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Why Whistleblowers Matter

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Who can keep up? The revelations -- mainly thanks to the documents Edward Snowden took from the National Security Agency -- are never-ending. Just this week, we learned that GCHQ, the British intelligence agency whose activities are interwoven with the NSA's, used a program called Optic Nerve to intercept and store "the webcam images of millions of internet users not suspected of wrongdoing" (including Americans). As the Guardian reported, "In one six-month period in 2008 alone, the agency collected webcam imagery -- including substantial quantities of sexually explicit communications -- from more than 1.8 million Yahoo user accounts globally." Yahoo is now outraged; the Internet Association, a trade group for the giants of the industry, has condemned the program; and three U.S. senators announced an investigation of possible NSA involvement.

At about the same time, Glenn Greenwald revealed that GCHQ was engaging in "extreme tactics of deception and reputation-destruction." These included "'false flag operations' (posting material to the internet and falsely attributing it to someone else), fake victim blog posts (pretending to be a victim of the individual whose reputation they want to destroy), and posting 'negative information' on various forums." Again, this was evidently happening with the knowledge, if not collusion, of the NSA.

Meanwhile, with Washington entering a self-proclaimed era of "reform" when it comes to spying on Americans, we just got a striking you-can't-win-for-losing Catch-22 message from the front lines of the surveillance wars. Claiming that recent pending lawsuits make it necessary, the Obama administration has requested permission to hang on to phone metadata "on billions of U.S. phone calls indefinitely instead of destroying it after five years." Hmmm... this may be the only example we have of the U.S. intelligence community fighting tooth and nail to stick to the letter of the law.

And mind you, that's just dipping a toe in the positively oceanic global surveillance waters. It's been nine months since the Snowden revelations began and who can keep it all straight? Nonetheless, it's possible to put everything we know so far into a simple message about our American world-in-the-making: the surveillance part of the national security state has, in its own mind, no boundaries at all. As a result, there is no one, nor any part of communications life on this planet, that is out of bounds to our surveillers.

Given what we now know, it's easy to ignore what we don't know about how our government is acting in our name. That's why the figure of the whistleblower -- and the Obama administration's urge to suppress whistleblowing of any sort -- remains so important. How are we ever to know anything about the workings of that secret state of ours if someone doesn't tell us? As a result, the website I run, TomDispatch.com, remains dedicated to documenting the Obama administration's ongoing war against those who have the urge to bring the secret workings of the national security state to our attention -- especially in cases like Robert MacLean's, where otherwise little notice is paid in the mainstream media. So we've just published a piece about MacLean, "Silencing Whistleblowers Obama Style," by Peter Van Buren. Himself a State Department whistleblower, in it Van Buren takes another deep dive into the dark territory he has dubbed post-Constitutional America.