Thursday, January 12, 2012

Obama’s War on Whistleblowers

The Obama administration has prosecuted five whistleblowers for leaking classified information to the press. This is an unprecedented number; only three cases were prosecuted in the roughly 40 years prior to the Obama Administration. I have written extensively on Bradley Manning’s pre-trial detention and pre-trial hearing. Now I bring you the stories of the other four whistleblowers that have been prosecuted by the Obama Administration.  

Jeffrey Alexander Sterling

Jeffrey Alexander Sterling worked for the CIA from May 1993 through January 2002. Much of his work during that time focused on Iran and its nuclear program. In 2000 Sterling filed a complaint alleging racial discrimination with the CIA’s Equal Employment Opportunity office (Sterling is black). After Sterling left the agency he sued them for discrimination.

In 2003 Sterling discussed a classified CIA operation with the Senate Intelligence Committee before contacting James Risen of the New York Times. Risen planned to write an article about the operation for the Times; however, the paper decided not to publish it after the government told the Times what they believed the “national security implications” of the article would be.

Risen decided to publish the details of the operation in his 2006 book, “State of War.” Known as Operation Merlin, Risen stated that in 2000, under the Clinton Administration, the CIA gave flawed blueprints for a nuclear bomb triggering device to a Russian nuclear scientist who worked for the CIA. The scientist was supposed to give the flawed designs to the Iranians and in the process slow their development of nuclear weapons. Instead, the scientist pointed out the flaws in the plans to the Iranians. According to Risen, the operation, “allowed the Iranians to extract valuable information from the blueprints while ignoring the flaws.” The CIA has always maintained that Risen’s description of Operation Merlin is false and inaccurate.

In January 2011 the Obama Justice Department charged Jeffrey Alexander Sterling with disclosing National Defense Information and obstruction of justice. The prosecution alleges that Sterling leaked false information about Operation Merlin in retaliation for the CIA’s handling of his discrimination complaint. Eric Holder, the head of the Obama Justice Department, authorized a request for a subpoena for Risen in an attempt to get him to reveal his source in court. The judge in the case refused to grant the subpoena. Sterling’s trial is ongoing.

Thomas Drake

In 1989, Thomas Drake worked as a computer software expert for a private company that was working for the National Security Administration. At the time, the NSA was tackling the problem of capturing communications across new mediums like the internet. Two programs were being considered that would do just that: Thinthread and Trailblazer.  Thinthread was less expensive and better protected Americans’ privacy but the NSA decided to go with Trailblazer. Drake was hired as an executive at the NSA in 2001. His first day on the job was September 11th.

Drake still supported Thinthread and aired his concerns through the appropriate channels, he told his bosses, the NSA inspector general, the Defense Department Inspector General, and Congressional intelligence committees, all to no avail. In 2005 the New York Times revealed that under the Bush administration, the NSA was running a warrantless wiretapping operation. Drake believed that the administration was covering up the true extent of the program in their subsequent comments to the press. Drake finally took his concerns to Siobhan Gorman, a reporter for the Baltimore Sun. In 2006 and 2007, Gorman wrote a series of articles critical of NSA programs, including Trailblazer. The series won a Sigma Delta Chi award from the Society of Professional Journalists.

In 2007 the FBI raided Drake’s home, taking computers, photos, and books. In April 2010, the Justice Department, now under the Obama Administration, indicted Thomas Drake with Willful Retention of Information relating to the National Defense, obstructing justice, and making false statements to investigators.  He was not originally charged with disclosing classified information to the press, instead he was charged with retaining information relating to the national defense under the McCarran Internal Security Act of 1950 modification of the Espionage Act of 1917. The charges carried a total of 35 years in prison.

In 2011 the prosecution dropped all major charges mid-trial and granted Drake a plea deal where he would plead guilty to the misdemeanor of misusing the agency’s computer system by providing official NSA information to an unauthorized person. Drake accepted and was sentenced to a year’s probation and community service. Federal Judge Richard Bennett, who heard the case, chastised the government for dragging out the investigation for four years before dropping all major charges.

Shamai Leibowitz

[Author’s Note (7/19/2012): This passage was based upon Silverstein’s claims. At the time of the publication of this article, they were unchallenged. Since then, Leibowitz has come forward alleging that Silverstein’s claims were false and that he had leaked information about another topic to someone else. You can read about Leibowitz’s allegations here. Other than this parenthetical, this post remains as it was originally written.]

Shamai Leibowitz was born in Israel and went on to become a
dual citizen of the United States and Israel. From January to August 2009, Shamai worked as a Hebrew translator for the FBI. Shamai, who writes the blog Pursuing Justice, leaked classified information to Richard Silverstein who writes the blog Tikun Olam. The leaked classified information was transcripts of conversations at the Israeli embassy that were obtained through FBI wiretaps. Leibowitz and Silverstein felt that these conversations showed that the lobbying of US politicians by Israeli diplomats was pushing the US toward what they believed was a disastrous military confrontation with Iran. Nothing in the documents revealed any illegal behavior on the part of the US or Israel.

Shamai Leibowitz pleaded guilty to disclosing classified information on May 24, 2010. He was sentenced to 20 months in prison. At the time of his sentencing even his judge was unaware what information Leibowitz had leaked. That is a sad testament to how our judiciary handles national security affairs. The details of the leak became widely known in September 2011 when Silverstein discussed the leak and his view of its significance. 

At his sentencing, Leibowitz expressed sorrow in being separated from his 6-year-old twins, “At the formative time of their life, when they’re 6 years old and they’re just finishing first grade, I’ll be absent from their life, and that is the most terrible thing about this case.”

Stephen Jin-Woo Kim

Stephen Kim worked as an analyst for a contractor of the State Department. In June 2009 he told James Rosen of Fox News that North Korea would likely respond to a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning its nuclear and ballistic missile tests with a nuclear test. The test didn’t occur. In August 2010 the Obama Justice Department charged Kim with the Unauthorized Disclosure of National Defense Information and for lying to the FBI. Kim’s trial is ongoing.

So much for the candidate who said, “Government Whistleblowers are part of a healthy democracy and must be protected from reprisal.” (Hint: it’s the man whose name is in the title)

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