Last night, the National Press Club and Overseas Press Club of America hosted a prestigious panel discussion on Obama's war on whistleblowers. (Jake Tapper was set to moderate the discussion, but was called away for President Obama's "last year we got Bin Laden" speech).
First to speak was New York Times journalist and author Jim Risen, subject of three subpoenas – including two by the Obama administration – to testify about his sources in the Espionage Act case against former CIA officer Jeffery Sterling. Risen explained the history of the Executive branch's pursuit of his sources.
First, the Bush administration launched a multi-million dollar, multi-year "leak" investigation searching for the sources for his (and Eric Lichtblau's) Pulitzer Prize-winning 2005 article that exposed the National Security Agency's (NSA) unconstitutional warrantless wiretapping program. When that investigation dried up, the Bush administration – and later the Obama administration – targeted several chapters in his book, State of War, finally landing on the chapter about the CIA's botched attempt to sabotage Iran's nuclear program for which Sterling is the suspected source.
In its recent court filings in the Sterling case, the Obama Justice Department argued that there is no reporter's privilege in a criminal case. Risen was unable to discuss the case specifically as it is currently set for oral argument before the Fourth Circuit on May 18th, but he did eloquently articulate the reason for his battle:
Can you have a democracy without aggressive investigative journalism? I don't believe you can, and that's why I'm fighting.
Risen's fellow panelist, NSA expert and author James Bamford, brought the powerful visual of two massively thick binders that would have been his testimony in the Espionage Act case against NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake. (Bamford did not testify because the government's case crumbled under the weight of the truth days before trial). Bamford explained that his testimony would have shown that all of supposedly classified information the Justice Department was claiming Drake illegally retained was not only in the public domain, but put into the public domain by NSA and Executive branch officials. When it comes to government claims of classification, Bamford said he knows from experience that:
You have to fight them every chance you get.
The audience was as prominent as the panel, and included NSA whistleblower and former Espionage Act defendant Thomas Drake, CIA whistleblower and current Espionage Act defendant John Kiriakou, and We Meant Well author and whistleblower Peter Van Buren.
No one from the Justice Department showed up because they supposedly can't discuss the cases, though that didn't stop them from issuing prolix prejudicial press releases detailing the indictments of Thomas Drake and John Kiriakou. Former Justice Department spokesperson Matthew Miller – the self-appointed Justice Department flak for the war on whistleblowers – showed up to defend the Justice Department's Espionage Act prosecutions, and found little common ground from the panel or the audience. Rightfully so, considering Miller's comments ranged from uninformed to shameless Administration spin. A quick list of everything Miller got wrong:
- Miller claimed that while Thomas Drake seems to be a whistleblower (something the Justice Department vehemently denied throughout the case), it is "hard to argue" that the other Espionage Act defendants, particularly John Kiriakou, are whistleblowers.
*Wrong. I explained the whistleblowing of the Espionage Act defendants in my recent Salon piece, but to summarize:
FBI translator Shamai Leibowitz made his disclosures because of all-too-real fear that Israel might strike nuclear facilities in Iran.
Drake disclosed unclassified information about a failed and wasteful (multi-billion dollar) NSA spy program that compromised Americans' privacy.
State Department arms expert Steven Kim is accused of leaking to Fox News that North Korea was planning to response to a U.N. Security Council resolution by setting off another nuclear test - surely of public interest to China and South Korea.
Sterling is accused of being a source of Jim Risen's book, the chapter on the botched CIA effort to sabotage the Iranian nuclear program.
Kiriakou blew the whistle on waterboarding and helped expose the CIA's torture program as policy rather than the actions of a few rogue agents.
2. Miller claimed that the case against Kiriakou is not about Kiriakou's disclosures on waterboarding.
*Wrong again. The entire case against Kiriakou stems from information obtained by attorneys defending Guantanamo detainees (the victims of torture) in an effort to identify their torturers - a no-brainer in an Article III court but in the not-quite-due-process land of military commissions, an immense challenge.
Moreover, the only difference between Kiriakou and the 22 other sources for the 2008 New York Times article for which Kiriakou allegedly gave information or the people who gave the Guantanamo defense team some 69 other names of alleged torturers, is that Kiriakou was the first CIA officer to call waterboarding torture - classic whistleblowing.
3. Miller claimed that Kiriakou's conduct harmed or could harm national security because he allegedly leaked the name of a covert operative.
*I didn't get a chance to ask Miller the name of the covert operative Kiriakou supposedly "leaked," but if I had Miller would not have been able to answer becuase - as Thomas Drake pointed out to Miller during the Q & A - the name has never been released publicly. It appeared in a sealed Guantanamo filing. How exactly does it harm national security to have Guantanamo detainees' attorneys properly handling classified information in order to afford detainees a closer-to-fair trial?
4. Miller also contended that in most cases whistleblowers should go to the Inspectors General or Congressional oversight committees.
*What Miller conveniently left out was the fact that NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake went to the House and Senate Intelligence Committees and to the Department of Defense Inspector General, only to have his protected whistleblowing disclosures used against him in an Espionage Act prosecution.
If Miller is going to continue doing the Justice Department's bidding, he ought to at least get his facts straight.
Jesselyn Radack is National Security & Human Rights Director for the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower protection and advocacy organization. This column originally appeared in her Daily Kos diary.