The Price of Whistleblowing: Manning, Greenwald, Assange, Kiriakou and Snowden
We were eating dinner last night around my kitchen table when the news of the dustup between Wikileaks and the Intercept came through the tubes. As I read the details to the people who came here to share food and conversation, everyone’s eyebrows raised.
The eyebrows at a lot of tables probably raised as Wikileaks took the Intercept to task for its latest story, and failing to release the name of one of the countries in which the United States is spying on its citizens. The Intercept maintained they had been shown compelling evidence that led them to redact the name; Wikileaks maintained the citizens of the country have a right to know.
The eyebrows at my kitchen table were somewhat unique as it relates to the story, however. They belong to members of a group we jokingly refer to as the Friends of the Enemies of the State, a regular gathering of people who have personal experience on the business end of the state’s relentless persecution of those who choose to expose its criminality.
I’ll leave it to the people who come here as to whether they want to identify themselves or not. But everyone regards these dinners as a place where they know they are among friends who understand what they’ve been through and aren’t judging them for it. Many have lost everything — marriages, jobs, homes, relationships with friends and family, have risked jail (and in some cases gone to jail) — as a result of decisions they made to become whistleblowers.
(I will identify one person, with permission — FDL contributor and State Department whistleblower Peter Van Buren, who is in town promoting his new book The Ghosts of Tom Joad. It’s excellent, please buy it.)
Without saying how everyone came down, I will say that there was sympathy expressed for those on both sides. More than one of the regular attendees at the FES dinners has been charged with espionage. More than one has been to visit Julian Assange in England, and Edward Snowden in Russia. And they are all keenly aware that these are extremely difficult decisions that whistleblowers and journalists are increasingly having to face in the era of big data — and that the price of a mistake can be perilously high.
Chelsea Manning and the Quantico Saga
My own experience with whistleblowers and whistleblowing began four years ago when I picked up a gangly college student with blonde hair and a backpack at Union Station one night. His name was David House, and at the time he was pretty much Chelsea Manning’s only regular visitor at Quantico.
David had initially reached out to Glenn Greenwald when his computer had been seized at an airport for no apparent crime other than being Manning’s friend. When David told Glenn he routinely came down from Boston and stayed in hostels in Washington DC so he could visit Chelsea, Glenn thoughtfully offered up my house as a place for him to stay.
Almost immediately David told me he was very worried about Chelsea, who was being kept in solitary confinement under conditions the UN rapporteur on torture would later say were cruel and inhuman. Chelsea’s lawyer wanted to exhaust all military procedural options for protesting her treatment before going to the press, but David was deeply concerned that his friend’s condition was deteriorating.
“I think Glenn should know this,” I said, and I dialed Glenn’s number. After getting a lecture about how I shouldn’t be driving and talking on the phone at the same time, I told him what David had told me about Chelsea’s conditions. I also told him that Chelsea’s attorney was concerned about broadcasting this in the media yet.
What happened next all came down to a snap judgement I had to make about whether or not David had evaluated the situation accurately and was telling the truth. Did I believe him? “Yes,” I said.
Glenn tweeted out the news and all hell broke loose. The Quantico spokesman denied it everywhere, and Glenn was on the defensive against a full-frontal Pentagon PR campaign. Fortunately David Coombs, Chelsea’s lawyer, decided it was time to make a statement, and he confirmed everything David had said about Chelsea’s conditions.
Soon the guards at Quantico began harassing David at the gate and making it hard for him to get to the brig to see Chelsea, so I began driving him down. On the third or fourth time, we were detained and threatened with arrest. I began live tweeting what was happening to us with no awareness that people were following it all over the world. What we did know that a collection of military brass had assembled in the guard house, and we weren’t released until just before visiting hours were over at the brig and it would be impossible for David to get in to see Chelsea.
In response to the media attention around our detention the Pentagon gave its first press conference in months, and spokesperson Geoff Morrell was peppered with questions as to whether the military was preventing Chelsea’s visitors from seeing her. A few days later the Quantico brig commander was replaced and we all had hopes that Chelsea’s situation would get better.
It got far, far worse. They began stripping Chelsea naked and forcing her to stand at attention in front of the guards each morning, according to the outraged David Coombs who went public immediately.
I can’t speak for anyone else in the situation but I know for myself I was sick with worry that we had only made things worse for Chelsea. Nobody can know that but Chelsea herself, and she hasn’t spoken about it. All I can say is that in retrospect I believe we made the best decisions we could based on what we knew at the time. And I can say with absolute certainty that everyone was trying to do what they thought was best for her.
At the time most everyone who knew about Chelsea thought she should be shot for treason, so we began an intense media campaign to turn that narrative around, and scrapped with journalists about poorly sourced stories that came straight out of the Pentagon fax machine. (And as a side note I can say that if credit belongs to anyone for turning around that story it’s Trevor Fitzgibbon, who worked tirelessly on Chelsea’s behalf by facing down a hostile media environment and making journalists aware of what really happened.)
Defense Contractor Gangstas
I became keenly aware of the dangerous waters we were wading into shortly thereafter when Anonymous released the HB Gary emails. If you ask me, the fact that defense contractors were being directed by lawyers acting as government cutouts to threaten and intimidate journalists who were writing in support of Wikileaks and Chelsea Manning, including Glenn Greenwald and David House, is one of the most under-reported stories of the decade.
By far the scariest part of the story for me, however, came when I learned from the emails that the defense contractors were collecting personal data on the friends and families of FDL staffers in order to discourage them from writing about certain subjects.
It quite frankly scared the shit out of me. I realized that the decisions we were all making about what we covered and how we covered it were putting the people who work for us at risk.
Fast forward four years. We’ve continued to cover the cases of whistleblowers extensively, including Thomas Drake, John Kiriakou, Peter Van Buren and Edward Snowden, despite the consequences. But we never do it lightly or dismiss the risk involved. We’ve been under constant, withering Denial of Service attacks for months now, and I’m sure the two issues are not unrelated.
I relate this story not because it compares in any way with the magnitude of what the Intercept or Wikileaks are doing, but because the only story I feel comfortable telling here is my own. And I’ve heard the same concerns in the stories of whistleblowers over and over again — how do you balance the interests of the public’s right to know with the price that individuals could potentially pay for the releasing that information? The answers are neither obvious nor easy.
The DoJ’s Quest to Indict Journalists
I recently attended a conference where both Abbe Lowell and the Washington Post’s Barton Gellman were speaking. Lowell is the attorney who defended Bill Clinton during his impeachment hearings and most recently defended former State Department contractor Steven Kim when he was charged with espionage for leaking to Fox News. And according to him, vast amounts of money are being spent by the Department of Justice right now in a quest to find both a legal rational and an opportunity to indict journalists for their participation in leaking classified documents.
Lowell and Barton Gellman both noted that the DoJ probably won’t go after journalists strictly for publishing classified information, but rather for encouraging whistleblowers to seek and turn over classified documents. And as Gellman noted, the first thing any journalist asks when they are contacted by a whistleblower is “do you have proof.”
Anyone who blithely dismisses the climate of fear this creates, or the consequences for everyone involved, should go see Jim Spione’s film Silenced, where John Kiriakou sits and contemplates suicide after the government charges him with espionage and he’s looking at 45 years in jail.
John ultimately negotiated a sentence of 30 months, but it hasn’t been a picnic for either him or his family. Kevin Gosztola and I made the 6 hour round-trip journey to visit John in jail at Loretto prison once again on Sunday. John told us that his young son had been to visit him the day before, and had finally asked him “Dad, are you here because you work here, or are you a prisoner?” And John had to admit that he was an inmate.
No Easy Answers
I don’t know who operates the Wikileaks Twitter account. There are reportedly several people who have access to it, but regardless the world thinks that in this case it was Julian Assange lashing out at the Intercept. And if anyone knows the high price to be paid by those who leak secrets the United States government doesn’t want leaked, it’s Julian Assange, who has spent the last three and a half years as a virtual prisoner at the Ecuadorian embassy in London.
I know that in the past, Assange has had concerns about releasing documents himself without redacting the names of innocent people who could get hurt, and has contacted the Pentagon offering to work with them to redact documents before their release. And I also understand his concerns that the Pentagon is not always acting in good faith when they say people are in danger. They have cried wolf so many times that nobody believes them any more.
But I also don’t think you can assume bad faith on the part of the people at the Intercept. We may learn two days from now, or in 10 years, that there were fierce internal battles over the Snowden documents. Or we may learn that everyone was in general agreement to redact the name of the country. I have no idea and have had no discussions with anyone at the Intercept about the story, including Glenn Greenwald.
The only point I’m trying to make at the end of this long screed is that the price of whistleblowing is paid by more people than just the whistleblowers. We can’t know what the Pentagon told the people at the Intercept that made them gun shy when it came to releasing the name of the country, and Assange and others are certainly right to question the criteria upon which the decision was made. Perhaps in the end it’s in the interest of everyone if Wikileaks are the ones to release the name in 72 hours as they promised last night. I truly have no idea and gave up speculating about things like this when I have no direct knowledge of what happened a long time ago.
But I think the assumption of bad faith on the part of the Intercept is misplaced. We are all in uncharted waters, and everyone is going to make different choices while navigating them based on what the view looks like from where they stand.
I can only say that sitting with whistleblowers last night when the news came down, everyone understood on a very deep and personal level that these are very, very difficult decisions to make.
For myself, I just don’t think there’s a need to make it any harder.