How Whistleblowers are being assassinated in the United States of America
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How Whistleblowers are being assassinated in the United States of America
No matter which country, wherever the whistleblowing takes place, the words of whistleblowers are identical in terms of retaliation. Everyone has experienced this fact in their own way: the future appears grim after their professional career came to an end because as in most of the cases, the business world turned its back on those who dared to tell the truth. The justice is slow whilst files are kept waiting and the opponents ostracize the personality of the whistleblower. The citizens find themselves powerless, financially crippled and an extremely large majority of families are in great distress. The same techniques are used in countries that claim to be developed and which proclaim to be democracies. Everything is done to both ostracize the whistleblowers and to minimize the visibility of their alert. However times change, attitudes change and these past years many are the ones who joined the Resistants facing a system where everybody gets chewed up.
I have often wondered whether, like me, the other whistleblowers had in mind President Kennedy’s quote when they decided to blow the whistle, to alert:
Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.
President John F. Kennedy
However since the Secession war (American civil war), the United States of America has protected their whistleblowers by an important legislation, which protects those defending the general interest and the common good. In the 1980s, Erin Brockovich turned out to be the most famous of the American female whistleblowers. Her story inspired the Hollywood movie in which Julia Roberts played the role of this middle-class mother who exposed the scandal of contaminated public water that was causing diseases to the citizens in her region. She finally managed to win her bitter fight. Nowadays, she helps other citizens in the pharmaceutical, medical or environmental field.
More than forty laws protect the whistleblowers in the USA. In 2017, the Administration willingly informed its civil servants on whistleblowing or actions to handle whistleblowing. Paradoxically, the scandals that have hit the headlines these last years have shown that imprisoned or exiled US whistleblowers-citizens who have exposed a certain number of malfunctions of the US government have never been so many.
As a result of the review in 2007 of the American law, employees now are able to deliver the proof of “violation of the law, rules or regulations, mismanagement and waste of funds and abuse of authority. Whistleblowers can save lives as well as billions of taxpayer dollars. They play a critical role in keeping our Government honest, efficient, and accountable thus recognizing that whistleblowers root out waste, fraud, and abuse and protect public health and safety”. These disclosures are allowed but exceptions are established by the law. The case of the military analyst Chelsea Manning and the computer specialist Edward Snowden enter the realm of these exceptions. Another restriction to the implementation of this law is relating to the employees of the US postal service (UPS) as well as the NSA (National Security Agency) of which Edward Snowden was an employee – or even of the FBI. Indeed, despite the important number of laws, which is the pride of the country, many whistleblowers employed by governmental agencies have been making the news internationally as their lives and those of their relatives have been turned upside down.
Chelsea Manning received a thirty-five year prison sentence for ‘treason’ and was then granted a Presidential Pardon of her sentence when President Obama left the White House. Because she refused to testimony in front of a Grand Jury again Julian Assange, the whistleblower was imprisoned again in March 2019 under President Donald Trump’s presidency. After a suicide attempt, she was set free in March 2020. This brings to our minds that our prominent politicians have the power of life and death over our gestures as a citizen. We can also imagine that the justice is not really a decision maker in a certain number of files when the State is compromised. Let’s remember that Bradley (Chelsea) Manning had been sentenced for treason in August 2013 in the name of the Espionage Act because (s)he disclosed hundreds of thousands of documents of the US army including videos of a ‘blunder’ in Bagdad to WikiLeaks in 2010, namely the viral Collateral Murder video. Unfortunately, there is no question of a fair trial when a US citizen faces such a situation against the United States of America.
Since 2013 Edward Snowden has been the emblem of the whistleblowers on an international scale. He has lived in exile in Russia since disclosing the evidence of the National Security Agency (NSA) mass surveillance to Glenn Greenwald, a journalist working for the British daily The Guardian and to Laura Poitras, a documentary director. The information he delivered was about a worldwide surveillance system the scope of which has widespread since the September 11th, 2001 “9/11” attacks. Out of the interviews she made of Ed Snowden, Laura Poitras was able to produce Citizen 4, a documentary which received a 2014 Award for Best Documentary Feature.
Snowden’s passport was cancelled by the US authorities when he landed in Moscow, in transit on route to South America. He spent a month inside the Sheremetyevo airport before Russia granted him a temporary asylum certificate on August 1st, 2013. At the beginning of 2017, this document was renewed for two years. Living still in Russia, the whistleblower indicated on November 1st, 2020 on his Twitter account that he was applying for the Russian nationality for his wife and his then unborn baby while keeping the American nationality.
Outside the United States of America, there is no doubt that Manning and Snowden are the most famous whistleblowers. Unfortunately, American whistleblowers are many and do not enjoy a media cover as important despite the content of their alerts and problems they have to face.
Photo : Maelys Chassin, Unsplash
Jeffrey Sterling was fired from the CIA in 2002 where he was employed as one of their officers. In 2015, he was convicted of nine felony counts in the name of the Espionage Act because he had been in contact with a journalist and was then jailed for more than two and a half years in a federal prison. The leak he is supposed to be responsible for is about a slapdash operation bound to a defective conception of nuclear weapons in Iran as these elements have been disclosed in a chapter of a book written by James Risen entitled ‘State of War’.
However neither the telephone records nor the emails disclosed anything about the content of the conversations between these two men andthe Obama-era Department of Justice unsuccessfully tried to force James Risen, the reporter, to divulge the identity of his sources for ‘State of War’. Sterling’s situation is far from being an isolated case because Thomas Drake, a former Senior Executive of the US National Security Agency, Veteran of the US Navy was also fired from the NSA after he had internally blown the whistle via the ‘Intelligence Community Whistleblower Protection Act’ in the early years 2000. His whistleblowing was about a corruption problem and the weak management of a surveillance project of the American citizens. Snowden has clearly claimed what each of us owes to this Veteran: “If there hadn’t been a Thomas Drake, there could never have been an Ed Snowden”. As his whistleblowing had no results, Thomas Drake decided to reveal the information to a journalist in 2005. Under the Espionage Act, he could have been jailed for thirty-five years but was lucky enough that the government dropped all the charges against him in 2011 after a ‘60 minutes’ episode about his case. He declared whilst receiving the Ridenhour Prize that he had done what he had to do because his duty is towards the American people. He added that it is normal to be held accountable when one spends the taxpayer’s money.
John Kiriakou was a CIA analyst ; he is known for being the first one who has disclosed acts of waterboarding which he describes as acts of torture on prisoners during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in the era of George W. Bush Senior and for having disclosed the name of a CIA agent to the New York Times. Judged under the grounds of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act, he agreed to plead guilty and received a sentence of a thirty-month imprisonment. Since he was released from prison, he published a book ‘Doing Time Like a Spy’ and together with Thomas Drake, they give conferences about the future of the Federal whistleblowers and ethics in intelligence operations.
American women whistleblowers are not left behind, they show exemplary courage.
Sibel Edmonds nowadays is considered as an activist after she founded the National Security Whistleblowers Coalition (NSWBC). Employed as a translator for the FBI, she exposed espionage acts and retention of information open to jeopardize her country's national security. After warning her superiors she was silenced by the FBI and was dismissed in March 2002 because of her stubbornness. In March 2006, she received a prize from a United States Writers Association for contributing to the freedom of speech at the disposal of each US citizen from birth.
I had the pleasure to meet with Jessely Radack in London in November 2018 during a roundtable about the protection of whistleblowers organized by The Logan Symposium. Trained as a lawyer, Jesselyn Radack also is a whistleblower because she had disclosed the fact that the FBI had made an ethical mistake when questioning John Walter Lindh, known by the Americans as “The US Taliban”, without the presence of a lawyer. She claims that the Department of Justice in Washington has attempted to delete documents likely to prove the ethical violation of the cross-examination. Like many whistleblowers, shelost her job after these disclosures. Nowadays howeverJesselyn also isan activist ; she has served since 2008 as a Director of National Security and Human Rights ata department of the Government Accountability Project, an organization which defends whistleblowers. She regularly gives conferences explaining the methods implemented to keep whistleblowers silent and the way how ordinary people can change industries, agencies and organizations. She advocates in favour of the freedom of speech and for the right to privacy law.
Photo : Brandon Mowinkel Unsplash
The youngest American whistleblower is 29 years old. She was arrested in 2017 and has been in prison since 2018. Whereas the Russian secret services had already been aware of a FBI investigation as of mid-2016, far before Reality Winner’s revelations to the Intercept magazine, her charges raise questions. Before being imprisoned in the Belmarsh prison at the beginning of 2019, Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, “called on the public to support Winner, offering a $10,000 reward for information about a reporter for The Intercept who had allegedly helped the U.S. government identify Winner as the leaker. Assange wrote on Twitter that "Winner is no Clapperor Petraeus with 'elite immunity'. She's a young woman against the wall for talking to the press”.
Wouldn’t the story of this young woman make us think of Chelsea Manning’s, caught in the web of those who had enjoyed her information? A movie inspired about her story is currently being shot; we can only hope that it will help raise awareness among citizens and thus lead to her release from prison.
Certain American whistleblowers have however been behind laws. Sherron Watkins indeed made the news in 2002 when testifying at the Senate about the frauds recorded at Enron, the company where she was then employed. In 2001, she blew the whistle to the President about accounting irregularities in the financial reports. In 2002, she was given the title of “Personality of the Year” by Time magazine together with two other whistleblowers, namely Coleen Rowley and Cynthia Cooper. Coleen Rowley was working for the FBI when she exposed a certain number of malfunctions relating to actions and pieces of information linked to one of the suspected terrorists of the 9/11 attacks. Cynthia Cooper, a Vice-President of the internal audit of the giant telecom company WorldCom, exposed a massive accounting fraud. Sherron Watkins’ alert led to the modification of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, commonly called Sox.
Sox reinforces the status of the whistleblowers against retaliation and requires, among other things, that all the companies with an office in the USA create audit committees and new ethical standards. Cynthia Cooper’s alert led to the addition of a section (called ‘Section 404’) relating to the evaluation of internal controls in the Sarbanes-Oxley Act.
The American whistleblowers also have the opportunity to speak publicly during conferences allowing them to share their experience with citizens. In 2015 for example, seven whistleblowers who had worked for the National Security Agency participated in a conference organized by ExposeFacts in Washington DC.
The American whistleblowers are the best organized ones because not only have many associations been created, but also because the Whistleblowing Center in Washington is managed as if it were a company. Their web site is very detailed. For almost thirty years, it has been supplying quality information about the laws and it was at the origin of very important laws regarding the fight against corruption. It encourages improvements to be made to the whistleblower protection laws. Furthermore, it proposes live theme conferences and discussions with whistleblowers and publishes a very detailed book written by a lawyer specialized in the defense of whistleblowers called the Whistleblower’s Handbook (Stephen Martin Kohn, The New Whistleblower’s Handbook. A Step-by-Step Guide to Doing What’s Right and Protecting Yourself, Lyons Press, Guilford (United States, Connecticut), 2017).
Even if the United States praises their democratic model worldwide, their justice is inflexible with those who break the law of silence regarding the malfunctions of the government. Julian Assange’s unacceptable situation reveals this violence.
I am not going to give the other side any pleasure in saying what I long for or what I miss.
Cover Photo: Nik Shuliahin Unsplash
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