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Mouths Wide Shut: Obama’s War on Whistleblowers


Barack Obama was, in 2008, the anti-torture candidate.

It’s a sad comment on the state of U.S. democracy that such a thing ever existed. After all, it would be startling to hear appeals from a pro-oxygen or an anti-apocalypse candidate (though, of course, if the Republicans field a climate-change denier who uses the Book of Revelations as a policy guide, such a future scenario is not entirely beyond the realm of possibility).

Still, it was refreshing in 2008, after eight years on the “dark side,” to hear a presidential aspirant make a clear moral statement. “We need a commander in chief who has never wavered on whether or not it is acceptable for America to torture, because it is never acceptable,” Obama said in a back-and-forth with Hillary Clinton during the primary.

Obama also promised to end extraordinary rendition (sending suspects to countries that specialize in torture), close the Guantanamo detention facility, and rebuild America’s international reputation.

At first, it seemed as though the new president was fully prepared to take the high road. He immediately signed an executive order banning torture and detention by the CIA. This move effectively shuttered the secret prisons the CIA was running to conduct its own foreign policy. And, with a stroke of the pen, he closed Guantanamo, the very not-secret place where all manner of abuses have taken place.

Unfortunately, Congress pushed back against the Guantanamo closure, forcing the administration to opt for Plan B by releasing the detainees in dribs and drabs. The Senate eventually voted to ban torture earlier this year, codifying the president’s order. But because the president didn’t fully repudiate the legal memorandum that authorized the torture programs — the “gloves come off” Memorandum of Notification (MON) of September 17, 2001 — he left open the possibility that the United States could again use such extreme tactics.

Indeed, the administration hasn’t revised or removed Appendix M, which authorizes a variety of abusive techniques and which the Bush administration added to the Army’s interrogation manual. Also, exploiting the same arguments used in the notorious MON, the administration expanded drone strikes, which eliminated the need for torture by eliminating the suspects altogether.

Plus, given the secrecy enshrouding the national security complex, no one could be entirely certain — including our elected representatives — whether the intelligence agencies were complying with these orders. In 2011, for instance, the administration authorized the secret detention and interrogation of a suspected Somali terrorist on a U.S. vessel in international waters. We’ll just have to take Washington’s word that the interrogators went by the book (the U.S. Army Field Manual, in this case). There were also reports of the United States handing over detainees to Afghan authorities despite evidence of human rights abuses.

But one of the most perplexing paradoxes of the administration has been its attitude toward whistleblowers. Surely if Obama the candidate was willing to take these moral positions on torture and secrecy, he would embrace all the people in government who risked their livelihoods to do the right thing.

And yet the Obama administration has been ruthless in its prosecution of whistleblowers. I recently had an opportunity to ask a trio of America’s bravest whistleblowers — John Kiriakou, Jesselyn Radack, and Tom Drake — to explain why the president came into office like a civil liberties lion and has behaved instead like a national security sheep (albeit one with very sharp teeth). Their responses were both revealing and depressing.

Airbrushing the Past

All governments engage in leaks. They do it to control how the media reports a story. For the same reason, all governments hate unauthorized leaks, because suddenly they lose control of the story.

There’s a crucial difference between a whistleblower and a leaker. A whistleblower identifies a problem— an act of questionable legality — notifies a supervisor of the impropriety, and only provides information to Congress or the press if going through the normal chain of command fails to rectify the problem.

John Kiriakou, Jesselyn Radack, and Tom Drake all tried to address impropriety through the proper channels. John Kiriakou raised his concerns about torture within the CIA, Tom Drake alerted higher-ups within the NSA about illegal surveillance, and Jesselyn Radack communicated her discomfort about the interrogation of the “American Taliban” John Walker Lindh to her supervisor at the Justice Department. Frustrated by the lack of response — or, rather, by the very negative response — of the institutions where they worked, they risked everything to expose the misconduct.

As the powerful 2014 documentary Silenced reveals, all three whistleblowers paid very high prices for their courage. They lost their jobs. They found it extremely difficult to get new ones. They were threatened with legal action.

Kiriakou and Drake were even charged under the 1917 Espionage Act. Of the 10 cases of people charged under this act in U.S. history, the Obama administration is responsible for seven of them (including Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning). The charges against Drake were eventually dropped. Kiriakou went to prison for more than two years after taking a plea bargain on a lesser charge. (He didn’t want to agree to the plea, but the prospect of a longer prison term was just too daunting, particularly for someone with three young children.) He is now one of my colleagues at the Institute for Policy Studies.

What’s particularly disturbing about these cases is that the people responsible for the illegalities — the torturers and the officials who authorized illegal surveillance — have not been charged with anything.

Shortly after taking office, as journalist Glenn Greenwald pointed out, Obama “decreed absolute immunity for any official involved in torture provided that it comported with the permission slips produced by Bush Department of Justice lawyers which authorized certain techniques.”

As for those who went beyond the lax rules of the DOJ lawyers, and who were responsible for the deaths of as many as 100 detainees, they too would eventually receive absolution. In 2012, the Justice Department wrapped up two last cases involving torture, involving the death of an Afghan detainee at a CIA prison near Kabul in one instance and an Iraqi detainee at Guantanamo in the other, without any convictions. Instead of throwing the book at the torturers and the handlers who enabled them, the Justice Department closed the book on the legal proceedings.

In May 2015, meanwhile, a federal court ruled that the NSA metadata collection was illegal. Thanks to Edward Snowden and subsequent revelations, we know that the extent of NSA surveillance goes well beyond metadata to truly mind-boggling operations, from TREASUREMAP’s mapping of the Internet connections of everyone on the planet to the agency’s depositing of malware in more than 50,000 locations around the world. But not a single person engaged in the violation of the civil rights of Americans in these programs has been punished.

The Obama administration justified this effective amnesty of all government officials involved in the “dark side” — from George W. Bush and Dick Cheney all the way down to the guys who did the waterboarding and administered the illegal data collection — as a way to focus on the future and not the past.

The amnesty is morally questionable. But for the sake of argument, let’s say that the administration was right about closing the chapter on a divisive issue. Even in this case, the administration should have been generous to both malefactor and whistleblower.

But it’s gone after the messengers with a vengeance. Why?

The Deep State

John Kiriakou, Jesselyn Radack, and Tom Drake were all on hand for a screening of Silencedat the Goethe Institut in Washington, DC last week. That’s when I had an opportunity to ask them about the apparent paradox of the Obama administration’s permissiveness toward government officials who committed crimes and vindictiveness toward the civil servants who called them out on it.

They explained that the Barack Obama who ran for president was a different person than the one who occupied the Oval Office. As soon as he entered the White House and received his first top-secret briefing, the president was ushered into a new fraternity. He was dazzled by the potential of raw executive power, the godlike ability to determine life and death, as when the president conducts a weekly meeting to review the “kill list” of drone targets.

The president, in other words, was initiated into what amounts to a cult of national security. The first rule of this cult is to preserve its existence at all costs. Those who threaten the cult are, like any apostates, to be dealt with as ruthlessly as possible. After all, cult members who break the law are still acting according to the principles of the cult; apostates, however, challenge the very legitimacy of the cult.

The world of checks-and-balances, of an executive branch bounded by Congress and the court system, is meaningless to the national security state. This “deep state” remains impervious to elections, partisan passions, congressional inquiries, and legal challenges. It’s not a conspiracy any more than the Vatican is a conspiracy. It’s simply an institution with an imperative: to survive.

Obama’s commitment to the preservation of the national security state can be seen in his approach to secrecy in general. “Despite Barack Obama’s promises of a more transparent government, 76.7 million documents were classified in 2010, compared with 8.6 million in 2001 and 23.4 million in 2008, the first and last years of George W. Bush’s administration,” writes Andy Greenberg in his book This Machine Kills Secrets.

Obama’s cult membership explains his fiscal commitment to keeping the national security state flush with a trillion dollars of annual funding. The administration has upped the “black budget” for non-military intelligence agencies from $50.4 billion in 2015 to a proposed $53.9 billion for 2016. It would be nice to be able to tell you how that money is apportioned to the NSA, the CIA, and so on. But the Obama administration has refused to disclose that information.

It also explains why the Obama administration has not only gone after whistleblowers but also the press. It targeted both James Rosen and James Risen, attempted to smear USA Today journalists digging into Pentagon propaganda, and spied on a variety of reporters.

Members of the cult who have committed chargeable offenses but have not turned apostate have gotten off with a slap on the wrist. Former general David Petraeus, who shared top-secret information with a reporter that just happened to be his lover as well, received a sentence of two years probation and a fine of $100,000 (more than twice what the Justice Department pursued). He continues to receive a $220,000 pension, has had no difficulty getting a job at a top investment firm, and has been invited to join various elite institutions, including Harvard.

As for the whistleblowers, their suffering serves as a warning to all potential apostates. Edward Snowden remains in Moscow. Julian Assange is still holed up in the Ecuadoran embassy in London. Chelsea Manning is in prison, serving a 35-year sentence. Jeremy Hammond, Jeffrey Sterling, and Barrett Brown all face years of jail time. Indeed, under Obama, whistleblowers face a total of 751 months behind bars — compared to 24 months for all other whistleblowers combined since the American Revolution.

As Barack Obama tries to nail down his legacy in the next year, he’ll make many references to foreign policy victories like the deal with Iran and the opening with Cuba. He’ll hold up domestic successes like the Affordable Care Act.

But in basement offices in Washington, DC, secure locations in northern Virginia, and listening posts in suburban Maryland, the high priests and priestesses of a secretive cult are quietly toasting the president for a very different legacy: his fierce defense of a lawless and destructive fraternity that has only grown more powerful on his watch.

John Feffer is the director of Foreign Policy In Focus, where this article originally appeared.

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