• I Join the Advisory Board for ExposeFacts.org

    July 29, 2014 // 7 Comments »




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

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

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

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

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

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



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    Edward Snowden is the Most Dangerous Man in America. Good.

    July 21, 2014 // 9 Comments »




    Oh yes, yes, Edward Snowden is clearly the most dangerous man in America.

    Speaking via video link (he uses Skype!) from Russia to the HopeX hackers’ conference in New York City July 19, Edward Snowden issued a call to arms to those present. Engineers, he said, “need to think now in adversarial terms to defeat government technical capabilities.” While the government now uses technology to shield themselves from accountability, software and hardware must “become a way to express our freedoms while protecting our freedoms.”

    Technology and Government

    Snowden went on to make a number of important points regarding the new relationship technology has created between the government and the people.

    — Technology now makes it possible to publish information without the government’s ability to stop it. While the photocopier was the “killer app” of Daniel Ellsberg’s day, Wikileaks and Snowden’s own revelations show the empowerment potential of technology. Snowden reminded the audience that when the government fears its people (as opposed to the inverse), that is democracy.

    — The value of masses of documents– evidence– cannot be understated because it cannot be ignored. Only mass evidence of NSA illegal spying “brought the president to the podium, and the people back to the table of government.”

    — Snowden noted his and other whistleblowers’ attempts to “go through channels” with their concerns, but cautioned “The American Revolution was not fought for the right to channels.”

    — Secret courts interpreting secret laws to issue secret findings carried out by secret agencies in secret defines much of our world today. The government through this “exploit chain” has shut us out from the process and policies that impact our lives.

    — Via his NSA revelations, we now know a new truth about our world, that who we love, who we spend time with, who we hate is now known by people who are not held accountable, not even by the full Congress.


    Encoding Our Rights

    Snowden’s most important points were part of a call to action for technologists. He emphasized encryption, while very important, only protects content (what is written in your emails) and not metadata (information about to whom you send emails, for example.) This means, encryption or not, everything you communicate is being measured and analyzed; the government is programmatically examining our lives, in bulk, creating layers of suspicion by association. And in that sense, metadata is not about you, or me, it is about us, the collective us, all Americans and all others around the world.

    In this sense, what the NSA is doing is perhaps greater, perhaps even worse, than “merely” listening in on what you say or reading what you write. They are, in a broader sense, creating a map of how every global citizen fits in with every other citizen. Pair that with whatever content is collected, and the NSA comes close to knowing everything.

    That is why, Snowden told the crowd, the next job for us all, and Snowden’s own future work, will be to encode our rights into our technology, to take away by our own hands and intellect what the government has learned to use against us.

    The key is to divorce the connection from the connector, i.e., create unattributable communications that destroy the government’s ability to collect and analyze metadata and run traffic analysis. Snowden gave the example of Tor, a secure enough networking tool. The big weakness of Tor is that the NSA can easily see that a computer has entered the Tor network, allowing them to otherwise easily target that computer, and, if possible, target the person associated with that computer. Same with someone who makes a call using the Verizon network. Divorcing the connection from the connector means cutting those links of association, forcing NSA to have to find some other means of targeting an individual or uncovering broader patterns.

    Whistleblowers

    A significant issue that holds many potential whistleblowers back is the risk of getting caught. Getting caught in this era means potentially life in prison, loss of family, loss of savings, loss of job and/or loss of status, position and identity. If technologists can lower the risk of getting caught, then that would likely make it more likely that more people would consider acts of patriotism and conscience. It is important that thousands (maybe hundred of thousands?) of people could have done what Snowden did, but only one man did it.

    Snowden then made one of his most chilling, and significant points, unexpectedly.

    He informed that crowd that there were almost certainly NSA operatives among them as he spoke. He explained that NSA has a budget just for sending people to hacker conferences, to see what they can learn, which people to look at further, and report back. Addressing those NSA people specifically, as well as the mass audience, Snowden challenged them directly to think about the world they wanted to live in, and then help build it.

    Comment

    Snowden just upped his game. In addition to his own work and revelations, he is now directing how others should proceed. He is combining technology and patriotism, whistleblowing and philosophy.

    The NSA may be right; Edward Snowden may be the most dangerous man (virtually) in America.

    Note: The presentation was built around a three-way discussion among Daniel Ellsberg, Trevor Timm and Ed Snowden. I’ve only reported on Snowden’s remarks, though seeing him interact with Ellsberg was like what I imagined being in the room would have been like when Bruce Springsteen met Pete Seeger.

    Here’s the full audio of the presentation if you’d like to listen.




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    War on Whistleblowers Moves to Supreme Court

    March 21, 2014 // 10 Comments »

    The Obama administration opened a new front in its ongoing war on whistleblowers. It’s taking its case against one man, former Transportation Security Administration (TSA) Air Marshal Robert MacLean, all the way to the Supreme Court. So hold on, because we’re going back down the rabbit hole with the Most Transparent Administration ever.

    Despite all the talk by Washington insiders about how whistleblowers like Edward Snowden should work through the system rather than bring their concerns directly into the public sphere, MacLean is living proof of the hell of trying to do so. Through the Supreme Court, the Department of Justice (DOJ) wants to use MacLean’s case to further limit what kinds of information can qualify for statutory whistleblowing protections. If the DOJ gets its way, only information that the government thinks is appropriate — a contradiction in terms when it comes to whistleblowing — could be revealed. Such a restriction would gut the legal protections of the Whistleblower Protection Act and have a chilling effect on future acts of conscience.

    Having lost its case against MacLean in the lower courts, the DOJ is seeking to win in front of the Supreme Court. If heard by the Supremes — and there’s no guarantee of that — this would represent that body’s first federal whistleblower case of the post-9/11 era. And if it were to rule for the government, even more information about an out-of-control executive branch will disappear under the dark umbrella of “national security.”

    On the other hand, should the court rule against the government, or simply turn down the case, whistleblowers like MacLean will secure a little more protection than they’ve had so far in the Obama years. Either way, an important message will be sent at a moment when revelations of government wrongdoing have moved from the status of obscure issue to front-page news.

    The issues in the MacLean case — who is entitled to whistleblower protection, what use can be made of retroactive classification to hide previously unclassified information, how many informal classification categories the government can create bureaucratically, and what role the Constitution and the Supreme Court have in all this — are arcane and complex. But stay with me.  Understanding the depths to which the government is willing to sink to punish one man who blew the whistle tells us the world about Washington these days and, as they say, the devil is in the details.

    Robert MacLean, Whistleblower

    MacLean’s case is simple — and complicated.

    Here’s the simple part: MacLean was an air marshal, flying armed aboard American aircraft as the last defense against a terror attack. In July 2003, all air marshals received a briefing about a possible hijacking plot. Soon after, the TSA, which oversees the marshals, sent an unencrypted, open-air text message to their cell phones cancelling several months of missions for cost-cutting reasons. Fearing that such cancellations in the midst of a hijacking alert might create a dangerous situation for the flying public, MacLean worked his way through the system. He first brought his concerns to his supervisor and then to the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general.  Each responded that nothing could be done.

    After hitting a dead end, and hoping that public pressure might force the TSA to change its policy, MacLean talked anonymously to a reporter who broadcast a critical story. After 11 members of Congress pitched in, the TSA reversed itself. A year later, MacLean appeared on TV in disguise to criticize agency dress and boarding policies that he felt made it easier for passengers to recognize marshals who work undercover. (On your next flight keep an eye out for the young man in khakis with a fanny pack and a large watch, often wearing a baseball cap and eyeing boarders from a first class seat.) This time the TSA recognized MacLean’s voice and discovered that he had also released the unclassified 2003 text message. He was fired in April 2006.

    When MacLean contested his dismissal through internal government channels, he discovered that, months after firing him, the TSA had retroactively classified the text message he had leaked. Leaking classified documents is more than cause enough to fire a federal worker, and that might have been the end of it. MacLean, however, was no typical cubicle-dwelling federal employee. An Air Force veteran, he asserted his status as a protected whistleblower and has spent the last seven years marching through the system trying to get his job back.

    How Everything in Government Became Classified

    The text message MacLean leaked was retroactively classified as “security sensitive information” (SSI), a designation that had been around for years but whose usage the TSA only codified via memo in November 2003. When it comes to made-up classifications, that agency’s set of them proved to be only one of 28 known versions that now exist within the government bureaucracy. In truth, no one is sure how many varieties of pseudo-classifications even exist under those multiple policies, or how many documents they cover as there are no established reporting requirements.

    By law there are officially only three levels of governmental classification: confidential, secret, and top secret. Other indicators, such as NOFORN and ORCON, seen for instance on some of the NSA documents Edward Snowden released, are called “handling instructions,” although they, too, function as unofficial categories of classification. Each of the three levels of official classification has its own formal definition and criteria for use. It is theoretically possible to question the level of classification of a document.  However much they may be ignored, there are standards for their declassification and various supervisors can also shift levels of classification as a final report, memo, or briefing takes shape. The system is designed, at least in theory and occasionally in practice, to have some modicum of accountability and reviewability.

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

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

    MacLean Wins a Battle in Court

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

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

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

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

    Not a Happy Ending But a Sad New Beginning

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

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

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

    This Is War

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

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

    MacLean’s case is one more battle in that war.  By taking the extraordinary step of going to the Supreme Court, the executive branch wants, by fiat, to be able to turn an unclassified but embarrassing disclosure today into a prohibited act tomorrow, and then use that to get rid of an employee. They are, in essence, putting whistleblowers in the untenable position of having to predict the future. The intent is clearly to silence them before they speak on the theory that the easiest leak to stop is the one that never happens. A frightened, cowed workforce is likely to be one result; another — falling into the category of unintended consequences — might be to force more potential whistleblowers to take the Manning/Snowden path.

    The case against MacLean also represents an attempt to broaden executive power in another way. At the moment, only Congress can “prohibit actions under the law,” something unique to it under the Constitution. In its case against MacLean, the Justice Department seeks to establish the right of the executive and its agencies to create their own pseudo-categories of classification that can be used to prohibit actions not otherwise prohibited by law. In other words, it wants to trump Congress. Regulation made by memo would then stand above the law in prosecuting — or effectively persecuting — whistleblowers. A person of conscience like MacLean could be run out of his job by a memo.

    In seeking to claim more power over whistleblowers, the executive also seeks to overturn another principle of law that goes by the term ex post facto. Laws are implemented on a certain day and at a certain time. Long-held practice says that one cannot be punished later for an act that was legal when it happened. Indeed, ex post facto criminal laws are expressly forbidden by the Constitution. This prohibition was written in direct response to the injustices of British rule at a time when Parliamentary laws could indeed criminalize actions retrospectively. While some leeway exists today in the U.S. for ex post facto actions in civil cases and when it comes to sex crimes against children, the issue as it affects whistleblowers brushes heavily against the Constitution and, in a broader sense, against what is right and necessary in a democracy.

    When a government is of, by, and for the people, when an educated citizenry (in Thomas Jefferson’s words) is essential to a democracy, it is imperative that we all know what the government does in our name. How else can we determine how to vote, who to support, or what to oppose? Whistleblowers play a crucial role in this process. When the government willfully seeks to conceal its actions, someone is required to step up and act with courage and selflessness.

    That our current government has been willing to fight for more than seven years — maybe all the way to the Supreme Court — to weaken legal whistleblowing protections tells a tale of our times. That it seeks to silence whistleblowers at a moment when their disclosures are just beginning to reveal the scope of our unconstitutional national security state is cause for great concern. That the government demands whistleblowers work within the system and then seeks to modify that same system to thwart them goes beyond hypocrisy.

    This is the very definition of post-Constitutional America where legality and illegality blur — and always in the government’s favor; where the founding principles of our nation only apply when, as, and if the executive sees fit. The devil is indeed in the details.




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    An Obligation to Speak Out

    July 20, 2012 // 2 Comments »



    In an age where dissent is thought of as a form of treason, where Federal agencies spy on their own employees to prevent whistleblowing, it is important to remind ourselves that as government workers– f*ck that, public servants— we have an obligation to speak out to the people we serve.

    Timothy MacBain, who creates the podcasts for TomDispatch, has created a brilliant audio meditation on whistleblowing well-worth a listen for its five minute span. Listen to it here.

    MacBain’s piece uses the voices of Daniel Ellsberg, author Eyal Press (Beautiful Souls: Saying No, Breaking Ranks, and Heeding the Voice of Conscience in Dark Times), attorney Chase Madar(The Passion of Bradley Manning), me, and one-time Constitutional law professor Barack Obama.

    Listen to it carefully, before someone switches the channel on you and

    shuts

    it

    off.



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