Pentagon officials tasked with protecting whistleblowers have lied under oath, illegally destroyed documents, and gone out of their way to ruin people's careers and lives for attempting to raise concerns about government abuses of power, according to a high-ranking Department of Defense (DoD) official, John Crane, who went public with his story on Sunday.
I love my country, but I hate this. https://t.co/zmxXYymS9O
— Edward Snowden (@Snowden) May 22, 2016
"We need iron-clad, enforceable protections for whistleblowers, and we need a public record of success stories," whistleblower Edward Snowden responded to Crane's revelations in the Guardian. "Protect the people who go to members of Congress with oversight roles, and if their efforts lead to a positive change in policy—recognize them for their efforts. There are no incentives for people to stand up against an agency on the wrong side of the law today, and that's got to change."
When Snowden revealed the NSA's extensive illegal surveillance of American citizens in 2013, government officials were united in their condemnation of his actions—he should have followed the rule book and gone through government channels instead of releasing documents to the public, many argued.
Indeed, both President Obama and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton have continued to make this same critique.
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But Crane's testimony reveals that, in fact, Snowden couldn't have blown the whistle any other way.
"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," as Snowden told the Guardian.
Crane also revealed why Snowden went public the way he did: a high-ranking whistleblower before him had tried to raise the same concerns about the NSA's spying program through the "proper" channels, Crane said—and the Pentagon made certain to ruin his life for it.
"Thomas Drake [...] blew the whistle on the very same NSA activities 10 years before Snowden did," writes Mark Hertsgaard in the Guardian:
Drake was a much higher-ranking NSA official than Snowden, and he obeyed US whistleblower laws, raising his concerns through official channels. And he got crushed.
Drake was fired, arrested at dawn by gun-wielding FBI agents, stripped of his security clearance, charged with crimes that could have sent him to prison for the rest of his life, and all but ruined financially and professionally. The only job he could find afterwards was working in an Apple store in suburban Washington, where he remains today. Adding insult to injury, his warnings about the dangers of the NSA’s surveillance programme were largely ignored.
Hertsgaard also describes how retired NSA officials who also went through official channels to raise concerns about NSA surveillance with Drake ended up being similarly arrested and harassed by the U.S. government, and how that transformed their perception of the agency they once worked for:
"We are now becoming a police state," Diane Roark said in a 2014 television interview. Referring to herself and the other NSA whistleblowers, she added, "We are the canaries in the coal mine. We never did anything wrong. All we did was oppose this program. And for that, they just ran over us."
"They're saying, 'We’re doing this to protect you,'" Roark’s fellow whistleblower William Binney told me. "I will tell you that that’s exactly what the Nazis said in Special Order 48 in 1933 – we’re doing this to protect you. And that’s how they got rid of all of their political opponents."
These are strong statements – comparing the actions of the US government to Nazi Germany, warning of an emerging "police state" – so it’s worth remembering who made them. The NSA whistleblowers were not leftwing peace nuts. They had spent their professional lives inside the US intelligence apparatus – devoted, they thought, to the protection of the homeland and defense of the constitution.
They were political conservatives, highly educated, respectful of evidence, careful with words. And they were saying, on the basis of personal experience, that the US government was being run by people who were willing to break the law and bend the state’s awesome powers to their own ends. They were saying that laws and technologies had secretly been put in place that threatened to overturn the democratic governance Americans took for granted and shrink their liberties to a vanishing point. And they were saying that something needed to be done about all this before it was too late.
In Washington, top government officials and politicians still insist that the true villain is Edward Snowden. Former CIA director James Woolsey has called for Snowden to be “hanged by the neck until he's dead, rather than merely electrocuted”.
"Democrats are less bloodthirsty, but no more forgiving," Hertsgaard notes.
"He could have gotten all of the protections of being a whistleblower. He could have raised all the issues that he has raised. And I think there would have been a positive response to that," Clinton said during the first Democratic primary debate.
As Hertsgaard puts it: "Tell that to Thomas Drake. Tell it, for that matter, to John Crane."