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How One Film Gave Voice to Three Whistleblowers The US Government Tried To Silence

“A person never feels as alone as when the weight of the entire U.S. government is coming down on your head, when Espionage Act charges are being filed against you despite the fact you haven’t committed espionage, and when your personal, financial, and social life are ruined,” John Kiriakou, the CIA torture whistleblower, told Shadowproof. “Jim Spione documented the ugliness of the Obama Administration’s war on whistleblowers. And it was through that documentation that I realized I wasn’t alone.”

Kiriakou and two other American whistleblowers, Thomas Drake and Jesselyn Radack, are the subjects of “Silenced,” a film directed by James Spione which has tapped into a zeitgeist moment, when people all over the world are deeply concerned about powers their government has claimed to protect security which infringe upon civil liberties, press freedom, and openness in government.

The documentary has enjoyed international success since its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in April 2014. It has screened at dozens of film festivals and aired on television in Germany, France, Canada, and Japan, and it is now on digital platforms, such as iTunes, making it possible for millions to watch the film.

Each of the subjects told Shadowproof about their intensely personal reactions to seeing what they endured replay on screen. The whistleblowers of the film also experienced affirmation as audiences expressed their appreciation for what they did when they stood up to power. So, it is worth taking the time to highlight this film which has done right by its subjects and achieved its potential.

Drake blew the whistle on fraud, waste, abuse, and illegality at the NSA, including what the government should have known prior to the 9/11 attacks. Radack blew the whistle on how John Walker Lindh (“American Taliban”) was treated after she uncovered evidence that the Justice Department concealed how it had violated Lindh’s due process rights. Kiriakou blew the whistle when he confirmed on ABC News in 2007 that President George W. Bush’s administration had a policy that involved waterboarding detainees, which was torture.

Radack, who became an attorney for whistleblowers after she was forced out of the Justice Department, described how it was surreal to see her story and the stories of her clients, Drake and Kiriakou, on screen. “[It was] both validating and upsetting to re-live those dark chapters in my life and those of my clients.”

“‘Silenced’ captured my voice and my ordeal, and even though it was raw and often painful and caused unpleasant flashbacks to relive what I went through, I take strength and solace that others could live it on the screen and see it through our eyes and understand why we could and can never take our inalienable rights for granted or let anyone dare take them away,” Drake confessed.

“At the end of the screenings, I often felt spent and energized and anxious all at the same time, realizing what it took to see it through, holding fast to the ideals and principles of our inalienable human rights while also feeling the tears of fear and anxiety during the darkest times I lived through.”

Drake added, “Although it was quite overwhelming emotionally, it was also sustaining and comforting to have people coming up to you, expressing their thanks for what Jesselyn, John and I did.” He felt deeply moved by the “heartfelt gratitude” shared and audiences’ appreciation for their willingness to “stand up to the pathologies of secret power.”

Kiriakou was in prison in Loretto, Pennsylvania, from February 2013 to February of this year. He was unable to attend any of the major premieres. And, unlike the stories of Drake and Radack, Spione captured the government’s prosecution of Kiriakou as it was unfolding in real time.

As a result, Spione suggested Kiriakou had a “different relationship” with the film because he went “through this journey” during production. Initially, he was “very positive and upbeat” and thought he “could beat this thing.” Kiriakou later became worried he was not going to see his kids again, took a plea, and went to prison. So, for Kiriakou, watching that film caused him to relive everything in a “visceral way.” It brought it all back for him.

Spione recalled, at Tribeca a little over a year ago, “John’s sister came up to me after the screening and she said to me, you know, when you were there shooting with John and he was going away to prison, we were really upset and we didn’t know why you were there. And we were kind of angry that you were invading our privacy. But now that I’ve seen the film, I’m so glad you were there to get this on the record.”

“She told me this with tears in her eyes. I think that’s the kind of mixed feeling you have as a subject of a film like this,” Spione shared. “On some level,” as a director, “you’re asking for people’s trust because you’re kind of invading their lives. In the end, you want to be able to stand by what you made and say I hope this was worth it for you.”

By all accounts, participating in the production of the film was worth it for the three whistleblowers.

“Audiences overseas have been markedly expressive and sympathetic,” Radack stated. “I’ll never forget the standing ovation we received from 1,000 people at Amsterdam’s Tuschinski Theater,” which is an opera house.

Drake and the film’s director will never forget that moment either. Drake described the ovation as a “flood of deep empathy, warmth, and comfort I felt from the audience knowing how powerfully the film had moved and touched so many in a very personal way.” Spione remembered Tom and Jesselyn were in tears as a result of the ovation.

The film deeply resonated with audiences in Europe. According to Radack, she always knows if Silenced recently screened somewhere on the continent because she will get a “barrage of glowing and grateful emails,” perhaps because many have “no idea about the war on whistleblowers going on here in the United States.”

The European market has been kind to “Silenced.” ZDF-ARTE, a German-French broadcaster, signed on to show the film after seeing an early trailer, which helped it earn funding. On the other hand, Spione said, “Our most difficult market to crack was the US market. There were a lot of US distributors and broadcasters who passed on this film.”

Spione struggled in spite of the fact that “Silenced” belonged to a crop of films—”The Newburgh Sting,” “1971,” “The Internet’s Own Boy,” and “Citizenfour”—about the national security state, abuses of government power, and current risks to American civil liberties, and all performed well at festival screenings.

Part of the strength of “Silenced” is how the film’s director focuses on the intimate hardship of three whistleblowers’ lives. Like Spione described, it shows what it is like to be a human being with a family and limited resources, who is up against a government with unlimited resources with the capacity to turn all those resources against you and make an example out of you.

Most of the film was made before NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden disclosed information calling worldwide attention to U.S. mass surveillance programs. However, Spione sees the film as a prologue to Snowden’s story, especially since Snowden learned from Drake and Chelsea Manning, who disclosed documents to WikiLeaks. Snowden recognized that in order to blow the whistle and prevent the government from killing the messenger, he would have to flee the country.

Spione made an Oscar-nominated short film before “Silenced” called “Incident in New Baghdad,” which told the story of a soldier named Ethan McCord who appears in the “Collateral Murder” video Manning provided to WikiLeaks. He grappled with some of the issues facing truth-tellers in the U.S. Still, inarguably, this sharpened his views about the U.S. government.

When you start to look at how the US government operates at the federal level, your illusions start to drop away about what kind of system we actually have and what kind of system of government we actually have. You have to wonder how much we really live in a democracy when the rule of law is so wildly disproportionately applied depending on who is on the receiving end or who is the target. It’s just the way things are, but it’s particularly obvious since 9/11,” Spione argued.

The unequal application of the law is brazenly apparent in the government’s reluctance to aggressively pursue individuals like former CIA director David Petraeus and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton for handling classified information improperly.

“For me, the film has taken on a new and more urgent flavor now that there are such hypocritical parallels in current events from former CIA director General Petraeus’ sweetheart plea deal to Clinton’s alleged retention of classified emails on her private unsecured server,” Radack admitted. “I have clients who faced espionage charges and the rest of their lives in jail for a lot less than that.”

“If you’re powerful, politically-connected, or the presumptive President, you get a pass. If
you’re a low-level government official who tried to reveal gross fraud, waste, abuse or illegality, like torture or secret surveillance, you get hammered. This needs to stop.”

Radack rarely has received as much attention as Drake or Kiriakou, however, it is worth pointing out that she stood up to 9/11 hysteria from within the government before many others. She was pursued aggressively and had no support structure.

“She’s a remarkable character to me because she comes out of that fire and says I’m a lawyer. I’ve got experience and know how. I’m going to start protecting whistleblowers and being a voice for whistleblowers.”

Drake said Radack stands at the center of the film “with her extraordinary acumen, clarion voice, and her commanding presence expressed with such fierce and remarkably unwavering dedication and determination.” In the court of public opinion, she defended and supported Drake and Kiriakou’s whistleblowing,” as a pioneering post 9/11 whistleblower herself.

Spione’s film brought whistleblowers in contact with thousands of people who care about civil liberties as much as they do. It has made them aware of the fact that they do not have to feel isolated and ensured that the government will never be able to silence three individuals, who were purged from country’s national security apparatus and punished for daring to tell the truth about their government.

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."