Obama Whistleblower Prosecutions Lead To Chilling Effect On Press

04/16/2013 01:18 pm ET

NEW YORK -– On April 9, McClatchy’s Jonathan Landay reported that the Obama administration has “targeted and killed hundreds of suspected lower-level Afghan, Pakistani and unidentified ‘other’ militants” in drone strikes, a revelation that contradicts previous administration claims of pursuing only senior-level operatives who pose an imminent threat to the United States.

It was an investigative story clearly in the public interest, shedding new light on the government’s long-running targeted-killing program in Pakistan. But now Landay, a veteran national security reporter for the McClatchy newspaper chain, is concerned that the Obama administration could next investigate him in hopes of finding the sources for “top-secret U.S. intelligence reports” cited in the story. “Do I think that they could come after me?” Landay asked, in an interview with The Huffington Post. “Yes.”

“I can tell you that people who normally would meet with me, sort of in a more relaxed atmosphere, are on pins and needles,” Landay said of the reporting climate during the Obama years, a period of unprecedented whistleblower prosecutions. The crackdown on leaks, he added, seems “deliberately intended to have a chilling effect.”

Landay isn’t alone in that assessment, as several investigative journalists attest in “War on Whistleblowers: Free Press and the National Security State,” a timely documentary directed by Robert Greenwald of Brave New Foundation that premieres this week in New York and Washington. The film details the ordeals of four whistleblowers who turned to the press in order to expose waste or illegality.

“The Obama administration's been extremely aggressive in trying to root out whistleblowers within the government,” NBC News investigative reporter Michael Isikoff says in the film. The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer, describing the secrecy required in her reporting for a profile of whistleblower Thomas Drake amid government prosecution, said the experience didn’t “feel [like] America, land of the free press.”

Drake, a former senior executive of the National Security Agency, says in the film, "it's extremely dangerous in America right now to be right as a whistleblower when the government is so wrong." He adds: "speaking truth to power is now a criminal act."

Drake was charged in 2010 under the Espionage Act, a law passed in 1917 to prosecute spies. Drake was not a spy, but a government employee who tried unsuccessfully to report waste and abuse through official channels before contacting a Baltimore Sun reporter. The government's case eventually collapsed, with Drake only pleading guilty to a misdemeanor of "exceeding the authorized use of a computer."

"He was vindicated in the end, essentially," Daniel Ellsberg, the whistleblower behind the Pentagon Papers, said in the film. "But [Drake] had his life, for the moment, ruined."

Drake’s story is interspersed with those of three other whistleblowers who endured years of hardship as a result of coming forward through the press or directly on YouTube, including Marine Corps officer Franz Gayl, who spoke out about much-needed protection for soldiers against IED attacks in Iraq; former Lockheed Martin project manager Michael DeKort, who posted a video online revealing security flaws in the Coast Guard’s Deepwater project; and former Department of Justice attorney Thomas Tamm, who contacted The New York Times and provided information that helped expose the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping program.

Those men have been fired, prosecuted, or shunned because they spoke out. The government accountability advocates who have been forced to defend them, meanwhile, said they were worried the Obama and Bush administrations' aggressive actions against them have chilled future whistle-blowing.

"I've talked to a number of people who've made it clear ... that they are too afraid for their jobs," said Danielle Brian, the executive director of the Project On Government Oversight. "You have a combination of the fear of prosecution and this economy. If they lose this job, they might not be able to pay for groceries."

That might sound like an exaggeration, but not for Drake: he now works in a suburban Washington, D.C., Apple Store.

Advocates were optimistic last year, when Congress was debating a bill to enhance protections for government whistleblowers. A Senate version would have protected national security employees who used official, internal channels to ring the alarm on wrongdoing. The Republican-led House of Representatives, however, stripped out language that would have protected workers at intelligence community agencies like the CIA or NSA.

Just a few days after the House took that step, Obama issued an executive order directing intelligence community agencies to create new rules that would protect their employees from retaliation for speaking out. Whistleblower advocates have identified this as one of the biggest barriers to exposing misdeeds: once a security clearance is revoked, those working in the secretive intelligence world can't find a job even with outside contractors.

Obama's executive order, however, does not have the force of law. Until Congress does act, said Brian, leakers' only recourse will be through journalists, Congress's "worst fear."

"Those national security employees who feel like they have to do something, they go to the press," said Brian. "By not creating a safe channel, [Congress is] actually making things worse."

Meanwhile, the prosecutions continue. John Kiriakou, an ex-CIA officer who passed classified information about the CIA's secret post-9/11 interrogation program along to a reporter, was sentenced to 30 months in prison in January. Obama administration prosecutors said he had "betrayed" his fellow employees.

Kiriakou's status as a whistleblower is disputed. But for his lawyer Jesselyn Raddack, the National Security & Human Rights Director at the Government Accountability Project, the case says all she needs to know about the Obama administration's attitude toward whistleblowers.

Absent a public outcry, she said she saw few signs of improvement in Obama's second term.

"I know that he's tossed a few crumbs in our direction," she said. But "in general we had this secrecy regime put in place by Bush, and instead of rolling it back, Obama has just further expanded it"

Steve Coll, the incoming dean of Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism, profiled Kiriakou for the New Yorker earlier this month. Coll wrote about how "Obama's Justice Department has been unusually aggressive in prosecuting government officials for leaking secrets to the press," with six of the 10 cases over the past century occurring under Attorney General Eric Holder's watch.

“It seems as if the White House has set a kind of snowball rolling by allowing -- as White Houses sort of have to do -- the Attorney General to exercise discretion about which cases to bring forward and which not to," Coll said in an interview with The Huffington Post.

“Once you start to allow prosecutors to bring one case after another," Coll said, "it becomes difficult to stop that momentum."

Mayer said in an email that national security reporting has gotten "increasingly hard" ever since the Bush Administration investigated the Times' sources for its 2005 Pulitzer Prize-winning story on domestic spying.

"I'm not sure I'd say it's worse now than it was then, but starting then, government sources have really felt at legal risk. It's had a classic chilling effect on coverage," Mayer said. "Part of the problem stems from the technology revolution. It's a lot easier now for the government to spy on internet and phone communication than it was in the past. So, all together, I worry that the public may not be getting critical national security information about which it has a right to know.”

Landay and his McClatchy colleagues relied on government sources when producing some of the best reporting during the run-up to the Iraq War, a period where many in the media promoted the Bush administration's flimsy evidence for war. The result of the current administration cracking down on leaks or imposing strict message discipline, Landay said, will be that national security reporters like him "are going to try harder to do our jobs."

"We perform a vital function in a democracy like the United States, the few there are of us, the few whistleblowers," Landay said. "The harder the government tries to control critical information, the more damage it does to the quality of our democracy."

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