Sep 1 2011

Obama’s DOJ Targets Whistleblowers

If they 'hate our freedoms,' maybe we need less of it

0213-obama-sotu-full-text_full_600If you really believed, as many Americans claimed to after the September 11 attacks, that “they hate us for our freedom” (Extra! Update, 10/01), then it makes a certain kind of sense to protect against future attacks–by reducing our freedom.

That would seem to be the only kind of logic that could justify the erosion of freedom of the press manifested by the Obama Justice Department’s concerted efforts to prosecute whistleblowers.

The first steps toward the criminalization of being a source for investigative journalism were taken by George W. Bush’s administration, when those who revealed how the “War on Terror” restricted civil liberties were threatened with jail (New York Times, 2/12/06). But, as Salon blogger Glenn Greenwald (4/16/10) pointed out, “the Bush DOJ [Department of Justice] never actually followed through on those menacing threats; no NSA whistleblowers were indicted during Bush’s term…. It took the election of Barack Obama for that to happen.”

Since Obama took office, his Justice Department has arrested or indicted at least five individuals for allegedly passing classified information to journalists–compared to three such prosecutions in the previous 40 years (Politico, 3/7/11).

The most famous of these is Bradley Manning, a U.S. soldier arrested in May 2010 under suspicion that he gave hundreds of thousands of classified military and State Department documents to the anti-secrecy project WikiLeaks. Manning’s treatment at the Quantico, Virginia, Marine Corps base where he was detained from July 2010 until April 2011 have been compared to the psychological warfare techniques employed by the CIA at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison (This Can’t Be Happening, 3/5/11).

Other media sources that Obama has targeted under the Espionage Act:

  •  NSA employee Thomas Drake was indicted in May 2010 for giving information about his agency’s warrantless wiretapping program to the Baltimore Sun‘s Siobhan Gorman (New Yorker, 5/23/11). The government’s case collapsed after revelations of prosecutorial errors, and Drake was allowed to plea bargain down to a minor misdemeanor charge (Nation, 6/13/11).
  • Former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling was charged in January 2011 with telling New York Times reporter James Risen about a botched sting operation that may have given Iran critical information about how to build a nuclear bomb. One count of the indictment against Sterling charges him with mail fraud–because the (apparently true) revelations about Iran appeared in a book by Risen that was sent through the mail (Secrecy News, 8/1/11).
  • Shamai Leibowitz, a former FBI linguist, pleaded guilty in May 2010 to violating the Espionage Act and was sentenced to 20 months in prison (Washington Post, 5/25/10). Leibowitz said he had given five documents revealing what he believed to be a “violation of the law” to an unnamed blogger; not even the judge who sentenced him was allowed to see what information had been divulged.
  •  In an even odder case, State Department arms expert Stephen Kim was charged in August 2010 with being the source for a report by Fox News‘ James Rosen that speculated on North Korea’s potential responses to criticism of its nuclear program. The bizarre part is that Kim had been told by his superiors to talk to Rosen–a job assignment that may cost the analyst 15 years in prison (New York Times, 6/18/11).

In none of the leak prosecutions pursued by the Obama administration was obvious harm done to U.S. security. And in the Drake and Sterling cases, the secrets allegedly passed on to media involve government waste, incompetence and overreaching–the very things, in other words, that the First Amendment was placed in the Constitution to allow journalists to document.

Still, Obama’s Justice Department–led by Assistant U.S. Attorney William L. Welch III, previously best known for the botched prosecution of Alaska’s Sen. Ted Stevens (New Yorker, 1/3/11)–continues its aggressive efforts to ferret out and imprison the sources of investigative reporters. In the view of Justice, such sources are more dangerous than spies; as it asserted in a brief supporting the detention of Sterling (Politico, 1/17/11):

Unlike the typical espionage case where a single foreign country or intelligence agency may be the beneficiary of the unauthorized disclosure of classified information, this defendant elected to disclose the classified information publicly through the mass media. Thus, every foreign adversary stood to benefit from the defendant’s unauthorized disclosure of classified information, thus posing an even greater threat to society.

Perhaps more to the point, information given to the media might potentially fall into the hands of the nation’s citizens–thus posing a threat to the continued existence of unaccountable government.