Promises, Promises: Is the Obama DOJ Going after Whistleblowers?

Submitted by Elaine Magliaro, Guest Blogger

From Change.gov (The Office of the President-Elect Barack Obama):
“Often the best source of information about waste, fraud, and abuse in government is an existing government employee committed to public integrity and willing to speak out. Such acts of courage and patriotism, which can sometimes save lives and often save taxpayer dollars, should be encouraged rather than stifled. We need to empower federal employees as watchdogs of wrongdoing and partners in performance. Barack Obama will strengthen whistleblower laws to protect federal workers who expose waste, fraud, and abuse of authority in government. Obama will ensure that federal agencies expedite the process for reviewing whistleblower claims and whistleblowers have full access to courts and due process.”

Is President Obama following through on his promise to protect whistleblowers? It doesn’t appear so. One has only to look at the case of Jeffrey Sterling to see that our President has definitely not been working to strengthen laws that would protect them. Sterling, an alleged whistleblower, was arrested in early January on charges that he leaked national defense information to the media and revealed the identity of a “human asset.”

 In his article The DOJ’s creeping war on whistle-blowers (Salon), Glenn Greenwald writes that Obama’s pretty words have given way to the most aggressive crusade to expose, punish and silence “courageous and patriotic” whistleblowers by any President in decades. As the Federation of American Scientists’ Steven Aftergood put it, “They’re going after this at every opportunity and with unmatched vigor.” And last May, The New York Times described how “the Obama administration is proving more aggressive than the Bush administration in seeking to punish unauthorized leaks.”

Let’s step back a little. Last April, the Department of Justice served a subpoena on author James Risen. The DOJ wanted to know the identity of the source for a story about a botched CIA attempt to “trip up” Iran’s nuclear program that was included in Risen’s 2006 book State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration. According to Josh Gerstein (Politco): “The scheme involved using a Russian defector to deliver the faulty blueprints to the Iranians, but the defector blew the CIA’s plot by alerting the Iranians to the flaws — negating the value of the program, and perhaps even advancing Iran’s nuclear ambitions.”

Greenwald says that the subpoena was originally served but then later abandoned by the Bush DOJ. One has to ask why a President who campaigned on a platform of protecting whistleblowers decided to go after a whistleblower when the previous administration decided to drop the case.

The DOJ eventually uncovered the identity of the alleged source for Risen’s story without Risen’s help. It was Jeffrey Sterling, a former CIA agent who left the agency in 2002.

Maybe you’d like to know how Sterling’s identity was uncovered. Well, federal investigators targeted author/reporter Risen. They obtained Risen’s “three private credit reports, examined his personal bank records and obtained information about his phone calls and travel…”

Gerstein says the revelation that the government obtained that information about Risen has alarmed First Amendment advocates, particularly in light of Justice Department rules requiring the attorney general to sign off on subpoenas directed to members of the media and on requests for their phone records. And Risen told POLITICO that the disclosures, while not shocking, made him feel “like a target of spying.”

Greenwald says what he finds “particularly indefensible” is how the Obama DOJ is going back into the past to dig up “forgotten episodes.”

This is how Greenwald closes his article:
For a President who insists that we must “Look Forward, Not Backward” — when it comes to investigating war crimes by high-level Bush officials — this anti-whistleblower assault reflects not only an obsession on preserving and bolstering the National Security State’s secrecy regime, but also an intense fixation on the past. And increasingly extremist weapons — now including trolling through reporters’ banking and phone records — are being wielded to achieve it. As Thomas Jefferson warned long ago: “Our first object should therefore be, to leave open to him all the avenues of truth. The most effectual hitherto found, is freedom of the press. It is therefore, the first shut up by those who fear the investigation of their actions.”

Sources

The DOJ’s creeping war on whistle-blowers (Salon)

Feds spy on reporter in leak probe (Politco)

ABC News

57 thoughts on “Promises, Promises: Is the Obama DOJ Going after Whistleblowers?

  1. Jane Mayer on the Obama war on whistle-blowers
    BY GLENN GREENWALD
    http://www.salon.com/news/opinion/glenn_greenwald/2011/05/16/whistleblowers/index.html

    Excerpt:
    In a just released, lengthy New Yorker article, Jane Mayer — with the diligence and thoroughness she used to expose the Bush torture regime — examines a topic I’ve written about many times here: the Obama administration’s unprecedented war on whistleblowers generally, and its persecution of NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake in particular (Drake exposed massive waste, excess and perhaps illegality in numerous NSA programs). Mayer’s article is what I’d describe as the must-read magazine article of the month, and I encourage everyone to read it in its entirety, but I just want to highlight a few passages. First, we have this:

    When President Barack Obama took office, in 2009, he championed the cause of government transparency, and spoke admiringly of whistle-blowers, whom he described as “often the best source of information about waste, fraud, and abuse in government.” But the Obama Administration has pursued leak prosecutions with a surprising relentlessness. Including the Drake case, it has been using the Espionage Act to press criminal charges in five alleged instances of national-security leaks — more such prosecutions than have occurred in all previous Administrations combined. The Drake case is one of two that Obama’s Justice Department has carried over from the Bush years.

    Gabriel Schoenfeld, a conservative political scientist at the Hudson Institute, who, in his book “Necessary Secrets” (2010), argues for more stringent protection of classified information, says, “Ironically, Obama has presided over the most draconian crackdown on leaks in our history — even more so than Nixon.”

    When it comes to civil liberties and transparency — cornerstones of the Obama campaign — those two paragraphs are a perfect microcosm of what has taken place. And Mayer did not even include this quote about whistleblowers from candidate Obama: “Such acts of courage and patriotism . . . should be encouraged rather than stifled.” Apparently, by “encouraged,” he meant: “snuffed out with relentless prosecution and intimidation.”

    But for the real microcosm of the Obama legacy in these areas, Mayer offers this:

    Jack Balkin, a liberal law professor at Yale, agrees that the increase in leak prosecutions is part of a larger transformation. “We are witnessing the bipartisan normalization and legitimization of a national-surveillance state,” he says. In his view, zealous leak prosecutions are consonant with other political shifts since 9/11: the emergence of a vast new security bureaucracy, in which at least two and a half million people hold confidential, secret, or top-secret clearances; huge expenditures on electronic monitoring, along with a reinterpretation of the law in order to sanction it; and corporate partnerships with the government that have transformed the counterterrorism industry into a powerful lobbying force. Obama, Balkin says, has “systematically adopted policies consistent with the second term of the Bush Administration.”

    If someone asked me to point to a single paragraph that best conveys the prime, enduring impact of the Obama presidency, I’d point to that one.

    As for why serious tensions developed between Drake and his NSA superiors, Mayer explains that it originated with the post-9/11 work of NSA mathematician (and political conservative) Bill Binney, whose work was intended to fix the NSA’s flaws that allowed the 9/11 plot to go undetected but was quickly exploited far beyond that purpose by Bush’s NSA:

    Binney expressed terrible remorse over the way some of his algorithms were used after 9/11. ThinThread, the “little program” that he invented to track enemies outside the U.S., “got twisted,” and was used for both foreign and domestic spying: “I should apologize to the American people. It’s violated everyone’s rights. It can be used to eavesdrop on the whole world.” According to Binney, Drake took his side against the N.S.A.’s management and, as a result, became a political target within the agency.

  2. The Secret Sharer
    Is Thomas Drake an enemy of the state?
    by Jane Mayer
    The New Yorker
    http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2011/05/23/110523fa_fact_mayer?currentPage=all

    Excerpt:
    On June 13th, a fifty-four-year-old former government employee named Thomas Drake is scheduled to appear in a courtroom in Baltimore, where he will face some of the gravest charges that can be brought against an American citizen. A former senior executive at the National Security Agency, the government’s electronic-espionage service, he is accused, in essence, of being an enemy of the state. According to a ten-count indictment delivered against him in April, 2010, Drake violated the Espionage Act—the 1917 statute that was used to convict Aldrich Ames, the C.I.A. officer who, in the eighties and nineties, sold U.S. intelligence to the K.G.B., enabling the Kremlin to assassinate informants. In 2007, the indictment says, Drake willfully retained top-secret defense documents that he had sworn an oath to protect, sneaking them out of the intelligence agency’s headquarters, at Fort Meade, Maryland, and taking them home, for the purpose of “unauthorized disclosure.” The aim of this scheme, the indictment says, was to leak government secrets to an unnamed newspaper reporter, who is identifiable as Siobhan Gorman, of the Baltimore Sun. Gorman wrote a prize-winning series of articles for the Sun about financial waste, bureaucratic dysfunction, and dubious legal practices in N.S.A. counterterrorism programs. Drake is also charged with obstructing justice and lying to federal law-enforcement agents. If he is convicted on all counts, he could receive a prison term of thirty-five years.

    The government argues that Drake recklessly endangered the lives of American servicemen. “This is not an issue of benign documents,” William M. Welch II, the senior litigation counsel who is prosecuting the case, argued at a hearing in March, 2010. The N.S.A., he went on, collects “intelligence for the soldier in the field. So when individuals go out and they harm that ability, our intelligence goes dark and our soldier in the field gets harmed.”

    Top officials at the Justice Department describe such leak prosecutions as almost obligatory. Lanny Breuer, the Assistant Attorney General who supervises the department’s criminal division, told me, “You don’t get to break the law and disclose classified information just because you want to.” He added, “Politics should play no role in it whatsoever.”

    When President Barack Obama took office, in 2009, he championed the cause of government transparency, and spoke admiringly of whistle-blowers, whom he described as “often the best source of information about waste, fraud, and abuse in government.” But the Obama Administration has pursued leak prosecutions with a surprising relentlessness. Including the Drake case, it has been using the Espionage Act to press criminal charges in five alleged instances of national-security leaks—more such prosecutions than have occurred in all previous Administrations combined. The Drake case is one of two that Obama’s Justice Department has carried over from the Bush years.

    Gabriel Schoenfeld, a conservative political scientist at the Hudson Institute, who, in his book “Necessary Secrets” (2010), argues for more stringent protection of classified information, says, “Ironically, Obama has presided over the most draconian crackdown on leaks in our history—even more so than Nixon.”

    One afternoon in January, Drake met with me, giving his first public interview about this case. He is tall, with thinning sandy hair framing a domed forehead, and he has the erect bearing of a member of the Air Force, where he served before joining the N.S.A., in 2001. Obsessive, dramatic, and emotional, he has an unwavering belief in his own rectitude. Sitting at a Formica table at the Tastee Diner, in Bethesda, Drake—who is a registered Republican—groaned and thrust his head into his hands. “I actually had hopes for Obama,” he said. He had not only expected the President to roll back the prosecutions launched by the Bush Administration; he had thought that Bush Administration officials would be investigated for overstepping the law in the “war on terror.”

    “But power is incredibly destructive,” Drake said. “It’s a weird, pathological thing. I also think the intelligence community coöpted Obama, because he’s rather naïve about national security. He’s accepted the fear and secrecy. We’re in a scary space in this country.”

  3. Read the New Yorker article last night. Thanks for posting it. The last paragraph of the posting describes the situation perfectly.

    “But power is incredibly destructive,” Drake said. “It’s a weird, pathological thing. I also think the intelligence community coöpted Obama, because he’s rather naïve about national security. He’s accepted the fear and secrecy. We’re in a scary space in this country.”

    from the press release:

    Drake and several fellow-dissidents at the N.S.A., all of whom were registered Republicans, tell Mayer the story of their previously unknown efforts to stop the N.S.A. from engaging in what they saw as illegal domestic surveillance. Bill Binney, a former top N.S.A. analyst, tells Mayer he believes that “a little program” he developed was “twisted” into an alarmingly invasive program of domestic spying. “I should apologize to the American people. It’s violated everyone’s rights. It can be used to eavesdrop on the whole world,” Binney says. “It can create an Orwellian state. It’s exactly what the Founding Fathers never wanted.” Binney confided his fears to Diane Roark, the Republican staff member on the House Intelligence Committee whose job it was to oversee the N.S.A.

    Read more http://www.newyorker.com/services/presscenter/2011/05/23/110523pr_press_releases#ixzz1Mcv2tjZq

    —————

    There are some wicked things goin’ on…, but the road to revelation is, apparently, a very long and tortuous one. Word will get out, with or without those who are, quite literally, obstructing justice.

  4. http://www.commondreams.org/view/2011/06/06

    Published on Monday, June 6, 2011 by CommonDreams.org

    The Loneliness and Courage of Thomas Drake: A Whistleblower’s Journey
    by Robert Shetterly

    “As a student of history and politics, I firmly believe that we have reached a breaking point in this country, when the government violates and erodes our very privacy and precious freedoms in the name of national security and then hides it behind the convenient label of secrecy.

    This is not the America I took an oath to support and defend in my career. This is not the America I learned about while growing up in Texas and Vermont. This is not the America we are supposed to be.” — Thomas Drake, from his acceptance speech of the 2011 Ridenhour Prize for Truth–Telling

  5. I just saw the latest on the Thomas Drake whistleblower case. In a diary by Jesselyn Radack, a former FBI agent and whistleblower herself, she reports the government case against Mr. Drake is “imploding.”

    http://www.dailykos.com/story/2011/06/09/983529/-UPDATEWaPo-Front-Page:-Case-Against-NSA-Whistleblower-Thomas-Drake-Imploding?detail=hide

    More analysis from the New Yorker

    http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/newsdesk/2011/06/is-the-nsa-whistleblower-case-falling-apart.html

  6. anon nurse,

    From the link (article) you posted:

    “This is just more evidence that the government never should have prosecuted Thomas Drake,” said Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight. “We should be thankful that Mr. Drake had the courage to stand by his convictions and do what was best for the country.”

    Keep on keeping on … sometimes the good guys do win. I’m certain Mr. Drake privately suffered through many long, sleepless, nights … strength of character, kiddo, strength of character …

  7. Thanks for that, Blouise. Good people are helping… and I count you among them… I’ll definitely “stay the course, no matter the outcome, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say that it’s taken a mighty toll…

  8. Why are we subverting the Constitution in the name of security?

    by Thomas Drake

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/why-are-we-subverting-the-constitution-in-the-name-of-security/2011/08/25/gIQANnrheJ_story.html

    Excerpt:

    I raised the gravest of concerns through all the proper channels, reporting massive contract fraud, management malfeasance and illegalities conducted by the NSA, including critical intelligence information and analysis that was never reported or shared by the NSA. Had this vital and actionable intelligence been properly analyzed and disseminated by the NSA, it could have led to the capture of the Sept. 11 hijackers and prevented the attacks.

    I followed all the rules for reporting such activity until it conflicted with the primacy of my oath to defend the Constitution. I then made a fateful choice to exercise my fundamental First Amendment rights and went to a journalist with unclassified information about which the public had a right to know.

    Why are we subverting the Constitution in the name of security?
    Rather than address its own corruption, ineptitude and illegal actions, the government made me a target of a multi-year, multimillion-dollar federal criminal “leak” investigation as part of a vicious campaign against whistleblowers that started under President George W. Bush and is coming to full fruition under President Obama.

    To the government, I was a traitor and enemy of the state. As an American, however, I could not stand by and become an accessory to the willful subversion of our Constitution and our freedoms.

    It is a basic precept when taking the oath to defend the Constitution as a government employee and providing for the common defense that you do not sell out intelligence or national security to the highest bidder, or keep our nation’s decision makers in the dark, or turn information into a political tool and, driven by self-interest, use it to hammer whistleblowers.

    Such egregious behavior sends a chilling message about what the government can and will do to those who speak truth to power — a direct form of political repression and censorship.

    Once exposed, these unconstitutional detours are justified by vague and undefined claims of “national security,” aided and abetted by officials’ shameless fear-mongering while they cover up their own actions and keep them secret from the public.

    The real consequence of such behavior by our government is also chilling: It weakens our national security and keeps the public less informed, while wasting billions of dollars enriching any number of contractors that are profiteering at the expense of our security and common defense.

    Before the war on terrorism, our country recognized the importance of free speech and privacy. If we sacrifice these basic liberties, according to the false dichotomy that such is required for security, then we transform ourselves from an oasis of freedom into a police state that crucifies its citizens when they step out of line or speak up against government wrongdoing. These are the hallmarks of despotism, not democracy. Is this the country we want to keep?

    Thomas Drake, a former senior executive at the National Security Agency, received the 2011 Ridenhour Truth-Telling Prize.

  9. Blowing the whistle on Obama’s America

    Do the threats facing whistleblowers under Obama’s presidency mean Americans know less about what their government does?

    Listening Post Last Modified: 05 Jan 2013 10:40

    http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/listeningpost/2012/06/20126816273761143.html

    This week: A Listening Post special – Whistleblowing and the US media.

    On the campaign trail four years ago, US presidential candidate Barack Obama shared his views on whistleblowers. He said: “Often the best source of information about waste, fraud and abuse in government is a government employee committed to public integrity, willing to speak out. Such acts of courage and patriotism … should be encouraged rather than stifled.”

    As president, the reality has been very different. During his first term in office, six whistleblowers have been charged under the Espionage Act for allegedly mishandling classified information. That is twice as many as all previous presidents combined.

    The threat facing whistleblowers has implications in many areas, including defence, intelligence and national security. And then there is the impact it is having on the US media: In a digital age, where electronic paper trails are hard to hide, journalists are no longer able to guarantee their sources’ anonymity. And if the sources dry up, so do the stories and the American people are left knowing less and less about what their government is doing.

    In the first half of this full edition special, we blow the whistle on President Obama’s America.

    Jesselyn Radack is a lawyer who worked as an ethics adviser for the US Department of Justice. In 2001, Radack revealed that the FBI questioned John Walker Lindh – ‘the American Taliban’ – illegally and that his so-called confession might not stand up in a court of law. Radack was heavily criticised and became the target of a Federal criminal ‘leak investigation’. After a year she resigned.

    In the second half of the show, Radack talks to us about the impact whistleblowing has had on US journalism and what news organisations are doing about it.

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