to trial on November 26.]



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  • Government Dumps on First Amendment

    August 10, 2012 // 6 Comments

    Tags: , , , ,
    Posted in: Democracy, Embassy/State

    Jess Radack wrote this, with some added info in italics by me for ya’:

    The Washington Post has an article on how Daniel Carter Jr. was fired for “liking” a page on Facebook. This was not a pornographic, racist, or other prohibited website – it was a Facebook page for a candidate who was challenging his boss.

    This is just the tip of the iceberg of workplace free speech rights. I represent a client, State Department whsitleblower Peter Van Buren, who was not only prohibited from using any social media – on his own time, on his personal computer – but the State was actively monitoring anything he did: blog, Tweet, update his status of Facebook, etc. (here’s the letter the State Department compelled me to sign acknowledging they would be violating my First Amendment rights)

    Both Carter and Van Buren’s behavior is protected free speech (the ACLU aggressively defended my First Amendment rights in front of the State Department).

    Carter filed a lawsuit claiming that his First Amendment rights had been violated, which is now before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit. Both Mr. Carter and Mr. Van Buren’s “speech” raise substantial constitutional questions and create the appearance of impermissible retaliation for their criticism – Carter’s so tacit that you can’t even call it “criticism,” and Van Buren’s more open – of the head of the sheriff’s department and the State Department, respectively.

    The Supreme Court has made clear (Pickering v. Bd. or Educ., 1960 and its progeny) that public employees are protected by the First Amendment when they engage in speech about matters of public concern. These rights can be overcome only if the employee’s interest in the speech is outweighed by the government’s interest in the orderly operation of the public workplace and the efficient delivery of public services by public employees.

    The Supreme Court has also held that public employees retain their First Amendment rights when speaking about issues directly related to their employment, as long as they are speaking as private citizens (Garcetti v. Ceballos, 2006). It is clear in both these cases that both Mr. Carter and Mr. Van Buren were “speaking” in their own voice and not on behalf of the local Police Department or the federal State Department.

    (The State Department is the most aggressive violator of social media Free Speech rights of employees in the Federal sphere)

    If the lower court’s ruling that “liking” a page does not warrant protection because it does not involve “actual statements” is upheld, a plethora of Web-based actions – from clicking ‘like” on Facebook to re-tweeting something – won’t be protected as free speech.

    The Hampton, Virginia sheriff’s actions and the State Department’s actions are unconstitutional. Carter and Van Buren used various computer technologies to communicate matters of public concern – in Carter’s case, who is to be elected Sheriff, and in Van Buren’s case, the reconstruction effort in Iraq.

    As new technologies emerge daily, the law struggles to keep apace, but the First Amendment must be interpreted to protect these new modalities of communicating. As the ACLU points out:

    Pressing a ‘like’ button is analogous to other forms of speech, such as putting a button on your shirt with a candidate’s name on it.


    Jesselyn Radack is National Security & Human Rights Director for the Government Accountability Project, the nation’s leading whistleblower protection and advocacy organization.



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  • Jeepers, If Only I was Vietnamese

    April 21, 2012 // 1 Comment

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Democracy, Embassy/State




    The State Department just can’t do enough for bloggers’ freedom overseas.


    Here is State social media superhero Alec Ross burning up the Twitter, for freedom:



    The news is less positive for bloggers inside the State Department. Jesslyn Radack of the Government Accountability Project wrote on Salon:

    (The State Department’s) actions are a transparent attempt to retaliate against Mr. Van Buren for his book—by trying to impose bureaucratic and constitutionally-questionable prior restraints on his blogs, evidenced by the facts that 1) Mr. Van Buren is being subject to disparate treatment (hundreds of State Department blogs flow out onto the Internet uncleared); 2) the State Department links to uncleared blogs it likes; 3) none of Mr. Van Buren’s writing or speaking has contained classified orpersonally identifiable information; 4) all his written works (including his book) contain the State Department disclaimer that they do not represent the views of the government; and 5) he has never misrepresented himself as an official spokesman for the State Department (instead, he speaks in the first person and uses bland designators such as “Author”).


    Tại sao là Alec Ross một kẻ ngốc như vậy?



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  • Salon: The Man the State Department Wants Silenced

    April 18, 2012 // 2 Comments

    Tags: , , ,
    Posted in: Embassy/State

    (This story originally appeared on Salon. It was written by Jesselyn Radack, filling in for Glenn Greenwald)


    Today, I’m not writing about the Espionage Act being used to chill journalists and whistleblowers, but something equally as troubling: the assault on whistleblowers’ First Amendment rights, illustrated by the creepy case of Peter Van Buren.

    Van Buren is a Foreign Service Officer with the State Department who wrote a book critical of U.S. reconstruction projects in Iraq, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. He also maintains a personal blog at www.wemeantwell.com. A 23-year veteran of the State Department, Mr. Van Buren began to experience a series of adverse personnel actions a month before the publication of his book, which are ongoing today. These actions include suspension of his security clearance, confiscation of his Diplomatic Passport, being placed on administrative leave, being banned from the State Department building, losing access to his State Department computer, and being reassigned to a makeshift telework position better suited for a high schooler.

    The State Department cleared Mr. Van Buren’s book by default because State exceeded its own 30-day deadline by nearly a year. Now the State Department is retaliating against him viciously for his book by taking adverse personnel actions — ostensibly based on not seeking pre-publication review for his blogs and live media appearances, done on his personal time — which are being used as a pretext to punish him for his book.

    Even more disturbingly, the State Department admits that it is actively monitoring Mr. Van Buren’s blogs, Tweets and Facebook updates that he posts during his private time on his personal home computer.

    Read that sentence again to absorb its full impact.

    All government employees should be alarmed by this. Peter Van Buren’s book dovetailed with WikiLeaks’ bursting onto the world scene, and the government’s assault on whistleblowers with the full force of the entire Executive branch.

    The WikiLeaks Edicts Transmogrify into Censorship

    This slippery slope, which has now turned into a sheet of ice, began with the State Department announcement on November 26, 2010, that Department officials are authorized to view WikiLeaks documents for “legitimate work reasons . . . using either the Department’s unclassified computer network (OpenNet) and associated peripheral devices or home computers.” No problem there.

    But less than three weeks later, State almost completely reversed itself, instructing the Directors of the Bureau of Consular Affairs/Passport Services (CA/PPT)—whose self-described mission is to “contribute significantly to the USG goal of promoting international exchange and understanding . . . [and] to help American citizens engage the world”—that “PPT employees shall not access any classified documents, including ‘Wikileaks documents’, during business hours or on their personal time.” (Scare quotes in original.)

    A year later, Mr. Van Buren received his very own, personalized Orwellian directive from the State Department: “[Y]ou must comply fully with applicable policies and regulations regarding official clearance of public speeches, writings and teaching materials, including blogs, Tweets and other communications via social media, on matters of official concern, whether prepared in an official or private capacity.”

    As a former government employee who was subject to horrible surveillance and monitoring for blowing the whistle (described in my new book for which Glenn Greenwald wrote the Foreword, I find it outrageous that a public servant is being told that his personal blogs, Tweets, and Facebook updates done on his own time in his personal capacity must go through pre-publication review. Moreover, in Mr. Van Buren’s case, this special pre-clearance requirement is being applied only to him and to things not capable of pre-publication review, such as live radio broadcasts.

    These actions are a transparent attempt to retaliate against Mr. Van Buren for his book—by trying to impose bureaucratic and constitutionally-questionable prior restraints on his blogs and media interviews (even though the latter have been live), evidenced by the facts that 1) Mr. Van Buren is being subject to disparate treatment (hundreds of State Department blogs flow out onto the Internet uncleared); 2) the State Department links to uncleared blogs it likes; 3) none of Mr. Van Buren’s writing or speaking has contained classified orpersonally identifiable information; 4) all his written works (including his book) contain the State Department disclaimer that they do not represent the views of the government; and 5) he has never misrepresented himself as an official spokesman for the State Department (instead, he speaks in the first person and uses bland designators such as “Author”). Mr. Van Buren’s style of writing and speaking is clearly identifiable as in his own “voice” and is dramatically dissimilar to the official, wooden style used by the State Department in its own messaging. Moreover, Mr. Van Buren does not use other official symbols that might potentially confuse an audience. Finalloy, the State Department never argued, until after Mr. Van Buren went to the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, which adjudicates whistleblower complaints, that Mr. Van Buren’s book or writings have disrupted normal State Department operations or affected the agency’s operational efficiency, the legal standard for when an employee has crossed the First Amendment line.

    Death by a Thousand Paper Cuts: The Slow Immolation of a Whistleblower

    On September 7, 2010, Mr. Van Buren submitted his book manuscript for pre-publication review. It disclosed numerous examples of rampant reconstruction fraud in Iraq. Mr. Van Buren submitted his manuscript to the State Department’s Bureau of Public Affairs (PA) in accordance with 3 Foreign Affairs Manual (“FAM”) 4170, which governs official clearance of speaking, writing, and teaching. It specifically requires pre-clearance for any speech or writing on “matters of official concern.” The Supreme Court held that an earlier version of the State Department’s pre-publication review scheme was valid in a case called Weaver. However, the current regulation is outdated, vague and overbroad, defining “matters of official concern” as matters that “relate to any policy, program, or operation of the employee’s agency or to current U.S. foreign policies, or reasonably may be expected to affect the foreign relations of the United States.” Matters that relate to U.S. foreign policies can be just about anything. Also, Weaver was decided years prior to the advent of social media, and such a requirement on new media is more constitutionally-questionable than when applied to traditional publications.

    The State Department defaulted on pre-publication review according to its own 30-day deadline. A month before the book was published, the State Department commenced a series of retaliatory actions that continue today.

    A couple weeks before Mr. Van Buren’s book was published, the State Department’s Diplomatic Security (DS) interviewed Mr. Van Buren on a “voluntary basis.” DS asked Mr. Van Buren about his forthcoming book and a blog he posted on August 25, 2011. (Mr. Van Buren had been blogging without incident since April 2011 and the questions regarding his blog post were clearly a pretext to interrogate him about his book and intimidate him from promoting it.)

    The week before his book’s publication, DS interrogated Mr. Van Buren on a “compelled basis” regarding his book and the August 25, 2011 blog post. As to the book, DS grilled him about the details of the publishing contract, including how much of an advance he received and to whom, if anyone, he donated the proceeds. (If you listen closely, you can hear government strains of “material support for terrorism” lurking in the background.) As to the blog, DS wanted to know who had helped him with his blog and told him that every blog, Facebook update, and Tweet by State Department employees had to be pre-cleared by the Department prior to posting. DS told Mr. Van Buren that refusal to answer their questions could lead to his firing. They also warned him against writing about the interrogation, saying he could be charged with interfering with a government investigation if he did so.

    After his book had been shipped to bookstores, the Bureau of Public Affairs wrote to his publisher stating that “its circulation and publicizing have been done without authorization” and that “[t]he Department has recently concluded that two pages of the book manuscript we have seen contain unauthorized disclosures of classified information.” Although the State Department tacitly admitted (with the word “recently”) that its designated period for pre-publication review had expired, this fax constituted a direct threat of discipline because unauthorized disclosure of classified information is both a regulatory infraction and a criminal felony that can carry up to 10 years in prison under . . . wait for it . . . part of the Espionage Act, the government’s new favorite tool to use against whistleblowers.

    When criminal threats failed, the State Department confiscated Mr. Van Buren’s Diplomatic Passport and suspended the Top Secret security clearance he had held continually since 1988 (by suspending, rather than revoking his security clearance, the State Department made it impossible to challenge.) He was issued a workday-only limited-access badge so that he could continue his unclassified work.

    It was not long, however, until Mr. Van Buren was placed on paid administrative leave, on which he remained for nearly two months with no job duties or assignment. His access card was confiscated by Human Resources (HR), and he was banned from entering any State Department facility or accessing any State Department computer. (No reason was given for banning Mr. Van Buren from State Department facilities, and no regulation was cited justifying HR in doing so.) The State Department ended the job assignment that Mr. Van Buren had served in for over a year (with the Board of Examiners for the Foreign Service) because “You have been counseled repeatedly regarding your 3 FAM 4170 obligation to submit writings and media appearances for review when they pertain to matters of official concern.” This is disparate treatment because numerous Foreign Service Officers maintain blogs and post Facebook updates about matters of official concern without pre-clearance. Moreover, it is impossible to pre-clear the content of live media appearances before they occur.

    At the end of 2011, the State Department informed Mr. Van Buren that he would be “teleworking,” and forced him to sign an unprecedented “Compliance Letter” as a condition of employment, referenced above: “[Y]ou must comply fully with applicable policies and regulations regarding official clearance of public speeches, writings and teaching materials,including blogs, Tweets and other communications via social media, on matters of official concern, whether prepared in an official or private capacity.”

    Long story short, Mr. Van Buren continued to exercise his First Amendment rights to blog, Tweet, speak, and use Facebook. And he continued to be jacked up over things that would be laughable if they were not so serious, like blogs that were sarcastic or pure parody.

    The end is so cliché: the State Department has now proposed removing (bureaucratese for “firing”) Mr. Van Buren, a mere six months before his already-announced retirement date.

    We can only hope that the government’s attempts at prior restraint and blatant censorship don’t become cliché.



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  • Media Respond to State Department Firing Demand

    March 31, 2012 // 1 Comment

    Tags: , , ,
    Posted in: Democracy, Embassy/State, Iraq

    Read more about the State Department seeking to fire me:

    The Atlantic

    Washington Post

    Democracy Now!

    Huffington Post

    WUSA, Channel 9 in Washington DC

    Zomobo Video Compilation

    Diplopundit

    Mother Jones

    The Alyona Show

    Daily Kos

    Common Dreams

    Project on Government Oversight

    Whistleblower.org

    Voice of Russia

    OpEd News

    TomDispatch

    Antiwar.com

    Pacific Free Press

    Find Law Legal News

    Nation of Age

    Mutiny Radio

    AlterNet

    YouTube


    If you’d like to help, here are some ways you can help.



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  • Interview: Talking Back to Power

    March 19, 2012 // 0 Comments

    Tags: , , ,
    Posted in: Democracy, Embassy/State

    I joined Jess Radack of the Government Accountability Project (GAP) on the Alyona Show to talk about the government’s war on whistleblowers, how free speech may be an export item for the US, but is not wanted at home when it criticizes our own government.

    (If the video is not showing above, please follow this link to view it)



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  • State Department Moves to Fire Me

    March 17, 2012 // 3 Comments

    Tags: , , , ,
    Posted in: Embassy/State, Iraq

    The following story appeared in the Washington Post:

    Peter Van Buren, a foreign service officer who wrote an unflattering book about his year leading two reconstruction teams in Iraq, was stripped of his security clearance, banned from State Department headquarters for a time and transferred to a telework job that consists of copying Internet addresses into a file.

    Now the State Department is moving to fire him based on eight charges, ranging from linking on his blog to documents on the whistleblowing site WikiLeaks to disclosing classified information.

    In 24 years as a diplomat, Van Buren was posted around the world and speaks four languages. He called the termination notice he received Friday the coup de grace in a series of blows he received since his book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People was published last fall.

    With his book, based on a year he spent in the Iraqi desert in 2009-2010, and an unauthorized blog he started in 2011 that frequently skewers American foreign policy, Van Buren has tested the First Amendment almost daily.

    He and his attorneys maintain that his right to free speech has been trampled, and they say he is a victim of retaliation for whistleblowing— not only because his account of the reconstruction effort alleges unqualified staff, corruption and billions of dollars in wasted programs.

    A State Department spokesman said the diplomat’s claims of retaliation are “without merit.”

    “There are protections within the government for freedom of expression and for whistleblowers,” spokesman Mark C. Toner said. “The State Department has followed process and acted in accordance with the law.”

    Van Buren’s termination letter came within days of a decision by the Office of Special Counsel, an independent agency that investigates government wrongdoing and complaints of retaliation by those who report it, to look into his case.

    “It’s hard for me to objectively look at this as anything other than revenge and vindictiveness,” Van Buren said from his house in Falls Church.

    Jesselyn Radack, National Security and Human Rights director for the Government Accountability Project, which represents Van Buren, said: “It’s awfully curious timing, given the Office of Special Counsel complaint.”

    He’s one of few federal employees —and maybe the only one at the State Department—who wrote a book about life on the job while still on the job.

    Van Buren can appeal his termination to a five-member grievance board at the agency. “It’s the beginning of a process,” Toner said. “He’ll have ample opportunity to defend himself.”

    He was charged with eight violations of State Department policy. They include linking in his blog to documents on WikiLeaks; failing to clear each blog posting with his bosses; displaying a “lack of candor” during interviews with diplomatic security officers; leaking allegedly sensitive and classified information in his book; and using “bad judgement’ by criticizing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and then-presidential candidate Michelle Bachmann on his blog.

    Van Buren disputes some of the charges, and says others were within his First Amendment rights.

    Van Buren submitted his book manuscript to State Department officials for review in the fall of 2010. He heard nothing after 30 days, when the rules require reviews to be completed. When he heard nothing, he said, he assumed the book had been approved.

    Shortly before it was due out last fall, the State Department wrote to the publisher and objected to three brief passages in the book officials claimed contained classified information. Van Buren says the information is widely known— such as the Central Intelligence Agency’s financial support for Iraqi intelligence agencies.

    In an Oct. 21 blog post headlined “Hillary Clinton Disgraces America,” Van Buren called a “disgrace” a comment the Secretary of State made to a journalist after the death of Moammar Gaddafi. “We came, we saw, he died,” Clinton tells a CBS News reporter in a video clip he posted on his blog, showing her laughing.

    Van Buren made references to Clinton’s private parts that he later removed from the posting. According to a report by the State Department, the agency put him on a watch list for the Secret Service and identified him to Clinton’s own security details as a potential threat.

    “I’m a chubby 52-year-old,” Van Buren said. “I’ve never threatened anybody in my life. It’s a cheap shot.”

    He called Bachmann a “Republican crazy person” in a blog post three days after the Clinton posting for saying Iraqis should reimburse the American government for its costs to “liberate” them.

    The charges against him are based on a 25-page investigation of Van Buren that the State Department concluded last December. He said he was not aware of the probe until the report was provided to him with his termination notice.

    Last fall, he announced plans to retire next year. He said he plans to challenge his termination.



    (Note: For those interested and/or concerned, I am still technically employed by the State Department, for now, as my lawyers and I fight back against what is crude retaliation and blatant disregard for the First Amendment. For the record, the State Department’s statement that they “followed process and acted in accordance with the law” ranks with the more hilarious things ever said within Foggy Bottom. Also, unicorns fly out of my ears.

    For the record, as the Washington Post claims, I must admit that I am a bit chubby but I am trying to lose some weight, maybe via stress.)



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  • The Hypocrisy of Free Speech

    February 26, 2012 // 2 Comments

    Tags: , , ,
    Posted in: Democracy, Embassy/State

    At the White House ABC’s Jake Tapper called out spokesperson James Carney on how the Obama Administration could square lauding free speech and internet freedom abroad while engaging in a record-setting campaign to silence whistleblowers at home. Carney (what a name, you can’t make this stuff up) ignored the question of why exposing government wrongdoing is desired when the target is Syria, China or Iran, but despicable when the target is the United States.

    Free Speech Hypocrisy at the White House

    Carney said “I’m not making the assumption” that the Espionage Act prosecutions suppress whistleblowers, yet the Justice Department is using the prosecutions for exactly that purpose. In the now-failed case against National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Thomas Drake, prosecutor William Welch II demanded a harsh sentence for Drake specifically to “send a message” to other employees. Of the six Espionage Act prosecutions under the Obama Administration, all involve journalists working with consciencious government employees trying to bring illegal, wasteful or immoral acts into the daylight. The Obama administration, which arrived in Washington promoting “sunshine” in government, turns out to be committed to silence and the censoring of less-than-positive news about its own workings. This administration fears the noise of democracy, preferring the silence of compliance just like in China, Iran and elsewhere.

    Free Speech Hypocrisy at Other Agencies

    At the Food and Drug Administration, they spy on their own employees’ email to prevent them from exposing wrongdoings.

    At the Department of Defense, a soldier who speaks out about government lies in Afghanistan finds himself under investigation. Four employees of the Air Force Mortuary in Dover, Delaware, attempted to address shortcomings at the facility, which handles the remains of all American service members who die overseas. Retaliation against them included firings and suspensions. Bradley Manning is in his second year of confinement without trial for allegedly leaking Secret level documents that embarrassed the government, while a Top Secret leak that favors the Department of Defense position goes unpunished.

    Free Speech Hypocrisy at the State Department

    The same level of hypocrisy that applies to the White House also applies to the State Department. Secretary of State Clinton has made internet freedom and the rights of bloggers and journalists a cornerstone of her foreign policy, going as far as citing the free use of social media as a prime mover in the Arab Spring. At the Conference on Internet Freedom at the Hague, Clinton said:

    When ideas are blocked, information deleted, conversations stifled, and people constrained in their choices, the internet is diminished for all of us.

    In China, several dozen companies signed a pledge in October, committing to strengthen their – quote – “self-management, self-restraint, and strict self-discipline.” Now, if they were talking about fiscal responsibility, we might all agree. But they were talking about offering web-based services to the Chinese people, which is code for getting in line with the government’s tight control over the internet.

    The United States wants the internet to remain a space where economic, political, and social exchanges flourish. To do that, we need to protect people who exercise their rights online.

    Yet inside her own Department of State, Clinton presides over the censoring of the internet, blocking objectionable web sites that refer to Wikileaks, such as TomDispatch (above), while allowing sites that play to State’s own point of view, such as Fox.com, which also refer to Wikileaks. The use of specialized software and VPNs that State recommends to Iranians to circumvent the firewall block placed by the Tehran government are prohibited by the State Department to its own employees to get around State’s own firewall blocks.

    While Clinton mocks Chinese companies, claiming terms like “self-management, self-restraint, and strict self-discipline” equate to censorship, her own Department’s social media guidance reminds employees to “be mindful of the weight of your expressed views as a U.S. government official,” and to “Remember that you are a Foreign Service USG employee.” Official guidance reminds employees that “All Department organizations with a social media site must monitor user-generated content,” and cites 27 laws and regulations that must be followed to be acceptable to the government. Self-censorship is the byword at State, as it is in China. Government bureaucrats know that this sort of slow-drip intimidation keeps people in line. They are meant to see what’s happening and remain silent.

    One web site reported that when Matt Armstrong was hired as Executive Director for the now defunct Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy, a condition to his hiring was to stop blogging. The condition was set by the office of Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs.

    Whistleblower Ray McGovern was arrested merely for physically standing and turning his back on Clinton at a public rally where she was speaking about the importance of freedom of speech. Did Secretary of State Clinton say anything about the arrest? She remained silent.

    Another State Department official wrote in the Foreign Service Journal:

    Anyone who has been called on the carpet for blogging — especially those who have been summoned more than once — can tell you that the only consistent aspect of the State Department’s feedback is inconsistency. Blogging is encouraged by some elements within the department and is even discussed on the official careers page, complete with a substantial set of links to popular Foreign Service-related blogs. Yet even bloggers listed there are sometimes targeted for official harassment by other elements within the department for having a blog in the first place.



    Free Speech: All Politics is Local

    I am told that, in its 223 years of existence, I am the only Foreign Service Officer ever to have written a critical book about the State Department while still employed there. We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People exposed what State did not want people to know: that they had wasted enormous amounts of money in Iraq, mostly due to ignorance and a desire for short-term successes that could be trumpeted back home. For the crime of writing this book and maintaining a blog that occasionally embarrasses, State Department officials destroyed my career, even as they confirm my thesis, and their own failure, by reducing the Baghdad Embassy to half its size in the face of Iraq’s unraveling.

    “The State Department was aware of Mr. Van Buren’s book long prior to its release,” explained attorney Jesslyn Radack of the Government Accountability Project, who now represents me. “Yet instead of addressing the ample evidence of fraud, waste, and abuse in the book, State targeted the whistleblower. The State Department’s retaliatory actions are a transparent attempt to intimidate and silence an employee whose critique of fraudulent, wasteful, and mismanaged U.S. reconstruction efforts in Iraq embarrassed the agency.”

    The State Department took away my security clearance of 23 years over this posting and its Wikileaks link.

    The State Department banned me from their building because I did not get permission for this article.

    The State Department threw me out of my job because this posting offended the Secretary of State.

    The State Department even chastised me for using its official seal in a satirical piece, showing censorship can be comprehensive, and petty, and that they know no boundaries between the two.



    What is Not Petty

    It is easy to magic-wand the problem of hypocrisy away– didn’t those government whistleblowers “break” rules? Well, yes, US government rules, the same as Syrian journalists broke Syrian government rules. Aren’t those websites blocked by the State Department objectionable on national security grounds? Yes, of course, the same way Tehran or Beijing claims its own national security is harmed by the web sites they block. The State Department blocks Wikileaks with its firewall same as China does not block the same site. But aren’t this blog’s posts offensive and not always “mindful of the weight of your expressed views as a U.S. government official”? Perhaps, but the highest standards we pretend to uphold in the First Amendment make no exceptions for offense nor include special categories for US government officials.

    What is considered innocent, mindful and respectful today can be found to be offensive tomorrow by a government scared that its own employees will reveal its sad inner workings to the people it purports to serve. You cannot pick and choose among free speech; you get Richard Pryor, Kid Cudi and the KKK saying the N-word, Bill Maher and Glenn Beck, Your Candidate and that Other Idiot, the Pledge and flag burning. Inside of State, my blog and the so-called innocuous “Mommy Blogs” are no different, just occupying different points on the same continuum. My rights taken today, yours tomorrow.

    If the US government in general, and the Secretary of State in particular, wish to be taken seriously around the world as advocates of a free internet and for free speech, they need to practice the same inside their own organizations. They cannot advocate for such abroad while using bully boy tactics to silence those at home.

    As one Foreign Service blogger remarked about State’s free speech hypocrisy, “Your actions speak so loudly I can hardly hear what you’re saying.”

    Can you hear us Mr. President? Madame Secretary? We are standing just outside your door, shouting.




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  • AntiWar.com: Meet John Kiriakou

    January 31, 2012 // 0 Comments

    Tags: , , , , ,
    Posted in: Democracy

    Antiwar.com tells the story of CIA officer John Kiriakou, indicted for leaking details of the Agency’s torture programs to the press.

    The bitter irony, the article points out, is that while Obama appears totally committed to stamping out government leaks about torture policy, he’s declined to pursue a similar course against those responsible for torturing prisoners in the first place. According to NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake:

    The Obama Administration is further criminalizing the exposure of the US’s own state sponsored and supported criminal behavior and activity — namely torture and in my case warrantless surveillance — while protecting and hiding from accountability those who authorized, approved, conducted and implemented the criminal behavior and activity under the cover and guile and guise of secrecy.

    The article quotes me:

    What is happening during the Obama administration— which has sought more prosecutions of it sown employees for “leaks” under the espionage act than any other— is a simultaneous classification of everything, coupled with a wicked hand to slap down anyone who “divulges” that info. If everything is classified than everyone in the government who speaks out is a spy.

    The hypocrisy of the government’s actions is made clear by attorney Jesselyn Radack:

    The fetid odor, the thing that really stinks about this case is that CIA officers had been immunized for committing waterboarding, for committing torture. Now, the only person being prosecuted in connection with torture is John Kiriakou, who blew the whistle on waterboarding being torture. And the only person to be prosecuted in connection with warrantless electronic surveillance is Tom Drake, a whistle-blower who blew the whistle on warrantless surveillance.

    An important article from Antiwar.com that gives a dark glimpse of America’s future. It deserves a wider audience. Better read it now, while you still can.



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