Barack Obama’s administration has launched attacks unparalleled since the McCarthy years on those who blow the whistle against corruption inside the federal government.
Obama has already charged more whistleblowers under the Espionage Act than all previous administrations combined (as reflected in the list below.) Peter van Buren, a career foreign affairs officer at the Department of Department of State claims his job was threathened after writing, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. Van Buren, who became disillusioned by waste and hypocrisy while serving in Iraq, says “The number of cases in play [against whistleblowers] suggests an organized strategy to deprive Americans of knowledge of the more disreputable things that their government does. How it plays out in court and elsewhere will significantly affect our democracy.”
Van Buren points out that the pre-World War 1 Espionage Act has been used against “labor leaders and radicals like Eugene V. Debs, Bill Haywood, Philip Randolph, Victor Berger, John Reed, Max Eastman, and Emma Goldman. Debs, a union leader and socialist candidate for the presidency, was sentenced to 10 years in jail for a speech attacking the Espionage Act itself. The Nixon administration infamously (and unsuccessfully) invoked the Act to bar the New York Times from continuing to publish the classified Pentagon Papers.” But no other administration has used this legislation as liberally as President Obama who has authorized more drone attacks than any other American president.
Van Buren was writing on the blog Tom.Dispatch.com of Tom Engelhardt, a teaching fellow at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California. Engelhardt in turn observes: “One thing is obvious. No one ever joins the government in order to be a whistleblower or leaker.Whistleblowers are created, not born,” speaking words that resonate with my experience as a whistleblower. Van Buren notes: “It is perhaps typical of whistleblowers and leakers that something they are privy to simply pushes them over the edge.” In my case it was the realization that government was failing to act against a U.S. multinational whose mining practices were leading to the injury and deaths of South African vanadium miners.
I continue to speak out against injustice, but it certainly has not made my life easier. Each week I get mails to my Facebook site from those who are whistleblowers or are close to whistleblowers. This week’s example is typical: “I know you don’t know me and I am taking a HUGE chance by writing you, but I have to at least try. My parents are going through some of the same things you went through at the EPA. Both top-level executives at federal agencies they have been retaliated harshly against. NO ONE seems to hear us. I’m begging for your help. Please help us… These agencies are corrupt and we are still on the bus fighting like Rosa.”
There is little I can do other than direct them to the National Whistleblower Center, give the names of lawyers and share a little human empathy. But there is no doubt that under this administration there is a concerted attack against those who dare to expose corruption in government or corporations.
Recently four employees of the Air Force Mortuary in Dover, Delaware, revealed that the Dover Air Force Base mortuary had lost and sawed off body parts and mishandled other remains of America’s war dead. Retaliation against them included firings, the placing of employees on indefinite administrative leave, and the imposition of five-day suspensions. Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner has accused the Air Force of deflecting blame — and a mortuary official of lying and obstructing the probe by firing one of the workers who blew the whistle. What remains to be seen is whether Lerner, an Obama political appointee, will distinguish herself from her disgraced predecessor by seriously investigating corruption under this administration.
At present six whistleblowers are suing the Food and Drug Administration for electronically spying on them when they tried to alert Congress about misconduct at the agency. This is the agency tasked with overseeing public health, food safety, medicines and medical devices. Senator Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) launched an investigation in response to a lawsuit filed by six FDA whistleblowers and documents released by the National Whistleblowers Center that show the FDA targeted whistleblowers for special monitoring and intercepted personal communications to Congress, including emails to Senator Grassley’s staff. Senator Grassley, the Ranking Member of the Senate Judiciary Committee asked FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg whether or not whistleblowers were singled out for special monitoring based on a letter they wrote to President-Elect Obama’s Transition Team.
We are waiting to see the Army’s reaction to whistleblower Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Davis, who documented in the Armed Forces Journal that senior leaders of the Department of Defense intentionally and consistently misled the American people and Congress about success in the Afghan War.
Those charged under the Espionage Act include:
- Former CIA officer John Kiriakou charged on January 23 for disclosing classified information to journalists about the waterboarding of al-Qaeda suspects. The CIA also found an excuse to fire his wife, also employed by the Agency, while she was on maternity leave.
- Thomas Drake an employee of the National Security Agency revealed that it spent $1.2 billion on a contract for a data collection program called Trailblazer when the work could have been done in-house for $3 million. Drake’s home was raided at gunpoint and the agency forced him out of his job. He now works at an Apple Store. His attorney told Anti-war.com: “Too often, whistleblowers end up broken, blacklisted, and bankrupted.”
- Whistleblower Pvt. Bradley Manning, accused of leaking Army and State Department documents to the website WikiLeaks, spent more than a year in a U.S. Marine prison and was denied the chance even to appear in court to defend himself until almost two years after his arrest.
- Former chief military prosecutor at Guantanamo Morris Davis lost his career as a researcher at the Library of Congress for writing a critical op-ed for the Wall Street Journal and a letter to the editor at the Washington Post on double standards at the infamous prison.
- Robert MacClean was charged for blowing the whistle on the Transportation Security Administration.
Van Buren notes in his piece for Tom.Dispatch.Com “My travel vouchers from as far back as the law allows have come under “routine” re-examination. My Internet activity is the subject of daily reports. My credit reports have been examined for who knows what. Department friends who email me on topical issues have been questioned by agents of Diplomatic Security, the State Department’s internal police. My Freedom of Information Act request for documents to help defend myself and force State to explain its actions has been buried.”
And then we read investigative reports in the Washington Post, as an example, of 33 members of Congress that have steered more than $300 million in earmarks and other spending provisions to dozens of public projects that are next to or within about two miles of the lawmakers’ own property. We have yet to hear of action against them.
Freedom of the press and freedom of expression are American constitutional bulwarks. These important elements of the constitution provide protection for truth-tellers as the last defense against tyranny. It is a shame that a legacy of the first African American president is heightened repression against whistleblowers.
See Marsha on C-Span Book/TV at: www.marshacoleman-adebayo.org.
Dr. Marsha Coleman-Adebayo is the author of No FEAR: A Whistleblowers Triumph over Corruption and Retaliation at the EPA is available through amazon.com and the National Whistleblower Center. Dr. Coleman-Adebayo worked at the EPA for 18 years and blew the whistle on a US multinational corporation that endangered vanadium mine workers. Marsha’s successful lawsuit lead to the introduction and passage of the first civil rights and whistleblower law of the 21st century: the Notification of Federal Employees Anti-discrimination and Retaliation Act of 2002 (No FEAR.)
- Whistleblower Lawsuit Puts Spotlight On FDA Technical Reviews (news.sciencemag.org)
- Inside President Obama’s War On The Fast & Furious Whistleblowers (forbes.com)
- Scientists suing the FDA after covert surveillance (newscientist.com)