June 27, 2013
Polls show that Americans know the government is spying on all of us for improper purposes … but that many Americans are unsure whether or not the whistleblowers who brought us that information should be prosecuted.
The uncertainty regarding whistleblowers stems from a misunderstanding about the options that whistleblowers have to inform the American people of illegal actions by our government.
Specifically, numerous whistleblowers have tried to go through “proper channels” to expose illegal spying by the NSA and other government agencies …but nothing changed in response to their lawful attempts.
Not only did the government do everything it could to shut them up, but it threatened, prosecuted and harassed them.
For example, when NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake tried to blow the whistle on fraud and corruption within the NSA – based upon the NSA spying on all Americans instead of targeting only suspected criminals – he was prosecuted under the Espionage Act.
I differed as a whistleblower to Snowden only in this respect: in accordance with the Intelligence Community Whistleblower Protection Act, I took my concerns up within the chain of command, to the very highest levels at the NSA, and then to Congress and the Department of Defense. I understand why Snowden has taken his course of action, because he’s been following this for years: he’s seen what’s happened to other whistleblowers like me.
By following protocol, you get flagged – just for raising issues. You’re identified as someone they don’t like, someone not to be trusted. I was exposed early on because I was a material witness for two 9/11 congressional investigations. In closed testimony, I told them everything I knew – about Stellar Wind, billions of dollars in fraud, waste and abuse, and the critical intelligence, which the NSA had but did not disclose to other agencies, preventing vital action against known threats. If that intelligence had been shared, it may very well have prevented 9/11.
But as I found out later, none of the material evidence I disclosed went into the official record. It became a state secret even to give information of this kind to the 9/11 investigation.
When NSA whistleblower Russel Tice (later a key source in the 2005 New York Times report that blew the lid off the Bush administration’s use of warrantless wiretapping) questioned spying on innocent Americans, NSA tried to have him labeled “crazy”, and fired him.
When the head of the NSA’s global digital communications program – William Binney – disclosed the fact that the U.S. was spying on everyone in the U.S. and storing the data forever, the Feds tried to scare himinto shutting up:
[Numerous] FBI officers held a gun to Binney’s head as he stepped naked from the shower. He watched with his wife and youngest son as the FBI ransacked their home. Later Binney was separated from the rest of his family, and FBI officials pressured him to implicate one of the other complainants in criminal activity. During the raid, Binney attempted to report to FBI officials the crimes he had witnessed at NSA, in particular the NSA’s violation of the constitutional rights of all Americans. However, the FBI wasn’t interested in these disclosures. Instead, FBI officials seized Binney’s private computer, which to this day has not been returned despite the fact that he has not been charged with a crime.
NSA whistleblower J. Kirk Wiebe didn’t get anywhere through proper channels either.
When asked about Snowden, here is what these NSA veterans told USA Today:
[USA Today]: Did Edward Snowden do the right thing in going public?
William Binney: We tried to stay for the better part of seven years inside the government trying to get the government to recognize the unconstitutional, illegal activity that they were doing and openly admit that and devise certain ways that would be constitutionally and legally acceptable to achieve the ends they were really after. And that just failed totally because no one in Congress or — we couldn’t get anybody in the courts, and certainly the Department of Justice and inspector general’s office didn’t pay any attention to it. And all of the efforts we made just produced no change whatsoever. All it did was continue to get worse and expand.
[USA Today]: So Snowden did the right thing?
Binney: Yes, I think he did.
[USA Today]: You three wouldn’t criticize him for going public from the start?
J. Kirk Wiebe: Correct.
Binney: In fact, I think he saw and read about what our experience was, and that was part of his decision-making.
Wiebe: We failed, yes.
[Attorney for the NSA whistleblowers, who is herself a Department of Justice whistleblower] Jesselyn Radack: Not only did they go through multiple and all the proper internal channels and they failed, but more than that, it was turned against them. … The inspector general was the one who gave their names to the Justice Department for criminal prosecution under the Espionage Act. And they were all targets of a federal criminal investigation, and Tom ended up being prosecuted — and it was for blowing the whistle.
Wiebe: Well, I don’t want anyone to think that he had an alternative. No one should (think that). There is no path for intelligence-community whistle-blowers who know wrong is being done. There is none.
We reached out to Binney for follow-up comments, and he told us:
I heard a few interviews of Snowden and read some of the comments that he has made. And, it appears to me that he saw what had happened to US and what they tried to do to us plus what happened to Manning, and all that told him that proper channels don’t work [Snowden has said that he is familiar with Binney, Drake, Manning and other whistleblowers]. So, I think he made his decision on that basis. That is, our government will attack the whistleblowers rather than address the problems they expose.
The Government Accountability Project notes:
By communicating with the press, Snowden used the safest channel available to him to inform the public of wrongdoing. Nonetheless, government officials have been critical of him for not using internal agency channels – the same channels that have repeatedly failed to protect whistleblowers from reprisal in the past. In many cases, the critics are the exact officials who acted to exclude national security employees and contractors from the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act of 2012.
[A]t the behest of the House Intelligence Committee, strengthened whistleblower protections for national security workers were stripped from major pieces of legislation such as the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act (for federal employees) and theNational Defense Authorization Act of 2013 (for federal contractors). If those protections existed today, Snowden’s disclosures would have stood a greater chance of being addressed effectively from within the organization.
In other words, Congress has stripped whistleblower protections for those working in intelligence or defense.
But whistleblowers in other areas have received the same treatment. For example, after high-level CIA officer John Kiriakou blew the whistle on illegal CIA torture, the government prosecuted him for espionage.
And former FBI translator Sibel Edmonds – who has been deemed credible by the Department of Justice’s Inspector General, several senators (free subscription required), and a coalition of prominent conservative and liberal groups, whose allegations have been confirmed by numerous Pentagon, MI6 and FBI officials, including 18-year FBI counter-intelligence expert John Cole - has been so gagged by the government that the ACLU described her as:
The most gagged person in the history of the United States of America.
Famed Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg says that Edmonds possesses information “far more explosive than the Pentagon Papers”, and that the government has ordered the media not to cover her statements.
Indeed, the mainstream British newspaper the Sunday Times started publishing a series of articlesexposing the scandal which Edmonds had uncovered. But U.S. State Department pressure killed the series. Edmonds confirms that whistleblowers have no way to go through official channels to effect change.
Obama has gone after whistleblowers more viciously than Bush, Nixon, or any president in history. Indeed, the Obama administration has prosecuted more whistleblowers than all other presidentscombined.
And the government goes out of its way to smear whistleblowers and harass honest reporters.
So if Snowden had attempted to go through “proper channels”, his information regarding the mass surveillance of innocent people would never have seen the light of day … or had any chance of changing government policy.