The Obama administration is notoriously hardline on whistleblowers. CIA officer John Kiriakou revealed the CIA’s use of torture, and served two years’ jail, having been released in February. He remains the only person in the US government to be punished for the CIA’s illegal use of torture. US President Barack Obama’s Justice Department unsuccessfully tried to prosecute former NSA employee Thomas Drake for revealing the waste of hundreds of millions of dollars by that agency. New York Times reporter James Risen lost a legal battle to protect another CIA whistleblower, James Sterling, who will be sentenced later this week under the Espionage Act. Sterling had revealed of the Clinton-era Operation Merlin debacle, which might have helped accelerate Iran’s nuclear program. Chelsea Manning revealed war crimes and systematic lying by the US government and remains in jail. And Edward Snowden, who revealed massive illegal surveillance by the NSA and other US agencies, remains trapped in Russia, unable to move without the threat of extradition or abduction to the US.
But it’s not all bad news when it comes to Obama’s “yes we can” approach to attacking whistleblowers. There are some “whistleblowers” who receive generous treatment.
Readers will recall Zero Dark Thirty from a couple of years ago, a Hollywood apologia for torture that portrayed confessions extracted under CIA torture as being crucial in the hunt for Osama Bin Laden — a fiction that has been comprehensively debunked. Zero Dark Thirty contained an awful lot of information about the pursuit of Bin Laden — so much so that some wondered if the filmmakers had been given sensitive information. Right-wing Republican Congressman and noted Irish Republican Army supporter Peter King demanded an inquiry by the Department of Defence’s Inspector-General, while more senior congressional figures demanded to know what the source of the torture claim was.
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And it turns out, Mark Boal, who wrote the film, and Kathryn Bigelow, who directed it, were given sensitive information by the Department of Defence about the operation to kill Bin Laden. A classified version of the Department of Defense investigation revealed that a senior DOD figure, Michael Vickers, passed on the protected name of one of the soldiers involved in the operation to the filmmakers. The Department of Justice even briefly considered prosecuting Vickers. The former head of the CIA when Bin Laden was killed, Leon Panetta, was also closely involved in cooperating with Bigelow and Boal, before moving to head the Department of Defense. The unclassified version of the report shows Panetta ordered more junior departmental and military officials to provide more information to the filmmakers when they proved unwilling to co-operate to the extent Bigelow and Boal wanted.
Better yet, the Inspector-General appears to have met with Panetta — Defense Secretary at the time of the investigation — about his role in co-operating with filmmakers. And straight after that meeting, the Inspector-General removed material relating to the CIA, and Panetta’s role in providing information to the filmmakers, from her report, which has since been savaged as “highly sanitised” by a senior Republican figure.
All of this comes after former CIA head and celebrated military commander David Petraeus was allowed to negotiate a plea deal in March for leaking intelligence information, including notes of his meetings with Obama, strategy documents and the identities of CIA agents, to his lover and biographer, Paula Broad. Instead of jail, Petraeus was given two years’ probation and a $40,000 fine.
The lessons of the Obama era are clear: reveal illegalities, war crimes, torture, the waste of hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars, and the government will try to lock you up. Reveal sensitive information for no better reason than Hollywood came knocking, or to impress your mistress, and you’ll either be allowed a walk, or you’ll be permitted to censor the very report that might reveal your wrongdoing.