The Obama administration’s war on whistleblowers

Brian Kelly Assistant Editor, The New Criterion
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Last week marked the two-year anniversary of WikiLeaks’ publication of the Afghan War Diary. The anniversary is a reminder of the Obama administration’s systematic silencing and prosecution of whistleblowers and leakers who have pointed out the federal government’s failures.

For those who may have forgotten, the Afghan War Diary is a collection of more than 91,000 U.S. military documents covering the War in Afghanistan from January 2004 to December of 2009 that offers a dark picture of the conflict, including evidence of civilian killings, incidents of friendly fire, and the hiring of child prostitutes by Defense Department contractors. Additionally, many documents suggest a robust insurgency whose opposition to coalition forces is proving more challenging than expected due to its use of advanced weaponry, sustained involvement by al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden, and varying levels of foreign support for the Taliban from Pakistan, Iran, and North Korea.

The arrest of Bradley Manning, the U.S. soldier suspected of leaking these and other documents, is just one example of the Obama administration’s war on whistleblowers. While the Bush presidency wasn’t whistleblower-friendly by any means, the current administration has been downright deceitful in its treatment of people trying to bring pressing issues to light. As president-elect, Obama outlined his plans in the “Ethics” section of his transition team’s website:

Protect Whistleblowers: 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.

However, the Obama administration has already charged six people under the Espionage Act, more than every previous administration combined. While Manning’s story continues to generate controversy due to the nature of the material he leaked, Julius Rosenberg he is not.

And who are these other five miscreants? What terribly important secrets have they revealed that have undoubtedly compromised our national security to such a degree that they are charged under a law whose punishment can still include the death penalty?

The answers are unsettling. Each of those charged were government workers who are being prosecuted for unmasking government boondoggles, botched foreign relations, and unflattering internal procedures — not for revealing any information that threatens the wellbeing of the nation.

Jeffrey Sterling, an ex-C.I.A. officer, was indicted for leaking information about Operation Merlin, which was subsequently used in “State of War,” a book by New York Times reporter James Risen. The book explains that the operation helped speed the development of Iran’s nuclear weapons program when its intention was to do the exact opposite — ironically by giving Iran plans to build a warhead (Fast & Furious: The Prequel?).

Thomas Drake is a former senior executive at the National Security Agency who faces 35 years for telling The Baltimore Sun about wasteful spending on the Trailblazer Project that cost taxpayers $1.2 billion.

Shamai K. Leibowitz was sentenced to 20 months in prison for giving a blogger information about U.S. efforts to spy on Israel, which he uncovered during his time as an F.B.I. translator.

Stephen Jin-Woo Kim, an analyst and former State Department contractor, is facing charges for telling James Rosen of Fox News that North Korea was planning on running another nuclear test — information that John Bolton, U.S. ambassador to the U.N. and former undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, said was “neither particularly sensitive nor all that surprising.”

Former C.I.A. officer John Kiriakou has been brought up on charges after sending information to journalists about C.I.A. interrogations and waterboarding.

Why has the Justice Department chosen to pursue these cases while leaks happen every day that go unpunished? The reckless use of the Espionage Act has nothing to do with protecting national security, as the administration has claimed again and again. It’s entirely about making sure that the only leaks that happen are the ones approved by those at the top — the kind that keep everything looking fine. The message being sent to would-be whistleblowers is clear: If your leak starts to sink the presidential ship, you should be prepared for blowback.

Last week, Romney attacked Obama, saying that his administration has allowed — or is responsible for — leaks that benefit him politically. Regardless of its involvement in recent leaks, the administration has made it clear that it views whistleblowing as “acts of courage and patriotism [that] should be encouraged rather than stifled” only when those acts paint the government in a positive light.

Brian Kelly is a freelance writer, the Assistant Editor at The New Criterion, and a recent graduate of Brown University.