President Obama came to office promising government transparency and accountability, but throughout his presidency, has acted more aggressively than any other president to silence government whistleblowers who might expose corruption, fraud and general wrongdoing. Since 2009, Obama has used the World War I-era Espionage Act six times to prosecute government officials suspected of leaking classified information. A Bloomberg report on this intimidation campaign summarized the objections this way: “the president’s crackdown chills dissent, curtails a free press and betrays Obama’s initial promise to ‘usher in a new era of open government.’”
The logic behind the prosecution of whistleblowers is that a government has the right to protect itself and its own best interests, and as a result, should be allowed to punish treasonous citizens. Woodrow Wilson argued that the Espionage Act allowed the government to protect itself against “insidious methods of internal hostil activities” and declared it unlawful in a time of war to publish information that the president may determine to be “of such character that it is or might be useful to the enemy.” Following this logic, it seems reasonable that Obama would crackdown on whistleblowers. The problem, though, Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian wrote, is that:
…This Obama whistleblower war has nothing to do with national security. It has nothing to do with punishing those who harm the country with espionage or treason. It has everything to do with destroying those who expose high-level government wrongdoing. It is particularly devoted to preserving the government’s ability to abuse its power in secret by intimidating and deterring future acts of whistleblowing and impeding investigative journalism.
Greenwald makes an important point here; the common thread between the cases of every whistleblower that has been prosecuted since 2009 is the growing strain of witnessing acts of fraud, corruption and flagrant unconstitutionality. The four whistleblowers from the National Security Agency (“The NSA Four”) all echo the struggle of being asked to hold classified information that is clearly in violation of the law. Thomas Drake, William Binney, J. Kirk Weibe and Edward Loomis make up the NSA Four, who were falsely accused of leaking confidential information in 2007. According to The Nation, the NSA Four have now endured years of harassment for “exposing the waste and fraud behind a multibillion-dollar contract for a system called Trailblazer, which was supposed to “revolutionize” the way the NSA produced signals intelligence (SIGINT) in the digital age.”
The NSA Four were responsible for creating an alternative system called ThinThread, which, according to all sources, was much more effective than Trailblazer, but was ultimately rejected in favor of Trailblazer. Trailblazer was created by outside contractors who reaped at least $1.2 billion from the system (though probably, Drake argued, several billion more). The move to privatize the system by choosing Trailblazer instead of ThinThread marks an organizational paradigm shift within the U.S. government. Concerned less with safety, honesty and transparency than money and loyalty, the government chose the outside contractor’s system, which the NSA Four argued was responsible for the failure to act preemptively to stop the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Weibe said, “NSA intelligence basically stopped in its tracks when they canceled ThinThread…and the people who paid for it were those who died on 9/11.”
The NSA Four revealed the government’s decision to use Trailblazer over ThinThread in August of 2001, which left the country willfully blind to all signs of the impending terrorist strike on September 11th. The NSA Four argue that had the government chosen ThinThread, the travesty 9/11 could easily have been avoided. Coming out with this information (though it aided no enemy) was all it took to have these four harassed and prosecuted, and though it has been years since they first came out with this disturbing information, the NSA Four’s struggle continues.
The NSA Four stand as just one example of the government’s crackdown on whistleblowers – most recently, the Justice Department has subpoenaed New York Times reporter James Risen, pushing him to testify that Jeffrey Sterling, a former CIA agent, gave him confidential information about CIA efforts to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program. Meanwhile, a United Nations whistleblower named James Wasserstrom won a case alleging corruption in the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Kosovo in 2007, and is now asking the U.S. to withhold 15% of its funding to the global organization “if an organization does not take steps to implement “best practices” to prevent retaliation against whistleblowers.” Of course the irony is that Obama’s administration has prosecuted more whistleblowers than any other president, and probably should not be expected to protect them in the future. The government’s attack on whistleblowers is a testament to its fear of exposure and its addiction to secrecy. As Forbes contributor John McQuaid wrote, “if you have money and power, you will do everything to protect it.” In an age of growing government surveillance, corruption and secrecy, and wherever money and power are at stake, there is no question that whistleblowing will continue to be punished rather than protected.