DC at Night

DC at Night

Saturday, April 20, 2013

The War on Whistleblowers

It's something we are told in early childhood - nobody likes a tattletale. But what if the tale desperately needs to be tattled? For example, you find out that troops are needlessly dying because the military refuses to use a safer type of transport vehicle even though one is available. Or the radios on Coast Guard ships won't work if they become wet. Or the government is illegally listening in on phone conversations. Do you forget the childhood admonition, assume the risks, and become a whistleblower? And, if you do blow the whistle, what can, and often does, happen to you?

These are some of the scenarios examined in the new documentary War on Whistleblowers: Free Press and the National Security State by Brave New Foundation and director Robert Greenwald. The film was premiered at the Newseum this week and following that screening, a 5-member panel discussed the issues raised in the engrossing message movie.

Abbe Lowell, a white-collar defense attorney known for defending clients charged with violating the Espionage Act of 1917, says the whistleblowing issue has created "an Obama vs. Obama dark sides and light sides Civil War." On one hand, President Barack Obama has approved unprecedented job rights for whistleblowers which have resulted in enormous victories for workers in the private sector. However, he and his administration have filed more charges of secret revealing against government employees than all the other presidential administrations combined. "The government is also trying to re-brand federal employees as national security workers which would leave a self policing honor system by (federal) agencies," Lowell said.

As a starting point, the panel tried to distinguish between 2 terms - whistleblowing and leaking.  In whistle blowing, "the purpose is to try to correct a wrong," said Danielle Brian, the executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, a non-partisan independent group that conducts investigations into corruption and misconduct and champions good government reforms.

Leaking, however, like spying, serves a much different purpose.  "A leaker decides to reveal classified information for the purposes of ego or disgruntlement," said John Rizzo, an attorney for 34 years at the Central Intelligence Agency and the CIA's chief legal counsel for 7 years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York City.

The panel discussed theories on why Obama would be so supportive of whistleblowers in private industry and employ the exact opposite approach with government workers. "Maybe the president has become close to intelligence agencies, but I think people expected something different from him," Brian said.

Rizzo said that working under 7 different presidents taught him that patterns develop. "(As president) you find out all the secrets belong to you and every president wants to keep secrets," he said "But too much stuff is being classified and that erodes respect for true secrets."

Several of the panelists said that in today's world of terror - a fact driven home just 1 day earlier by the bomb blasts at the Boston marathon - leaders are fearful of appearing weak on national security. "After 9/11, cases going after leakers are low-hanging fruit," Lowell said.

The film depicts the situations of 4 people - Franz Gayl, Michael DeKort, Thomas Drake, and Thomas Tamm - who, after being ignored by their chain of commands, took their issues to the media.

Tamm, who reported on illegal government listening of the conversations of private citizens, left his Justice Department position and now works as a criminal defense litigation attorney in Washington.

"So few people knew what was going on that it clued me that what was going on was illegal," Tamm said. "I observed the law being broken and I was at the Justice Department to protect the law."

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
The documentary is thought-provoking and powerful.  To see a trailer, click here.

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