The WikiLeaks Grand Jury and the Still Escalating War on Whistleblowing
The contrast between these two headlines from this morning tells a significant story: From The Guardian (click image to enlarge):
As Julian Assange wins the Sydney Peace Prize for "exceptional courage in pursuit of human rights," NPR reports that "a federal grand jury in Virginia is scheduled to hear testimony on Wednesday from witnesses" in the criminal investigation of his whistle-blowing group, as "prosecutors are trying to build a case against [the] WikiLeaks founder  whose website has embarrassed the U.S. government by disclosing sensitive diplomatic and military information." The NPR story -- based in part on my reporting of a Grand Jury Subpoena served two weeks ago in Cambridge -- explains what has long been clear: that "the WikiLeaks case is part of a much broader campaign by the Obama administration to crack down on leakers."
Specifically, NPR accurately reports, the effort to turn Assange and WikiLeaks into criminals for doing nothing more than what newspapers, Bob Woodward, and administration officials frequently do -- disclose government secrets to the public without authorization -- is merely one prong in the Obama administration's unprecedented war against whistleblowing:
A Worrisome Development
National security experts say they can't remember a time when the Justice Department has pursued so many criminal cases based on leaks of government secrets.
Steve Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists has been following five separate prosecutions, part of what he calls a tremendous surge by the Obama administration.
For people who are concerned about freedom of the press, access to national security information, it's a worrisome development," says Aftergood, who writes for the blog Secrecy News [ed: and is a vocal WikiLeaks critic].
Aftergood says some of the most important disclosures of the past decade, including abuses by the U.S. military at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, came out because people concerned about overreach blew the whistle on the government.
"Leaks serve a very valuable function as a kind of safety valve," he adds. "They help us to get out the information that otherwise would be stuck."
The Obama Justice Department doesn't agree.
The vast majority of publicly disclosed high-level government corruption and lawbreaking over the last decade has come from unauthorized leaks, with the majority of it over the last year from WikiLeaks. Thus, it's hardly surprising that high-level government officials -- even those who ran on a platform of protecting and venerating whistle-blowing -- want to destroy it through a mix of persecution and intimidation. To its credit, the DOJ recently announced that it would not prosecute Thomas Tamm, the mid-level DOJ officials who informed the New York Times about the Bush warrantless eavesdropping program. But that has been a rare exception, as the DOJ is actively prosecuting an array of whistleblowers who exposed similar levels of corruption and wrongdoing -- in blatant violation of Obama's degree to "Look Forward, not Backward" when it comes to protecting powerful Bush-era political officials who committed serious crimes. Indeed, the prosecution of WikiLeaks -- which, unlike government employees, has no duty to safeguard government secrets -- would be the greatest blow to press freedoms and whistleblowing in the last several decades at least.
Assange was awarded this peace prize yesterday because -- unlike other Peace Prize recipients -- his work has been relentlessly devoted to impeding wars (not escalating them) by exposing the truth about the destruction and suffering they spawn. Beyond that, even the most vehement WikiLeaks critics, such as NYT Executive Editor Bill Keller, admit that the disclosures from WikiLeaks (and allegedly Bradley Manning) played at least some role in sparking the democratic rebellions in the Middle East, as those documents highlighted in all new detail the breadth of the corruption of many of those despots:
And that does not count the impact of these revelations on the people most touched by them. WikiLeaks cables in which American diplomats recount the extravagant corruption of Tunisia's rulers helped fuel a popular uprising that has overthrown the government.
And yet, many of the very same people who cheer for those democratic uprisings continue simultaneously to cheer for the administration that (a) steadfastly supported those dictators (and in some cases still support them in exchange for doing America's bidding) while (b) persecuting with Grand Jury investigations, imprisonment, and crushing solitary confinement those who seem to have helped spawn those rebellions. That the U.S. Government is obsessed with crushing one of the few remaining avenues for learning what it does (whistleblowing) -- and forever imprisoning those who have brought more transparency to its wrongdoing and deceit than all media outlets combined (WikiLeaks, Assange and, if the accusations are true, Manning) -- underscores just how central a role secrecy plays in maximizing government power and the ability of officials to abuse it. This secrecy regime is the heart and soul of the National Security State.
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