I know we are all supposed to be writing about the debt ceiling deal, but today's Philadelphia Inquirer published a joint op-ed by myself and NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake, his first public writing since pleading guilty to a minor misdemeanor after the Justice Department's Espionage Act case against him unraveled in spectacular fashion days before trial.
Drake and I wrote:
The Espionage Act was meant to help the government go after spies, not whistle-blowers. Using it to silence public servants who reveal government malfeasance is chilling at best and tyrannical at worst.
This administration's attack on national-security whistle-blowers expands Bush's secrecy regime and cripples the free press by silencing its most important sources. It's a recipe for the slow poisoning of a democracy.
Drake was sentenced to one year of probation and community service on July 15th after pleading guilty to a minor misdemeanor (misuse of a government computer), a far cry from the 35 years he was facing under the Justice Department's original charges. Steven Aftergood of Secrecy News obtained a transcript of the sentencing hearing, and summarized Judge Bennett's choice words for the Justice Department's handling of the case:
The government’s treatment of former National Security Agency official Thomas Drake was abusive and akin to acts of British tyranny in pre-Revolutionary War days, said Judge Richard D. Bennett at the July 15 sentencing hearing which concluded the Drake case . . .
Glenn Greenwald weighed in on the sentencing transcript, astutely pointing out how the transcript confirms what Drake and I wrote in the Inquirer today, that the Obama administration's policy of using the Espionage Act to go after so-called "leakers" is meant to send a message to future national security whistleblowers:
What is most notable about this hearing is that the prosecutor candidly described not only his reasons for wanting a substantial fine imposed on Drake, but (without his saying so) also the motive for the Obama DOJ's broader war on whistleblowers: namely, an attempt to send a "message" of intimidation to future would-be whistleblowers
Making the Justice Department's intent in the "leak" prosecutions clear, overzealous prosecutor William Welch argued at sentencing that Drake should be fined for receiving the Ridenhour Prize for Truthtelling in April 2011. Rick Piltz of Climate Science Watch summed it up well:
[the sentencing transcript] shows the Justice Department prosecutor calling for Drake to be fined an amount five times as great as the $10,000 of his Ridenhour Truth-Telling Prize awarded in April – in order to repudiate any idea that Drake should be honored and allowed to “profit” from his action in revealing a hugely wasteful boondoggle associated with illegal federal surveillance-state activity.
The Washington Post also picked up on Welch's attempt to use the Ridenhour against Drake, and describes how "Bennett balked," noting that the case had already raked "financial devastation" on Drake.
As our op-ed notes, using the criminal justice system to put a whistleblower like Drake through - in Judge Bennett's words - "four years of hell" sends a chilling message to employees who witness wrongdoing, to the detriment of the public and the First Amendment. The larger implications are not lost on reporter Jim Risen, who recently defeated yet another Obama Justice Department attempt to subpoena him to testify about his sources in another Espionage Act case. The Judge ruled to limit Risen's testimony to the accuracy of what he wrote, testimony Risen had always agreed to give. Risen wrote to Greenwald about the First Amendment implications of prosecuting whistleblowers:
But if whistleblowers in government, in corporations, and elsewhere in society can be hounded and persecuted, and if the Justice Department is able to use its power to turn reporters into informants, then investigative journalism in America will surely wither and die. The First Amendment will have lost its meaning.
Drake and I wrote in today's Inquirer that the Obama administration should be separating itself from the abuses of the Bush Administration, but the relentless prosecution of national security whistleblowers has nothing to do with protecting national security and everything to do with silence critics. It only further contributes to secrecy and further erodes democracy:
For a president who vowed to look forward and not backward when it came to investigating torture and warrantless wiretapping, it is rank hypocrisy to resuscitate such stale Bush-era cases against disclosures that served the public interest and did not harm national security.
Jesselyn Radack is National Security and Human Rights Director for the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower protection and advocacy organization.