In theory, whistleblowers in the US who expose government wrongdoing are supposed to have legal protection as long as they go through the proper channels. This was the claim made by those who condemned Edward Snowden as a traitor or spy or stooge for not using those channels and instead deciding to leak documents to carefully chosen journalists. Those condemning Snowden included almost the entire political, military, and media establishments.
Former head of the CIA David Petraeus, in an interview published in the Financial Times on 6 May, was asked if Edward Snowden should be prosecuted. “Unquestionably,” said Petraeus.
Leave aside the issue of hypocrisy – Petraeus shared classified information with his lover and was not charged with a felony – and instead think about what he says next. “If Snowden had wanted to help that debate, he could have very easily been a whistleblower who could have gone to the appropriate organization and offered his views. He didn’t.”
It is a line that has been repeated by Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and just about every other establishment figure asked about Snowden. Rather than a leak to the media, they argue, there were alternative routes: he could have taken his concerns to Congress or pursued the official internal route, through the inspector general’s office.
In his defense, Snowden said that he did not trust the whistleblower protections and pointed to the case of whistleblower Thomas Drake, who in 2002 was hounded and pursued by the US government and financially ruined when he tried to show that Trailblazer, a data analysis tool then being developed was an expensive and useless boondoggle. Snowden said that Drake’s experience persuaded him to take the route he chose and that the whistleblower laws were actually a trap designed to lure people into the government’s clutches.
Spencer Ackerman and Ewen MacAskill write that a new book contains charges by John Crane, former senior Pentagon investigator, that substantiate Snowden’s claims that the Inspector General’s office, rather than being the protector of whistleblowers, actually is a persecutor of them.
Crane, a longtime assistant inspector general at the Pentagon, has accused his old office of retaliating against a major surveillance whistleblower, Thomas Drake, in an episode that helps explain Snowden’s 2013 National Security Agency disclosures. Not only did Pentagon officials provide Drake’s name to criminal investigators, Crane told the Guardian, they destroyed documents relevant to his defence.
Snowden, responding to Crane’s revelations, said he had tried to raise his concerns with colleagues, supervisors and lawyers and been told by all of them: “You’re playing with fire.”
Snowden continued: “The sad reality of today’s policies is that going to the inspector general with evidence of truly serious wrongdoing is often a mistake. Going to the press involves serious risks, but at least you’ve got a chance.”
Snowden cited Drake’s case as a reason for his lack of faith in the government’s official whistleblower channels.
“When I was at NSA, everybody knew that for anything more serious than workplace harassment, going through the official process was a career-ender at best. It’s part of the culture,” Snowden told the Guardian.
“If your boss in the mailroom lies on his timesheets, the IG might look into it. But if you’re Thomas Drake, and you find out the president of the United States ordered the warrantless wiretapping of everyone in the country, what’s the IG going to do? They’re going to flush it, and you with it.”
But this is of course the standard pattern of the Obama administration and indeed of the government in general, as can be seen in the way it treated the financial scandal. They go after the small fry with great gusto and fanfare but if you point your finger at the powerful or the government, then the government goes after you.
What the government did to Drake was absolutely shameful and it is a scandal that they still have not apologized to him and provided any compensation for the hell they put him through,
The case against Drake, who was initially charged with 10 felony counts of espionage, famously disintegrated before trial – but not before he was professionally and financially ruined. And now it turns out that going through official channels may have actually set off the chain of events that led to his prosecution.
Drake initially took his concerns about wasteful, illegal, and unconstitutional actions by the NSA to high-ranking NSA officials, then to appropriate staff and members of Congress. When that didn’t work, he signed onto a whistleblower complaint to the Pentagon inspector general made by some recently retired NSA staffers. But because he was still working at the NSA, he asked the office to keep his participation anonymous.
Now, Hertsgaard writes that Crane alleges that his former colleagues in the inspector general’s office “revealed Drake’s identity to the Justice Department; then they withheld (and perhaps destroyed) evidence after Drake was indicted; finally, they lied about all this to a federal judge.”
Crane’s growing concerns about his office’s conduct pushed him to his breaking point, according to Hertsgaard. But his supervisors ignored his concerns, gave him the silent treatment, and finally forced him to resign in January 2013.
Will the blockbuster revelations in this new book result in the Obama administration taking strong action against those who perverted the course of justice and persecuted whistleblowers? I wouldn’t hold my breath. When it comes to protecting its coercive national security apparatus, including torturers, the Obama administration has been a disgrace.