How to blow the whistle safely

The US government lets torturers, people who lie to get the public to support illegal wars, and the top executives of big banks whose greed, deception, and recklessness led to a global recession that hurt so many people go scot free. What the government really cares about and prosecutes vigorously are those who expose its wrongdoings by leaking information.

The latest example of that is Jeffrey Sterling, a former CIA officer who was just found guilty of nine counts of leaking classified information (seven of them falling under the draconian Espionage Act that strips defendants of most of their legal rights) to a reporter about a botched US government plot against the Iranian government. This case became prominent because the Obama administration initially threatened to prosecute and jail reporter New York Times reporter James Risen if he did not reveal his source. But he refused and his cause was taken up by so many groups that the government backed down. As usual, the government targeted those it can harass and bully because they do not have major institutional support and managed to get a conviction of Sterling based on circumstantial evidence.

Marcy Wheeler provides the background to the case.

To understand why that’s true, you need to know a bit about how the Department of Justice larded on charges against Sterling to get to what represents a potential 80-year maximum sentence (though he’s unlikely to get that). Sterling was accused — and ultimately convicted — of leaking two related things: First, information about the Merlin operation to deal flawed nuclear blueprints to Iran, as well as the involvement of a Russian engineer referred to as Merlin in the trial. In addition to that, the government charged Sterling separately for leaking a document (one which the FBI never found, in anyone’s possession): a letter Merlin included along with the nuclear blueprints he wrapped in a newspaper and left in the mailbox of Iran’s representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency. So the government convicted Sterling of leaking two things: information about the operation, and a letter that was used in the operation.

Here’s the really scary part though: the jury convicted Sterling based entirely on circumstantial evidence: there was not one shred of evidence showing Sterling handing Risen classified information on the operation, the Russian asset, or the letter that Risen found but FBI could not.

Dan Froomkin says that this case is yet another example of president Obama’s deep slide from his campaign promises of transparency and adds, “Looking ahead to 2016, the prospects are grim. None of the major candidates for president have said anything half as powerful about openness, transparency and accountability as Obama did. And look where that got us.”

What this should teach all potential whistleblowers is that they have to be very, very careful how they go about it in order to evade detection and the harsh punishment that the Obama administration, and any subsequent administration, will hand out. Micah Lee provides a step-by-step tutorial on how to leak information in general and how to provide it to The Intercept in particular, breaking it down into three categories: what not to do, what to worry about, and how to actually leak. More and more news outlets are providing secure drop boxes to aid whistleblowers but that does not exempt the whistleblower from taking their own precautions.

In reading this stuff, it occurred to me that the second NSA whistleblower, whose existence was revealed at the very end of the Laura Poitras documentary Citizenfour about Edward Snowden, has still not been identified which suggests that this whistleblower is very skillful at concealing their identity, because you can be sure that the government is doing everything it can to identify and capture the person.


  1. says

    you can be sure that the government is doing everything it can to identify and capture the person.

    The ostensible reason Nixon started recording things was because he was deeply, passionately, furious about leaks to the press -- the idea was to be able to eventually figure out who heard what and when and map back the information to discover the leakers. Leaks in Washington are nothing new.

    I was recently speaking at a conference at a university, where a young person studying computer science asked me what they could to do make our country a better place regarding computers and security. And I answered “backdoor every system you possibly can, because it gives you a ‘suicide veto’ or a ‘sleeper shot’ below the waterline that you can fire if you feel the need, or if you’re getting old or suffering a terminal disease.” Surprisingly I got a small standing ovation for it. So some of the generation of today gets it.

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