Redacted Dept. of Defense document. Image: Wikimedia
Just one-third of Americans believe Edward Snowden did the right thing when he revealed the vast domestic surveillance apparatus that the National Security Agency had installed to monitor them. Yet, according to the same YouGov poll, a slim majority believe that "Americans have a right to know about the surveillance programs he revealed."
That discrepancy helps articulate the plight of the modern whistleblower: We may want to know if illegal activity is transpiring in the convoluted underbelly of our engorged military industrial complex, but we seem to dismiss or even resent the deeds of those who clue us in.
Maybe it stems from a vestigial patriotism that harkens back to an era when the NSA hadn't yet sicced their spies and cryptologists on the entirety of the American public. Maybe it's due to the aggressive political messaging condemning the leaks, or from our basic cognitive intolerance of tattlers. Or maybe we've been convinced by the prevailing techno-optimistic zeitgeist that information simply "wants to be free," as the maxim goes—and we don't fully comprehend the cost it sometimes takes to bring it to light.
Whistleblowers who disclose US state secrets to expose wrongdoing rarely receive the benefit of the doubt, wrong as the doing was. Today, they face not just the prospect of unprecedented, harsh prosecution from the government, but a public reception that ranges from apathy to outright disdain. Silenced, a documentary that premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival this week. The film, which was directed by James Spione and counts Susan Sarandon as an executive producer, seeks to soothe this dissonance: It offers us a window into what it actually takes to blow the whistle—the physical, emotional, and financial toll doing so levies on the truth-teller.
Snowden knew that his leaks would be painted as a betrayal, even condemned as traitorous, so he made sure to relocate to a foreign country before making his revolutionary disclosures. Snowden knew, because long before he made for Asia with a drive full of classified files, PRISM Power Point slides; a veritable almanac of How to Spy on Everything—a slew of other citizen whistleblowers had already been hounded for their leaks.
By then, it was already clear that the Obama administration was using the Espionage Act—a century-old relic of a law designed to prosecute World War I dissidents and perhaps most famously used to convict Aldrich Ames, the CIA agent who sold US secrets to a KGB assassins during the Cold War—to prosecute those who exposed abuses in the national security sector that cast the government in an unfavorable light. In 2012, the administration had charged six leakers, including Chelsea Manning, with violating the Espionage Act—a charge that labels them enemies of the state—more than all other administrations combined. Snowden made seven. If convicted of his multiple felony charges, he will spend decades, if not the rest of his life, in prison.
There has been a good deal of public debate over the severity of charges like these. What's less discussed—and less understood—is how totally those charges, and even lesser ones, can unravel a whistleblower's life. How towering the institutional resistance to dissidence is, and how vindictive the individuals and agencies that bring the charges can be to outliers who share secrets. The effect can be chilling, on a personal level, as well as for other potential disclosers of illegality.
"Part of the purpose of doing what they've been doing for the last several years, is to destroy you," the ex-NSA mathematician and decorated Navy veteran Thomas Drake says in Silenced.
Without Drake, there would likely be no Snowden revelations. The younger leaker credits Drake as an inspiration, and as a case study of what happens when you offend the security apparatus. After Drake had exhausted official channels with futile complaints about fraud he saw in a massive privately contracted surveillance effort, and of the unnecessarily invasive nature of blanket surveillance the NSA was pursuing in the wake of 9/11, Drake began sharing what he says were unclassified details of the program with members of Congress, and eventually, a Baltimore Sun reporter.
Even before he was hit with Espionage Act charges that could have sent him to prison for 35 years, he was punted around the agency to lesser posts, placed on administrative leave, and eventually fired.
After the prosecution shuffled the charges around, they amounted to an illegal "retention of classified documents" that the FBI found in his apartment. Drake claims didn't even realize they were classified. But it was still enough to get him labeled as an enemy of the state, blacklisted in the industry, and financially bankrupted by an onslaught of legal fees.
If you become a whistleblower, "You have to mortgage your house, you have to empty your bank accounts," Drake says. The only work he could find, eventually, was as an Apple store clerk. Though every single one of the major charges were eventually dropped—following a piece on Drake in the New Yorker and a 60 Minutes segment, it should be noted—the toll of his whistleblowing was clear. Drake estimated that the charges had cost him over a million dollars in legal fees and lost work. He was ostracized and condemned by his peers. It was emotionally devastating, too; the charges, Drake implies, led to a painful separation with his wife.
Image: Screenshot/Russia Today
"I never thought of myself a whistleblower," John Kiriakou says in Silenced. "Sometimes I go back and forth in my mind, where I wish I had kept my mouth shut. Other times I wish I had shouted it from the rooftops."
Kiriakou is the former CIA agent who, after an illustrious, decades-long career in counterterrorism, revealed that water boarding, which he believes was a form of torture, had been institutionalized by the Bush Administration. He did so on national television, and the ensuing uproar and fallout is now well-known. Kiriakou was charged with three counts of violating the Espionage Act, and eventually pled guilty to one. He is now in prison, serving a 30-month sentence. In Silenced, we learn that long before he was officially sentenced, he was fired, rendered unemployable, driven to severe depression, and nearly to bankruptcy, as well.
If you blow the whistle, "You're not loyal. You're not a good American. You're a terrorist sympathizer," Kiriakou says. His wife, also a government worker, was harassed and pushed out of her job, too. Beginning in 2007, they were audited by the IRS every year.
"I have to try to protect my children from being exposed to it, I've got the FBI surveilling me for the last seven months," Kirakou says. The stress was certainly exacerbated by the fact that neither he nor his wife could find work for long stretches of time. They turned to government aid and food stamps to feed their five children at one point.
"I've applied for every job I can think of, and I haven't gotten even an email or a call back," he says. Footage shows Kiriakou at one job he did manage to land—a shelf stocker at a retail store. He's also intermittently worked as a counterterrorism consultant for news outlets, and published a book (which he believes furthered the ire fueling the legal retribution), but is still hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt—ironic then, that his critics accuse him of leaking simply for personal profit.
The film also focuses on Jesselyn Radack, once an attorney in the Department of Justice and now perhaps best known as Edward Snowden's lawyer, was forced out of her job after she showed that the military had mishandled the arrest and interrogation of John Walker Lindh, the infamous "American Taliban." Though she was never charged with Espionage Act violations, investigators hounded her at the law firm where she found work, and eventually caused her expulsion. One magazine cover story labeled her "the Woman Who Knew Too Much". She was pregnant at the time, and the ensuing stress, she says, led her to miscarry.
Radack has since dedicated herself to representing whistleblowers—she provided counsel for both Drake and Kiriakou, and now to Snowden. When I met her at a party following a screening, she was eloquent, impassioned, and indignant at the treatment her clients, and herself, had suffered at the hands of the state.
"You're not loyal. You're not a good American. You're a terrorist sympathizer."
Unlike Snowden, each of the these whistleblowers did not set out with a clear premeditated plan to expose wrongdoing. Drake repeatedly attempted to appeal to legal channels and to Congress before internal pressures led him to the press. Radack's misfortune was following the law too closely, and threatening to derail a high profile investigation with her knowledge of illegal conduct. And judging the way the event is depicted in the film, Kiriakou never intended to blow the lid off any secret torture program—he simply described what was happening the best he could, because it had become so normalized within the CIA.
Each can be said, in a way, to have stumbled into whistleblowing (with caveats in Drake's case), and that makes the situation all the more harrowing. What begins with honest, even routine complaints of government misconduct, ends up tearing their lives asunder. Kirakou did confirm the identity of a CIA operative to a member of the press, which he regrets doing now, and which is patently illegal. But it again raises the point that the way the government chooses to prosecute leaks is often arbitrary—those who leak classified information that embarrasses the government become targets, while those who utilize secrets to lionize it are patted on the back.
There was plenty of classified information relayed to the makers of Zero Dark Thirty, Radack points out, but no one's in jail. Bob Woodward's books are full of classified sources, and Kiriakou points out that General David Petraeus gave classified information to his civilian mistress—but, seeing as how their leaks are harmonious with the power structure, there's no whisper of espionage there. Meanwhile, those who tell more humiliating truths are often dogged even when the charges are dropped. "I know we're being surveilled, so we use 'drug dealer' tactics," like using burner phones and encryption, Radack said in a Q+A following a screening of Silenced.
Afterwards, Drake, who was in attendance too, told me that he worries that the rampant prosecution of leakers is a sign that we're regressing away not just from freedom of information, but from democracy altogether. He told me that when he lived in Europe, he'd visit castles built in the Middle Ages, and that he couldn't help be reminded of the direction we're heading: towards concentrated power, inequality, and an intolerance for dissent.
This conception of how the state is calibrating itself to deal with information breaches, to cloister itself around a growing amount of data, is in stark contrast to another prevailing attitude of our cultural moment: that information wants to be free.
"By giving people the power to share, we're making the world more transparent," Mark Zuckerberg has said, in one typical example of the predominant techno-optimistic philosophy in Silicon Valley and beyond. He, and nearly all the influential tech and business leaders who command influence at the moment, embrace the idea that advancing technology, and their products, are giving rise to a world that is inherently home to more information freedom.
Google's chairman said Snowden's actions were "helpful," but that the company did not endorse the leaking of information. Sergey Brin may want to rub elbows and bask in the halo of Snowden's robotized telepresence—and Snowden may welcome the attention—but the Google execs, or any Silicon Valley companies who have long complied with NSA surveillance directives hardly embody the whistleblower's ideals.
Various parties at Google, Facebook, Yahoo, even Twitter, were aware of mass NSA surveillance, likely long before Snowden was. No one involved in these great information liberation engines made that most crucial knowledge—that the state was conducting mass surveillance on American citizens—free in any way. That took a whistleblower who was willing to relegate himself to a life of exile, to become a target of contempt, scorn, even hatred.
Information doesn't always "want" to be free, as we can plainly see in the cases of those who have sacrificed their own freedom and well-being to wrench it out of the shadows. The Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, recently made it even harder, by instituting a community-wide gag order that prohibits anyone in the sector from talking to the press without permission. It's as good a reminder as any that information is only as free as our institutions permit it to be, or as willing as those the people toil in those institutions are to risk suffering to share it with the public.
Plenty of info can't really be considered free in any way; after all, it is imprisoned in secret NSA servers or in dusty file cabinets or phone logs of clandestine conversations. That information—about how much the state knows about our daily lives, and what it does with that information, or about misconduct in the halls of the largest military operation in the world, about how it follows the letter of the law at home and on the battlefield—is the most guarded of all, and often essential to the citizenry. That information, it's clear, can now only be liberated with blood, sweat, and years of suffering.