Whistleblowing in the winds of Washington

Sam Smith

For more than twenty years I’ve been a board member of the Fund for Constitutional Government which, among its activities, has assisted in funding several groups deeply involved in helping whistleblowers.

So the Edward Snowden story is anything but a new one to me. In fact, one of the funded groups – the Government Accountability Project – aided a couple of whistleblowers now being widely quoted in the Snowden case. Thomas Drake, and Bill Binney were clients of GAP. And both had worked for the NSA.

As a whistleblower site explains it: “In September 2002, three retired NSA employees and a retired congressional staffer filed a complaint accusing the NSA of massive fraud, waste and mismanagement. . .Drake did not sign the complaint because, still working at NSA, he feared retaliation. However, Drake became a critical material witness, fully cooperating with the investigation and using proper channels to provide investigators with thousands of documents – classified and unclassified.”

And, reports Wikipedia, “In 2010 the government alleged that Drake ‘mishandled’ documents, one of the few such Espionage Act cases in U.S. history. Drake’s defenders claim that he was instead being persecuted for challenging the Trailblazer Project. On June 9, 2011, all 10 original charges against him were dropped. Drake rejected several deals because he refused to “plea bargain with the truth”. He eventually pled to one misdemeanor count for exceeding authorized use of a computer; Jesselyn Radack of the Government Accountability Project, who helped represent him, called it an act of ‘civil disobedience.’”

I remember sadly Drake’s visit to a FCG board meeting, realizing that this man, who had shown integrity so rare in the capital, was no longer a senior official of NSA but working at an Apple store.

And the secrets don’t have to be even classified.

Wikipedia records people like James E Hansen, a top NASA scientist, who got into trouble as late as 2005 for revealing data that showed 2005 was the warmest year in a century. “Restrictions were placed on his ability to speak publicly about climate change research, including a requirement that public affairs staff review his lectures, papers, and web postings before releasing them. News media were repeatedly denied interviews with Hansen by his supervisors, and drafts of his reports are severely edited before publication”

About the same time Rick Piltz of the US Climate Change Science Progress obtained documents that “showed that a White House official with no scientific training was editing climate change science program reports in an attempt to confuse and obscure the perceived human impact on global warming. That official, previously a lead lobbyist for the American Petroleum Institute, was hired by Exxon Mobil mere days after leaving the White House (on the heels of the story).’

Hansen and Piltz were GAP clients.

Another group FCG helps fund is the sainted Project on Government Oversight, which has pursued matters from the profoundly corrupt to correcting a ridiculously naïve reflection of how the nature of our government has come to be misunderstood even on Capitol Hill, i.e. explaining to new staffers why members of Congress don’t have to file Freedom of Information requests to get information from the executive branch.

And, “in 2004, POGO filed a lawsuit against then-Attorney General John Ashcroft for illegally retroactively classifying documents critical of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The classification came to light after Sibel Edmonds, an FBI translator, discovered that intercepted memos relevant to the September 11 terrorist attacks had been ignored due to poor translation. POGO ultimately won the lawsuit.”

Then there was our long time board member, Ernie Fitzgerald who revealed the $2.3 billion cost overrun of a Pentagon airplane project. Richard Nixon fired him for that and only after extensive litigation was he restored to his post, where he didn’t give up, discovering in the 1980s that his agency was spending $600 a piece on some toilet seats and $400 apiece for some hammers.

After you listen to this stuff for a couple of decades something like the Snowden story is not all that surprising. And you learn that whistleblowers and their protectors are among the most valuable souls in the capital. Most people, though, aren’t that fortunate. The Washington establishment and its embedded media don’t want these stories remembered. And so premeditated amnesia accomplishes what improper secret classification couldn’t.

Further, after listening to this stuff of a couple of decades you also realize that whistleblowers fail to fulfill the fantasies of either their fans or their attackers. For one thing, there is no college that offers a course in whistleblowing. All whistleblowers are amateurs and that can be dangerous, confusing and depressing. Fortunately, the staff at groups like POGO and GAP not only know how to help on legal, public relations and political aspects of the problem, they also are good therapists, which is immensely valuable since telling the truth in Washington is one of the most dangerous things to do in town.

One learns from these folks that whistleblowers are ordinary people who find themselves in an extraordinary situation and – for reasons ranging from passion for the decent to a simple habit of honesty – react in a way that gets them on the front page of newspapers and the front row of a courtroom.

Yet, as Jack Shafer of Reuters put it:

Leakers like Snowden, Manning and Ellsberg don’t merely risk being called narcissists, traitors or mental cases for having liberated state secrets for public scrutiny. They absolutely guarantee it. In the last two days, the New York Times’s David Brooks, Politico’s Roger Simon, the Washington Post‘s Richard Cohen and others have vilified Snowden for revealing the government’s aggressive spying on its own citizens, calling him self-indulgent, a loser and a narcissist.

And we forget that:

Secrets are sacrosanct in Washington until officials find political expediency in either declassifying them or leaking them selectively. It doesn’t really matter which modern presidential administration you decide to scrutinize for this behavior, as all of them are guilty. For instance, President George W. Bush’s administration declassified or leaked whole barrels of intelligence, raw and otherwise, to convince the public and Congress making war on Iraq was a good idea. Bush himself ordered the release of classified prewar intelligence about Iraq through Vice President Dick Cheney and Chief of Staff I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby to New York Times reporter Judith Miller in July 2003.

Finally, as Christopher Pyle wrote in Consortium News:

Why can’t these politicians respect Mr. Snowden for what he is: an ordinary young man who does not claim to be a hero, but is willing to go to jail, if necessary, to start a debate over what our bloated intelligence community and do-nothing Congress are doing to our liberties?

Part of the answer is that the politicians don’t want to admit that Congress (and the courts) have failed to exercise adequate oversight over a giant network of secret agencies and corporations that is wasting billions of dollars on worthless surveillance and, in the process, invading the privacy of millions of Americans and endangering the capacity of reporters, leakers, and crusading members of Congress to check the secret abuses of secret government.

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