THE BLOG
08/01/2013 01:21 pm ET Updated Oct 01, 2013

American Whistleblowers in Prison and in Exile

Now that the verdict is in for Bradley Manning, Edward Snowden has been awarded asylum in Russia. The Manning conviction on six counts of espionage showed clearly that Snowden has a well-founded fear of persecution in the United States. Although he would be tried in a civilian rather than a military court, he could be incarcerated for decades for releasing classified information, even if the information should never have been classified in the first place.

The material released by Snowden exposed the fact that our national security agencies are spying on us, in violation of our constitutional rights under the First, Fourth and Fifth Amendments - our rights to freedom of speech, freedom of association and freedom from unreasonable search and seizure. Before Snowden blew the whistle on the US intelligence apparatus, we didn't know this, and for his actions, Snowden is now an enemy of the state.

What does this say about the United States government? What does it mean that a US whistleblower must seek asylum abroad because he exposed official lies and surveillance?

The United States used to be a country where people sought asylum from persecution.

In 2004, a Latin American colleague of mine - the president of a public service union in Colombia - was attacked because of her outspoken defense of freedom of association: the right to form a labor union. Gunmen shot up her apartment in Bogotá believing that her 17-year-old son was at home. So she sent her son - we'll call him Diego - out of the country to live with me in Washington and apply for asylum in the US.

This was a baffling time for both of us. The US State Department awarded Diego asylum speedily and efficiently. US social services were put at his disposal. At the same time, we both knew that the US Defense Department had armed the Colombian government to the teeth. True, this was a government at war with a guerrilla force, but it was also a government killing teachers, journalists, trade unionists and their children. The Colombian army had close links to faceless paramilitaries that terrorized, tortured and murdered people like Diego and his mother.

So, together, we faced the fact that there were really two Americas: one that offered refuge, safety and freedom, and another America that purveyed weapons and condoned murder in the interest of 'security' in Latin America.

Bradley Manning gave us a good hard look at the second America when he revealed the video "Collateral Murder," a brief film that showed US troops shooting unarmed civilians from a helicopter in Baghdad. For his trouble he has been convicted of espionage and will likely be incarcerated for years.

But who was he spying on? And who was he spying for? It appears that he was spying on the murderous America. And he was spying for the better America - the one we all believed we still were. He showed the American public and the rest of the world what the American government was really doing abroad. Now Edward Snowden has shown us what the government is really doing at home. Both men were charged with espionage and Manning has been convicted.

Between them, Manning and Snowden ripped away the veneer and the rhetoric about freedom and democracy here. They revealed the great breach between what our government says it's doing and what it really does.

The country that used to offer asylum is now the country that produces people seeking protection from the American National Security State, which has been steadily growing stronger while the rest of us weren't paying attention. While we were busy watching Rick Perry debate Michele Bachmann and Newt Gingrich about 'freedom.' While we were watching Barack Obama deplore the murder of children at Newtown, Connecticut late last year.

The hypocrisy is appalling. The two Americas cannot coexist for long. They are antithetical. A government cannot applaud free speech and repress it at the same time while still preserving legitimacy.

We are now engaged in a great battle for the integrity of the country. Two whistleblowers have revealed what we're up against. One is in prison and the other in exile. But those who lied to us and spied on us are still in office, and those who subverted the Constitution are not charged. On the contrary, they're running the country.

Yesterday, a number of them sat arrayed before the Senate Judiciary Committee explaining how dragnet domestic surveillance is consistent with freedom of association. NSA Deputy Director Chris Inglis, Deputy Attorney General James Cole, and FBI Deputy Director Sean Joyce told us how they carefully balance national security needs and civil liberties. But who gave these bureaucrats the authority to decide where our rights end? The Senate? The President?

Quite possibly. While listening to a tortured explanation of the effectiveness PRISM, XKeyscore, Boundless Informant and other fancifully-named surveillance programs, the senators repeatedly thanked Cole, Inglis and Joyce for their "service."

How many more whistleblowers and prisoners and exiles are we going to produce before we, as Americans, put a stop to this? The tables must turn soon. Manning and Snowden should be briefing Congress. And the men who testified yesterday before the Senate should be testifying as defendants in court, together with their appointed bosses.

They are the ones who betrayed the country while shamelessly claiming to protect it.

Bea Edwards is Executive & International Director of the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower protection organization.