Sen. Benjamin Cardin's impressive feat

The Maryland Democrat reaches new heights of hypocrisy and nationalistic projection even for D.C.

Published May 27, 2011 2:28PM (EDT)

Sen. Benjamin Cardin of Maryland genuinely deserves an award . . . for reaching all new heights of projection, nationalistic self-regard, and hypocrisy.  Even for D.C.'s lowly standards, what he's doing is really quite a feat.  

Cardin has been on a crusade to punish Russian officials because of their intolerance for whistleblowers.  In conjunction with Sen. John McCain, he has been pushing bipartisan legislation to impose sanctions on Russians who were involved in the mistreatment and death of Sergei Magnitsky, the whistleblowing lawyer who died in the custody of Russian police after being denied medical care, as well as lambasting Russians generally for their attacks on whistleblowers.  Yesterday, Cardin went to the Senate floor (beginning at 3:06) to denounce Russia and other tyrannical nations who pay lip service to the virtues of whistleblowing while hypocritically taking actions against them (h/t Jebbie):

Actions always speak louder than words.  The diplomatic manner of dealing with human rights abuses is frequently condemned by the abuser [sic] -- often publicly -- with the hope that these statements will be all they need to do.  The say:  "oh, yes we're against these human rights violations -- we're for the rule of law -- we're for people being able to come forward and tell us about problems and be able to correct things"  . . . . They think that their words will be enough.  But we know differently.  We know what's happening with Russia. Here's a person whose only crime was to bring to the public attention the problem of public corruption in Russia. 

So the Russians are heinous for punishing those "whose only crime was to bring to the public attention the problem of public corruption."  In public, the Russians say "we're for people being able to come forward and tell us about problems and be able to correct things," but their actions prove they want to punish that very behavior.  Behold the Russian hypocrisy and tyranny, Cardin urged.

This is the very same Sen. Benjamin Cardin who has also introduced legislation that, if enacted, would be the most severe legislative attack on whistleblowers in the United States in the last several decades at least.  In particular, his bill, as Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists explained, "would broadly criminalize leaks of classified information" and would, in effect, turn all disclosures of classified information into a felony, regardless of how corrupt or even illegal the exposed conduct was:

Under existing law, criminal penalties apply only to the unauthorized disclosure of a handful of specified categories of classified information (in non-espionage cases). These categories include codes, cryptography, communications intelligence, identities of covert agents, and nuclear weapons design information. The new bill would amend the espionage statutes to extend such penalties to the unauthorized disclosure of any classified information. . . .

The bill does not provide for a "public interest" defense, i.e. an argument that any damage to national security was outweighed by a benefit to the nation. It does not address the issue of overclassification, nor does it admit the possibility of “good” leaks. Disclosing that the President authorized waterboarding of detainees or that the government conducted unlawful domestic surveillance would be considered legally equivalent to revealing the identities of intelligence sources, the design of secret military technologies or the details of ongoing military operations.

Open Congress added that Cardin's bill "makes it a felony for government employees and contractors to disclose any information in violation of their nondisclosure agreements, regardless of whether or not the discloser was trying to help a foreign government or harm the U.S."  Worse, the bill creates a "presumption" that any and all leaks harm national security, and then imposes the burden on the accused leaker to prove that the leak (contrary to government claims) did not result in such harm, a burden Aftergood says "would be nearly impossible to meet."  

In sum, Cardin's bill would turn virtually all whistleblowing into a felony punishable by decades in prison.  It would drastically expand the scope of covered information from the limited categories now covered into all classified information (which is basically anything and everything the government does of any significance).  If Cardin's bill were enacted, it would single-handedly stifle the vast majority of whistleblowing -- one of the very few remaining avenues for learning about what government officials do (as "authorized" whistleblowing processes typically achieve nothing other than recriminations for the whistleblower) -- as nobody in their right mind would even consider leaking classified information once all such acts are presumptively criminal.

Yet there was Ben Cardin yesterday on the Senate floor urging us to look over there at how those awful Russians pay lip service to the virtues of whistleblowing while taking action to punish it.  Meanwhile, Cardin spouts all sorts of words about the virtues of whistleblowers while taking severe actions against them.  And while it's true that Russia brutalizes its whistleblowers (the Magnitsky case was horrendous), Cardin sat silently while the U.S. -- the country for whose conduct he's responsible -- did the same (in fact, Time suggested that Cardin's anti-whistleblowing legislation was motivated by the alleged leak of Bradley Manning).  Cardin, needless to say, has also never objected to the Obama administration's unprecedented war on whistleblowers in his own country, nor to his Democratic Senate colleague's effort to prosecute WikiLeaks for "espionage":  something that would criminalize all investigative journalism.

But this is typical of U.S. officials; it's one of their favorite pasttimes.  They love to point over there and denounce the conduct of those Other Countries while they engage in exactly the behavior that they flamboyantly condemn.  It's one of the most potent and destructive forms of propaganda (it constantly bolsters the idea that oppression and tyranny happens only in Other Countries, never in the U.S.).  It's just that in this case, Cardin's conduct -- condemning Russia for hypocritical defenses of whistleblowers while Cardin does exactly the same thing -- is so brazen it's hard to believe someone didn't tell him to refrain.

* * * * *

One of my favorite cases of this type of nationalistic self-regard was when the Bush State Department condemend Russia in 2006 for illegally spying on its citizens without judicial oversight and then, worse, failing to hold accountable the officials who were responsible.  That condemnation of Russia came less than one year after The New York Times revealed that the Bush administration was illegally spying on Americans without the warrants required by law, lawbreaking for which nobody was ever held accountable.

A more recent example came when evidence emerged that the U.S. cooperated with Israel in unleashing a sophisticated computer virus in Iran, an act that would clearly be an "act of war" pursuant to cyberwar standards recently promulgated by the Obama administration.

But what makes Cardin's conduct special is that he wasn't merely condemning exactly that which he does; that would just be garden-variety nationalistic hypocrisy.  It's that he went a step further by specifically denouncing those who hypocritically defend values they simultaneously subvert: it's a double, meta form of hypocrisy that is really difficult to construct.  That's what makes it impressive.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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Benjamin L. Cardin