Groundbreaking 'War on Whistleblowers' Investigation Exposes Obama Admin's Record of Censorship and Persecution of Unsung Heroes and Journalists

By Steven Rosenfeld at Alternet
Robert Greenwald's new documentary sheds light on how far the national security state will go to keep its secrets.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock

The 9/11 attacks on America did not just launch Washington’s war on terrorism; they launched a new White House war on whistleblowers, first under President George W. Bush and then under President Barack Obama, according to a bold new documentary directed by filmmaker Robert Greenwald.

War on Whistleblowers: Free Press and the National Security State traces how two of the most powerful and secretive Washington power centers—the Pentagon’s military-industrial complex and Internet era’s national security state—ran amok after 9/11 and declared war on a handful of whistleblowers who went to the press to expose lies, fraud and abuses that meant life or death for troops and spying on millions of Americans. It explores why Obama, who promised the most transparent administration, became the most secretive president in recent decades and even more vindictive to intelligence-related whistleblowers than George W. Bush.  

Whistleblowers are not spies or traitors, as the Bush and Obama administration’s lawyers have alleged. They are patriotic and often conservative Americans who work inside the government and with military contractors, and who find unacceptable—and often life-threatening—or illegal behavior goes unheeded when they report it through the traditional chain of command. They worry about doing nothing and feel compelled to go to the press, even if they suspect they may lose their jobs. What they don’t realize is that their lives will never quite be the same again, because they underestimate the years of government persecution that follows.

The documentary portrays the whistleblower as a special kind of American hero—one whose importance is easily forgotten in today’s infotainment-drenched media. Since the Vietnam War in the 1960s, whistleblowers have been part of many history-changing events: questioning the war in Vietnam by releasing the Pentagon Papers on military’s failings; exposing the Watergate burglary that led to President Richard Nixon's resignation; exposing the illegal nationwide domestic spying program by the George W. Bush administration after 9/11; revealing the military’s failure to replace Humvees in Iraq and Afghanistan with better bomb-deflecting vehicles, leading to hundreds of deaths and maimings; revealing how the nation’s largest military contractor was building a new Coast Guard fleet with ships whose hulls could buckle in rough seas and putting radios on smaller rescue boats that wouldn’t work when wet. 

These are some of the scandals and issues whose contours are traced by the documentary, especially the explosive growth of the military-industrial complex and national security state after 9/11, and how these institutions sought to silence those who questioned and tried to correct mistakes or seek accountability. The film also shows how reporters, at blogs, newspapers and TV networks, have real power to put pressure on government and force change, and how public-interest activists are a conduit for that critical exchange of information. A free press very much matters.

A key element of War on Whistleblowers is the number of nationally known journalists who speak out collectively and for the first time in reaction to the government’s attacks on their sources and their reporting. The film features many respected mainstream investigative reporters, including theWashington Post’s Dana Priest, the New Yorker'sJane Mayer and Seymour Hersch, USA Today’sTom Vanden Brook,New York Times’ media critic David Carr and formerTimes editor Bill Keller, among others.

Still, the documentary leaves a lingering impression that the system—many government agencies and their embedded codes of secrecy, self-interest and self-protection—endures in the long run, even if whistleblowers stop or slow their agenda. Indeed, the film makes a powerful case that Obama has been seduced by the nation’s spymasters, which is why his prosecutors have tried to intimidate and punish these messengers more than all recent presidencies combined.

The Military-Industrial Complex   

The film starts with a modern telling of an old story. President Dwight Eisenhower’s warned the nation about the "military-industrial complex" nearly 65 years ago. The film shows what that means in 2006, when the Marine Corp’s first female officer, Major Megan McClung, was killed by a roadside bomb while riding in a Humvee.

At the Pentagon, Franz Gayl was Marine Corp’s science and technology advisor and started looking at why there were so many roadside deaths and injuries. He discovered that Humvees weren’t designed to withstand the blasts, but the military had other troop carriers that could. “If not me, then who? If not now, then when? It was one of those situations,” he tells the filmmakers. “I said, it doesn’t matter what the consequences are, personal or otherwise.’ I said, this needs to be fixed."

The film shows how patriotic and selfless impulses like these collide with Washington’s system: the mix of administrative, institutional, political and private sector resistance to acknowledging mistakes, their impact, the cost and doing something about it.

Gayl discovered that Humvees, made by an Indiana-based company, were never designed to withstand roadside bombs. As a result, one third of that war’s casaulties up to that time were in Humvees hit by the buried bombs. “Hundreds of marines were tragically lost, thousands were tragically maimed, probably unnecessarily,” he said. “So I said, let’s replace the Humvees with what are called MRAPs, mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles.” These ride higher above the ground and deflect blasts from below.

Gayl said the Marines had asked for MRAPs, but somehow that request was sidelined at the Pentagon, causing “19 months of delay and that had a direct impact on lost lives, unnecessarily.” He went up the Pentagon chain of command: he told his supervisors, the agency that was supposed to be providing support, then systems command, and at every step got nowhere. He then tried to tell the Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s staff, but they looked at his report. “They said absolutely not, that cannot be allowed to go forward,” he recounted. That’s when Gayl decided to contact Sharon Weinberger, a reporter at Wired’sDangerRoom, a blog dedicated to cutting-edge military technology.

Gayl, notably, is an insider in the military-industrial complex. But he says the military is supposed to drive industry to meet its needs, not the other way around. DangerRoom’s report got the attention of then senator Joe Biden’s staff. They arranged for him to talk to USA Today’sTom Vanden Brook to give the issue more prominence. “I provided him unclassified information which was key to understanding the issue,” Gayl said. It was obviously a front-page story in July 2007, with thousands of lives at stake and questions about why the Pentagon was resisting an immediate and obvious solution.

But getting results dragged on. Two years after deciding he had to act, Gayl testified in Congress in 2009. “Now it is in the press and the [Marine Corps] Commandant is getting asked about it during House Armed Service Committee testimony,” Gayl recounted, to which the nation’s top marine told the committee, “We don’t have an answer right now to how long-term the MRAP is going to be.”

Then the backlash began.Vanden Brook was told his Pentagon access was going to end. Gayl received performance reviews saying he was a substandard employee, “bottom 3 percent,” unreliable, untrustworthy, and was put on administrative leave. “The MRAPs are starting to get media attention, but the guy who makes it happen, Franz Gayl, is losing his security clearance and is getting pounded on in his own job,” said Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight (POGO). Losing a security clearance meant Gayl could not get military work in Washington.

Gayl, it turns out, was lucky as far as whistleblowers go. After Robert Gates became Secretary of Defense, he publically backed the MRAPs. Soon, more than 24,000 were being built 'round the clock and sent to Iraq and Afghanistan. Soldiers said they started saving American lives. “The number of deaths and maimings just plummeted,” Gayl said. But he was still “losing his job, even as the right thing was happening,” POGO’s Brian said. So POGO and other advocates launched a media and legal campaign, which got Gayl his Pentagon job back. “But why didn’t they do the right thing?” he asked.

The answer is the profits for Humvee contracts. There are hundreds of millions of dollars at stake, the film points out. The Iraq and Afghanistan wars were more than an economic boom for defense contractors. “It is the military industrial complex,” Gayl said. “I’m not some left-wing guy who grabbed onto that concept. I consider myself a conservative, a patriotic American. But it’s real. And there are so many conflicts of interest. This is the beast that we have in industrialized society. This problem is real.”    

The National Security State

The documentary then jumps to an even deeper problem. Washington’s lobbying world revolves around money, power and influence. To some extent, Gayl’s story is more about the money side of this equation than the power side. But the obsession with power cuts deeper.

If the military-industrial complex is a 20th-century creation formed after WWII, the 21st century’s behemoth is national-security state, formed after 9/11. This data-driven world includes federal monitoring of virtually every electronic transaction or message by all Americans, regardless of constitutional protections and legal procedures written in the age of paper documents and search warrants.

“What we discovered… was there are over 1,200 government organizations working at the top-secret level on counterterrorism,” said the Washington Post’s Priest. “There are another close to 2,000 companies that work for the government on top-secret matters. And they’re all located in about 10,000 locations throughout the country. There are close to 1 million people who have top-secret clearance.”

Calling it a "state within the state" is not an exaggeration. The national security state is a vast convergence of government agencies and private interests that are as determined to preserve its power and influence and do whatever it takes to achieve its goals. “We talk about a national security state that pretends that it is interested in national security," said Daniel Ellsberg, the Vietnam War whistleblower. “But in fact, it is interested in the security of corporate interests, of agency interests, of politicians keeping their jobs.”

The film says that whistleblowers are needed more than ever to hold this secret segment of government and industry accountable. And what’s most surprising is that the Obama administration has been cracking down on a handful of federal employees-turned-whistleblowers in a way that makes what happened to Gayl seem like child’s play.

The documentary goes on to profile Thomas Drake, the former senior executive of the National Security Agency, whose first day on the job was Sept. 11, 2001. His job was to oversee electronic intelligence gathering by all federal agencies and to sift through it to identify threats. The NSA’s longtime mandate was not to spy on Americans, but as Drake learned, that’s exactly what certain corners of the agency was doing on a scale that was unprecedented: sifting through tens of millions of emails, phone calls and other data to try to find and stop terrorists. There were no controls, no accountability and no oversight, he discovered. It was electronic warfare without battlefield rules. When he voiced his concerns to his boss, Drake was told, “It’s all been approved. Don’t worry about it.”

The documentary also profiles Michael DeKort, a former lead systems engineer for the Deepwater Program, where the nation’s largest defense contractors, Lockeed-Martin, had a $24 billion contract to build a new generation of Coast Guard cutters and outfit smaller rescue boats. DeKort discovered that the radios Lockheed-Martin planned to install on the smaller rescue boats were not waterproof, and that the hulls of the new boats were prone to bending and buckling under pressure—which is exactly what happens in stormy seas. “Like most people, maybe they tell their boss and they drop it. That wasn’t good enough,” he said.

The film also profiles Thomas Tamm, a former Department of Justice attorney at what was then called the Office of Intelligence Policy and Review. When a suspected terrorist was arrested abroad, if his cellphone or computer had U.S. phone numbers on it, Tamm was part of a team that would go before a secret court to get permission to monitor those numbers and emails for 90 days. Tamm discovered that there was a separate initiative, simply called the “program,” where monitoring occurred without going through any court. Some of his colleagues thought it was illegal, he said, but they were told to overlook it.

All of these people went up their chain of command—in their agencies, to Congress’ oversight committees, or up the corporate ladder to the executive suite—and got nowhere.

“I came to the decision that I thought the American people should know, and let the American people decide if the government was doing what they considered legal or not,” Tamm said, echoing sentiments held by Drake and DeKort. And all of these people came to the unavoidable conclusions that they had to speak to the press, even if it put their jobs at risk and upended their lives. “I remember picking up the cradle of the [pay]phone and calling a reporter by the name of Eric Lichtblau at theNew York Times,” Tamm said. “Once I put the phone down, I knew I was committed to the path I decided to take. I was pretty confident that my life would not be the same.”

Tamm and Drake became whistleblowers during the Bush administration. But they did not anticipate that the Obama administration would take up Bush’s anti-whistleblower vendetta, especially because they were involved in intelligence-gathering. When Obama took office, he promised his administration would be the most transparent ever. But that’s not what happened. “In 2011, there were 92 million classification decisions, four times the number of decisions as the last year of George W. Bush,” said Ellsberg, talking about the government’s warehouses of secret files. “That’s not increased transparency, of course. That’s closing the curtains.”          

When it came to Tamm and Drake, the legal hammer that fell on them got far worse—until both men had their day in court. “I never imagined that he [Obama] would just run with it, and take it far beyond what the Bush administration had implemented,” Drake said. “They have indicted more people for violating secrecy than all of the prior administrations put together,” said ex-New York Times editor Keller.

Eventually, these men also found relief from federal judges who rejected these sham prosecutions and reprimanded the government’s prosecutors. In June 2011, the DOJ, after four years of accusing Drake of a dozen felonies that could have meant 35 years in jail, dropped all but one charge: a misdemeanor count of unauthorized use of a computer. That is the electronic equivalent of a parking ticket.

That same spring, after seven years, the government also dropped its investigation of Tamm, without explanation, apology or offering him his job back. Drake is now working at an Apple store while he completes a PhD in advanced public administration. Tamm is strugging as a private defense attorney and seeking speaking engagements to talk about this experience. Their careers, like DeKort’s, were derailed if not ruined.

Last fall, Congress passed and Obama signed the Whistleblower Enhancement Protection Act. But laws governing whistleblowers in the intelligence sphere remain weaker than in other areas, the film notes, saying that discrepancy prompted Obama to issue a directive protecting intelligence agency whistleblowers, but only to talk to superiors within the government—not to the press. That is a key distinction, because in all of the film’s examples, corrective action only came after whistleblowers spoke with reporters and a handful of government oversight advocacy groups launched media campaigns.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration hasn’t dropped charges against former Private Bradley Manning, Wikileak’s source. And the FBI’s investigation into who leaked information about a computer worm created to dismantle Iran’s nuclear program, is continuing. Indeed, some of the news organizations whose reporters and editors are interviewed in the documentary are still fighting the federal government in court.

America’s founders understood that the worst of human nature had to be kept in check by limiting how political power was held and shared. That’s why they created branches of government with checks and balances, and protected the press in the First Amendment. As War on Whistleblowers: Free Press and the National Security Statereminds us, the men and women who dare to speak out have a unique role in this democratic process—as does a free press—and should be seen as patriots. They sacrifice their careers, all because they believed that American govermment could do better to serve its soldiers overseas and its citizenry at home.     

Brave New Films seeks to distribute the film as widely as possible, using traditional and digital platforms including Netflix, iTunes, Hulu, Amazon and Time-Warner.New York Timesreporter Scott Shane and Public Editor Margaret Sullivan,Rolling Stone’s Michael Hastings and MSNBC’s Mike Isikoffwill participate in panel discussions of the documentary atpremieres in New York City (April 17), Los Angeles (April 23)and Washington (April 16).Screenings are also being scheduled on university campuses across the country.For more information, contact Linsey Pecikonis at Brave New Films.

Steven Rosenfeld covers democracy issues for AlterNet and is the author of "Count My Vote: A Citizen's Guide to Voting" (AlterNet Books, 2008).
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