Earlier this year, we noted Daniel Ellsberg's comments about how very few people realized that President Obama -- a man who ran on a platform of transparency and who has repeatedly said he supports whistleblowing efforts -- has been the most aggressive President ever
in trying to punish whistleblowers. He pointed out that President Obama has brought more indictments for leaking info than all other presidents combined
. And it's resulted in absolutely ridiculous prosecutions like the Thomas Drake affair
, which finally collapsed
after it became clear that the feds were merely being vindictive against Drake for his whistleblowing activities, rather than finding any actual case of espionage.
Now we have the sequel to the Drake situation, with much higher stakes in some ways. Conor Friedersdorf has a story at The Atlantic, about the administration's efforts to put reporter James Risen in jail
. The full story is a worth a read, but it's pretty ridiculous. Risen is famous for exposing the Bush administrations warrantless wiretapping regime, as well as a few other clearly illegal programs. He so infuriated the Bush administration that Dick Cheney wanted to put him in jail... but realized there was no legitimate way to do so.
Along comes President Barack Obama. Part of Obama's campaign was actually built off of the information that Risen exposed:
You'd think that President Obama would take a different view. After all, he might not be in the White House today if the Bush Administration would've succeeded in keeping all its secrets: the torture, the detainee deaths, the abuses at Abu Ghraib, the spying on Americans, the faulty pre-war intelligence in Iraq, and all the rest. One would expect Obama of all people to see the value in Risen's reporting - the real ways in which he has helped to preserve civil liberties, American freedom, and accountability in government - and to weigh that against the national security implications of reporting in 2006 on a bungled CIA effort that happened way back in the year 2000.
You'd think. Instead, we get the opposite. The Obama administration has come down even harder on Risen than the Bush administration did, and is now threatening him with jail for not exposing his sources for some of his stories. This showdown may come soon, as a judge has indicated that she may require Risen to give up his sources
. As Glenn Greenwald has noted, this whole thing seems to be a part of the "climate of fear"
that was certainly present among the previous administration, but which has ratcheted up dramatically with the current administration. The key "fear" element is to make it known to both insiders who leak and reporters who publish those stories, that they could face jail time, even as the administration claims that it's encouraging whistleblowing.
Ellsberg speculated that President Obama's reason for being so much more aggressive on these issues was one of embarrassment
. That is, the President recognizes that the federal government is doing all sorts of questionable stuff -- the type of stuff he actively campaigned against -- and is embarrassed by it. But since he (for whatever reason) is unable to put a stop to it, he's trying to do the next best thing: which is threaten and or punish anyone who might reveal what's being done. I'm not sure I buy that theory, but either way the situation is clearly troubling, and completely counter to the image that Obama has tried to portray of openness and transparency, and a willingness to respond directly to critics rather than punish them.
If you're concerned about freedom of speech and freedom of the press, this story should concern you. If you believe in the importance of whistleblowers to keep governments accountable when they do things like break the clear letter and intent of the law, this story should concern you. Tragically, however, it's not getting very much attention at all.