Over the last few years, we've covered President Obama's war on whistleblowers
, including the fact that he's used the Espionage Act against whistleblowers more than every other President combined, which is really quite incredible when you think about it. The NY Times has tried to dig around and figure out why the Obama administration is so harsh on whistleblowers
and comes up with a few different sources. The first one, the Times reporter actually buries pretty far down in the story: Senator Dianne Feinstein from California:
At a closed hearing in December 2009, members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, led by Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, scolded Mr. Holder, Mr. Blair and the F.B.I. director, Robert S. Mueller, saying they had not adequately protected national security secrets.
“A tipping point was reached in 2009,” said one knowledgeable Senate aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not an official spokesman. “There was an official change of policy.”
Mr. Blair said, “We had to do 50 push-ups and promise to do better.”
Of course, as we've pointed out a few times, Feinstein, ridiculously, seems much more concerned about leaks
than the government abuses and lawbreaking that those leaks reveal. That's quite incredible when you think about it.
The second source -- also underplayed by the article -- is officials in the intelligence community itself, who the President and his top advisors seem somewhat in awe of, and rarely seem willing to push back on what they have to say:
In tracing the origins of this effort, present and former government officials said the focus on leaks began at the administration’s highest levels and was driven by pressure from the intelligence agencies....
Basically, the long term intelligence insiders were sick of leaks -- such as the revealing of their warrantless wiretapping -- meaning that they actually have to answer to the public for overreaching into everyone's private lives. Given the combination of those intelligence agencies and Feinstein (who has always parroted whatever the intelligence agencies have to say), President Obama put his first Director of National Intelligence on the job of "solving" this issue of whistleblowers. And Blair apparently took to it with fervor, believing that the best thing to do would be to "make some examples" by hanging
Soon after President Obama appointed him director of national intelligence in 2009, Dennis C. Blair called for a tally of the number of government officials or employees who had been prosecuted for leaking national security secrets. He was dismayed by what he found.
In the previous four years, the record showed, 153 cases had been referred to the Justice Department. Not one had led to an indictment.
That scorecard “was pretty shocking to all of us,” Mr. Blair said. So in a series of phone calls and meetings, he and Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. fashioned a more aggressive strategy to punish anyone who leaked national security information that endangered intelligence-gathering methods and sources.
“My background is in the Navy, and it is good to hang an admiral once in a while as an example to the others,” said Mr. Blair, who left the administration in 2010. “We were hoping to get somebody and make people realize that there are consequences to this and it needed to stop.”
While he's not literally talking about hanging someone, just the idea that they set out, purposefully, to "make examples" out of whistleblowers, is what lead to these kinds of massive overreaches and the chilling effects found today. The administration may think that's a good thing, because it keeps their secrets secret -- but it's also what's allowed massive abuses within the government to flourish with no one willing to blow the whistle.
The next culprit outlined (and mentioned above) is Attorney General Eric Holder, who teamed up with Blair to craft a program that was focused on going after anyone they could very aggressively:
Mr. Holder’s “attitude, the same as mine, was to speed up the process and make it more effective,” Mr. Blair said. “So, yes, that would mean more aggressive prosecution.”
The Justice Department imposed a tight deadline to decide whether to open criminal inquiries into leaks, shortening to just three weeks a review process that had often dragged on for months. Leaks considered unworthy of prosecution were marked for administrative inquiries. Underscoring the administration’s determination, Robert M. Bryant, Mr. Blair’s national counterintelligence executive, was put in charge of stanching leaks.
So, rather than get the whole story, understand what's going on, the DOJ has a three-week deadline before moving forward with criminal
investigations on whistleblowing.
The final person to blame for all of this: the President himself. As noted above, he seems to accept everything the intelligence guys tell him without question. And that leads to absolutely moronic claims like the following:
The White House has kept a careful distance from the Justice Department prosecutions, but President Obama seemed unwavering in his support for them. When government transparency advocates told him in March 2011 that chasing whistle-blowers was sullying his record, the president disagreed, saying some disclosures had been very damaging to national security.
The Times reporter doesn't dig into this, but that meeting from March 2011 was first written about in Jane Mayer's amazing New Yorker article about the ridiculous prosecution against whistleblower Thomas Drake
. That was a case where Drake legitimately blew the whistle on fraud and abuse within the NSA -- and it was only in searching for who was behind a different leak, that investigators found a completely pointless document on his home computer, including details of some meeting schedules. The document was marked unclassified
, but prosecutors said that Drake should have known it was actually classified (even though the document was
declassified months later).
That was clearly an extreme case of going after a whistleblower for being a whistleblower -- and yet when confronted on this, the President strongly pushed back against it and seemed to buy completely into the bogus claims his intelligence people were telling him about Drake. From the Mayer piece:
On March 28th, Obama held a meeting in the White House with five advocates for greater transparency in government. During the discussion, the President drew a sharp distinction between whistle-blowers who exclusively reveal wrongdoing and those who jeopardize national security. The importance of maintaining secrecy about the impending raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound was likely on Obama’s mind. The White House has been particularly bedevilled by the ongoing release of classified documents by WikiLeaks, the group led by Julian Assange. Last year, WikiLeaks began releasing a vast trove of sensitive government documents allegedly leaked by a U.S. soldier, Bradley Manning; the documents included references to a courier for bin Laden who had moved his family to Abbottabad—the town where bin Laden was hiding out. Manning has been charged with “aiding the enemy.”
Danielle Brian, the executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, attended the meeting, and said that Obama’s tone was generally supportive of transparency. But when the subject of national-security leaks came up, Brian said, “the President shifted in his seat and leaned forward. He said this may be where we have some differences. He said he doesn’t want to protect the people who leak to the media war plans that could impact the troops.” Though Brian was impressed with Obama’s over-all stance on transparency, she felt that he might be misinformed about some of the current leak cases. She warned Obama that prosecuting whistle-blowers would undermine his legacy. Brian had been told by the White House to avoid any “ask”s on specific issues, but she told the President that, according to his own logic, Drake was exactly the kind of whistle-blower who deserved protection.
Of course, Brian was exactly right -- Thomas Drake was exactly the kind of whistleblower President Obama claims he wants more of: the kind who reveal government wrongdoing in the form of financial shenanigans. And yet, he never seemed to recognize or acknowledge that Drake never revealed anything that jeopardized national security. Given how the various intelligence bosses -- from Blair to Keith Alexander to James Clapper (and their various predecessors who are now making tons of money working for private defense contractors bilking billions from the government on these issues) -- seem to have decided that they need to "hang" a few leakers, President Obama's failure to recognize that they've been using his support for this to hang true whistleblowers, rather than anyone who's harmed national security, means he needs to take the blame for this massive failure within his own administration.
Brian was completely correct in her statements. These actions -- and the latest Snowden revelations of a President who seems to cave to the intelligence agencies at every chance -- really do a massive amount of harm to his legacy. But, tragically, the President appears to have a huge blindspot on that, not realizing how damning his war on whistleblowers has become.