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In Plato’s Trial and Death of Socrates Socrates is charged with corrupting the youth for the ghastly crime of encouraging his students to ask questions. The philosopher defended himself by saying he is actually a gift to Athens because like a gadfly to a horse, he stirs the citizens to life, and without his pestering questions the citizens of Athens would remain asleep to the true nature of Athenian society. Like Socrates, journalists and whistleblowers question accepted truths and help illuminate the mechanisms of power in their society. When people understand the actors that are responsible for injustice, they may just take action to change society. This is why Obama’s war on whistleblowers is such a dangerous development.
Yet the AP scandal is only the most recent in a long line of attacks on leakers and journalists. The history of Obama’s commitment to government secrecy is most exemplified by his use of the espionage act six times against leakers with Julian Assange possibly becoming the seventh. That’s twice as many times as all other presidents combined. Obama has used the espionage act against: Shamai Leibowitz, Thomas Drake, Bradley Manning, Stephen Kim, Jeffery Sterling, and John Kiriakou. Other leakers have had prosecution attempted by the DOJ, and still others suspected of leaking have had their careers ruined—by having security clearances revoked—and have been intimidated by the Obama administration.
The freedom of information activist Aaron Swartz, who was a major figure behind the mobilizations against the Internet censorship bills CISPA and SOPA, faced a “needlessly cruel” prosecution from the DOJ. His family believed the prosecution might have led to his suicide. But now Obama has even formally accused the journalist, James Rosen, who was simply reporting information a government official told him.
Lest you think Obama’s battle against journalists hasn’t extended outside the United States, an article by Jeremy Scahill describes how the jailed Yemeni journalist, Abdulelah Haider Shaye, was about to be pardoned by the Yemeni president, but Obama called him and persuaded him not to.
Most of the espionage cases back in the U.S. are still ongoing, but Leibowitz and Kiriakou have already been sentenced to jail time, and the very use of the espionage act signifies the DOJ wants serious punishment for the others indicted. Bradley Manning faces life in prison when his trial begins June 3 and Julian Assange would likely face the same or worse if the US could get a hold of him.
When one looks back at the pernicious actions the Obama administration has taken against whistleblowers and journalist, it’s clear the government wants to crush any prominent voices that question the government’s official narrative regardless of how many lives are destroyed in the process. But why is Obama waging this war on leakers?
Undoubtedly, one of the main reasons for the crackdown on whistleblowers has to do with Wikileaks. When Wikileaks initially released the Afghan War leak in 2010 the U.S. population was told that Wikileaks had endangered national security, but Obama has since claimed the leaks revealed nothing new. Then in January of 2011congressional aides told Reuters the Wikileaks revelations were “embarrassing, but not damaging”.
It’s clear that the minimizing of the Wikileaks effect on U.S. interests is simply an attempt to publicly deny the extremely significant blows the U.S. suffered to its imperialist policies. The truth is the Iraq War Leak was one of the major factors that forced the U.S. to abandon its combat operations in Iraq. The cables revealed that in 2006 U.S. troops executed 10 Iraqi civilians and used an air strike to destroy the evidence. This information received a great deal of attention in Iraq and made it politically impossible for the Prime Minister of Iraq, Nouri al-Maliki, to agree to a status of forces agreement, which left U.S. troops outside the jurisdiction of Iraqi courts. With U.S. troops potentially facing trials for their inevitable crimes, the U.S. was forced to leave Iraq.
Cablegate’s 250,000 state department cables were one of the other ways Wikileaks damaged U.S. control in the Middle East. Amnesty International, as well as a number of other sources have claimed that the leaked cables exposed—in the most concrete terms—the corruption of the U.S. supported dictators and played a major role in causing the Arab Spring.
The leaks demonstrate that the U.S. government will do anything it can to prevent people—inside the U.S. and out—from knowing what the U.S. and its client governments are doing. The results of the leaks showed what the ramifications can be when people know what their governments are doing.
The other major reason why Obama has been cracking down so much on journalists and whistleblowers is because the U.S. government has created an enormous security and surveillance apparatus since 9-11. The enlarged surveillance started under Bush, and Obama has simply increased these policies. Once a government establishes new initiatives of security and surveillance they tend to find individuals to prosecute—legitimate or otherwise. These prosecutions justify the existence of the surveillance and serve a dual purpose of frightening the population. In other words, when institutions of power consolidate their power they don’t give it back. This is the reason imperial powers never give up their colonies unless they’re forced to.
Understanding these reasons behind the attacks on leakers is important because it signifies the attacks are unlikely to end. The longer Obama’s P.R. strategy of playing “nice guy” under the lights while saving his most brutal acts for the darkness continues to fool people, the more damage Obama will be capable of doing. Already he has taken serious actions to begin dismantling one of American society’s proudest achievements—freedom of speech. Freedom of speech is protected in the U.S. at a level unparalleled in the world. Yet Obama, like Socrates’ dikasts, has decided to silence inconvenient questioning of the state and harshly punish those who attempt to pull the masks off centers of power. The question now is, will American citizens be stirred to life like Socrates’ horse from the gadflies of today and realize there is a serious and continued erosion of their freedoms taking place, or will they remain asleep until Obama has handed out his last cup of poison hemlock?