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.
Copyright © 2017. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
For those who woke a week ago to discover the First Amendment is under attack, I lost my job at the Obama/Clinton State Department in 2012 for writing We Meant Well, a book the government did not like, and needed the help of lawyer Jesselyn Radack and the ACLU to push back the threat of jail.
My book was critical of actions in Iraq under both the Obama and Bush administrations. One helped protect the other.
Braver people than me, like Thomas Drake, Morris Davis, and Robert MacLean, risked imprisonment and lost their government jobs for talking to the press about government crimes and malfeasance. John Kiriakou, Chelsea Manning, and Jeff Sterling went to jail for speaking to/informing the press. The Obama administration tried to prosecute reporters from Fox and the New York Times for stories on government wrongdoing.
Ray Maxwell at the State Department went public with information about Clinton’s email malfeasance before you had even heard of her private server. The media called him a liar, an opportunist, and a political hack and he was pressed into retirement.
Indeed, Obama prosecuted more federal whistleblowers under the Espionage Act than all previous United States presidents combined, including Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.
The Obama administration also set a record (77%) for redacting government files or denying access to them in fiscal year 2014 under the Freedom of Information Act.
More than any previous administration, Obama took longer to turn over files, said more often it could not locate documents, and refused a record number of times to turn over time-sensitive files quickly, requiring years-long legal actions to be brought to force the government’s hand. In the case of Hillary Clinton, files considered “unclassified” in one context were redacted in whole in another.
Though the backlog of unanswered requests grew by 55%, the administration cut the number of full-time Freedom of Information Act employees by 7.5%. Despite the critical nature of the documents to the election, the State Department was allowed to do its Freedom of Information Act screening of the Clinton emails largely with an ad hoc crew of retirees. The impact on journalists, and the right of the people to know, was immeasurable.
So spare me. The war on our freedoms was well under way before last week. Where the hell were you and your safety pins then?
Copyright © 2017. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
The Hugh M. Hefner First Amendment Awards were established in 1979 to honor individuals who have made significant contributions to protect the First Amendment rights of Americans. They are looking for nominees for this year’s awards, and I’d like to send them a name.
Who should it be?
Nominees traditionally come from the fields of journalism, arts and entertainment, education, publishing, and law and government. They are honored at a reception at the Playboy Mansion, and receive $5,000 to continue their work. Readers here know some of the past awardees: Whistleblowers Thomas Drake, Morris Davis, Norman Lear, Michael Moore, Bill Maher — the whole list back to 1980 is here.
I suspect Edward Snowden and those connected to him as journalists and lawyers will already have a long line of people ready to nominate them. Any would be people who deserve the honor. But let’s put our heads together and see if we can come up with someone not so much in the public eye, someone working for our rights who could really use the attention that even being nominated will bring.
Ideas? Put them in the comments. If the person is not well-known, a link would be helpful.
Copyright © 2017. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
The following memo was written by a group of U.S. intelligence, diplomatic, and military veterans, calling on President Obama to expedite the FBI review of former Secretary of State Clinton’s alleged email security violations so the public can assess this issue in a timely fashion.
Clinton’s judgement — never mind the significant question of legality — is an important criterion which Americans must consider in choosing their next president.
Yeah, it is long, but sometimes important things are complex, and need to be explained clearly. That is especially true in the case of the Clinton Emails, where the media has failed in its job of explaining how classification works, and the significance of exposing classified material.
I am a member of the group that drafted this memo, and proudly signed it before it was sent to the White House.
MEMORANDUM FOR: The President
FROM: Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity
SUBJECT: Those “Damn Emails” – “Really a Concern”
Last Wednesday Robert Gates, CIA Director under President Bush-41 and Defense Secretary under President Bush-43, publicly commented that Secretary Hillary Clinton’s “whole email thing … is really a concern in terms of her judgment,” adding, “I don’t know what originally prompted her to think that was a good idea.”
What originally prompted her does not matter. As your Secretary of State and your subordinate, she willfully violated laws designed to protect classified information from unauthorized disclosure. It may be somewhat difficult for those not as immersed in national security matters as we have been to appreciate the seriousness of the offense, including the harm done in compromising some of the most sensitive U.S. programs and activities. This is why we write.
Pundits and others are playing down the harm. A charitable interpretation is that they have no way to gauge what it means to expose so much to so many. We do know, and our overriding concern is to protect the national security of our country from further harm. It would be a huge help toward this end, if you would order Attorney General Loretta Lynch to instruct the FBI to stop slow-walking the email investigation and release its findings promptly.
If you choose, instead, to give precedence to politics over national security, the American people will be deprived of timely appreciation of the gravity of the harm done; national security officials who do follow the rules will be scandalized; FBI investigators will conclude that that their job is more political than professional; and the noxious impression will grow that powerful people cannot be held accountable when they break the law. Worse: if the results of the FBI investigation remain under lock and key, dangerous pressures are likely to be exerted on the most senior U.S. officials by those who have the key – as we explain below.
We the undersigned Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS) have spent 400 years working with classified information – up to and including TOP SECRET, Codeword, and Special Access Programs (SAP). Given that experience, we believe that much of the commentary on the former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton email controversy has been misplaced, focusing on extraneous issues having little or nothing to do with the overriding imperative to protect classified information.
As intelligence, military, and foreign service professionals, we are highly aware not only of that compelling need, but also of the accompanying necessity to hold accountable those whose actions compromise – whether for reasons of convenience or espionage – sensitive operations, programs and persons. In addition, we know that successful mutual cooperation with foreign intelligence services depends largely on what they see as our ability to keep secrets secret.
Last August, Secretary Clinton handed over her private email server to the FBI, five months after she acknowledged she had used it for work-related emails as Secretary of State. She admitted to having deleted about 31,000 emails she described as personal. Media reports last fall, however, indicated that the FBI was able to recover the personal emails, and was reviewing them, as well as the 30,000 others she had described as work-related.
In January, the Department of State announced that, of the 30,000 work-related emails, at least 1,340 contained classified material. The Department retroactively classified 22 of those TOP SECRET and prevented their release. Among the 22 were some that, according to media reports, included information on highly sensitive Special Access Programs (SAP).
The White House has said it will do nothing to impede the FBI investigation and possible filing of charges against Clinton, if the facts should warrant that kind of action. Inasmuch as the outcome of the investigation is bound to have major political consequences, such White House assurances stretch credulity.
By all indications, the FBI is slow-walking the investigation and mainstream media are soft-pedaling the issue. As things now stand, most Americans remain unaware of the import of this industrial-scale compromise of very sensitive national security information in Secretary Clinton’s emails.
Our concern mounted in January when the Inspector General of the intelligence community wrote to the chairs of the congressional intelligence committees that he had received from one of the intelligence agencies two “sworn declarations” asserting that Secretary Clinton’s emails contained not only CONFIDENTIAL and SECRET information, but also information at the TOP SECRET/SAP level.
In 2009, you signed an Executive Order regarding SAP (Special Access Programs), so we assume you were briefed on their extremely high sensitivity and the consequent need to sharply limit the number of people allowed to be “read-in” on them. The mishandling of SAP information can neutralize intelligence programs costing billions of dollars, wreck liaison relationships assiduously cultivated for decades, and get a lot of people killed.
‘It Wasn’t That Bad’
All those directly or peripherally involved in the investigation of the Clinton email issue know very well that it could have a direct impact on who is likely to become the next President of the United States, and they will be making decisions with that reality in mind. They know that it is with you that “the buck stops,” and they are sensitive to signs of your preferences. Those were not difficult to discern in your commencement address at Howard University on May 7, in which you strongly advocated the same basic policy approaches as those espoused by one Democratic presidential candidate – Hillary Clinton.
Your White House has also made excuses for deliberate security violations by Secretary Clinton that would have gotten senior officials like us fired and probably indicted. We look with suspicion at what we see as contrasting and totally inappropriate attempts by the administration and media to play down the importance of Secretary Clinton’s deliberate disregard of basic security instructions and procedures.
It appears that the option chosen by the White House is using the declared need for “thoroughness” to soft-pedal and delay completion of the investigation for several more months, while the corporate media sleeps on. Four months have already gone by since the smoking-gun-type revelations in the intelligence community Inspector General’s letter to Congress, and it has been well over a year since Secretary Clinton first acknowledged using an insecure email server for official business.
Another claim emanating from your White House is that Clinton was careless in managing her emails and has admitted as much, but that she has not damaged American national security. She has called it a “mistake,” but security officials of the National Security Agency explicitly forewarned her against violating basic laws and regulations designed to prevent the compromise of classified information.
NSA, FBI Have Enough Evidence
Surely, enough time has passed, and enough material has been reviewed, to permit a preliminary damage assessment. The NSA has the necessary information and should, by now, have shared that information with the FBI. Secretary Clinton’s server in her house in Chappaqua, New York, was not a secured device. Her email address incorporated her initials, “hdr” (apparently for her maiden name, Hillary Diane Rodham). It also included the “clinton” server identity, so it was easy for a hacker to spot.
Anyone with the proper equipment, knowledge and motivation might have been able to obtain access. That is what hackers are able to do, with considerable success, against government servers that are far better protected than the private email server located in her New York State home.
In fact, there have been reports that Secretary Clinton’s emails were, indeed, hacked successfully by foreigners. The Romanian hacker who goes by the name Guccifer claimed earlier this month that he had repeatedly hacked her email server. He described the server as “like an open orchid on the Internet” and that “it was easy … easy for me, for everybody.” Guccifer has been extradited from Romania and is now in jail in Alexandria, Virginia, where the FBI is said to be questioning him on the emails. There have also been credible claims that Russian intelligence and other foreign services were able to hack the Secretary’s server.
Another argument being surfaced, in a transparent attempt to defend Secretary Clinton, has to do with intent. It is said that she did not intend to have classified information on her computer in New York and had no intention of handling secret material in a way that would be accessible to foreign intelligence or others lacking the proper security clearances and the need-to-know.
But while intent might be relevant in terms of punishment, it does not change the fact that as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, then Senator Clinton had clearances for classified information for years before becoming Secretary of State. She knew the rules and yet as Secretary she handled classified information carelessly after a deliberate decision to circumvent normal procedures for its safeguarding, thus making it vulnerable to foreign intelligence, as well as to criminal hackers.
Anyone who has ever handled classified material knows that there are a number of things that you do not do. You do not take it home with you, you do not copy it and share it with anyone who does not have a clearance and a need-to-know, you do not strip off the classification marks and treat it as unclassified, and you do not transfer it to another email account that is not protected by a government server.
If you have a secured government computer operating off of a secure server that means that what is on the computer stays on the computer. This is not a matter of debate or subject to interpretation. It is how one safeguards classified information, even if one believes that the material should not be classified, which is another argument that has been made in Clinton’s defense. Whether or not the classification is unnecessary is not your decision to make.
Apart from the guidelines for proper handling of classified information, outlined in Executive Order 13526 and 18 U.S.C Sec. 793(f) of the federal code, there is some evidence of a cover-up regarding what was compromised. This itself would be a violation of the 2009 Federal Records Act and the Freedom of Information Act.
Numerous messages both in New York and in Washington have reportedly been erased or simply cannot be found. In addition, the law cited above explicitly makes it a felony to cut and paste classified information removing its classification designation. Retaining such information on a private email system is also a felony. In one of Secretary Clinton’s emails, she instructed her staff simply to remove a classification and send the information to her on her server.
So the question is not whether Secretary Clinton broke the law. She did. If the laws are to be equally applied, she should face the same kind of consequences as others who have been found, often on the basis of much less convincing evidence, guilty of similar behavior.
Some More Equal Than Others
Secretary Clinton’ case invites comparison with what happened to former CIA case officer Jeffrey Sterling, now serving a three-and-a-half-year prison term for allegedly leaking information to New York Times journalist James Risen. Sterling first came to the media’s attention when in 2003 he blew the whistle on a botched CIA operation called Operation Merlin, telling the Senate Intelligence Committee staff that the operation had ended up revealing nuclear secrets to Iran. When in 2006 James Risen published a book that discussed, inter alia, this amateurish cowboy operation, the Department of Justice focused on Sterling as the suspected source.
In court, the federal prosecutors relied almost entirely on Risen’s phone and email logs, which reportedly demonstrated that the two men had been in contact up until 2005. But the prosecutors did not provide the content of those communications even though the FBI was listening in on some of them. Risen has claimed that he had multiple sources on Operation Merlin, and Sterling has always denied being involved.
Jeffrey Sterling was not permitted to testify in the trial on his own behalf because he would have had to discuss Operation Merlin, which was and is still classified. He could not mention any details about it even if they were already publicly known through the Risen book. No evidence was ever produced in court demonstrating that any classified information ever passed between the two men, but Sterling, an African American, was nevertheless convicted by an all-white jury in Virginia based on “suspicion” and the presumption that “it had to be him.”
The contrast between the copious evidence – some of it self-admitted – of Secretary Clinton’s demonstrable infractions, on the one hand, and the very sketchy, circumstantial evidence used to convict and imprison Jeffrey Sterling, on the other, lend weight to the suspicion that there is one law for the rich and powerful in the United States and another for the rest of us.
Failing to take steps against a politically powerful presidential candidate and letting her off unscathed for crimes of her own making, while an institutionally unprotected Jeffrey Sterling sits in prison would be a travesty of justice not dissimilar to the gentle wrist-slap given Gen. David Petraeus for giving his mistress extremely sensitive information and then lying to the FBI about it.
Your order to then-Attorney General Eric Holder to let Gen. David Petraeus off easy created a noxious – and demoralizing – precedent in the national security community indicating that, whatever the pains taken at lower levels to prevent compromise of duly classified information, top officials are almost never held accountable for disregarding well-established rules. These are some of the reasons we are so concerned that this is precisely the direction in which you seem to be leaning on the Clinton email issue.
In our view, the sole legitimate reason for disclosing classified information springs from the only “oath” we all took – “to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic.” When, for example, Edward Snowden saw the U.S. government grossly violating our Fourth Amendment right to be “secure” against warrantless “searches and seizures,” he gave more weight to that oath (ethicists call it a supervening value) than to the promise he had made not to disclose information that could harm U.S. national security.
Possibly Still Worse Ahead
You might give some thought, Mr. President, to a potentially messy side of this. What is already known about NSA’s collect-it-all electronic practices over the past several years strongly suggests that NSA, and perhaps the FBI, already know chapter and verse. It is virtually certain they know what was in Secretary Clinton’s emails – including the ones she thought she had deleted. It is likely that they have also been able to determine which foreign intelligence agencies and other hackers were able to access the emails.
One ignores this at one’s peril. Secretary Clinton’s security violations can have impact not only on whether she becomes your successor, but also on whether she would, in that case, be beholden to those who know what lies hidden from the rest of us – perhaps even from you.
Intelligence professionals (in contrast to the occasional political functionary) take the compromise of classified information with utmost seriousness. More important: this is for us a quintessentially nonpartisan issue. It has to do, first and foremost, with the national security of the United States.
We are all too familiar with what harm can come from blithe disregard of basic procedures designed to protect sensitive intelligence and other national security information. Yes, the lamentable unevenness in how such infractions are handled is also an important issue – but that is not our main focus in the present context.
The Truth Will Out
Not all workers at the NSA or the FBI are likely to keep their heads in the sand, as they watch very senior officials and politicians with their own agendas disregard laws to safeguard the nation’s security. We know what it is like to do the difficult, disciplined work of protecting information from being compromised by strictly abiding by what often seem to be cumbersome rules and regulations. We’ve been there; done that.
If you encourage the Department of Justice and the FBI to continue slow-walking the investigation, there is a good chance the truth will come out anyway. As you are aware, the Justice Department, the FBI, and NSA have all yielded recent patriots who, in such circumstances, decided that whistleblowing – rather than silence – was the only way to honor the oath we all swore – to support and defend the Constitution.
To sum up our concern regarding how all this plays out, if you order the Justice Department and FBI to pursue the investigation with “all deliberate speed,” so to speak, and Secretary Clinton becomes president, the juicy email secrets in the hidden hands of the NSA and FBI are likely to give those already powerful institutions a capacity for blackmail that would make J. Edgar Hoover’s mouth water. In addition, information hacked by foreign intelligence services or Guccifer-like hackers can also provide useful grist for leverage or blackmail.
Taking Care the Laws Are Faithfully Executed
We strongly urge you to order Attorney General Loretta Lynch to instruct FBI Director James Comey to wind up a preliminary investigation and tell the country now what they have learned. By now they – and U.S. intelligence agencies – have had enough time to do an early assessment of what classified data, programs and people have been compromised. Realistically speaking, a lengthier, comprehensive post-mortem-type evaluation – however interesting it might be, might never see the light of day under a new president.
We believe the American people are entitled to prompt and full disclosure, and respectfully suggest that you ensure that enforcement of laws protecting our national security does not play stepchild to political considerations on this key issue.
On April 10, you assured Chris Wallace, “I guarantee that there is no political influence in any investigation conducted by the Justice Department, or the FBI – not just in this [Clinton email] case, but in any case. Full stop. Period.”
We urge you to abide by that promise, and let the chips fall where they may. Full stop. Period.
For the Steering Group, Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS)
William Binney, Technical Director, NSA; co-founder, SIGINT Automation Research Center (ret.)
Thomas Drake, Senior Executive, NSA (former)
Philip Giraldi, CIA, Operations Officer (ret.)
Sen. Mike Gravel, Adjutant, top secret control officer, Communications Intelligence Service, special agent the Counter Intelligence Corps and United States Senator
Matthew Hoh, former Capt., USMC, Iraq & Foreign Service Officer, Afghanistan (associate VIPS)
Larry C. Johnson, CIA & State Department (ret.)
Michael S. Kearns, Captain, USAF Intelligence Agency (ret.), ex-Master SERE Instructor
John Kiriakou, Former CIA Counterterrorism Officer
Ray McGovern, former US Army infantry/intelligence officer & CIA analyst (ret.)
Elizabeth Murray, Deputy National Intelligence Officer for Middle East, CIA (ret.)
Todd Pierce, MAJ, US Army Judge Advocate (ret.)
Scott Ritter, former MAJ, USMC, former UN Weapon Inspector, Iraq
Diane Roark, DOE, DOD, NSC, & professional staff, House Intelligence Committee (ret.)
Robert David Steele, former CIA Operations Officer
Peter Van Buren, U.S. Department of State, Foreign Service Officer (ret.) (associate VIPS)
Kirk Wiebe, former Senior Analyst, SIGINT Automation Research Center, NSA, (ret.)
Ann Wright, U.S. Army Reserve Colonel (ret) and former U.S. Diplomat
Hear that hissing sound? That is the last gasps for air from the Bill of Rights. The Bill is one breath away from hell.
The FBI has quietly revised its rules for searching data involving Americans’ communications collected by the National Security Agency.
The classified revisions were accepted by the secret U.S. FISA court that governs surveillance, under a set of powers colloquially known as Section 702. That is the portion of law that authorizes the NSA’s sweeping PRISM program, among other atrocities.
PRISM, and other surveillance programs, first came to mainstream public attention with the information leaked by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, preceeded by other NSA whistleblowers such as Thomas Drake and Bill Binney.
Since at least 2014 the FBI has been allowed direct access to the NSA’s massive collections of international emails, texts and phone calls – which often include Americans on one end of the conversation, and often “inadvertently” sweep up Americans’ domestic communications as well. FBI officials can search through the NSA data, using Americans’ identifying information, for “routine” queries unrelated to national security.
As of 2014, the FBI has not been required to make note of when it searched NSA-gathered metadata, which includes the “to” or “from” lines of an email. Nor does it record how many of its data searches involve Americans’ identifying details.
So, quick summary: secret surveillance programs enacted in secret ostensibly to protect America from terrorism threats are now turning over data on American citizens to the FBI, fully unrelated to issues of national security. The rules governing all this are secret, decided by a secret court.
If that does not add up to a chilling definition of a police state that would give an old Stasi thug a hard-on, than I don’t know what is.
In the world of handling America’s secrets, words – classified, secure, retroactive – have special meanings. I held a Top Secret clearance at the State Department for 24 years and was regularly trained in protecting information as part of that privilege. Here is what some of those words mean in the context of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s emails.
The Inspectors General for the State Department and the intelligence community issued a statement saying Clinton’s personal email system contained classified information. This information, they said, “should never have been transmitted via an unclassified personal system.” The same statement voiced concern that a thumb drive held by Clinton’s lawyer also contains this same secret data. Another report claims the U.S. intelligence community is bracing for the possibility that Clinton’s private email account contains multiple instances of classified information, with some data originating at the CIA and NSA.
A Clinton spokesperson responded that “Any released emails deemed classified by the administration have been done so after the fact, and not at the time they were transmitted.” Clinton claims unequivocally her email contained no classified information, and that no message carried any security marking, such as Confidential or Top Secret.
The key issue in play with Clinton is that it is a violation of national security to maintain classified information on an unclassified system.
Classified, secure, computer systems use a variety of electronic (often generically called TEMPESTed) measures coupled with physical security (special locks, shielded conduits for cabling, armed guards) that differentiate them from an unclassified system. Some of the protections are themselves classified, and unavailable in the private sector. Such standards of protection are highly unlikely to be fulfilled outside a specially designed government facility.
Yet even if retroactive classification was applied only after Clinton hit “send” (and State’s own Inspector General says it wasn’t), she is not off the hook.
What matters in the world of secrets is the information itself, which may or may not be marked “classified.” Employees at the highest levels of access are expected to apply the highest levels of judgment, based on the standards in Executive Order 13526. The government’s basic nondisclosure agreement makes clear the rule is “marked or unmarked classified information.”
In addition, the use of retroactive classification has been tested and approved by the courts, and employees are regularly held accountable for releasing information that was unclassified when they released it, but classified retroactively.
It is a way of doing business inside the government that may at first seem nonsensical, but in practice is essential for keeping secrets.
For example, if an employee were to be handed information sourced from an NSA intercept of a foreign government leader, somehow not marked as classified, she would be expected to recognize the sensitivity of the material itself and treat it as classified. In other cases, an employee might hear something sensitive and be expected to treat the information as classified. The emphasis throughout the classification system is not on strict legalities and coded markings, but on judgment. In essence, employees are required to know right from wrong. It is a duty, however subjective in appearance, one takes on in return for a security clearance.
“Not knowing” would be an unexpected defense from a person with years of government experience.
In addition to information sourced from intelligence, Clinton’s email may contain some back-and-forth discussions among trusted advisors. Such emails are among the most sensitive information inside State, and are otherwise always considered highly classified. Adversaries would very much like to know America’s bargaining strategy. The value of such information is why, for example, the NSA electronically monitored heads of state in Japan and Germany. The Freedom of Information Act recognizes the sensitivity of internal deliberation, and includes a specific exemption for such messages, blocking their release, even years after a decision occurred. If emails discussing policy or decisions were traded on an open network, that would be a serious concern.
The problem for Clinton may be particularly damaging. Every email sent within the State Department’s own systems contains a classification; an employee technically cannot hit “send” without one being applied. Just because Clinton chose to use her own hardware does not relieve her or her staff of this requirement.
Some may say even if Clinton committed security violations, there is no evidence the material got into the wrong hands – no blood, no foul. Legally that is irrelevant. Failing to safeguard information is the issue. It is not necessary to prove the information reached an adversary, or that an adversary did anything harmful with the information for a crime to have occurred. See the cases of Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, Jeff Sterling, Thomas Drake, John Kiriakou or even David Petraeus. The standard is “failure to protect” by itself.
None of these laws, rules, regulations or standards fall under the rubric of obscure legalities; they are drilled into persons holding a security clearance via formal training (mandatory yearly for State Department employees), and are common knowledge for the men and women who handle America’s most sensitive information. For those who use government computer systems, electronic tools enforce compliance and security personnel are quick to zero in on violations.
A mantra inside government is that protecting America’s secrets is everyone’s job. That was the standard against which I was measured throughout my career and the standard that should apply to everyone entrusted with classified information.
Here’s the story behind the drive by the Inspector General of the State Department and the Intelligence Community Inspector General for the Justice Department open a full investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email account while she held the position of secretary of state.
Government investigators discovered classified information on the private email account that Hillary used while secretary of state, stating “unequivocally” that those secrets never should have been stored outside of secure systems.
The inspectors general of the State Department and the nation’s intelligence agencies said the information they found was classified when it was sent and remains so now. Information is considered classified if its disclosure would likely harm national security, and such information can be sent or stored only on computer networks with special safeguards. The inspectors have not revealed which of Clinton’s emails contained classified data, though the State Department has redacted portions of email it has released, and the FBI demanded data in some emails pertaining to the security situation in Libya be withheld.
Clinton has said for months that she kept no classified information on the private server that she set up. Her campaign said Friday that any government secrets found on the server had been classified after the fact.
There are multiple holes in Clinton’s latest set of excuses.
To begin, she has stated there was nothing classified on her server. It appears now there was. The source is not a partisan attack dog, but the State Department’s own inspector general and the intelligence community. She violated national security, which require cleared individuals, such as Hillary, to protect sensitive information. Exposing classified data is a crime; that is what Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden are accused of doing. It does not matter if the info can be proven to have reached the media or an adversary, the crime is the exposure itself, not the results.
A person in Hillary’s position, and certainly with her claimed experience in government, should know what is and is not classified, sensitive or otherwise needs to be protected. In my own 24 years with the State Department, I saw that almost everything that reached the secretary’s office needed to be classified, either because of the contents itself, or because it was part of the tiny fraction of information that bubbled up that high. Of all the issues in the world, an adversary knowing what the secretary was personally focused on, or how the data was being presented to her, was valuable in its own right.
Some/much of the information Hillary was dealing with originated within her inner circle, particularly email sent between her and her closest advisors that helped shape her decisions. It is the originating person that is charged inside State with assigning a classification. If Hillary’s staff did not assign a classification, well, then one was not technically included with the data. But that’s a fudge; it is the data itself that matters, with or without a label, and as part of the responsibility for holding a clearance a person is expected to make judgements to protect information. Hillary knew how sensitive the information was at times. It is a veneer of deniability.
There have also been multiple public cases where the government has taken action against individuals because they “should have known unclassified” data “should have been classified” and thus protected. Google up those of TSA’s Robert MacLean, NSA’s Thomas Drake and, sadly, my own. All of us were punished, fired or threatened with jail over the alleged release of unclassified data that the government deemed ex post facto should have been considered classified. This is not speculation, it is precedent.
Criminal? Maybe. Irresponsible? Likely. Not very presidential? Certainly.
Senator Mark Udall has called for the full release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on torture. However, as a still-sitting member of Congress, he has a constitutional protection to read most of the still-secret report on the Senate floor — and a group of intelligence veterans urges him to do just that.
We, the undersigned are veteran intelligence officers with a combined total of over 300 years of experience in intelligence work. We send you this open letter at what seems to be the last minute simply because we had been hoping we would not have to.
You seem on the verge of leaving the Senate without letting your fellow Americans know all they need to know about CIA torture. In the eight weeks since you lost your Senate seat you gave off signs that, during your last days in office, you would provide us with a fuller account of this sordid chapter in our country’s history, exercising your right to immunity under the “Speech or Debate” clause in Article 1 of the Constitution.
Your rhetoric against torture and in defense of the Constitution has been strong, but we now sense a white flag beneath it. We fear you intend to silently steal away, and thus deny the American people their last best chance to learn what they need to know about the record of CIA torture.
We had been encouraged by your December 10 speech on the Senate floor, in which you referred to the release of the Executive Summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s Study on CIA torture the previous day and said: “My goal is to ensure the full truth comes out about this grim time in the history of the CIA and our nation, so that neither the CIA nor any future administration repeats the grievous mistake this important oversight work reveals.” (our emphasis)
Very quickly, though, your goal became fuzzier. When Scott Raab of Esquire Magazine asked you right after your speech, “Do you think the remaining 6,000 or so pages will become public?” You answered: “I do. It’s my fervent hope that they will be declassified. I will continue to call for the entire report to be declassified. The details are important … the entire report ought to be released.”
With all due respect, Senator, exactly who do you think is going to do that, if not you? Was your “goal to ensure the full truth comes out” more rhetoric than reality? We are extremely disappointed at your apparent readiness to throw in the towel.
You had told Raab on November 21, “What happened [the torture, lying, and cover-up] broke faith with the Constitution,” adding, “There are some that would like this report [the Senate Intelligence Committee Study] never to see the light of day. There are some that are running out the clock.” Clearly, you are on to their game. Are you going to let the clock run out, when what we actually need is a full-court press?
A Fine Floor Speech
You called, again, for CIA Director John Brennan to resign, while at the same time noting that President Obama has expressed full confidence in him and has “demonstrated that trust by making no effort at all to rein him in.” In your words, the CIA keeps “posing impediments or obstacles” to full disclosure of its “barbaric program” of torture. And you made light of Obama’s merely stating, “Hopefully, we don’t do it again in the future.”
“That’s not good enough,” you added, and of course you are right. Finally, you complain: “If there’s no real leadership from the White House helping the public understand that the CIA’s torture program wasn’t necessary and didn’t save lives or disrupt terrorist plots, then what’s to stop the next White House and CIA director from supporting torture? …
“The CIA has lied to its overseers and the public, destroyed and tried to hold back evidence, spied on the Senate, made false charges against our staff, and lied about torture and the results of torture. And no one has been held to account. … There are right now people serving at high-level positions at the agency who approved, directed, or committed acts related to the CIA’s detention and interrogation program.”
QED – as you have demonstrated – there is no “real leadership” in the White House on this transcendentally important issue.
Thus, it struck us as disingenuous to finish, as you do, with a glaring non sequitur. You call on our timid President to “purge his administration” of a CIA director in whom he says he has “full confidence,” together with the torture alumni and alumnae still tenaciously protected by the same director.
Again, with all due respect, it seems equally disingenuous to appeal to this President to declassify and release the earlier review ordered by former CIA Director Leon Panetta, the conclusions of which directly refute several of Brennan’s claims – much less release the full 6,800-page study of which we are permitted only a heavily redacted “executive summary.”
You even include Panetta’s own observation that President Obama and Brennan both were unhappy with Panetta’s initial agreement with the committee to allow staff access to operational cables and other sensitive documents about the torture program.
So where is the real leadership going to come from? Clearly, not from the White House. Russian President Putin is going to give Crimea to NATO before Obama does any of the things you suggested. And you know it.
So where could the initiative come from in these final days before the Senate changes hands? Frankly, Senator Udall, we had been counting on you rising to the challenge before this unique opportunity is lost, probably forever.
Where We Are Coming From
We are, frankly, at a loss to explain your hesitancy – your lack of follow-through toward your stated goal “to ensure the full truth comes out … so that neither the CIA nor any future administration repeats the grievous mistake [of torture].”
If you summon the courage to discharge what you no doubt realize is your duty, there is no way you will end up in jail. Indeed, this is precisely the kind of situation the Founders had in mind when they wrote the “Speech or Debate” clause into Article 1 of the Constitution.
Whatever it is that you fear, you might keep in mind that several of us – who lack the immunity you enjoy – have paid and continue to pay a heavy price for exposing lies, injustice, and abuses like torture. One of us – the first to reveal that those grisly kinds of torture (aka “enhanced interrogation techniques”) were approved at the highest level of government – is in prison serving a 30-month sentence. A number of us have seen the inside of prisons for doing the right thing; and all of us know what it feels like to be shunned by former colleagues.
Also important, despite our many years of service as senior intelligence officers and our solid record for accuracy, we are effectively banned from the so-called “mainstream media,” which continues to prefer the role of security-state accomplice in disparaging, for example, the findings of the Senate Intelligence Committee Study. (Never mind that the study is based on indisputably original CIA cables and other documents.) In contrast, you are not banned from the media – yet. You have a few more days; you need to use them.
In your “Additional Views” on the Senate committee Study released on Dec. 9, you applaud Sen. Dianne Feinstein “for seeing this project to completion.” But wait. You are surely aware (1) that the project remains far from complete; and (2) that if you or one of your Senate colleagues do not move tout suite to release the full Study together with the earlier review commissioned by Panetta, the “project” will not be brought to “completion” any time soon – unless a courageous whistleblower runs great risk and does what you can do with impunity.
Moreover, releasing the report, as you have the authority to do under the Constitution, would publicly demonstrate that at least one legal method of whistleblowing does exist. So when such truly illegal actions occur, even at the most senior levels, there is a way of righting wrongs.
You are correct to call the committee Study “one of the most significant examples of oversight in the history of the U.S. Senate.” We imagine that the strong support you and Sen. Ron Wyden gave Sen. Feinstein helped make it so. And we join you both in applauding Sen. Feinstein’s tenacity in getting the Study’s 500-page executive summary released. John Brennan used every conceivable ruse to slow-roll and eviscerate the summary, but Sen. Feinstein faced him down. She achieved all she could, given the circumstances. But the project remains far from “completion.”
In your “Additional Views” you note that, as a new member of the intelligence committee four years ago, you were “deeply disturbed to learn specifics about the flaws in the [torture] program, the misrepresentations, the brutality.” You add that you wrote the President letters about this in May, June, and July of this year. Surely the lack of response told you something. Please – not another letter to Obama. You need to go beyond letters.
Now it’s your turn, Senator Udall. Put Constitution and conscience into play, together with the immunity you enjoy. You can – and, in our view, your oath to the Constitution dictates that you must – rise to the occasion and find a way to release the entire 6,800-page Study, including CIA’s comments (but not redacted to a fare-thee-well). You need to put this at the very top of your job jar – now, before it is too late.
The American people are owed the truth. As you have noted more than once, they are not likely to get it from Brennan – or the President for that matter. Nor will it come from the mainstream media with their customary “on-the-one-hand-and-then-on-the-other” approach to journalism. Polling data on the widespread acceptance of using torture “to keep us safe” is a direct result of that kind of coverage – as well as of the artful crafting of words and phrases in the questions asked in those surveys.
The comments of the many of the TV talking-torture heads seem almost designed to discourage viewers from reading the damning executive summary itself. Who wants to read such abhorrent stuff at Christmastime, anyway?
If those who approved and conducted torture are not held accountable, torture is a virtual certainty for the future. In that sense, you are quite right in saying that the Committee staff has done “seminal” work. The seeds have been sown for reining in an executive agency acting lawlessly; or, alternatively, for endorsing, out of fear, the practice of torture in the future.
John Brennan, those who were in the CIA chain of command for torture, and the co-opted lawyers and faux-psychologists who lent their needed skills to the enterprise may be a bit nervous over the next few days until you are safely gone. But there is little sign they actually expect you to rise to the challenge.
Indeed, Brennan and Co. seem intent on advertising their power and impunity by recently leaking the latest demonstration of lack of accountability. Surprise, surprise: the panel appointed by Brennan to investigate Brennan and his people for hacking into Senate Intelligence Committee computers has reportedly decided to hold no one accountable, including Brennan himself, who initially lied about it. Now we learn that he apparently authorized the hacking in the first place, so everyone involved receives a stay-out-of-jail-free card. Smug impunity needs to be challenged using your immunity.
Finally, Senator Udall, history books will record the release of the highly redacted summary of the five-year-in-the-making Senate report on torture. It will also record whether or not the Senate rose – even if only in the form of a single, un-intimidated man, to expose truly and in fullness what was done in the name of the American people. Our history is replete with such individual acts of courage by Americans who put country before self. Will you join them?
For the Steering Group, Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS)
William Binney, former Technical Director, World Geopolitical & Military Analysis, NSA; co-founder, SIGINT Automation Research Center (ret.)
Thomas Drake, Defense Intelligence Senior Executive Service, NSA (resigned)
Daniel Ellsberg, former State Dept. & Defense Dept. Official (VIPS Associate)
Mike Gravel, former Senator from Alaska; former Army intelligence officer
Larry Johnson, CIA analyst & State Department/counterterrorism, (ret.)
John Kiriakou, former CIA counterterrorism operations officer; federal prison, Loretto, Pennsylvania
Edward Loomis, former Chief, SIGINT Automation Research Center, NSA
David MacMichael, USMC & National Intelligence Council (ret.)
Ray McGovern, Army Infantry/Intelligence officer & CIA presidential briefer (ret.)
Elizabeth Murray, Deputy National Intelligence Officer for Middle East (ret.)
Todd Pierce, MAJ, U.S. Army Judge Advocate (ret.)
Coleen Rowley, Minneapolis Division Counsel & Special Agent, FBI (ret.)
Peter Van Buren, Department of State, Foreign Service Officer (ret.)
Kirk Wiebe, Senior Analyst, SIGINT Automation Research Center, NSA (ret.)
Ann Wright, Col., US Army (ret); Foreign Service Officer (ret.)
The Bill of Rights was designed to protect the People from their government. That’s quite literally becoming history today as new challenges, now from local law enforcement, chip away at the Fourth Amendment’s protections of privacy. New laws and devices spread spying on Americans to the local level.
A Brief Explanation of Post-Constitutional America
The cornerstone of the Bill of Rights was that the People grant exceptions to those rights to the Government. Absent those specific exceptions, the rest of the stuff was inalienable, not up for grabs, not dependent in any way on Government’s decision to grant or withhold them. Constitutional America was clearly imperfect, but the underlying premise spoke of a striving toward an ideal.
The cornerstone of Post-Constitutional America is just the opposite. The People have what rights the Government chooses to allow them to have, such that privacy is the exception, free speech a variable, torture a tool to be used or withheld as the Government finds appropriate. It is a turning on its head of Constitutional America, back to a time when a tyrant and king (may we call old King George an “evil dictator” to use the preferred language of today?) controlled Americans’ daily lives by decree.
It should be unnecessary to have to argue the critical importance of the Fourth Amendment, but these days it seems necessary. 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. Privacy is the right to think without the Government intruding. It is part of being American. If you want to personally give it away for yourself, feel free, but you are required to allow others to exercise it.
9/11 Changed Everything
Under the umbrella of post-9/11 fear, the relationship between the Government and the People of the United States changed. As early NSA whistleblowers Thomas Drake, Bill Binney, Kirk Wiebe and others made clear, within days after the attacks, the vast capability of the NSA was turned 180 degrees away from sites abroad toward a new definition of the People: we were now targets.
Such acts, along with flimsy pieces of faux-legislation such as the Patriot Act, were not only harmful to our privacy by themselves, they also sent clear signals to law enforcement at all levels that new rules applied; after all, if the federal government was spying on Americans in clear contrivance of the Fourth Amendment, then why couldn’t local law enforcement do the same? With such tacit approval, and the redefining of every person in America as a potential terrorist, it all fell into place.
So while the Snowden NSA revelations expose violations of the Fourth Amendment on the largest scale, let’s examine some examples of how those big-scale acts filter down to local levels.
In 2008 the city of Los Angeles passed municipal ordinance 41.49 requiring hotels to gather, hold for at least 90 days and make available upon request a large amount of information on their guests. The information included guests’ credit card number, home address, driver’s license information and vehicle license number. Several dozen other cities, including Atlanta and Seattle, passed similar ordinances.
Ordinarily the police would need to show probable cause, and to seek individual warrants on a person-by-person, case-by-case basis, to gather such information. The L.A. ordinance, however, allows police to simply demand it from a hotel, with no judicial or other oversight. The premise was that the information was the property of the hotel once the guest voluntarily surrendered it in order to stay the night. Personal information transformed into “business records,” L.A. argues, is inherently less “private” than personal information per se.
Similarities to how the NSA collected mountains of phone call data from places like Verizon, claiming it too was simply now part of business records routinely available per the Patriot Act, are noted.
The U.S. Supreme Court, after two opposite rulings through lower courts, has agreed to hear the case after the City of Los Angeles’ petition to do so. L.A. claims “These laws expressly help police investigate crimes such as prostitution and gambling, capture dangerous fugitives and even authorize federal law enforcement to examine these registers, an authorization which can be vital in the immediate aftermath of a homeland terrorist attack.”
In addition to the clear, broad Fourth Amendment violations, opponents cite the reality that information, once gathered, can be disseminated anywhere for any purpose. Data gathered in L.A. for a perhaps legitimate gambling investigation can go on to populate an infinite number of databases indefinitely for an undeterminable range of purposes into the future. It does not go away. It waits to be used.
And all that brings us to Virginia.
Virginia Police Collect and Share Phone Data
Five local police departments in southeastern Virginia have been secretly and automatically sharing telephone data and compiling it into a large database for nearly two years. According to a 2012 memorandum of understanding published for the first time this week by the Center for Investigative Reporting (the database had been kept secret from the public,) the police departments from Hampton, Newport News, Norfolk, Chesapeake, and Suffolk all participate in something called the “Hampton Roads Telephone Analysis Sharing Network.”
Those police departments “agree to share telephone intelligence information derived from any source,” including subpoenaed telephone call detail records, subpoenaed telephone subscriber information, and seized mobile devices. The telephone intelligence information will be stored in the master Pen-Link telephone database and participating agencies can make inquires of the database by either telephone or e-mail contact with a member.”
Such data transfers, the document goes on to explain, can happen automatically if the agency agrees to have certain software installed on their computer, or via e-mail or DVD. No information is available as to what, if any, data security protocols are in place.
The significance of such data transfer cannot be underplayed. The assumption by the police is that any data gathered legally– for example, under warrant, after a showing of probable cause specific to a case or incident– can then be stored, shared and repurposed forever as the police see fit. The shaky legal premise for this whole system is that once taken in via some sort of legal means (though of course there is no outside control that all of the data was gathered legally), the data becomes akin to common property, and no further justification or judicial oversight needs to be applied to its use, any use, ever, forever.
An even shakier legal premise it that a secret database of any kind can be maintained by the police: Virginia law, The Government Data Collection and Dissemination Practices Act, specifically states “There shall be no personal information system whose existence is secret.”
Not an End in Sight
Local actions have commonalities with the larger actions the NSA has been doing. The use of the collective where the law intended the individual– a single phone call versus redefining every call as a single set of business records– is clear. The manipulation of a legal act, such as collecting information via a warrant and then repurposing it into a general pool of data in Virginia, is also a marker of modern times. The most significant commonality between local actions and federal ones is the broad contempt for civil liberties. And that describes Post-Constitutional America as clearly as anything else.
The examples above are, or likely soon will be, going to be tested in court. Other offenses to the Fourth Amendment have fallen to the People’s side: In 2012, a court ruled law enforcement authorities generally need search warrants when they attach GPS devices to a vehicle. In July 2014, the Supreme Court said that the authorities need warrants to dive into the mobile phones of people they arrest.
At the same time, the proliferation of low-cost surveillance devices, such as license plate scanners and Stingray, continue to raise new questions even as a handful of older ones are resolved. The battle against the tyrant King George continues.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who at this point has all the credibility of a minor Kardashian just out of rehab, somehow was allowed on national television to say this:
If Mr. Snowden wants to come back to the United States, we’ll have him on a flight today. [He] should stand up in the United States and make his case to the American people… A patriot would not run away… Let him come back and make his case. If he cares so much about America and he believes in America, he should trust the American system of justice.
A near-complete failure as Secretary of State (if you are not sure, read this), Kerry is apparently relegated within the Obama administration to the role of mumbling bully-boy statements, faux-machismo rantings whose intended audience and purpose are very, very unclear. Did Kerry think he might persuade Snowden to take up the challenge and fly back to the U.S.? Maybe meet Kerry in the Octagon mano-a-mano? No, Kerry sounded much more like Grandpa Simpson than America’s Senior Diplomat.
And Kerry should know better. He once, perhaps briefly, was also brave enough to act on conscience.
Kerry’s Fall from Courage
In the 1960s, Kennedy-esque, Kerry went from Yale to Vietnam to fight in what he came to see as a lost war. He became one of the more poignant voices raised in protest by antiwar veterans. He threw away his medals, no doubt causing some pundit of the day to claim he had harmed America in the eyes of its enemies, perhaps disgraced his fellow service members. Four decades after his Vietnam experience, he has achieved what will undoubtedly be the highest post of his lifetime: secretary of state. What does he do from that peak? Make fun of Edward Snowden.
(I’ll keep the focus on Kerry here, but is important to mention that the things said about Snowden are the same old lazy, sad tropes said about whistleblowers since Dan Ellsberg. They should face justice. They harmed America (never any specifics on that one) and so forth.)
Make His Case to the American People?
Having watched Manning, Snowden (and Kerry if he’d admit it) knows what he could expect from American justice.
Trials under the Espionage Act, which the U.S. says is how Snowden will be charged, quite specifically prohibit discussion of anything except proof or rebuttal that the accused did leak classified information. A jury is not allowed to rule on, or even hear about, motive and intent.
John Kiriakou, the former CIA officer who was the first to go on-the-record with the media about waterboarding, pled guilty in his Espionage Act case last year partially because a judge ruled he couldn’t tell the jury about his lack of intent to harm the United States. In the case of State Department official Stephen Kim, the judge ruled the prosecution “need not show that the information he allegedly leaked could damage U.S. national security or benefit a foreign power, even potentially.” In the Espionage Act case against NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake, the government filed motions to make sure the words “whistleblowing” or “overclassification” would never be uttered at trial. In Chelsea Manning’s trial, Manning’s defense wanted to argue she intended to inform the public, that the military was afflicted with a deep and unnecessary addiction to overclassification, and that the government’s own internal assessments showed she caused no real damage to U.S. interests. All this information was ruled inadmissible.
A SuperMax cell is not a very good bully pulpit.
Kerry is either lying, or his hopelessly ignorant.
John Kerry, here’s a deal Snowden might accept: When the Department of Justice agrees to charge James Clapper, national director of intelligence, for lying under oath to Congress about the surveillance of Americans, Snowden will know American justice is fair and equally applied, and come home for a trial. Better yet Kerry, promise that both trials will be televised live with no sealed documents or secret sessions. Deal?
As for any sort of a fair trial, John Kerry claimed in the past “People may die as a consequence to what this man [Snowden] 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.”
Despite the fact that none of that has happened in the long year since Snowden’s information has been on the Internet worldwide, it does suggest officers of the United States government such as Kerry have stepped back from the now-quaint notion of innocent until proven guilty.
Patriots Don’t Run
As for Kerry’s remark about patriots not running, the Secretary should check with the Department of State he titularly heads up. He’d learn between 2009-2011 the U.S. granted asylum to 1,222 Russians, 9,493 Chinese, and 22 Ecuadorians, not including family members, among many others from a variety of countries. The U.S. acknowledges these people as patriots, men and women who took a dangerous and principled stand against a government they felt had gone wrong. A double-standard is no standard at all.
Love of Country
As for love of country, which Kerry maintains Snowden does not have until he surrenders himself to American authorities, Snowden took his love of America with him. Unlike whatever topsy-turvy version Kerry might still hold to, love of country does not necessarily mean love for its government, its military, or its intelligence services. Snowden, and Kerry took 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.” He 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 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. Snowden risked everything, and gained almost nothing personally, not to betray his country, but to inform it.
John Kerry, love is expressed through one’s actions, not just words. Snowden clearly believes something other, more, deeper, better than himself matters. He has to believe that one courageous act of conscience can change his country. I think once, long ago, John Kerry might have believed that, too.
BONUS: John Kerry, who said patriots don’t run, and that people should face justice, make their case to the American people and trust in the system, is currently running away from a Congressional subpoena because he doesn’t want to talk about Benghazi.
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.
— 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.
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.)
The current media pablum about whether Snowden is “narcissistic” or “spiteful” or the devil himself is nonsense.
This kind of thing has become a set-piece in America to dehumanize and discredit whistleblowers so as to dilute public support for the vital information they make available. In high school debate class this lame name-calling is known as ad hominem, one of the lowest forms of argument. The idea is that a claim is rejected on the basis of some irrelevant fact about the person presenting the claim. First comes an attack against the character of person making the claim. Second, this attack is taken to be evidence against the claim the person in question is making, just like stating 1+3=2.
The technique is in full use against NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, particularly swirling around demands by the New York Times and The Guardian that the U.S. government grant him clemency.
The use of cheap ad hominem takes its crudest form in “opinion pieces” such as those by Washington Post typist Ruth Marcus. In the course of only a couple of hundred words, Marcus (who has never actually spoken to Snowden) calls Snowden messianic, smug, self-righteous, egotistical, disingenuous, megalomaniacal, overwrought, feckless and insufferable before concluding “The whistleblower personality is rarely an attractive one. Whistleblowers tend to be the difficult ones, the sort who tend to feel freer to speak out precisely because they don’t fit in. So perhaps it is not a surprise that the biggest whistleblower of all time has an unpleasant personality to match.” In an earlier piece, Marcus announced that “Snowden is no Socrates and no Martin Luther King,” as if anyone but her was even making such assertions. She concludes that “Socrates is [sic] a great philosopher and Snowden the lowest type of menial.”
Former National Security Agency and CIA head Michael Hayden said of Snowden: “I used to say he was a defector… I’m now kind of drifting in the direction of perhaps more harsh language… such as traitor.”
None of this is new. After Daniel Ellsberg exposed America’s duplicitous history in Vietnam by leaking the Pentagon Papers, the Nixon White House broke into his psychiatrist’s office looking for dirt to smear him. Chelsea Manning’s sexuality featured prominently and pruriently in media coverage of her disclosures. NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake described his own experience as “the politics of personal destruction while also engaging in abject, cut throat character assassination, and complete fabrication and frame up.” When the State Department was seeking to prosecute/fire me because of my own whistleblowing (seriously minor compared to Snowden of course) they pushed out all sorts of nasty things, and several media people accused me of being bad in some way. I was typically asked to “respond” to questions that I blew the whistle as part of some self-promotion campaign, or that I was simply a disgruntled employee out for revenge.
When asked to respond to such statements, I would cut them off and stipulate “I am indeed a terrible person, mean to babies and puppies. And so what? This must be about the message, not the messenger. I don’t matter. What I said is either true or made up (of course it was true). Focus your energy on that. What I said either exposed government waste and mismanagement or it did not (it did), so focus your energy on that and not whether I return my library books on time (I do).
The technique of smearing the messenger is crudely wielded when people try to diminish Snowden’s information’s value by criticizing him for not “manning up” to face consequences in the U.S., or for “selling out” to the Russians for asylum. Snowden, having watched what happened to Manning, Drake and others, knew he would be unlikely to be handled justly. The Espionage Act of 1917 carries the death penalty, and as we learned with the Manning trial the government need not prove any actual damage was done or any foreign power was actually aided to gain a conviction. The proceedings would all be classified and Snowden would be held in devastating pretrial detention in some Supermax. He would be prohibited from discussing his case with anyone but perhaps his lawyer and denied any outside contact or information. I don’t think Snowden wanted to live in Russia but under those circumstances he did not have many options outside of basically handing himself over to the U.S. government to be disappeared. To put this in some perspective, the U.S., after all, takes in many political asylees each year, the circumstances of which ebb and flow with U.S. policy of the moment. Other countries do the same and unless one is willing to condemn all those political asylees in the same way as one does Snowden (no guts, face the music, etc.) than it isn’t right to single him out.
Snowden. I don’t know the guy. Maybe he is cool, fun to hang around with, quick with a joke and nice to babies, puppies and kittens. Maybe he is not. But outside the guilty pleasures of gossip (what new diet trick is Edward using to stay trim? Is it true about him and Lady Gaga?!?), Snowden, in a larger sense, in a good way, doesn’t matter as a person. What matters is what he has revealed to us about a national security state that has clearly gone quite insane, violating our liberty and our freedom to live without unwarranted search and seizure of our private lives.
We would know nothing about the extent of NSA intrusion without Snowden’s information. Whether the debate on the NSA leads anywhere or not is an evolving question, but, without Snowden’s leaks, it would not be happening in any form. Let’s focus on Snowden’s information to save our democracy and leave the hypocrisy outside the door, the name-calling on the schoolyard and the gossiping for the Kardashians.
BONUS: No one in government takes an “oath of secrecy.” I held a TS clearance for 23 years. You sign a paper promising to follow the rules on handling classified info. However, you do swear one oath, to preserve and defend the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic. Snowden believed he was acting on that oath in revealing the extent that the NSA had spun out of control. That action is called “conscience,” and it requires significant courage. FYI.
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)
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.
● 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.
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)
Cross-posted with TomDispatch.com
What do words mean in a post-9/11 world? Apart from the now clichéd Orwellian twists that turn brutal torture into mere enhanced interrogation, the devil is in the details. Robert MacLean is a former air marshal fired for an act of whistleblowing. He has continued to fight over seven long years for what once would have passed as simple justice: getting his job back. His is an all-too-twenty-first-century story of the extraordinary lengths to which the U.S. government is willing to go to thwart whistleblowers.
First, the government retroactively classified a previously unclassified text message to justify firing MacLean. Then it invoked arcane civil service procedures, including an “interlocutory appeal” to thwart him and, in the process, enjoyed the approval of various courts and bureaucratic boards apparently willing to stamp as “legal” anything the government could make up in its own interest.
And yet here’s the miracle at the heart of this tale: MacLean refused to quit, when ordinary mortals would have thrown in the towel. Now, with a recent semi-victory, he may not only have given himself a shot at getting his old job back, but also create a precedent for future federal whistleblowers. In the post-9/11 world, people like Robert MacLean show us how deep the Washington rabbit hole really goes.
The Whistle Is Blown
MacLean joined the Federal Air Marshal Service (FAMS) in 2001 after stints with the Air Force and the Border Patrol. In July 2003, all marshals received a briefing about a possible hijacking plot. Soon after, the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA), which oversees FAMS, sent an unencrypted, open-air text message to the cell phones of the marshals cancelling several months of missions for cost-cutting reasons. MacLean became concerned that cancelling missions during a hijacking alert might create a dangerous situation for the flying public. He complained to his supervisor and to the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general, but each responded that nothing could be done.
It was then that he decided to blow the whistle, hoping that public pressure might force the TSA to reinstate the marshals’ flights. So MacLean talked to a reporter, who broadcast a story criticizing the TSA’s decision and, after 11 members of Congress joined in the criticism, it reversed itself. At this point, MacLean had not been identified as the source of the leak and so carried on with his job.
A year later, he appeared on TV in disguise, criticizing the TSA dress code and its special boarding policies, which he believed allowed marshals to be easily identified by other passengers. This time, the TSA recognized his voice and began an investigation that revealed he had also released the 2003 text message. He was fired in April 2006. Although the agency had not labeled that message as “sensitive security information” (SSI) when it was sent in 2003, in August 2006, months after MacLean’s firing, it issued a retroactive order stating that the text’s content was indeed SSI.
A Whistleblower’s Catch-22
That disclosing the contents of an unclassified message could get someone fired for disclosing classified information is the sort of topsy-turvy situation which could only exist in the post-9/11 world of the American national security state.
Under the 1989 Whistleblower Protection Act (WPA), a disclosure prohibited by law negates whistleblower protections. That, of course, makes it in the government’s interest to define disclosure as broadly as possible and to classify as much of its internal communications for as long as it possibly can. No wonder that in recent years the classification of government documents has soared, reaching a record total of 92,064,862 in 2011.
Officially, the U.S. government recognizes only three basic levels of classification: confidential, secret, and top secret. Since 9/11, however, various government agencies have created multiple freestyle categories of secrecy like “SSI,” “Law Enforcement Sensitive,” “Sensitive But Unclassified,” and the more colorful “Eyes Only.” All of these are outside the normal codification system; all are hybrids that casually seek to incorporate the full weight of the formal law. There are currently 107 designations just for “sensitive” information. In addition to those labels, there exist more than 130 sets of extra “handling requirements” that only deepen the world of government secrecy.
At issue for MacLean was not only the retroactive classification of a text message already in the public domain, but what classified could possibly mean in an era when everything related to the national security state was slipping into the shadows. Such questions are hardly semantic or academic. MacLean’s case hinges on how they are answered.
The case against Army Private Bradley Manning and WikiLeaks is, for example, intimately tied up in them. The military hides behind classification to block access to Manning’s “public” trial. With WikiLeaks, despite more than 100,000 U.S. State Department diplomatic cables being available to anyone anywhere on the web, the government continues to insist that they remain “classified” and cannot even be rereleased in response to requests. Potential federal employees were warned to stay away from the cables online, and the State Department even blocked TomDispatch from its staff to shield them from alleged WikiLeaks content (some of which was linked to and discussed, but none of which was actually posted at the site).
With author Tony Shaffer, the government retroactively classified its own account of why he was given the Bronze Star and his standard deployment orders to Afghanistan after he published an uncomplimentary book about American actions there. The messy case of alleged “hacktivist” Barrett Brown includes prosecution for “disclosing” classified material simply by linking to it at places where it had already been posted online; and, while still at the State Department, I was once accused of the same thing by the government.
In MacLean’s case, over a period of seven years, the legality of the TSA firing him for using an only-later-classified text was upheld. Legal actions included hearings before administrative judges, the Merit Systems Protections Board twice, that interlocutory appeal, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. The sum of these decisions amid a labyrinth of judicial bureaucracies demands the use of the term Kafkaesque. MacLean, so the general judgment went, should have known that the text message he planned to leak was a classified document, even when it wasn’t (yet). As a result, he should also have understood that his act would not be that of a whistleblower alerting the public to possible danger, but of a criminal risking public safety by exposing government secrets. If that isn’t the definition of a whistleblower’s catch-22, what is?
What such a twisted interpretation by the various courts, boards, and bodies meant was chillingly laid out in an amicus brief on behalf of MacLean filed by the United States Office of Special Counsel (a small, lonely U.S. government entity charged with protecting whistleblowers):
“Whistleblowers should not have to guess whether information that they reasonably believe evidences waste, fraud, abuse, illegalities or public dangers might be later designated as SSI [unclassified sensitive security information] and therefore should not be disclosed. Rather than making the wrong guess, a would-be whistleblower will likely choose to remain silent to avoid risking the individual’s employment.”
Seven Years Later…
In 2011, five years after he had been fired as an air marshal, MacLean’s case finally reached the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. Two full years after that, in April 2013, the court handed down a decision that may yet provide justice for Robert MacLean — and for future whistleblowers. While awkwardly upholding previous decisions that the government can indeed retroactively classify information, even documents in categories like SSI that exist outside the government’s official framework for classification and secrecy, the court tackled a more basic question: Was Robert MacLean a whistleblower anyway, entitled to protection for his act of conscience?
Here lies the conflict at the heart of just about every whistleblower case — between the public’s right (and need) to know and the (at times legitimate) need for secrecy. The government typically argues that individuals should not be allowed to decide for themselves what remains secret and what doesn’t, or chaos would result. At the same time, in a post-9/11 world of increasing secrecy, the loss of the right to know, and the massive over-classification of documents, the “conflict” has become ever more one-sided. If everything can be considered a classified secret document too precious for Americans to know about, and nothing classified can be disclosed, then the summary effect is that nothing inside the government can ever be shown to the public.
The court found that while the Transportation Safety Administration could legally apply any classification it wanted to information any time it wanted, even retroactively, simply slapping on such a label did not necessarily prohibit disclosure. Absent an actual law in MacLean’s case mentioning SSI, a term created bureaucratically, not congressionally, there could be no Whistleblower Protection Act-excepting prohibition. In other words, MacLean could still be a whistleblower.
One of MacLean’s lawyers, Tom Devine, told me the decision “restored enforceability for the Whistleblower Protection Act’s public free speech rights. It ruled that only Congress has the authority to remove whistleblower rights. Agency-imposed restraints are not relevant for WPA rights.”
“With this precedential decision,” MacLean explained to me, “agencies can no longer cancel out Whistleblower Protection Act rights with their semi-secret markings like SSI, Law Enforcement Sensitive, etcetera.”
In a concurring opinion, United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit Judge Evan Wallach was even clearer: “Mr. MacLean presented substantial evidence that he was not motivated by personal gain but by the desire to protect the public… I concur to emphasize that the facts alleged, if proven, allege conduct at the core of the Whistleblower Protection Act.”
MacLean’s case now returns to the Merit Systems Protection Board. The board is a complex piece of bureaucracy inside the already complicated federal government personnel system. In simple terms, it is supposed to be a place to appeal personnel actions, such as alleged unfair hirings and firings. It thus serves as a kind of watchdog over the sprawling federal human resources empire. The Board now has the court-ordered specific charge to “determine whether Mr. MacLean’s disclosure qualifies for WPA protection.”
Note as well that this case could continue without end for years more, traveling on “appeal” back through the federal judicial bureaucracy and the courts. And remember that this, too, is an advantage to a government that wants ever less known about itself. If, as a federal employee, you are watching a case like MacLean’s (or Thomas Drake’s, or Franz Gayle’s, or Morris Davis’s, or John Kiriakou’s, or even my own small version of this), then you can’t help noticing that the act of whistleblowing could leave you: a) out on your ear; b) prosecuted for a criminal act and/or c) with your life embroiled for years in the intricacies of your own never-ending case. None of this is exactly an encouragement to federal employees to blow that whistle.
Whistleblowers and Secrecy
Threats to whistleblowers abound, so any positive step, however minimalist or reversible, is important. Entering the White House pledging to head the most transparent administration in history, Barack Obama has, in fact, gone after more national security whistleblowers, often using the draconian Espionage Act, than all previous administrations combined.
His Justice Department has repeatedly tried to prosecute whistleblowers, crudely lumping them in with actual spies and claiming they endanger Americans (and sometimes “the troops”) by their actions. In addition, through the ongoing case of Berry v. Conyers, Obama has sought to expand the definition of “national security worker” to potentially include thousands of additional federal employees. Many employees who occupy truly sensitive jobs in the intelligence community (for example, real-world spies at the CIA) are exempt from being granted whistleblower status. They also cannot appeal to the Merit Systems Protection Board if fired. By seeking to expand that exemption to a significantly larger group of people who may work at some federal agency, but in non-sensitive positions, Obama is also functionally moving to shrink the pool of potential whistleblowers. In Berry v. Conyers, for example, the persons Obama seeks to exempt as occupying sensitive jobs are merely an accounting technician and a commissary worker at an Air Force base. Neither of them even hold security clearances.
What happens with MacLean’s case potentially affects every future whistleblower. If the mere presence of a pseudo-classification on an item, even applied retroactively, negates whistleblower protections, it means dark days ahead for the right of the citizenry to know what the government is doing (or how it’s misbehaving) in its name. If so, no act of whistleblowing could be considered protected, since all the government would have to do to unprotect it is classify whatever was disclosed retroactively and wash its hands of the miscreant. Federal employees, not a risk-taking bunch to begin with, will react accordingly.
This is what gives MacLean’s case special meaning. While the initial decision on his fate will occur in the bowels of the somewhat obscure Merit Systems Protections Board, it will set a precedent that will surely find its way into higher courts on more significant cases. Amid a lot of technical legal issues, it all boils down to something very simple: Should whistleblower protections favor the conscience of a concerned federal employee willing to risk his job and the freedom to inform the public, or should they dissolve in the face of an unseen bureaucrat’s (retroactive) pseudo-classification decision?
Procedurally, there are many options ahead for MacLean’s case, and the government will undoubtedly contest each tiny step. Whatever happens will happen slowly. This is exactly how the government has continually done its dirty work post-9/11, throwing monkey wrenches in the gears of the legal system, twisting words, and manipulating organizations designed to deliver justice in order to deny it.
MacLean smiles at this. “I did seven years so far. I can do seven more if they want. There’s too much at stake to just give up.”
Nominated last year, I was just a happy guest this year at the 2013 Ridenhour Prizes.
The Prizes recognize acts of truth-telling that protect the public interest, promote social justice or illuminate a more just vision of society. These prizes memorialize the spirit of fearless truth-telling that whistleblower and investigative journalist Ron Ridenhour reflected throughout his extraordinary life and career.
I am very proud to have had the chance to stand by these men, pictured left to right: Matthew Hoh, Colonel Danny Davis and Thomas Drake. All three were previous Ridenhour Prize winners for Truth Telling. If you don’t know them, each name is worth a Google to learn more.
The story unfolds in a two-part series. Part One is titled “Iraq tell-all effectively ends local author’s State Department career,” with Part Two “‘We Meant Well,’ says its author, breaks ‘State Department omertà’.”
One section reveals a bit about some of my current work:
For now, Van Buren turns his sights on new opportunities. He plans to write fiction next. In the foreground, though, is his work with independent documentary film director James Spione (Incident in New Baghdad) on the documentary Silenced: America’s War on Whistleblowers. He has also met other whistleblowers that have made recent headlines, including Thomas Drake, prosecuted for exposing NSA warrantless wiretapping.
I’ll have more info on these new projects as things unfold, so stay tuned.
(This article originally appeared on TomDispatch, on June 12, 2012)
White is black and down is up. Leaks that favor the president are shoveled out regardless of national security, while national security is twisted to pummel leaks that do not favor him. Watching their boss, bureaucrats act on their own, freelancing the punishment of whistleblowers, knowing their retaliatory actions will be condoned. The United States rains Hellfire missiles down on its enemies, with the president alone sitting in judgment of who will live and who will die by his hand.
The issue of whether the White House leaked information to support the president’s reelection while crushing whistleblower leaks it disfavors shouldn’t be seen as just another O’Reilly v. Maddow sporting event. What lies at the nexus of Obama’s targeted drone killings, his self-serving leaks, and his aggressive prosecution of whistleblowers is a president who believes himself above the law, and seems convinced that he alone has a preternatural ability to determine right from wrong.
If the President Does It, It’s Legal?
In May 2011 the Pentagon declared that another country’s cyber-attacks — computer sabotage, against the U.S. — could be considered an “act of war.” Then, one morning in 2012 readers of the New York Times woke up to headlines announcing that the Stuxnet worm had been dispatched into Iran’s nuclear facilities to shut down its computer-controlled centrifuges (essential to nuclear fuel processing) by order of President Obama and executed by the US and Israel. The info had been leaked to the paper by anonymous “high ranking officials.” In other words, the speculation about Stuxnet was at an end. It was an act of war ordered by the president alone.
Similarly, after years of now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t stories about drone attacks across the Greater Middle East launched “presumably” by the U.S., the Times (again) carried a remarkable story not only confirming the drone killings — a technology that had morphed into a policy — but noting that Obama himself was the Great Bombardier. He had, the newspaper reported, designated himself the final decision-maker on an eyes-only “kill list” of human beings the United States wanted to destroy. It was, in short, the ultimate no-fly list. Clearly, this, too, had previously been classified top-secret material, and yet its disclosure was attributed directly to White House sources.
Now, everyone is upset about the leaks. It’s already a real Red v. Blue donnybrook in an election year. Senate Democrats blasted the cyberattack-on-Iran leaks and warned that the disclosure of Obama’s order could put the country at risk of a retaliatory strike. Republican Old Man and former presidential candidate Senator John McCain charged Obama with violating national security, saying the leaks are “an attempt to further the president’s political ambitions for the sake of his re-election at the expense of our national security.” He called for an investigation. The FBI, no doubt thrilled to be caught in the middle of all this, dutifully opened a leak investigation, and senators on both sides of the aisle are planning an inquiry of their own.
The high-level leaks on Stuxnet and the kill list, which have finally created such a fuss, actually follow no less self-serving leaked details from last year’s bin Laden raid in Pakistan. A flurry of White House officials vied with each other then to expose ever more examples of Obama’s commander-in-chief role in the operation, to the point where Seal Team 6 seemed almost irrelevant in the face of the president’s personal actions. There were also “high five” congratulatory leaks over the latest failed underwear bomber from Yemen.
On the Other Side of the Mirror
The Obama administration has been cruelly and unusually punishing in its use of the 1917 Espionage Act to stomp on governmental leakers, truth-tellers, and whistleblowers whose disclosures do not support the president’s political ambitions. As Thomas Drake, himself a victim of Obama’s crusade against whistleblowers, told me, “This makes a mockery of the entire classification system, where political gain is now incentive for leaking and whistleblowing is incentive for prosecution.”
The Obama administration has charged more people (six) under the Espionage Act for the alleged mishandling of classified information than all past presidencies combined. (Prior to Obama, there were only three such cases in American history, one being Daniel Ellsberg, of Nixon-era Pentagon Papers fame.) The most recent Espionage Act case is that of former CIA officer John Kiriakou, charged for allegedly disclosing classified information to journalists about the horrors of waterboarding. Meanwhile, his evil twin, former CIA officer Jose Rodriguez, has a best-selling book out bragging about the success of waterboarding and his own hand in the dirty work.
Obama’s zeal in silencing leaks that don’t make him look like a superhero extends beyond the deployment of the Espionage Act into a complex legal tangle of retaliatory practices, life-destroying threats, on-the-job harassment, and firings. Lots of firings.
Upside Down Is Right Side Up
In ever-more polarized Washington, the story of Obama’s self-serving leaks is quickly devolving into a Democratic/Republican, he-said/she-said contest — and it’s only bound to spiral downward from there until the story is reduced to nothing but partisan bickering over who can get the most advantage from those leaks.
But don’t think that’s all that’s at stake in Washington. In the ever-skittish Federal bureaucracy, among the millions of men and women who actually are the government, the message has been much more specific, and it’s no political football game. Even more frightened and edgy than usual in the post-9/11 era, bureaucrats take their cues from the top. So expect more leaks that empower the Obama Superman myth and more retaliatory, freelance acts of harassment against genuine whistleblowers. After all, it’s all been sanctioned.
Having once been one of those frightened bureaucrats at the State Department, I now must include myself among the victims of the freelancing attacks on whistleblowers. The Department of State is in the process of firing me, seeking to make me the first person to suffer any sanction over the WikiLeaks disclosures. It’s been a backdoor way of retaliating for my book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, which was an honest account of State’s waste and mismanagement in the “reconstruction” of Iraq.
Unlike Bradley Manning, on trial under the Espionage Act for allegedly dumping a quarter million classified documents onto the Internet, my fireable offense was linking to just one of them at my blog. Just a link, mind you, not a leak. The document, still unconfirmed as authentic by the State Department even as they seek to force me out over it, is on the web and available to anyone with a mouse, from Kabul to Tehran to Des Moines.
That document was discussed in several newspaper articles before — and after — I “disclosed” it with my link. It was a document that admittedly did make the U.S. government look dumb, and that was evidently reason enough for the State Department to suspend my security clearance and seek to fire me, even after the Department of Justice declined to prosecute. Go ahead and click on a link yourself and commit what State now considers a crime.
This is the sort of thing that happens when reality is suspended in Washington, when the drones take flight, the worms turn, and the president decides that he, and he alone, is the man.
What Happens When Everything Is Classified?
What happens when the very definitions that control life in government become so topsy-turvy that 1984 starts looking more like a handbook than a novel?
I lived in Taiwan when that island was still under martial law. Things that everyone could see, like demonstrations, never appeared in the press. It was illegal to photograph public buildings or bridges, even when you could buy postcards nearby of some of the same structures. And that was a way of life, just not one you’d want.
If that strikes you as familiar in America today, it should. When everything is classified — according to the Information Security Oversight Office, in 2011 American officials classified more than 92,000,000 documents — any attempt to report on anything threatens to become a crime; unless, of course, the White House decides to leak to you in return for a soft story about a heroic war president.
For everyone else working to create Jefferson’s informed citizenry, it works very differently, even at the paper that carried the administration’s happy leaks. Times reporter Jim Risen is now the subject of subpoenas by the Obama administration demanding he name his sources as part of the Espionage Act case against former CIA officer Jeffery Sterling. Risen was a journalist doing his job, and he raises this perfectly reasonable, but increasingly outmoded question: “Can you have a democracy without aggressive investigative journalism? I don’t believe you can, and that’s why I’m fighting.” Meanwhile, the government calls him their only witness to a leaker’s crime.
One thing at stake in the case is the requirement that journalists aggressively pursue information important to the public, even when that means heading into classified territory. If almost everything of importance (and much that isn’t) is classified, then journalism as we know it may become… well, illegal.
Sometimes in present-day Washington there’s simply too much irony for comfort: the story that got Risen in trouble was about an earlier CIA attempt to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program, a plot which failed where Stuxnet sort of succeeded.
James Spione, an Academy Award-nominated director who is currently working on a documentary about whistleblowers in the age of Obama, summed things up to me recently this way: “Beneath the partisan grandstanding, I think what is most troubling about this situation is the sense that the law is being selectively applied. On the one hand, we have the Justice Department twisting the Espionage Act into knots in an attempt to crack down on leaks from ‘little guys’ like Thomas Drake and John Kiriakou, while at the same time an extraordinarily detailed window into covert drone policy magically appears in the Times.
Here is the simple reality of our moment: the president has definitively declared himself (and his advisors and those who carry out his orders) above the law, both statutory and moral. It is now for him and him alone to decide who will live and who will die under the drones, for him to reward media outlets with inside information or smack journalists who disturb him and his colleagues with subpoenas, and worst of all, to decide all by himself what is right and what is wrong.
The image Obama holds of himself, and the one his people have been aggressively promoting recently is of a righteous killer, ready to bloody his hands to smite “terrorists” and whistleblowers equally. If that sounds Biblical, it should. If it sounds full of unnerving pride, it should as well. If this is where a nation of laws ends up, you should be afraid.
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 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.
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.
Antiwar.com has an excellent article online now about Thomas Drake (right), a former NSA employee who exposed government spying on Americans, lost his job and almost went to jail over the trumped up charges that followed. Drake ultimately was only convicted of a single misdemeanor, but saw his career and life almost destroyed.
Drake, reminds Antiwar.com, is not alone:
Today, Drake says that 9/11 exposed all of the secrecy and cynicism and venal impulses of a government he once defended and believed in. Though not outwardly analogous, his case is not so different from other post-9/11 whistleblowers and truth-tellers, like Anthony Shaffer or Peter Van Buren, who both lost their security clearances, their government careers sidelined as though they were suddenly “enemies of the state.”
Drake was vindicated by the efforts of the Government Accountability Project, a powerful organization determined not to see the abuse of authority.
“At one point they said what Tom had done was endangering soldiers’ lives,” said Jesselyn Radack, an attorney for the Washington DC-based Government Accountability Project, which defended Drake during the prosecution and has a long list of whistleblower clients (Radack is also a whistleblower, having exposed the FBI of committing ethics violations – and a cover-up – when it interrogated American John Walker Lindh without a lawyer present in 2001).
“They want to tag anyone who questions anything that happens as being unpatriotic. They are using laws that were meant to go after spies to go after whistleblowers. We have someone here who is trying to serve his country and blows the whistle on government illegality,” she said. “For the prosecution to say he is endangering lives is just offensive.
Here’s the First Amendment, in full: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Those beautiful words, almost haiku-like, are the sparse poetry of the American democratic experiment. The Founders purposely wrote the First Amendment to read broadly, and not like a snippet of tax code, in order to emphasize that it should encompass everything from shouted religious rantings to eloquent political criticism. Go ahead, reread it aloud at this moment when the government seems to be carving out an exception to it large enough to drive a tank through.
As the occupiers of Zuccotti Park, like those pepper-sprayed at UC Davis or the Marine veteran shot in Oakland, recently found out, the government’s ability to limit free speech, to stopper the First Amendment, to undercut the right to peaceably assemble and petition for redress of grievances, is perhaps the most critical issue our republic can face. If you were to write the history of the last decade in Washington, it might well be a story of how, issue by issue, the government freed itself from legal and constitutional bounds when it came to torture, the assassination of U.S. citizens, the holding of prisoners without trial or access to a court of law, the illegal surveillance of American citizens, and so on. In the process, it has entrenched itself in a comfortable shadowland of ever more impenetrable secrecy, while going after any whistleblower who might shine a light in.
Now, it also seems to be chipping away at the most basic American right of all, the right of free speech, starting with that of its own employees. As is often said, the easiest book to stop is the one that is never written; the easiest voice to staunch is the one that is never raised.
It’s true that, over the years, government in its many forms has tried to claim that you lose your free speech rights when you, for example, work for a public school, or join the military. In dealing with school administrators who sought to silence a teacher for complaining publicly that not enough money was being spent on academics versus athletics, or generals who wanted to stop enlisted men and women from blogging, the courts have found that any loss of rights must be limited and specific. As Jim Webb wrote when still Secretary of the Navy, “A citizen does not give up his First Amendment right to free speech when he puts on a military uniform, with small exceptions.”
Free speech is considered so basic that the courts have been wary of imposing any limits at all. The famous warning by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes about not falsely shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater shows just how extreme a situation must be for the Supreme Court to limit speech. As Holmes put it in his definition:
“The question in every case is whether the words used… are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent.”
That’s a high bar indeed.
The Government v. Morris Davis
Does a newspaper article from November 2009, a few hundred well-reasoned words that appeared in the conservative Wall Street Journal, concluding with these mild sentences, meet Justice Holmes’s high mark?
“Double standards don’t play well in Peoria. They won’t play well in Peshawar or Palembang either. We need to work to change the negative perceptions that exist about Guantanamo and our commitment to the law. Formally establishing a legal double standard will only reinforce them.”
Morris Davis got fired from his research job at the Library of Congress for writing that article and a similar letter to the editor of the Washington Post. (The irony of being fired for exercising free speech while employed at Thomas Jefferson’s library evidently escaped his bosses.) With the help of the ACLU, Davis demanded his job back. On January 8, 2010, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the Library of Congress on his behalf. In March 2011 a federal court ruled that the suit could go forward.
The case is being heard this month. Someday, it will likely define the free speech rights of federal employees and so determine the quality of people who will make up our government. We citizens vote for the big names, but it’s the millions of lower-ranked, unelected federal employees who decide by their actions how the laws are carried out (or ignored) and the Constitution upheld (or disregarded).
Morris Davis is not some dour civil servant. Prior to joining the Library of Congress, he spent more than 25 years as an Air Force colonel. He was, in fact, the chief military prosecutor at Guantánamo and showed enormous courage in October 2007 when he resigned from that position and left the Air Force. Davis had stated he would not use evidence obtained through torture back in 2005. When a torture advocate was named his boss in 2007, Davis quit rather than face the inevitable order to reverse his position.
In December 2008, Davis went to work as a researcher at the Library of Congress in the Foreign Affairs, Defense and Trade Division. None of his work was related to Guantanamo. He was not a spokesperson for, or a public face of, the library. He was respected at work. Even the people who fired him do not contest that he did his “day job” as a researcher well.
On November 12, 2009, the day after his op-ed and letter appeared, Davis was told by his boss that the pieces had caused the library concern over his “poor judgment and suitability to serve… not consistent with ‘acceptable service'” — as the letter of admonishment he received put the matter. It referred only to his op-ed and Washington Post letter, and said nothing about his work performance as a researcher. One week later, Davis was fired.
But Shouldn’t He Have Known Better Than to Write Something Political?
The courts have consistently supported the rights of the Ku Klux Klan to use extreme and hateful words, of the burners of books, and of those who desecrate the American flag. All of that is considered “protected speech.” A commitment to real free speech means accepting the toughest cases, the most offensive things people can conceive of, as the price of a free society.
The Library of Congress does not restrict its employees from writing or speaking, so Davis broke no rules. Nor, theoretically at least, do other government agencies like the CIA and the State Department restrict employees from writing or speaking, even on matters of official concern, although they do demand prior review for such things as the possible misuse of classified material.
Clearly, such agency review processes have sometimes been used as a de facto method of prior restraint. The CIA, for example, has been accused of using indefinite security reviews to effectively prevent a book from being published. The Department of Defense has also wielded exaggerated claims of classified material to block books.
Since at least 1968, there has, however, been no broad prohibition against government employees writing about political matters or matters of public concern. In 1968, the Supreme Court decided a seminal public employee First Amendment case, Pickering v. Board of Education. It ruled that school officials had violated the First Amendment rights of teacher Marvin Pickering when they fired him for writing a letter to his local paper criticizing the allocation of money between academics and athletics.
A Thought Crime
Morris Davis was fired by the Library of Congress not because of his work performance, but because he wrote that Wall Street Journal op-ed on his own time, using his own computer, as a private citizen, never mentioning his (unrelated) federal job. The government just did not like what he wrote. Perhaps his bosses were embarrassed by his words, or felt offended by them. Certainly, in the present atmosphere in Washington, they felt they had an open path to stopping their own employee from saying what he did, or at least for punishing him for doing so.
It’s not, of course, that federal employees don’t write and speak publicly. As long as they don’t step on toes, they do, in startling numbers, on matters of official concern, on hobbies, on subjects of all sorts, through what must be an untold number of blogs, Facebook pages, Tweets, op-eds, and letters to the editor. The government picked Davis out for selective, vindictive prosecution.
More significantly, Davis was fired prospectively — not for poor attendance, or too much time idling at the water cooler, but because his boss believed Davis’s writing showed that the quality of his judgment might make him an unsuitable employee at some future moment. The simple act of speaking out on a subject at odds with an official government position was the real grounds for his firing. That, and that alone, was enough for termination.
As any devoted fan of George Orwell, Ray Bradbury, or Philip K. Dick would know, Davis committed a thought crime.
As some readers may also know, I evidently did the same thing. Because of my book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, about my experiences as a State Department official in Iraq, and the articles, op-eds, and blog posts I have written, I first had my security clearance suspended by the Department of State and then was suspended from my job there. That job had nothing to do with Iraq or any of the subjects I have written about. My performance reviews were good, and no one at State criticized me for my day-job work. Because we have been working under different human resources systems, Davis, as a civil servant on new-hire probation, could be fired directly. As a tenured Foreign Service Officer, I can’t, and so State has placed me on indefinite administrative leave status; that is, I’m without a job, pending action to terminate me formally through a more laborious process.
However, in removing me from my position, the document the State Department delivered to me darkly echoed what Davis’ boss at the Library of Congress said to him:
“The manner in which you have expressed yourself in some of your published material is inconsistent with the standards of behavior expected of the Foreign Service. Some of your actions also raise questions about your overall judgment. Both good judgment and the ability to represent the Foreign Service in a way that will make the Foreign Service attractive to candidates are key requirements.”
There follows a pattern of punishing federal employees for speaking out or whistle-blowing: look at Davis, or me, or Franz Gayl, or Thomas Drake. In this way, a precedent is being set for an even deeper cloud of secrecy to surround the workings of government. From Washington, in other words, no news, other than good or officially approved news, is to emerge.
The government’s statements at Davis’s trial, now underway in Washington D.C., do indeed indicate that he was fired for the act of speaking out itself, as much as the content of what he said. The Justice Department lawyer representing the government said that Davis’s writings cast doubt on his discretion, judgment and ability to serve as a high-level official. (She also added that Davis’s language in the op-ed was “intemperate.” One judge on the three-member bench seemed to support the point, saying, “It’s one thing to speak at a law school or association, but it’s quite a different thing to be in The Washington Post.” The case will likely end up at the Supreme Court.
Free Speech is for Iranians, not Government Employees
If Morris Davis loses his case, then a federal employee’s judgment and suitability may be termed insufficient for employment if he or she writes publicly in a way that offends or embarrasses the government. In other words, the very definition of good judgment, when it comes to freedom of speech, will then rest with the individual employer — that is, the U.S. government.
Simply put, even if you as a federal employee follow your agency’s rules on publication, you can still be fired for what you write if your bosses don’t like it. If your speech offends them, then that’s bad judgment on your part and the First Amendment goes down the drain. Free speech is increasingly coming at a price in Washington: for federal employees, conscience could cost them their jobs.
In this sense, Morris Davis represents a chilling precedent. He raised his voice. If we’re not careful, the next Morris Davis may not. Federal employees are, at best, a skittish bunch, not known for their innovative, out-of-the-box thinking. Actions like those in the Davis case will only further deter any thoughts of speaking out, and will likely deter some good people from seeking federal employment.
More broadly, the Davis case threatens to give the government free rein in selecting speech by its employees it does not like and punishing it. It’s okay to blog about your fascination with knitting or to support official positions. If you happen to be Iranian or Chinese or Syrian, and not terribly fond of your government, and express yourself on the subject, the U.S. government will support your right to do it 110% of the way. However, as a federal employee, blog about your negative opinions on U.S. policies and you’ve got a problem. In fact, we have a problem as a country if freedom of speech only holds as long as it does not offend the U.S. government.
Morris Davis’s problem is neither unique nor isolated. Clothilde Le Coz, Washington director of Reporters without Borders, told me earlier this month, “Secrecy is taking over from free speech in the United States. While we naively thought the Obama administration would be more transparent than the previous one, it is actually the first to sue five people for being sources and speaking publicly.” Scary, especially since this is no longer an issue of one rogue administration.
Government is different than private business. If you don’t like McDonald’s because of its policies, go to Burger King, or a soup kitchen, or eat at home. You don’t get the choice of federal governments, and so the critical need for its employees to be able to speak informs the republic. We are the only ones who can tell you what is happening inside your government. It really is that important. Ask Morris Davis.
After publishing the piece above, TomDispatch and I received two emails (both were signed but names removed here):
I enjoyed your piece on the Davis case and largely agree with your point of view, but am surprised to see you repeatedly refer to Davis as a “researcher.” He was a senior manager at CRS (my boss, in fact) and research was at no time among his job duties. Also, my understanding is that CRS does, indeed, restrict outside writing by employees when such writing takes policy positions on any issue that may be or come before Congress. This can be taken as harmful to the central CRS mission of objectivity. So Davis wasn’t fired for his position, he was fired for taking a position.
Second email, different author:
There was no free speech violation against Moe Davis at LC and anybody who comes in actual contact with Davis realizes he is quite a fraud and liar. I worked at LC over 20 years and ran, on my own, the LCPA Veterans Forum. I brought 50 speakers of the Left and Right and it was a very respected program. I had scheduled Lynndie England as well as her prosecutor (at a later date) who had also published a book. Davis told me I should cancel her appearance (!). I told him both were coming and, since she had the guts to appear in public, he should tell her what he thought of her.
I am a Viet Vet with my own opinion about her behavior, but that is beside the point in bringing speakers to LC. Davis then went to the WSJ, which then interviewed me, making him look like an ass. He then resorted to threats and getting others to send threats to me and LC. I forwarded all to the police and IG. The event was cancelled over my objections, I then cancelled the Forum due to lack of free speech and retired early out of disgust. Davis wrote on LC time and stated who he was, as well as calling me in print a “veteran without values.” Yeah, I did a year in Vietnam and was a paratrooper with 27 jumps; he never mussed his hair in 25 years. David violated all the rules and laws and was told he would be fired if he did not follow the rules. CIA, FBI, etc., all have to conform to rules on publishing and have writings vetted. Davis simply refused. Read what he said about Khadr while at Gitmo as that is much different than his story now. He also tried to have a defense attorney arrested, resulting in a rebuke from the judge. Davis belongs in Iran issuing fatwas against authors he does not like.
One last point: Davis likes to say “popular outrage” cancelled Lyndie, but tons of calls came in support of free speech and condemning Davis and his violence-threatening pals. I received quite a few calls from other vets, who wrote complaints to their Senators about Davis. NOTE: you may publish all or any of my response.
This article has also been featured at:
Canadian peace site PEJ
The Government Accountability Project has a new article up about my problems with my security clearance, suspended by the State Department in retaliation for a link on this blog to a document on a Wikileaks site.
The author writes:
Peter Van Buren is the latest casualty of this punitive trend. The government suspended his top-secret security clearance – which he has held for 23 years – over LINKING (not LEAKING) to a WikiLeaks document on his blog and . . . surprise, surprise . . . publishing a book critical of the government.
As a whistleblower attorney, this has happened to numerous clients who have held security clearances for decades, are just a few years away from retirement, but dare to say something critical of the government. Not only do they lose their pension, but the loss of their security clearance renders them unemployed and unemployable in the intelligence community.
Like with Thomas Drake, Bill Binney, Kirk Wiebe, Franz Gayl, and numerous GAP clients, these life-long public servants have had their security clearances suspended. Not necessarily revoked (because if its revoked, that can be challenged through federal court), but suspended, so that the action cannot be challenged.
So these folks who have been in possession of security clearances for decades suddenly “raise serious security concerns” because they criticize the government.
Read the whole article at the Government Accountability Project.
The nuances of foreign policy do not feature heavily in the ongoing presidential campaign. Every candidate intends to “destroy” the Islamic State; each has concerns about Russian President Vladimir Putin, North Korea, and China; every one of them will defend Israel; and no one wants to talk much about anything else — except, in the case of the Republicans, who rattle their sabers against Iran.
In that light, here’s a little trip down memory lane: in October 2012, I considered five critical foreign policy questions — they form the section headings below — that were not being discussed by then-candidates Mitt Romney and Barack Obama. Romney today is a sideshow act for the current Republican circus, and Obama has started packing up his tent at the White House and producing his own foreign policy obituary.
And sadly, those five questions of 2012 remain as pertinent and unraised today as they were four years ago. Unlike then, however, answers may be at hand, and believe me, that’s not good news. Now, let’s consider them four years later, one by one.
Is there an endgame for the global war on terror?
That was the first question I asked back in 2012. In the ensuing years, no such endgame has either been proposed or found, and these days no one’s even talking about looking for one. Instead, a state of perpetual conflict in the Greater Middle East and Africa has become so much the norm that most of us don’t even notice.
In 2012, I wrote, “The current president, elected on the promise of change, altered very little when it came to George W. Bush’s Global War on Terror (other than dropping the name). That jewel-in-the-crown of Bush-era offshore imprisonment, Guantanamo, still houses over 160 prisoners held without trial. While the U.S. pulled its troops out of Iraq… the war in Afghanistan stumbles on. Drone strikes and other forms of conflict continue in the same places Bush tormented: Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan (and it’s clear that northern Mali is heading our way).”
Well, candidates of 2016? Guantanamo remains open for business, with 91 men still left. Five others were expeditiously traded away by executive decision to retrieve runaway American soldier Bowe Bergdahl in Afghanistan, but somehow President Obama feels he can’t release most of the others without lots of approvals by… well, someone. The Republicans running for president are howling to expand Gitmo, and the two Democratic candidates are in favor of whatever sort of not-a-plan plan Obama has been pushing around his plate for eight years.
Iraq took a bad bounce when the same president who withdrew U.S. troops in 2011 let loose the planes and drones and started putting those boots back on that same old ground in 2014. It didn’t take long for the U.S. to morph that conflict from a rescue mission to a training mission to bombing to Special Operations forces in ongoing contact with the enemy, and not just in Iraq, but Syria, too. No candidate has said that s/he will pull out.
As for the war in Afghanistan, it now features an indefinite, “generational” American troop commitment. Think of that country as the third rail of campaign 2016 — no candidate dares touch it for fear of instant electrocution, though (since the American public seems to have forgotten the place) by whom exactly is unclear. There’s still plenty of fighting going on in Yemen — albeit now mostly via America’s well-armed proxies the Saudis — and Africa is more militarized than ever.
As for the most common “American” someone in what used to be called the third world is likely to encounter, it’s no longer a diplomat, a missionary, a tourist, or even a soldier — it’s a drone. The United States claims the right to fly into any nation’s airspace and kill anyone it wishes. Add it all together and when it comes to that war on terror across significant parts of the globe, the once-reluctant heir to the Bush legacy leaves behind a twenty-first century mechanism for perpetual war and eternal assassination missions. And no candidate in either party is willing to even suggest that such a situation needs to end.
In 2012, I also wrote, “Washington seems able to come up with nothing more than a whack-a-mole strategy for ridding itself of the scourge of terror, an endless succession of killings of ‘al-Qaeda Number 3’ guys. Counterterrorism tsar John Brennan, Obama’s drone-meister, has put it this way: ‘We’re not going to rest until al-Qaeda the organization is destroyed and is eliminated from areas in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Africa, and other areas.’”
Four years later, whack-a-mole seems to still be as polite a way as possible of categorizing America’s strategy. In 2013, the top whacker John Brennan got an upgrade to director of the CIA, but strangely — despite so many drones sent off, Special Operations teams sent in, and bombers let loose — the moles keep burrowing and he’s gotten none of the rest he was seeking in 2012. Al-Qaeda is still around, but more significantly, the Islamic State (IS) has replaced that outfit as the signature terrorist organization for the 2016 election.
And speaking of IS, the 2011 war in Libya, midwifed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, led to the elimination of autocrat Muammar Qaddafi, which in turn led to chaos, which in turn led to the spread of IS there big time, which appears on its way to leading to a new American war in Libya seeking the kind of stability that, for all his terrors, Qaddafi had indeed brought to that country during his 34 years in power and the U.S. military will never find.
So an end to the Global War on Terror? Nope.
Do today’s foreign policy challenges mean that it’s time to retire the Constitution?
In 2012 I wrote, “Starting on September 12, 2001, challenges, threats, and risks abroad have been used to justify abandoning core beliefs enshrined in the Bill of Rights. That bill, we are told, can’t accommodate terror threats to the Homeland.”
At the time, however, our concerns about unconstitutionality were mostly based on limited information from early whistleblowers like Tom Drake and Bill Binney, and what some then called conspiracy theories. That was before National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden confirmed our worst nightmares in June 2013 by leaking a trove of NSA documents about the overwhelming American surveillance state. Snowden summed it up this way: “You see programs and policies that were publicly justified on the basis of preventing terrorism — which we all want — in fact being used for very different purposes.”
Now, here’s the strange thing: since Rand Paul dropped out of the 2016 presidential race, no candidate seems to find it worth his or her while to discuss protecting the Bill of Rights or the Constitution from the national security state. (Only the Second Amendment, it turns out, is still sacred.) And speaking of rights, things had already grown so extreme by 2013 that Attorney General Eric Holder felt forced to publicly insist that the government did not plan to torture or kill Edward Snowden, should he end up in its hands. Given the tone of this election, someone may want to update that promise.
In 2012, of course, the Obama administration had only managed to put two whistleblowers in jail for violating the Espionage Act. Since then, such prosecutions have grown almost commonplace, with five more convictions (including that of Chelsea Manning) and with whatever penalties short of torture and murder are planned for Edward Snowden still pending. No one then mentioned the use of the draconian World War I-era Espionage Act, but that wasn’t surprising. Its moment was still coming.
Four years later, still not a peep out of any candidate about the uses of that act, once aimed at spying for foreign powers in wartime, or a serious discussion of government surveillance and the loss of privacy in American life. (And we just learned that the Pentagon’s spy drones have been released over “the homeland,” too, but don’t expect to hear anything about that or its implications either.) Of course, Snowden has come up in the debates of both parties. He has been labeled a traitor as part of the blood sport that the Republican debates have devolved into, and denounced as a thief by Hillary Clinton, while Bernie Sanders gave him credit for “educating the American people” but still thought he deserved prison time.
If the question in 2012 was: “Candidates, have we walked away from the Constitution? If so, shouldn’t we publish some sort of notice or bulletin?” In 2016, the answer seems to be: “Yes, we’ve walked away, and accept that or else… you traitor!”
What do we want from the Middle East?
In 2012, considering the wreckage of the post-9/11 policies of two administrations in the Middle East, I wondered what the goal of America’s presence there could possibly be. Washington had just ended its war in Iraq, walked away from the chaos in Libya, and yet continued to launch a seemingly never-ending series of drone strikes in the region. “Is it all about oil?” I asked. “Israel? Old-fashioned hegemony and containment? History suggests that we should make up our mind on what America’s goals in the Middle East might actually be. No cheating now — having no policy is a policy of its own.”
Four years later, Washington is desperately trying to destroy an Islamic State “caliphate” that wasn’t even on its radar in 2012. Of course, that brings up the question of whether IS can be militarily destroyed at all, as we watch its spread to places as far-flung as Afghanistan, Yemen, and Libya. And then there’s the question no one would have thought to ask back then: If we destroy that movement in Iraq and Syria, will another even more brutish group simply take its place, as the Islamic State did with al-Qaeda in Iraq? No candidate this time around even seems to grasp that these groups aren’t just problems in themselves, but symptoms of a broader Sunni-Shi’ite problem.
In the meantime, the one broad policy consensus to emerge is that we shouldn’t hesitate to unleash our air power and Special Operations forces and, with the help of local proxies, wreck as much stuff as possible. America has welcomed all comers to take their best shots in Syria and Iraq in the name of fighting the Islamic State. The ongoing effort to bomb it away has resulted in the destruction of cities that were still in decent shape in 2012, like Ramadi, Kobane, Homs, and evidently at some future moment Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, “in order to save” them. Four American presidents have made war in the region without success, and whoever follows Obama into the Oval Office will be number five. No questions asked.
What is your plan to right-size our military and what about downsizing the global mission?
Plan? Right-size? Here’s the reality four years after I asked that question: Absolutely no candidate, including the most progressive one, is talking about cutting or in any way seriously curtailing the U.S. military.
Not surprisingly, in response to the ongoing question of the year, “So how will you pay for that?” (in other words, any project being discussed from massive border security and mass deportations to free public college tuition), no candidate has said: “Let’s spend less than 54% of our discretionary budget on defense.”
Call me sentimental, but as I wrote in 2012, I’d still like to know from the candidates, “What will you do to right-size the military and downsize its global mission? Secondly, did this country’s founders really intend for the president to have unchecked personal war-making powers?”
Such questions would at least provide a little comic relief, as all the candidates except Bernie Sanders lock horns to see who will be the one to increase the defense budget the most.
Since no one outside our borders buys American exceptionalism anymore, what’s next? What is America’s point these days?
In 2012, I laid out the reality of twenty-first-century America this way: “We keep the old myth alive that America is a special, good place, the most ‘exceptional’ of places in fact, but in our foreign policy we’re more like some mean old man, reduced to feeling good about himself by yelling at the kids to get off the lawn (or simply taking potshots at them). Now, who we are and what we are abroad seems so much grimmer… America the Exceptional, has, it seems, run its course. Saber rattling… feels angry, unproductive, and without any doubt unbelievably expensive.”
Yet in 2016 most of the candidates are still barking about America the Exceptional despite another four years of rust on the chrome. Donald Trump may be the exceptional exception in that he appears to think America’s exceptional greatness is still to come, though quite soon under his guidance.
The question for the candidates in 2012 was and in 2016 remains “Who exactly are we in the world and who do you want us to be? Are you ready to promote a policy of fighting to be planetary top dog — and we all know where that leads — or can we find a place in the global community? Without resorting to the usual ‘shining city on a hill’ metaphors, can you tell us your vision for America in the world?”
The answer is a resounding no.
See You Again in 2020
The candidates have made it clear that the struggle against terror is a forever war, the U.S. military can never be big enough, bombing and missiling the Greater Middle East is now the American Way of Life, and the Constitution is indeed a pain and should get the hell out of the way.
Above all, no politician dares or cares to tell us anything but what they think we want to hear: America is exceptional, military power can solve problems, the U.S. military isn’t big enough, and it is necessary to give up our freedoms to protect our freedoms. Are we, in the perhaps slightly exaggerated words of one foreign commentator, now just a “nation of idiots, incapable of doing anything except conducting military operations against primitive countries”?
Bookmark this page. I’ll be back before the 2020 elections to see how we’re doing.
America has entered its third great era: the post-constitutional one. In the first, in the colonial years, a unitary executive, the King of England, ruled without checks and balances, allowing no freedom of speech, due process, or privacy when it came to protecting his power.
In the second, the principles of the Enlightenment and an armed rebellion were used to push back the king’s abuses. The result was a new country and a new constitution with a Bill of Rights expressly meant to check the government’s power. Now, we are wading into the shallow waters of a third era, a time when that government is abandoning the basic ideas that saw our nation through centuries of challenges far more daunting than terrorism. Those ideas — enshrined in the Bill of Rights — are disarmingly concise. Think of them as the haiku of a genuine people’s government.
Deeper, darker waters lie ahead and we seem drawn down into them. For here there be monsters.
The Powers of a Police State Denied
America in its pre-constitutional days may seem eerily familiar even to casual readers of current events. We lived then under the control of a king. (Think now: the imperial presidency.) That king was a powerful, unitary executive who ruled at a distance. His goal was simple: to use his power over “his” American colonies to draw the maximum financial gain while suppressing any dissent that might endanger his control.
In those years, protest was dangerous. Speech could indeed make you the enemy of the government. Journalism could be a crime if you didn’t write in support of those in power. A citizen needed to watch what he said, for there were spies everywhere, including fellow colonists hoping for a few crumbs from the king’s table. Laws could be brutal and punishments swift as well as extra-judicial. In extreme cases, troops shot down those simply assembling to speak out.
Among the many offenses against liberty in pre-constitutional America, one pivotal event, the Stamp Act of 1765, stands out. To enforce the taxes imposed by the Act, the king’s men used “writs of assistance” that allowed them to burst into any home or business, with or without suspicion of wrongdoing. American privacy was violated and property ransacked, often simply as a warning of the king’s power. Some colonist was then undoubtedly the first American to mutter, “But if I have nothing to hide, why should I be afraid?” He soon learned that when a population is categorically treated as a potential enemy, everyone has something to hide if the government claims they do.
The Stamp Act and the flood of kingly offenses that followed created in those who founded the United States a profound suspicion of what an unchecked government could do, and a sense that power and freedom are not likely to coexist comfortably in a democracy. A balancing mechanism was required. In addition to the body of the Constitution outlining what the new nation’s government could do, needed was an accounting of what it could not do. The answer was the Bill of Rights.
The Bill’s preamble explained the matter this way: “…in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of [the government’s] powers, that further declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added.” Thomas Jefferson commented separately, “[A] bill of rights is what the people are entitled to against every government on earth.”
In other words, the Bill of Rights was written to make sure that the new government would not replicate the abuses of power of the old one. Each amendment spoke directly to a specific offense committed by the king. Their purpose collectively was to lay out what the government could never take away. Knowing first-hand the dangers of a police state and unchecked power, those who wrote the Constitution wanted to be clear: never again.
It needs to be said that those imperfect men were very much of their era. They were right about much, but desperately wrong about other things. They addressed “humanity,” but ignored the rights of women and Native Americans. Above all, they did not abolish the institution of slavery, our nation’s Original Sin. It would take many years, and much blood, to begin to rectify those mistakes.
Still, for more than two centuries, the meaning of the Bill of Rights was generally expanded, though — especially in wartime — it sometimes temporarily contracted. Yet the basic principles that guided America were sustained despite civil war, world wars, depressions, and endless challenges. Then, one September morning, our Post-Constitutional era began amid falling towers and empty skies. What have we lost since? More than we imagine. A look at the Bill of Rights, amendment by amendment, tells the tale.
The First Amendment
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
The First Amendment was meant to make one thing indisputably clear: free speech was the basis for a government of the people. Without a free press, as well as the ability to openly gather, debate, protest, and criticize, how would the people be able to judge their government’s adherence to the other rights? How could people vote knowledgeably if they didn’t know what was being done in their name by their government? An informed citizenry, Thomas Jefferson stated, was “a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.”
That was how it was seen long ago. In Post-Constitutional America, however, the government strives to “control the message,” to actively thwart efforts to maintain a citizenry informed about what’s done in its name, a concept that these days seems as quaint as Jefferson’s powdered wig. There are far too many examples of the post-9/11 erosion of the First Amendment to list here. Let’s just look at a few important ones that tell the tale of what we have lost since 9/11.
(Lack of) Freedom of Information
In 1966, an idea for keeping Americans better informed on the workings of their government was hatched: the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Strengthened in 1974, it began with the premise that, except for some obvious categories (like serious national security matters and personal information), the position of the government should be: everything it does is available to the public. Like the Bill of Rights, which made specific the limits of government, FOIA began with a presumption that it was the government’s duty to make information available — and quickly — to the people, unless a convincing case could be made otherwise. The default position of the FOIA switch was set to ON.
Three decades later, the FOIA system works far differently. Agencies are generally loath to release documents of any sort and instead put their efforts into creating roadblocks to legitimate requests. Some still require signatures on paper. (The State Department notes, “Requests for personal information cannot be submitted electronically and should be submitted by mail.”) Others demand hyper-detailed information like the precise dates and titles of documents whose dates and titles may be classified and unavailable. The NSA simply denies almost all FOIA requests out of hand, absent a court order.
Most federal agencies now regard the deadline mandated for a response as the time period to send out a “request received” note. They tend to assign only a few staff members to processing requests, leading to near-endless delays. At the State Department, most FOIA work is done on a part-time basis by retirees. The CIA won’t directly release electronic versions of documents. Even when a request is fulfilled, “free” copying is often denied and reproduction costs exaggerated.
In some cases, the requested records have a way of disappearing or are simply removed. The ACLU’s experience when it filed an FOIA-style request with the Sarasota police department on its use of the cell phone surveillance tool Stingray could be considered typical. The morning the ACLU was to review the files, Federal Marshals arrived and physically took possession of them, claiming they had deputized the local cops and made the files federal property. An ACLU spokesperson noted that, in other cases, federal authorities have invoked the Homeland Security Act to prevent the release of records.
John Young, who runs the web site Cryptome and is a steadfast FOIA requester, stated, “Stonewalling, delay, brush-off, lying are normal. It is a delusion for ordinary requesters and a bitch of a challenge for professionals. Churning has become a way of life for FOIA, costly as hell for little results.”
Sealed Lips and the Whistleblower
All government agencies have regulations requiring employees to obtain permission before speaking to the representatives of the people — that is, journalists. The U.S. Intelligence Community has among the most restrictive of these policies, banning employees and contractors completely from talking with the media without prior authorization. Even speaking about unclassified information is a no-no that may cost you your job. A government ever more in lockdown mode has created what one journalist calls a “culture where censorship is the norm.”
So who does speak to Americans about their government? Growing hordes of spokespeople, communications staff, trained PR crews, and those anonymous “senior officials” who pop up so regularly in news articles in major papers.
With the government obsessively seeking to hide or spin what it does, in-the-sunlight contact barred, and those inside locked behind an iron curtain of secrecy, the whistleblower has become the paradigmatic figure of the era. Not surprisingly, anyone who blows a whistle has, in these years, come under fierce attack.
Pick a case: Tom Drake exposing early NSA efforts to turn its spy tools on Americans, Edward Snowden proving that the government has us under constant surveillance, Chelsea Manning documenting war crimes in Iraq and sleazy diplomacy everywhere, John Kiriakou acknowledging torture by his former employer the CIA, or Robert MacLean revealing Transportation Safety Administration malfeasance. In each instance, the threat of jail was quick to surface. The nuclear option against such truthtellers is the Espionage Act, a law that offended the Constitution when implemented in the midst of World War I. It has been resurrected by the Obama administration as a blunt “wartime” tool for silencing and punishing whistleblowers.
The Obama administration has already charged six people under that act for allegedly mishandling classified information. Even Richard Nixon only invoked it once, in a failed prosecution against Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg.
Indeed, the very word “espionage” couldn’t be stranger in the context of these cases. None of those charged spied. None sought to aid an enemy or make money selling secrets. No matter. In Post-Constitutional America, the powers-that-be stand ready to twist language in whatever Orwellian direction is necessary to bridge the gap between reality and the king’s needs. In the Espionage Act case of State Department contractor Stephen Kim, a judge departed from previous precedent, ruling that the prosecution need not even show that the information leaked to a Fox news reporter from a CIA report on North Korea could damage U.S. national security or benefit a foreign power. It could still be a part of an “espionage” charge.
A final question might be: How could a law designed almost 100 years ago to stop German spies in wartime have become a tool to silence the few Americans willing to risk everything to exercise their First Amendment rights? When did free speech become a crime?
Self-Censorship and the Press
Each person charged under the Espionage Act in these years was primarily a source for a journalist. The writers of the Bill of Rights chose to include the term “press” in the First Amendment, specifically carving out a special place for journalists in our democracy. The press was necessary to question government officials directly, comment on their actions, and inform the citizenry about what its government was doing. Sadly, as the Obama administration is moving ever more fiercely against those who might reveal its acts or documents, the bulk of the media have acquiesced. Glenn Greenwald said it plainly: too many journalists have gone into a self-censoring mode, practicing “obsequious journalism.”
For example, a survey of reporters showed “the percentage of U.S. journalists endorsing the occasional use of ‘confidential business or government documents without authorization,’ dropped significantly from 81.8% in 1992 to 57.7% in 2013.” About 40% of American journalists would not have published documents like those Edward Snowden revealed.
And the same has been true of the management of newspapers. In mid-2004, James Risen and Eric Lichtblau uncovered George W. Bush’s illegal warrantless eavesdropping program, but the New York Times held the story for 15 months, until after Bush’s reelection. Executives at the Times were told by administration officials that if they ran the story, they’d be helping terrorists. They accepted that. In 2006, the Los Angeles Times similarly gave in to the NSA and suppressed a story on government wiretaps of Americans.
Government Efforts to Stop Journalists
Reporters need sources. Increasingly, the government is classifying just about any document it produces — 92 million documents in 2011 alone. Its intelligence agencies have even classified reports about the over-classification of documents. As a result, journalistic sources are often pressed into discussing, at great personal risk, classified information. Forcing a reporter to reveal such sources discourages future whistleblowing.
In one of the first of a series of attempts to make journalists reveal their sources, former Fox News reporter Mike Levine stated that the Justice Department persuaded a federal grand jury to subpoena him in January 2011. The demand was that he reveal his sources for a 2009 story about Somali-Americans who were secretly indicted in Minneapolis for joining an al-Qaeda-linked group in Somalia. Levine fought the order and the Department of Justice finally dropped it without comment in April 2012. Call it a failed test case.
According to Washington lawyer Abbe Lowell, who defended Stephen Kim, significant amounts of time have been spent by the Department of Justice in the search for a legal rationale for indicting journalists for their participation in exposing classified documents. A crucial test case is James Risen’s 2006 book, State of War, which had an anonymously sourced chapter on a failed CIA operation to disrupt Iran’s nuclear program. When Risen, citing the First Amendment, refused to identify his source or testify in the trial of the former CIA officer accused of being that source, the government sought to imprison him. He responded that the “Obama administration… wants to use this case and others like it to intimidate reporters and whistleblowers. But I am appealing to the Supreme Court because it is too dangerous to allow the government to conduct national security policy completely in the dark.”
In June 2014, the Supreme Court refused to take Risen’s case on appeal, essentially ratifying a U.S. Court of Appeals decision that the First Amendment didn’t protect a reporter from being forced to testify about “criminal conduct that the reporter personally witnessed or participated in.” That decision makes clear that a reporter receiving classified information from a source is part of the crime of “leaking.”
Risen has said he will go to prison rather than testify. It is possible that, having secured the precedent-setting right to send Risen to jail, the government will bring the suspected leaker to trial without calling on him. Attorney General Eric Holder recently hinted that his Justice Department might take that path — a break for Risen himself, but not for reporters more generally who now know that they can be jailed for refusing to divulge a source without hope of recourse to the Supreme Court.
The Descent Into Post-Constitutionalism
As with the King of England once upon a time, many of the things the government now does have been approved in secret, sometimes in secret courts according to a secret body of law. Sometimes, they were even approved openly by Congress. In constitutional America, the actions of the executive and the laws passed by Congress were only legal when they did not conflict with the underlying constitutional principles of our democracy. Not any more. “Law” made in secret, including pretzeled legal interpretations by the Justice Department for the White House, opened the way, for instance, to the use of torture on prisoners and in the Obama years to the drone assassination of Americans. Because such “legalities” remain officially classified, they are, of course, doubly difficult to challenge.
But can’t we count on the usual pendulum swings in American life to change this? There were indeed notable moments in American history when parts of the Constitution were put aside, but none are truly comparable to our current situation. The Civil War lasted five years, with Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus limited in geography and robustly contested. The World War II Japanese internment camps closed after three years and the persecuted were a sub-set of Japanese-Americans from the West Coast. Senator McCarthy’s notorious career as a communist-hunter lasted four years and ended in shame.
Almost 13 years after the 9/11 attacks, it remains “wartime.” For the war on terror, the driver, excuse, and raison d’être for the tattering of the Bill of Rights, there is no end in sight. Recently retired NSA head Keith Alexander is typical of key figures in the national security state when he claims that despite, well, everything, the country is at greater risk today than ever before. These days, wartime is forever, which means that a government working ever more in secret has ever more latitude to decide which rights in which form applied in what manner are still inalienable.
The usual critical history of our descent into a post-constitutional state goes something like this: in the panic after the 9/11 attacks, under the leadership of Vice President Dick Cheney with the support of President George W. Bush, a cabal of top government officials pushed through legal-lite measures to (as they liked to say) “take the gloves off” and allow kidnapping, torture, illegal surveillance, and offshore imprisonment along with indefinite detention without charges or trial.
Barack Obama, elected on a series of (false) promises to roll back the worst of the Bush-era crimes, while rejecting torture and closing America’s overseas “black sites,” still pushed the process forward in his own way. He expanded executive power, emphasized drone assassinations (including against American citizens), gave amnesty to torturers, increased government secrecy, targeted whistleblowers, and heightened surveillance. In other words, two successive administrations lied, performed legal acrobatics, and bullied their way toward a kind of absolute power that hasn’t been seen since the days of King George. That’s the common narrative and, while not wrong, it is incomplete.
Missing Are the People
One key factor remains missing in such a version of post-9/11 events in America: the people. Even today, 45% of Americans, when polled on the subject, agree that torture is “sometimes necessary and acceptable to gain information that may protect the public.” Americans as a group seem unsure about whether the NSA’s global and domestic surveillance is justified, and many remain convinced that Edward Snowden and the journalists who published his material are criminals. The most common meme related to whistleblowers is still “patriot or traitor?” and toward the war on terror, “security or freedom?”
It’s not that Americans are incorrect to be fearful and feel in need of protection. The main thing we need to protect ourselves against, however, is not the modest domestic threat from terrorists, but a new king, a unitary executive that has taken the law for its own, aided and abetted by the courts, supported by a powerful national security state, and unopposed by a riven and weakened Congress. Without a strong Bill of Rights to protect us — indeed, secure us — from the dangers of our own government, we will have gone full-circle to a Post-Constitutional America that shares much in common with the pre-constitutional British colonies.
Yet there is no widespread, mainstream movement of opposition to what the government has been doing. It seems, in fact, that many Americans are willing to accept, perhaps even welcome out of fear, the death of the Bill of Rights, one amendment at a time.
We are the first to see, in however shadowy form, the outlines of what a Post-Constitutional America might look like. We could be the last who might be able to stop it.
This article originally appeared on TomDispatch.com. In light of the Bradley Manning verdict, this seemed worth re-reading.
On July 30, 1778, the Continental Congress created the first whistleblower protection law, stating “that it is the duty of all persons in the service of the United States to give the earliest information to Congress or other proper authority of any misconduct, frauds, or misdemeanors committed by any officers or persons in the service of these states.”
Two hundred thirty-five years later, on July 30, 2013, Bradley Manning was found guilty on 20 of the 22 charges for which he was prosecuted, specifically for “espionage” and for videos of war atrocities he released, but not for “aiding the enemy.”
Days after the verdict, with sentencing hearings in which Manning could receive 136 years of prison time ongoing, the pundits have had their say. The problem is that they missed the most chilling aspect of the Manning case: the way it ushered us, almost unnoticed, into post-Constitutional America.
The Weapons of War Come Home
Even before the Manning trial began, the emerging look of that new America was coming into view. In recent years, weapons, tactics, and techniques developed in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as in the war on terror have begun arriving in “the homeland.”
Consider, for instance, the rise of the warrior cop, of increasingly up-armored police departments across the country often filled with former military personnel encouraged to use the sort of rough tactics they once wielded in combat zones. Supporting them are the kinds of weaponry that once would have been inconceivable in police departments, including armored vehicles, typically bought with Department of Homeland Security grants. Recently, the director of the FBI informed a Senate committee that the Bureau was deploying its first drones over the United States. Meanwhile, Customs and Border Protection, part of the Department of Homeland Security and already flying an expanding fleet of Predator drones, the very ones used in America’s war zones, is eager to arm them with “non-lethal” weaponry to “immobilize targets of interest.”
Above all, surveillance technology has been coming home from our distant war zones. The National Security Agency (NSA), for instance, pioneered the use of cell phones to track potential enemy movements in Iraq and Afghanistan. The NSA did this in one of several ways. With the aim of remotely turning on cell phones as audio monitoring or GPS devices, rogue signals could be sent out through an existing network, or NSA software could be implanted on phones disguised as downloads of porn or games.
Using fake cell phone towers that actually intercept phone signals en route to real towers, the U.S. could harvest hardware information in Iraq and Afghanistan that would forever label a phone and allow the NSA to always uniquely identify it, even if the SIM card was changed. The fake cell towers also allowed the NSA to gather precise location data for the phone, vacuum up metadata, and monitor what was being said.
At one point, more than 100 NSA teams had been scouring Iraq for snippets of electronic data that might be useful to military planners. The agency’s director, General Keith Alexander, changed that: he devised a strategy called Real Time Regional Gateway to grab every Iraqi text, phone call, email, and social media interaction. “Rather than look for a single needle in the haystack, his approach was, ‘Let’s collect the whole haystack,’â€Š” said one former senior U.S. intelligence official. “Collect it all, tag it, store it, and whatever it is you want, you go searching for it.”
Sound familiar, Mr. Snowden?
Welcome Home, Soldier (Part I)
Thanks to Edward Snowden, we now know that the “collect it all” technique employed by the NSA in Iraq would soon enough be used to collect American metadata and other electronically available information, including credit card transactions, air ticket purchases, and financial records. At the vast new $2 billion data center it is building in Bluffdale, Utah, and at other locations, the NSA is following its Iraq script of saving everything, so that once an American became a target, his or her whole history can be combed through. Such searches do not require approval by a court, or even an NSA supervisor. As it happened, however, the job was easier to accomplish in the U.S. than in Iraq, as internet companies and telephone service providers are required by secret law to hand over the required data, neatly formatted, with no messy spying required.
When the U.S. wanted something in Iraq or Afghanistan, they sent guys to kick down doors and take it. This, too, may be beginning to happen here at home. Recently, despite other valuable and easily portable objects lying nearby, computers, and only computers, were stolen from the law offices representing State Department whistleblower Aurelia Fedenisn. Similarly, a Washington law firm representing NSA whistleblower Tom Drake had computers, and only computers, stolen from its office.
In these years, the FBI has brought two other NSA wartime tools home. The Bureau now uses a device called Stingray to recreate those battlefield fake cell phone towers and track people in the U.S. without their knowledge. Stingray offers some unique advantages: it bypasses the phone company entirely, which is, of course, handy in a war zone in which a phone company may be controlled by less than cooperative types, or if phone companies no longer cooperate with the government, or simply if you don’t want the phone company or anyone else to know you’re snooping. American phone companies seem to have been quite cooperative. Verizon, for instance, admits hacking its own cellular modems (“air cards”) to facilitate FBI intrusion.
The FBI is also following NSA’s lead implanting spyware and other hacker software developed for our war zones secretly and remotely in American computers and cell phones. The Bureau can then remotely turn on phone and laptop microphones, even webcams, to monitor citizens, while files can be pulled from a computer or implanted onto a computer.
Among the latest examples of war technology making the trip back to the homeland is the aerostat, a tethered medium-sized blimp. Anyone who served in Iraq or Afghanistan will recognize the thing, as one or more of them flew over nearly every military base of any size or importance. The Army recently announced plans to operate two such blimps over Washington, D.C., starting in 2014. Allegedly they are only to serve as anti-missile defenses, though in our war zones they were used as massive surveillance platforms. As a taste of the sorts of surveillance systems the aerostats were equipped with abroad but the Army says they won’t have here at home, consider Gorgon Stare, a system that can transmit live images of an entire town. And unlike drones, an aerostat never needs to land. Ever.
Welcome Home, Soldier (Part II)
And so to Bradley Manning.
As the weaponry and technology of war came home, so did a new, increasingly Guantanamo-ized definition of justice. This is one thing the Manning case has made clear.
As a start, Manning was treated no differently than America’s war-on-terror prisoners at Guantanamo and the black sites that the Bush administration set up around the world. Picked up on the “battlefield,” Manning was first kept incommunicado in a cage in Kuwait for two months with no access to a lawyer. Then, despite being an active duty member of the Army, he was handed over to the Marines, who also guard Guantanamo, to be held in a military prison in Quantico, Virginia.
What followed were three years of cruel detainment, where, as might well have happened at Gitmo, Manning, kept in isolation, was deprived of clothing, communications, legal advice, and sleep. The sleep deprivation regime imposed on him certainly met any standard, other than Washington’s and possibly Pyongyang’s, for torture. In return for such abuse, even after a judge had formally ruled that he was subjected to excessively harsh treatment, Manning will only get a 112-day reduction in his eventual sentence.
Eventually the Obama administration decided Manning was to be tried as a soldier before a military court. In the courtroom, itself inside a military facility that also houses NSA headquarters, there was a strikingly gulag-like atmosphere. His trial was built around secret witnesses and secret evidence; severe restrictions were put on the press — the Army denied press passes to 270 of the 350 media organizations that applied; and there was a clear appearance of injustice. Among other things, the judge ruled against nearly every defense motion.
During the months of the trial, the U.S. military refused to release official transcripts of the proceedings. Even a private courtroom sketch artist was barred from the room. Independent journalist and activist Alexa O’Brien then took it upon herself to attend the trial daily, defy the Army, and make an unofficial record of the proceedings by hand. Later in the trial, armed military police were stationed behind reporters listening to testimony. Above all, the feeling that Manning’s fate was predetermined could hardly be avoided. After all, President Obama, the former Constitutional law professor, essentially proclaimed him guilty back in 2011 and the Department of Defense didn’t hesitate to state more generally that “leaking is tantamount to aiding the enemies of the United States.”
As at Guantanamo, rules of evidence reaching back to early English common law were turned upside down. In Manning’s case, he was convicted of espionage, even though the prosecution did not have to prove either his intent to help another government or that harm was caused; a civilian court had already paved the way for such a ruling in another whistleblower case. In addition, the government was allowed to label Manning a “traitor” and an “anarchist” in open court, though he was on trial for neither treason nor anarchy. His Army supervisor in the U.S. and Iraq was allowed to testify against him despite having made biased and homophobic statements about him in a movie built around portraying Manning as a sad, sexually-confused, attention-seeking young man mesmerized by WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. Finally, the same judge who essentially harassed the press throughout Manning’s trial issued a 24-hour advance notice of her verdict to ensure maximum coverage only of the denouement, not the process.
Given all this, it is small comfort to know that Manning, nailed on the Espionage Act after multiple failures in other cases by the Obama administration, was not convicted of the extreme charge of “aiding the enemy.”
Not Manning Alone
Someday, Manning’s case may be seen as a bitter landmark on the road to a post-Constitutional America, but it won’t be seen as the first case in the development of the post-Constitutional system. Immediately following 9/11, top officials in the Bush administration decided to “take the gloves off.” Soon after, a wounded John Walker Lindh, the so-called American Taliban, was captured on an Afghan battlefield, held in a windowless shipping container, refused access to a lawyer even after he demanded one as an American citizen, and interrogated against his will by the FBI. Access to medical care was used as a bribe to solicit information from him. “Evidence” obtained by such means was then used to convict him in court.
Jose Padilla, a U.S. citizen who clumsily plotted to detonate a nonexistent “dirty bomb,” was held incommunicado for more three years, over a year of which was in a South Carolina military jail. He was arrested only as a material witness and was not formally charged with a crime until years later. He was given no means to challenge his detention under habeas corpus, as President Bush designated him an “enemy combatant.” Pictures of Padilla being moved wearing sound-proof and light-proof gear strongly suggest he was subjected to the same psychosis-inducing sensory deprivation used as “white torture” against America’s foreign enemies in Guantanamo.
Certainly, the most egregious case of pre-Manning post-Constitutional justice was the execution of American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki by drone in Yemen, without due process or trial, for being an al-Qaeda propagandist. In this, President Obama and his top counterterrorism advisors quite literally took on the role of judge, jury, and executioner. In a similar fashion, again in Yemen, the U.S. killed al-Awlaki’s American teenage son, a boy no one claimed was connected to terrorism. Obama administration lawyers went on to claim the legal right to execute U.S. citizens without trial or due process and have admitted to killing four Americans. Attorney General Eric Holder declared that “United States citizenship alone does not make such individuals immune from being targeted.”
Then-FBI Director Robert Mueller, asked in a Congressional hearing if the FBI could assassinate an American citizen in the United States, replied that he simply did not know. “I have to go back. Uh, I’m not certain whether that was addressed or not.” He added, “I’m going to defer that to others in the Department of Justice.” As if competing for an Orwellian prize, an unnamed Obama administration official told the Washington Post, “What constitutes due process in this case is a due process in war.”
So welcome to post-Constitutional America. Its shape is, ominously enough, beginning to come into view.
Orwell’s famed dystopian novel 1984 was not intended as an instruction manual, but just days before the Manning verdict, the Obama administration essentially buried its now-ironic-campaign promise to protect whistleblowers, sending it down Washington’s version of the memory hole. Post-9/11, torture famously stopped being torture if an American did it, and its users were not prosecutable by the Justice Department.
Similarly, full-spectrum spying is not considered to violate the Fourth Amendment and does not even require probable cause. Low-level NSA analysts have desktop access to the private emails and phone calls of Americans. The Post Office photographs the envelopes of every one of the 160 billion pieces of mail it handles, collecting the metadata of “to:” and “from:” addresses. An Obama administration Insider Threat Program requires federal employees (including the Peace Corps) to report on the suspicious behavior of coworkers.
Government officials concerned over possible wrongdoing in their departments or agencies who “go through proper channels” are fired or prosecuted. Government whistleblowers are commanded to return to face justice, while law-breakers in the service of the government are allowed to flee justice. CIA officers who destroy evidence of torture go free, while a CIA agent who blew the whistle on torture is locked up.
Secret laws and secret courts can create secret law you can’t know about for “crimes” you don’t even know exist. You can nonetheless be arrested for committing them. Thanks to the PATRIOT Act, citizens, even librarians, can be served by the FBI with a National Security Letter (not requiring a court order) demanding records and other information, and gagging them from revealing to anyone that such information has been demanded or such a letter delivered. Citizens may be held without trial, and denied their Constitutional rights as soon as they are designated “terrorists.” Lawyers and habeas corpus are available only when the government allows.
In the last decade, 10 times as many employers turned to FBI criminal databases to screen job applicants. The press is restricted when it comes to covering “open trials.” The war on whistleblowers is metastasizing into a war on the First Amendment. People may now be convicted based on secret testimony by unnamed persons. Military courts and jails can replace civilian ones. Justice can be twisted and tangled into an almost unrecognizable form and then used to send a young man to prison for decades. Claiming its actions lawful while shielding the “legal” opinions cited, often even from Congress, the government can send its drones to assassinate its own citizens.
One by one, the tools and attitudes of the war on terror, of a world in which the “gloves” are eternally off, have come home. The comic strip character Pogo’s classic warning — “We have met the enemy and he is us” — seems ever less like a metaphor. According to the government, increasingly we are now indeed their enemy.
This article also appeared on:
The Nation http://www.thenation.com/article/175589/welcome-post-constitution-america
Huffington Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/peter-van-buren/bradley-manning-trial_b_3707109.html
Michael Moore: http://www.michaelmoore.com/words/mike-friends-blog/welcome-post-constitution-america-what-if-your-country-begins-change-and-no-one-notices
Asia Times: http://www.atimes.com/atimes/World/WOR-01-060813.html
Mother Jones: http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2013/08/bradley-manning-constitutional-rights
Le Monde Diplomatique (English): http://mondediplo.com/openpage/welcome-to-post-constitution-america
Information Clearing House: http://www.informationclearinghouse.info/article35760.htm
Nation of Change: http://www.nationofchange.org/welcome-post-constitution-america-1375712052
Middle East online: http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=60564
al-Arab online: http://www.alarabonline.org/english/display.asp?fname=\2013\08\08-05\zopinionz\970.htm&dismode=x&ts=8/5/2013%2011:15:21%20AM
Democratic Underground: http://www.democraticunderground.com/10023408050
Outlook India: http://www.outlookindia.com/article.aspx?287286
Smirking Chimp: http://smirkingchimp.com/thread/tom-engelhardt/50975/tomgram-peter-van-buren-the-manning-trial-began-on-9-11
This article originally appeared on the Huffington Post.
I get a lot of conspiracy emails at my blog, wemeantwell.com. Various “truthers” want me to believe that the CIA or the Mossad or the Spiders from Mars did 9/11, and that Obama was born on the Planet Mongo and is thus not even human, never mind an American Citizen. C’mon folks, try it again, using “facts” this time.
At the same time, I find myself worrying a bit. Stuff that fell into the conspiracy theory catalog last year now is old news: the government is indeed reading your email, your snail mail, your Facebook, all the while listening in on your calls. Torture and indefinite extra-judicial imprisonment are just another thing the government does. Whatever really happened to bin Laden will likely never be known, as the records were secretly moved into CIA hands where they will not be subject to Freedom of Information Act requests. Drones have been used in the U.S. Oh, and a secret court is making secret laws that affect all of us, in secret.
So, given all that, this next item is probably nothing. Another coincidence.
Two burglars broke into a Dallas law firm, bashing through a wall, and stealing only three computers while leaving other valuables behind. The law firm targeted represents State Department whistleblower Aurelia Fedenisn. Fedenisn revealed that she’d seen internal investigations called off by higher ups. The State Department accused her of removing “highly sensitive, internal documents” containing “personal information and unsubstantiated allegations,” and explained that it was working to secure the documents once again. The thieves also tried to pry open a filing cabinet at the lawyer’s office. Coincidence.
An office across the hallway from the whistleblower’s lawyers that was left unlocked and was full of valuables, as well as fourteen other computers, was untouched by the thieves. Coincidence.
Not too long ago, a thief entered the offices of the Government Accountability Project, one of America’s premier whistleblower representatives, and stole only some attorney laptops. Nothing else, not even purses left out. The theft occurred just as the government’s case against NSA whistleblower Tom Drake was collapsing. His attorneys’ computers were taken. Coincidence.
In 1971 John Ehrlichman, assistant to president Nixon, approved a covert operation to break into Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office and examine his medical files. The purpose was to get a “mother lode” of information about Ellsberg’s mental state to use to discredit him.
Naw, I think I’ve just seen to many spy dramas on TV lately. I mean, who could think that the government would be involved in anything like breaking into a law office in search of info on one of its whistleblower critics?
Also coincidences: Death of Andrew Breitbart, the coroner who handled Breitbart’s case and died of arsenic poisoning, and Michael Hastings, where the LAPD refuses to release the accident and toxicology reports, or make the crashed Mercedes available for inspection. Nothing to see here you proles, go about your business.
America’s spies– our bad guys who sold secrets to other countries, Ames, the Walkers, Pollard— worked for money. Their motives were straightforward and they clearly, actively sought to trade secrets away for personal gain. They choose secrets such as code ciphers of specific interest and value to the enemy.
But what about now? The people Obama is/has/will be prosecuting under the Espionage Act (Manning, Drake, Snowden) did not act for money (quite the contrary; all suffered personally for their actions) and instead of informing a foreign power, they sought to inform the American people. That is not spying.
Our current whistleblowers were all vetted multiple times by the U.S. Government. If Snowden’s publically available bio is true, he was vetted by the Army, the CIA, the NSA and again as an NSA contractor. What happened?
What happened was conscience, and God bless us all for it.
History recognizes the need to act on conscience when faced with unconscionable situations. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, writing about Kristallnacht, said “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” The Nuremberg prosecutors reminded the accused that “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.” Dr. Martin Luther King, writing from a Birmingham jail cell, said “One may well ask: ‘How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?’ The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘an unjust law is no law at all.'”
Bradley Manning provided no real aid and comfort to the enemy. Among other horrific events, he exposed what was a war crime to everyone but the U.S. Government as civilians and journalists were machine gunned from the air. He exposed U.S. murder of Iraqi civilians. He shared with the American people exactly what was being done in their name. None of that information was secret for any legitimate reason (it was kept quiet to protect the USG from embarrassment and/or prosecution), and it certainly was not secret to the “enemy;” they knew damn well what we were doing.
The case is the same with Snowden. He simply told the American people, in much greater detail than the Government wished to reveal, what their own government was doing to them. The NSA spying focused on Americans, and even as the government seeks to justify it the case weakens around them. Indeed, all that surveillance failed to even catch Snowden gathering documents from the inside but we’re supposed to believe it has saved us from terrorism? Once again, the people most informed by the leaked material were the American people, not any imagined generic “enemy.” Indeed, most of the enemy comes from police-state countries where surveillance (and torture, another recent U.S. activity) is routine and overt. They knew damn well what we were doing. Bin Laden stopped using cell phones a decade ago.
If I could shout into the White House, it would be something like this:
Your own guards are turning against your surveillance and secrecy. People whom you vetted are being moved into glorious, selfless democratic acts of conscience by your lies and your actions. If the government continues to treat every citizen as a potential terrorist, more and more of them will be moved to act, to uphold their true oath of office— to uphold and protect the Constitution from all enemies, foreign and domestic.
Are you not aware Mr. Obama that one whistleblower, Assange, is living in a foreign embassy for his own protection from you, while another, Snowden, is said to be headed for asylum somewhere abroad for his own safety? During the Cold War and onward, it was American Embassies abroad that provided shelter and asylum to political victims. You can expect more leakers, and by focusing your response on arresting the messengers instead of changing your policies, you will in fact assure it as your legacy.
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.
…With Academy Award-nominated documentary filmmaker Jim Spione, who was in Washington DC working on a film project about government whistleblowers. Jim interviewed me alongside several others, including Tom Drake, who have spoken out against government waste, fraud and abuse.
Jim’s previous film, Incident in New Baghdad, dealt with the leaked gun camera video of the massacre of unarmed Iraqi civilians. The film has played most recently on cable’s Documentary Channel and is a fascinating, horrifying look at one piece of America’s war in Iraq. I reviewed the movie previously.