Jane Mayer on the Obama war on whistle-blowers

In a must-read article, the New Yorker documents Obama's war on whistle-blowers, and growing legacy

Topics: Barack Obama,

Jane Mayer on the Obama war on whistle-blowersPresident Barack Obama boards Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., Tuesday, May 10, 2011, as he travels to the U.S.-Mexico border at El Paso, Texas, to speak about immigration reform, Tuesday, May 10, 2011. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)(Credit: AP)

In a just released, lengthy New Yorker article, Jane Mayer — with the diligence and thoroughness she used to expose the Bush torture regime — examines a topic I’ve written about many times here:  the Obama administration’s unprecedented war on whistleblowers generally, and its persecution of NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake in particular (Drake exposed massive waste, excess and perhaps illegality in numerous NSA programs).  Mayer’s article is what I’d describe as the must-read magazine article of the month, and I encourage everyone to read it in its entirety, but I just want to highlight a few passages.  First, we have this:

When President Barack Obama took office, in 2009, he championed the cause of government transparency, and spoke admiringly of whistle-blowers, whom he described as “often the best source of information about waste, fraud, and abuse in government.” But the Obama Administration has pursued leak prosecutions with a surprising relentlessness. Including the Drake case, it has been using the Espionage Act to press criminal charges in five alleged instances of national-security leaks — more such prosecutions than have occurred in all previous Administrations combined. The Drake case is one of two that Obama’s Justice Department has carried over from the Bush years.

Gabriel Schoenfeld, a conservative political scientist at the Hudson Institute, who, in his book “Necessary Secrets” (2010), argues for more stringent protection of classified information, says, “Ironically, Obama has presided over the most draconian crackdown on leaks in our history — even more so than Nixon.”

When it comes to civil liberties and transparency — cornerstones of the Obama campaign — those two paragraphs are a perfect microcosm of what has taken place.  And Mayer did not even include this quote about whistleblowers from candidate Obama:  ”Such acts of courage and patriotism . . . should be encouraged rather than stifled.”  Apparently, by “encouraged,” he meant: “snuffed out with relentless prosecution and intimidation.”  



But for the real microcosm of the Obama legacy in these areas, Mayer offers this:

Jack Balkin, a liberal law professor at Yale, agrees that the increase in leak prosecutions is part of a larger transformation. “We are witnessing the bipartisan normalization and legitimization of a national-surveillance state,” he says. In his view, zealous leak prosecutions are consonant with other political shifts since 9/11: the emergence of a vast new security bureaucracy, in which at least two and a half million people hold confidential, secret, or top-secret clearances; huge expenditures on electronic monitoring, along with a reinterpretation of the law in order to sanction it; and corporate partnerships with the government that have transformed the counterterrorism industry into a powerful lobbying force. Obama, Balkin says, has “systematically adopted policies consistent with the second term of the Bush Administration.”

If someone asked me to point to a single paragraph that best conveys the prime, enduring impact of the Obama presidency, I’d point to that one.

As for why serious tensions developed between Drake and his NSA superiors, Mayer explains that it originated with the post-9/11 work of NSA mathematician (and political conservative) Bill Binney, whose work was intended to fix the NSA’s flaws that allowed the 9/11 plot to go undetected but was quickly exploited far beyond that purpose by Bush’s NSA:

Binney expressed terrible remorse over the way some of his algorithms were used after 9/11. ThinThread, the “little program” that he invented to track enemies outside the U.S., “got twisted,” and was used for both foreign and domestic spying: “I should apologize to the American people. It’s violated everyone’s rights. It can be used to eavesdrop on the whole world.” According to Binney, Drake took his side against the N.S.A.’s management and, as a result, became a political target within the agency.

The prohibition on domestic spying was long one of the NSA’s central mandates, and objecting to the agency’s post-9/11 use of its awesome technology to turn inward on the American people is about as pure whistleblowing as it gets.  Recall what former Idaho Senator Frank Church said about the NSA after his mid-1970s Committee uncovered decades of severe surveillance abuses under virtually every President since World War II:  ”That capability at any time could be turned around on the American people and no American would have any privacy left, such is the capability to monitor everything: telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn’t matter. There would be no place to hide.”  Mayer also details how Drake raised objections to what he suspected (rightly) was the NSA’s illegal eavesdropping on Americans without the warrants required by FISA.

Thomas Drake is a hero who deserves a Medal of Freedom Honor.  Instead, the Obama administration seeks to imprison him for decades while steadfastly protecting from prosecution — or judicial review of any kind — the high-level government officials who systematically broke the law.  Put another way — from the last paragraph of Mayer’s article:

Mark Klein, the former A.T. & T. employee who exposed the telecom-company wiretaps, is also dismayed by the Drake case. “I think it’s outrageous,” he says. “The Bush people have been let off. The telecom companies got immunity. The only people Obama has prosecuted are the whistle-blowers.”

And that’s to say nothing of the full-scale immunity also given thus far to Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, Merrill, and the mortgage fraudsters who have essentially stolen people’s homes.  About what motivates Obama’s conduct — his virtually complete reversal from the campaign pledges — Drake offers this speculation:

“I actually had hopes for Obama,” he said.  He had not only expected the President to roll back the prosecutions launched by the Bush Administration; he had thought that Bush Administration officials would be investigated for overstepping the law in the “war on terror.”

But power is incredibly destructive,” Drake said. “It’s a weird, pathological thing. I also think the intelligence community coöpted Obama, because he’s rather naïve about national security. He’s accepted the fear and secrecy. We’re in a scary space in this country.”

On Twitter this morning, The American Prospect‘s Adam Serwer said of the New Yorker article:  ”Jane Mayer does to warrantless wiretapping what she did to torture.”  That’s true, but one could just as accurately say that Mayer does to the Obama administration what she did to the Bush administration:  expose its most rotted attributes.  What I’ve discussed here is but a small portion of the article.  Read the whole thing to get the full picture of how devoted this President is to the National Security and Surveillance State he pretended to want to reform and to the preservation (and strengthening) of the sprawling secrecy regime that enables its corruption.

* * * * * 

The Supreme Court today refused to hear an appeal from the Ninth Circuit’s decision upholding the Bush/Obama version of the “state secrets privilege” and thus denying a torture victim the right to sue in court for what was done to him (on the ground that even the torture regime — and its enabling renditions program — are far too vital of state secrets to permit judicial review).  Serwer describes the implications here.

Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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