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Review of Lloyd C. Gardner's "The War on Leakers: National Security and American Democracy, From Eugene V. Debs to Edward Snowden"

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tags: book review, Lloyd C Gardner, The War on Leakers



Murray Polner is HNN's senior book review editor.

Fred Alford, a University of Maryland political scientist, has studied and written about whistleblowers. "There is almost by definition something a little unsocialized about the true believer, as I like to call them," he told Laura Abraham of Mother Jones. "A real cynic isn't going to blow the whistle. A real conformist isn't going to blow the whistle. And a real radical probably won't be in a position to do it. It takes someone who believes in the system far more than the system ever believes in itself."

While running for the Democratic nomination in 2008, Barack Obama seemed to agree, calling whistleblowing "acts of courage and patriotism" that "should be encouraged rather than stifled as they have been during the Bush administration."

Lloyd C. Gardner contends in his necessary and piercing book that justice has unfortunately taken a beating during the Obama administration, given its pitiless pursuit and punishment of whistleblowers who have been viewed by some as virtual traitors for informing on programs and policies federal agencies would rather keep from the press and public.-

Clearly, Obama's administration has favored safety as it defines the term over justice in the hallowed area of national security. For a new President whose election appeared to promise a new beginning in national security, his administration has prosecuted an unprecedented number of leakers or whistleblowers, more than every previous administration combined. These indictments were based on violations of the 1917 Espionage Act, Woodrow Wilson's odious law ostensibly aimed at spies though Gardner, emeritus professor of history at Rutgers University, writes that once the US entered the war, Wilson "had in mind the results of the War of 1898 and America's new imperial role in the world," a curtain raiser for the way we now deal with the modern American empire.

The Act's first victim was political dissent. Eugene V. Debs (followed by others) was convicted and handed a ten year prison sentence for opposing the war and the widely despised draft, subversively arguing that it's "the working class who freely shed their blood and furnish the corpses [that] have never yet had a voice in either declaring war or making peace." After five years in Atlanta's notorious penitentiary, the much-denigrated Warren Harding released Debs, and to the horror of patriotic Americans pleased to see a socialist-union troublemaker locked up, invited Debs to join him for breakfast in the White House.

Decades later, Richard Nixon went after Daniel Ellsberg who famously exposed government deceit about the Vietnam War. Indicted under the Act, he escaped punishment when it turned out the same politicians who wanted him behind bars were the real criminals. Ellsberg has since refused to remain silent and defended Edward Snowden, who was indicted for violating the Act, and Chelsea Manning, who is serving a draconian 35 year sentence at the hands of a military court for revealing the killings of non-combatants in Iraq and sending a pile of documents to Wikileaks.

At the same time the second Bush and his closest pals who welcomed the needless invasion, torture, and rendition for more torture by foreign "friends" who weren't shy about using a little waterboarding, have never been held responsible by Obama. When Senator Carl Levin asked John Rizzo, the CIA's top lawyer, if prisoners were shipped to countries practicing torture, Rizzo, in his memoir Company Man, answers "Yes."

This pattern of forgiveness for VIPs was especially evident when Gen. David Petraeus lied to the FBI (normally a felony) after having handed classified materials containing the names of CIA agents to his lover-biographer and received an unexplained tap on the wrist seldom extended to lesser government employees, which reminds one of Bill Clinton's equally baffling pardon on his last day in office of the well-heeled fugitive crook Marc Rich.

After 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq everything changed, writes Gardner, and "intelligence became an all-consuming addiction. The search for ... perfect security had shifted from Oak Ridge and Los Alamos to Langley and Fort Meade," headquarters of the CIA and NASA.

By then the Obama administration turned to alleged leakers, a move mocked by a New Yorker cartoon which has a president ordering an aide: "Leak to the press that my administration won't stand any more leaks."

This in a Washington drowning in deliberately leaked backgrounders and interviews with anonymous officials, while cracking down on lesser figures convicted and sent to prison for talking to reporters, such as Jeffrey Sterling, an ex-CIA officer, a rare African American employee, who was tried and convicted for allegedly leaking classified material to the New York Times's James Risen about a failed CIA scheme to subvert Iran's nuclear plans and received a 3 1/2 year prison sentence. The U.S. then spent years trying to convict Risen until it finally gave up.

There were other dubious moves as when in May, 2013, the phone records of twenty Associated Press reporters were subpoenaed, which the AP was tough enough to resist as a "massive and unprecedented intrusion" into work " the government has no conceivable right to."

Another former CIA officer, John Kiriakou, appalled by the Bush administration's use of torture (John Rizzo wrote that Condoleezza Rice had "a singular aversion to men being interrogated while naked") fed two reporters information about the practice. Rather than accept a longer sentence he opted for a plea deal. But from his jail cell Kiriakou wrote, "I think it's clear from the Senate torture report [Senate Intelligence Committee 6,000 page report on torture during George W. Bush's time in office] that crimes were committed, and I think the officers who committed those crimes, ought to be prosecuted."

Gardner quotes Bruce Reidel, a retired senior CIA officer who once rejected an offer of the CIA's directorship and who "questioned Kiriakou's conviction.”

"To me, the irony of this whole thing is, very simple, that he's going to be the only CIA officer to go to jail over torture," even though he's denounced it. “It's deeply ironic under the Democratic president who ended torture."

And then there's former NSA official Thomas Drake, who once testified before a congressional committee looking into 9/11 about NSA failures. Later he told all to Siobhan Gorman, a Baltimore Sun reporter, about an exorbitantly costly NSA program and was indicted under the Espionage Act, "a heavy and blunt instrument, and the case, not surprisingly, collapsed of its own weight," wrote Michael Hayden, former NSA and CIA director, in his memoir, Playing to the Edge. Hayden wrote that while he had nothing to do with the case, in his opinion Drake transgressed "but that's hardly grounds to ruin lives. This was a matter better handled administratively."

In any event, facing a possible 35 year sentence, Drake pled guilty to a misdemeanor for illegal use of a government computer and was sentenced to 12 months probation and community service but not before the presiding judge denounced the government as unconscionable to accuse Drake of very severe crimes and then drop all charges soon after a sympathetic "60 Minutes" segment on his case aired, leaving Drake financially ruined.

David Wise's first-rate Smithsonian Magazine article quotes Drake's refusal to be silent. Accepting the Ridenhour Prize -- named after Ron Ridenhour, the fearless Vietnam veteran, a whistleblower too, who told the nation and the world about the crimes of My Lai -- Drake spoke of his government's unrelenting pursuit of whistleblowers. "Dissent has become the mark of a traitor: as an American, I will not live in silence to cover for the government's sins." As a result of all the prosecutions, we know very little of what Washington's VIP national security insiders are doing that whistleblowers have risked so much to expose.

Then there's Jessalyn Radak, once a Department of Justice attorney and ethics counselor, who was hounded for exposing the tactics used against John Walker Lindh, the so-called "American Taliban." Gardner explains that the DOJ harassed her, placed her on a no-fly list and tried unsuccessfully to have her disbarred. In turn, she became one of Drake's and Kiriakou's lawyers and other whistleblowers, and now directs the non-governmental Government Accountability Project. When Attorney General Eric Holder praised the Lindh case as an important victory against terrorism Radak, tough and unyielding, countered in an interview cited by Gardner, "Holder is too smart not to 'know' or to remember the trophy photos of Lindh--naked, blindfolded, tied-up and bound to a board with duct tape that circulated worldwide. That was our first glimpse of American-sponsored torture, and we didn't even flinch."

Obama has to worry about his legacy. No doubt it's hard for the administration to always make the most efficacious and just call. But sending people to prison under the outdated Espionage Act dooms nonconformists and intimidates investigative reporting while handing the government, politicians and special interests free reign to do as they please.

Gardner's revealing and valuable book also suggests, to me at least, that as a start, why not some audacity on Obama's part? Ford pardoned Nixon and saved him from Leavenworth. The first Bush pardoned Elliot Abrams after Iran-Contra. Yet Obama, who hasn’t offered a word of understanding about the hard choices taken by the whistleblowers, could show some backbone and pardon them all. After 2016, Republican and Democratic national security hawks can no longer harm him.



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