In a small auditorium at the Newseum in Washington, DC, Brave New Films director Robert Greenwald held the premiere of his new documentary, “War on Whistleblowers: Free Press and the National Security State.” It features four stories of men who are clear examples of whistleblowers that most Americans would think deserve protection when exposing government corruption, misconduct or wrongdoing, however, officials chose to protect the National Security State and retaliate each of these men for speaking out.
One story is that of Franz Gayl, who was a science adviser for the Marine Corps, and sought to expose how Humvees being used in Iraq were not being properly equipped to prevent soldiers from dying from explosives. He alerted the Office of the Secretary of the Defense and Congress that Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles (MRAPs) could be made available to save lives. Yet, he has been subjected to retaliatory investigations and workplace harassment, including the loss of his security clearance.
NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake is the next story introduced in the film. He exposed fraud, waste, abuse and illegality around the TrailBlazer program, which was chosen over the ThinThread program that Drake has said would not have violated citizens’ privacy. It was never employed and was a boondoggle for private contractors, and, when Drake revealed details to the Baltimore Sun, he opened himself up to a prosecution that President Barack Obama’s Justice Department would zealously pursue until the case collapsed and Drake pled to a misdemeanor of misusing a government computer, which was the equivalent of a parking ticket.
A third story is that of Thomas Tamm, who worked in the Justice Department. Tamm provided details on warrantless wiretapping to Eric Lichtblau of the New York Times. He went to a pay phone to make the call where he revealed key details. “Once I put the phone down, I knew my life would never be quite the same.” He became a target, voluntarily left the Justice Department, and came home one day to find twelve cars, eighteen federal agents and his lawyer, who had never been to his home, outside his house. He became the subject of a prosecution, refused to take a plea deal and the Obama Justice Department continued to go after him until the charges were dropped in 2011.
The fourth story in the film involves Michael DeKort. He was a Lockheed Martin project manager that brought attention to how the United States Coast Guard’s Deepwater program had put boats into service that were not safe. The radios were not working. The boats did not meet performance requirements and could pose great risk to members of the Coast Guard. He attempted to run his complaints up to the CEO of Lockheed Martin, but those in the company would do nothing in response. In 2006, he made a YouTube video and shared what he had found in his work. It led to the US Coast Guard actually rejecting the boats, the demand of a refund of $96 million and the pursuit of some of the contractors for boats that were unsafe for use.
What is clear from the stories of the four men is how their lives have been destroyed or irreparably altered forever. Drake and Tamm will never work another day in the NSA or Justice Department. They will never work in a government agency where they have to have a security clearance to do their job. Gayl works but continues to experience duress for the decision he made. DeKort appears to have it the best, but, like all three of the other men, he will wear the scarlet letter of a “leaker” in government and corporate circles for the rest of his life.
As the stories are told, Greenwald works in some remarks from experts like the Washington Post‘s Dana Priest, whose work on “Top Secret America” presented a glimpse at the ever-expanding nature of the National Security State.
There are comments from The New York Times‘ David Carr, The Guardian‘s Glenn Greenwald, The New York Times‘ Bill Keller, The New Yorker‘s Jane Mayer, NBC News‘ Michael Isikoff and USA Today‘s Tom Vanden Brook. Isikoff, Mayer and Vanden Brook each published stories with information whistleblowers profiled in the film shared. And each of these members of establishment press offer some insight into the critical role of journalists in getting the stories the four whistleblowers wanted to tell to the public.
Then, there are individuals like Jesselyn Radack of the Government Accountability Project and Danielle Brian of the Project on Government Oversight, who work for non-governmental organizations that advocate for greater whistleblower protections and stood up for these four whistleblowers as the government tried to come down on them for what they had to say to the public.
Issues like over-classification of information are mentioned and how the Espionage Act has been wielded by the Obama administration to go after record number of whistleblowers or alleged leakers to defend state secrecy. The point is made by Keller that senior officials are able to write books and tell their side of the story on government policies or programs without threats of retaliation while lower-level employees do not enjoy this power in government. Mayer says, “It does not feel like America, land of the free press,” when government is going after whistleblowers or, on top of that, when they are going after reporters and trying to get them to divulge sources, as is the case with New York Times reporter James Risen who collaborated with Lichtblau on the story on warrantless wiretapping.
Recent episodes in the war on whistleblowers or leaks, such as the prosecution of CIA whistleblower John Kiriakou, who is now in jail for thirty months, the prosecution of Pfc. Bradley Manning, the hysteria whipped up by Congress after the New York Times published stories on Obama’s kill list and cyber warfare against Iran last year and WikiLeaks, etc, are given brief treatment at the end. Ellsberg appears in the documentary and mentions Manning. But, the entire WikiLeaks saga, which has perhaps provided much of the cover in government for the Obama administration to zealously pursue “leakers” and crackdown on the free flow of information is peripheral probably because the focus is the four stories of Gayl, Drake, Tamm and DeKort.
The documentary could benefit from having much of the information shared with viewers at the end introduced to the audience at the front. The film delves right into the stories of the four whistleblowers immediately and chooses not to launch into a setup of the current times Americans live in, where there is this incredible chilling effect on press freedom from whistleblower prosecutions and where government employees are more afraid than ever to expose corruption because it could cost them their job. This is critical for Americans to understand and, if the end portion of the film came at the beginning, it would be difficult for viewers to not see that Obama’s war on whistleblowers is a continuation of a pursuit of truth-tellers that was ongoing when Bush was president.
There is much that has happened in the space in time between the stories of the four whistleblowers and now. Greenwald’s film benefits from the fact that the government still has an open and wide criminal investigation into WikiLeaks. It continues to pursue Manning on all twenty-two charges, even though he has pled guilty to some offenses. It is pursuing a seventh prosecution of a non-spy under the Espionage Act, a Navy linguist named James Hitselberger, who allegedly improperly possessed classified information. It is embroiled in an internal battle over whether all federal agency employees should have their positions classified as “national security sensitive,” which would make it harder for employees to enjoy whistleblower protections.
In the film, Greenwald makes clear that freedom of the press is what made it possible for these whistleblowers to expose what they did. It is what gave them the ability to clear their name and vindicate themselves when the government chose to come after them. Greenwald recognizes that freedom of the press must be protected and recent developments in American society indicate it is under threat from the National Security State. And, that should be perhaps one of the more important takeaways for those who view the film: the issue does not just involve government employees or contracted employees being targeted for telling the truth but also journalists, who step up to help whistleblowers tell the truth, and face scenarios where their sources are pursued as if they engaged in criminal acts.