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After Valerie Plame: Obama Makes “Fair Game” of Today’s Whistleblowers

This week

This week, the taut but surprisingly emotional thriller, “Fair Game,” hits selected theaters. It’s about the Bush administration’s retaliation against CIA operative Valerie Plame and former Ambassador Joseph Wilson because he exposed the administration’s lies about Iraq buying uranium “yellow cake” from Niger. But although Wilson and his wife recently returned in triumph to the AFI Theater in Silver Spring for its Washington-area premiere, the event served as a reminder that the damage inflicted on Wilson and Plame continues – both in the form of continuing right-wing smears about them and, some critics say, an Obama presidency that is even worse than the Bush administration in punishing whistleblowers.

As Jesselyn Radack of the Government Accountability Project (GAP) told Truthout about the Bush approach compared to now:

“It’s the same or worse: the politics of personal destruction, vengefulness, is still there. Obama [i.e., the administration] has indicted four people for leaking, more than the last three administrations [George Bush’s and Clinton’s terms] combined. ‘No Drama’ Obama is driven to distraction by leaks, he seethes and is tormented by it.” As she pointed out in a blog post recently: “The reality is, Obama – not Bush – has criminalized whistleblowing.”

At the same time, the administration ostensibly supports reforms that aim to tighten the near toothless safeguards for whistleblowers – including those involved in the intelligence community, who have virtually no protection for exposing wrongdoing – that are now stalled in the Senate. As Angela Canterbury, the policy director of the Project on Government Oversight, which co-sponsored the film’s screening, points out, “There are no more protections now than when Wilson spoke out.” Worse, the prosecutions are “deeply disappointing” to her group that has helped organize a coalition of over 400 organizations supporting passage; indeed, Obama’s prosecutions aim to send a clear message: “Be silent – or look out.”

In retelling the story of Plame and Wilson, the movie emphasizes an element of getting caught in an orchestrated attack campaign that’s never been made so clear before: the destructive impact on family life, marriages and on one’s career when the smear machine goes into overdrive. While the real-life Wilson and Plame watched from the rear of the theater, Naomi Watts and Sean Penn re-enacted the nightmare of being hounded by the press and the toll it took on their marriage for a while when Wilson chose to fight back publicly. In a question period after the screening, the blunt-spoken Wilson, joined by Plame, director Douglas Liman and NPR’s Neal Conan, said of the smear campaign: “It’s real important to understand what happened in that period: it’s a real assault on democracy.”

Those scenes had a special resonance for Thomas Drake, the former National Security Agency (NSA) officer who was indicted in April, 2010 for allegedly retaining classified information and obstructing justice. That’s because, in 2006, he and others leaked to the Baltimore Sun – after he sought to alert superiors, Congress and the inspector general – about the waste, ineffectiveness and potential illegality of a $5 billion digital monitoring program, Trailblazer, that never actually launched. Essentially, the Defense Department’s inspector general and the Baltimore Sun confirmed that Trailblazer became what Radack calls a “cash cow” used, in part, to pay for various off-the-books and privacy-invading surveillance programs.

He was sitting next to Radack, whose cause GAP has championed. She, too, knows something about being targeted for speaking out. After all, she is the former Justice Department attorney who was singled out by Bush officials who then sought to get her disbarred by state bar agencies and fired from her new job after she was forced out of the government because of her warnings about the illegal FBI torture of John Walker Lindh.

While Plame and Wilson were vilified as traitors and opportunists by the Bush administration and its media allies, Drake suffered another sort of degradation in November 2007: he faced a 12-man squad of FBI agents invading his home with a search warrant, SWAT-style with TV cameras outside, while his wife and his 12-year-old son were still inside. As Radack notes, another half-dozen agents raided his office at the NSA’s National Defense University and FBI agents later interviewed his wife while she was at work. The FBI also hauled away numerous personal possessions, including family pictures, which have never been returned.

It turns out that Drake became a criminal target after two years of fruitless federal investigations of a major 2005 New York Times story about widespread illegal spying on Americans. So then, the Bush Justice Department began investigating anyone who had ever complained to the NSA, even though such whistleblower complaints are supposed to be protected.

Here’s what happened: Although Drake played no role in that 2005 New York Times leak, he and four other former NSA officials had filed a complaint in 2002 with the Defense Department’s inspector general (IG) office, which has an NSA oversight role, about the Trailblazer mess. They favored, in part, a more cost-effective and privacy-protecting program, ThinThread and exposed alleged fraud, civil-liberties violations and waste.

Even so, a few months before the 2007 raid on Drake, the FBI conducted simultaneous raids on the homes of the four named Department of Defense IG complainants. No matter that Drake’s and their allegations dating from 2002 were ultimately confirmed by the Department of Defense in 2004, Radack says.

But they were hardly treated as concerned patriots safeguarding the public from wasteful spending. In fact, one of those complainants, William Binney, “had a gun held to his face as he stepped naked from the shower,” Radack notes. That should certainly encourage more whistleblowers to come forward with well-documented examples of waste, fraud and abuse amid a mounting federal budget deficit.

So, let’s recap for a moment the Kafkaesque absurdities at work here. Instead of investigating the widespread illegal wiretapping of countless innocent Americans exposed by The New York Times in 2005 (for which the reporters won the Pulitzer Prize), the Justice Department chose instead to investigate the leak itself. The sprawling investigation included five full-time prosecutors and 25 FBI agents, cost millions of dollars and is still ongoing, Radack points out.

When that investigation flopped, the FBI then turned to investigating theoretically protected NSA whistleblowers trying to save the government billions of dollars wasted on a still-born surveillance program – and to protect Americans’ rights from unconstitutional invasions of privacy. As the Washington Post reported:

The [four named whistleblowers] charged that NSA ineptly sidelined ThinThread to pursue Trailblazer, a budget-padding program that cost 10 times as much and was less effective.

The four did not ask Drake to sign the complaint because they did not want him, as an NSA employee, to face retaliation, but they named him as a key source. For the next 2 1/2 years, Drake provided information to Defense investigators, friends said. That probe spawned two criminal fraud inquiries, they said. The inspector general’s office said it does not confirm or deny investigations.

But instead of pursuing their allegations and giving them, say, a medal for seeking to save the government billions, the Bush and Obama Justice Departments pursued them as possible criminal suspects. Ultimately, out of the five original NSA complainants, Drake was charged by the Obama administration under the little-used Espionage Act for mishandling classified information in connection with his leak to the Baltimore Sun – after the NSA had already let Trailblazer spin out of control.

“They could have dropped it any point,” Radack says of the Obama administration’s approach to Drake, “instead they continued it by indicting him.”

That stands in contrast to the promises President-elect Obama’s transition team made about the reforms he’d bring to this critical issue:

Protect Whistleblowers: Often the best source of information about waste, fraud and abuse in government is an existing government employee committed to public integrity and willing to speak out. Such acts of courage and patriotism, which can sometimes save lives and often save taxpayer dollars, should be encouraged rather than stifled. We need to empower federal employees as watchdogs of wrongdoing and partners in performance. Barack Obama will strengthen whistleblower laws to protect federal workers who expose waste, fraud and abuse of authority in government …

There seems, though, to be a slight exception to this noble reform agenda: that’s when Obama and his underlings are approving prosecutions of those same whistleblowers. Contrary to Obama’s promises of offering a more transparent government, the prosecution of Drake and others actually underscores what critics see as his administration’s hypocrisy. Critics, such as Glenn Greenwald and some mainstream editorial writers, also point to the prosecutions of the Army soldier who provided the damaging truth about corruption and violence in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to WikiLeaks; and a State Department consultant and scholar, Steven Kim, who speculated to Fox News about possible North Korean responses to sanctions.

Even Wilson didn’t face the imminent prospect of going to prison for exposing the Bush administration’s wrongdoing.

So, although Drake isn’t giving interviews as he waits for a trial that could put him behind bars for 35 years, Radack says they were both powerfully struck while watching “Fair Game” with the human impact of being on the wrong side of a White House determined to crush dissent: “We both know what it’s like to be doing your day-to-day job and then suddenly you are a public figure and your entire privacy is compromised. Your friends don’t talk to you, or they say they quietly support you, but then please don’t contact them at work. And you lose your career and your income is cut in half if it’s a two-income family.”

She points out, “You have the full force of the executive branch against you and you’re only one person.”

Indeed, in the wake of his arrest, Drake has worked selling iPods in an Apple store after a distinguished intelligence career, and he’s already burnt through $100,000 in legal bills and now depends on a federal public defender to keep him out of prison in his upcoming trial. There won’t be any wily Roy Black or Brendan Sullivan to save this white-collar defendant. Yet, amazingly enough, the Justice Department prosecutor in his case, William Welch II, was forced out of his position as the chief of the Public Integrity Section and is still under criminal investigation for the alleged prosecutorial misconduct that led to the dismissal of the corruption charges against former Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens.

In Drake’s case, she adds, the tough-guy SWAT overkill back in 2007 had another purpose beyond mere law enforcement: “It’s done more to intimidate and to make a spectacle.” All this has only been compounded, critics say, by this administration’s indictment of whistleblowers.

As The Los Angeles Times pointed out in an editorial in August (via

It is a popular conservative myth to suggest that the “mainstream media” is a liberal lapdog to the Obama administration, that reporters favor the president and that he returns the admiration. In fact, this administration has pursued a quiet but malicious campaign against the news media and their sources, more aggressively attacking those who ferret out confidential information than even the George W. Bush administration did …

It is understandable that the administration has secrets and wants to keep them. But this campaign to flush out sources has the feel of chest-thumping and intimidation. It is one thing to protect information that might put Americans in danger or undermine national security; it is another to bring cases against whistle-blowers and others who divulge information to spur debate and raise questions about public policy.

Salon’s Glenn Greenwald also focused on the administration’s willingness to “turn the page” on past wrongdoing by high-ranking administration officials, but not so much for those trying to shine a light on criminal conduct, waste and abuse. Commenting on the Drake case, among others, he observed:

Here you have the Obama DOJ in all its glory: no prosecutions (but rather full-scale immunity extended) for war crimes, torture and illegal spying. For those crimes, we must Look Forward, Not Backward. But for those poor individuals who courageously blow the whistle on oozing corruption, waste and illegal surveillance by the omnipotent public-private Surveillance State: the full weight of the “justice system” comes crashing down upon them with threats of many years in prison.

More recently, Michael Isikoff, NBC News’s investigative correspondent, pointed out over a week ago in a blistering column headlined: “Obama administration cracks down on mid-level leakers, despite high-level officials dishing far more sensitive secrets to Bob Woodward.” As Radack summarized the issue in her own pointed blog post:

Compare, as Isikoff does, the massive disclosures of high-value national security information in Bob Woodward’s new book (Obama’s Wars) with the relatively minor disclosures of former State Department contractor Steven Kim and lawful disclosures of former National Security Agency (NSA) official Thomas Drake.

Woodward’s book includes disclosures such as:

… the code names of previously unknown National Security Agency programs, the existence of a clandestine paramilitary Army run by the CIA in Afghanistan and details of a secret Chinese cyberpenetration of Obama and John McCain campaign computers.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration indicted Kim for allegedly disclosing North Korea’s nuclear intentions to a Fox News reporter, a disclosure of public interest to be sure, but hardly a ground breaking revelation …

Thomas Drake is facing decades in prison for legally blowing the whistle on a failed and wasteful (multibillion dollar) NSA spy program that compromised Americans’ privacy …

Obama’s quest to plug the leaks is only intended to stop those leaks without express or implied government approval or, worse, only a war on whistleblowing disclosures that expose embarrassing or illegal government conduct … The legacy of such efforts to squelch embarrassing revelations continues even after an administration leaves office. During audience questioning at the end of the film, a man pretending to be an open-minded observer asked some pointed but polite questions of Wilson and Plame that echoed the continuing right-wing talking points targeting them. Among the claims: there was, the questioner insisted, no White House conspiracy to “out” Plame as an operative; and the Iraqis were actually seeking yellow cake uranium in a trade mission to Niger – so, he implied, there was enough of a reasonable government fear of Saddam Hussein having WMDs to justify the invasion.

He first attempted to lull Wilson by telling him, “It was a very powerful film.” He then said, citing a line from the film, “Mr. Wilson, I have one sentence I have a question about: You said ‘people at the highest office sought to discredit a covert agent because I told the truth,’ but it was actually someone at the State Department, not at the White House ” – a reference to Richard Armitage’s initial role of leaking Plame’s name to Woodward for his book.

Quickly dropping any pretense of fair-minded inquiry, the interrogator began ticking off more well-rehearsed points: Plame had already been “outed” years earlier by the CIA itself, “so she was no longer covert.” On top of that, he claimed, “On his trip to Niger, Ambassador Wilson found that the Iraqis had sent a delegation to Niger to expand commercial ties. The only export Iraq was interested in was yellow cake and that [means], in fact, Iraq did try to get yellow cake [uranium].”

But now, Wilson and Plame, joined by director Doug Liman, could speak for themselves without the filter of Fox News and media-fed assaults on the couple’s character and integrity. Wilson, with his mop of gray hair and bluff manner, took the mike first in response, relishing the opportunity to demolish the questioner.

“My name is Joe Wilson and I’d like to know your name and who you represent. I’m happy to answer that question even if you’re not willing to tell me,” he barked.

“I’m Stan Krock,” the man said in a meek voice after returning to his seat. “I interviewed you.” Although he didn’t disclose his full identity, Krock is actually a former diplomatic correspondent for Business Week – and a close friend of Scooter Libby from their prep school days together at Exeter. He wrote an impassioned plea for leniency to the judge in Libby’s trial, at which Libby was convicted of making false statements and obstruction of justice, before Libby’s sentence was commuted by President Bush. Krock wrote to the judge in May, 2007 (see page 62 of the pdf file here):

I find nothing more troubling than the prospect that top-flight public servants such as Scooter and Harriet [Libby’s wife] pay such a heavy price for their service to their country. I fear for the country if such bright lights decide it simply is not worth serving in government. I hope and pray that you can see your way to avoid making the price of service for Scooter, Harriet and their young children any higher than the far too high price they already have paid.

Unaware of Krock’s close personal ties to Libby, Plame, Wilson and Liman had a markedly different view of the convicted felon and took a tag-team approach to knocking down Krock’s right-wing canards. For progressives who too often see right-wing talking points go unchallenged, there was something almost thrilling for the audience about watching a conservative shill get so thoroughly demolished. Wilson handed off the microphone to Liman, whose research team had carefully vetted countless documents, books and transcripts and interviewed those familiar with the case, before the scriptwriters went to work telling the couple’s story.

Liman said effortlessly, “It started with Armitage, but the White House actually leaked Valerie’s name through multiple sources. As a Republican Justice Department investigation found, Libby and Rove leaked her name to five separate journalists.” He added that while interviewing Washington Post reporter Walter Pincus, who was one of the first reporters to break Wilson’s findings, he learned that press secretary Ari Fleischer had called Pincus from Air Force One to tell him, “You know, Wilson was sent by his wife.” Liman added sharply, “It went way beyond [Robert] Novak and all the trails lead back to the White House” – with former Vice President Dick Cheney widely believed to have played a major role.

Then Plame, taller but just as glamorous in pearls and a light dress as her onscreen counterpart, Naomi Watts, took the microphone with a special verve. “I’m so very, very glad you brought this up,” she said, her voice laced with sarcastic glee, “so I can put this to rest once and for all.” She quickly took apart Krock’s smears about her not being a covert agent with the verbal equivalent of a stiletto: “This was a meme throughout, sort of why does this really matter, she was just an overt employee, she was just a glorified secretary,” she said, waving her hands with an air of mock dismissal. “It all means nothing – just go back to talking among yourselves.” (In fact, earlier in the panel discussion, she conceded that, as the film portrays, some of her confidential Iraqi informants about Saddam’s weapons programs lost their lives after she was “betrayed,” as she puts it, by her government’s leaders.)

She then zeroed in for the kill. “Don’t take my word for it: You can take the word of the former DCI [director of central intelligence] Gen. Michael Hayden who in fact testified before Congress that I was indeed covert at the time of the leak of my name,” she said. “It [her covert status] was introduced in the Libby trial. There was no doubt about it…. You can count on one hand the people outside the CIA who knew who I truly was…. There’s no question I was [covert].” In addition, her own Congressional testimony revealing her covert status was cleared by the CIA.

Wilson finally got his chance on the panel to rebut the charges and, as usual, he didn’t mince words. “There are only two salient facts,” he said. “The president said in the State of the Union speech in 2003: ‘The British Government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.’ I wrote an article in July, 2003 that said that was bullshit and I thought the administration skewed the intelligence to fit those ‘facts.'” He added, after noting that even Fleischer admitted two days after the speech that the claim didn’t merit being included in the State of the Union, “Nothing else was salient. They manufactured everything you talked about.”

His voice rising with passion, he said, “If they had only stopped there and said to the Washington press corps, the President has moved on, they would have moved on.” He added, “But this assault, this character assassination campaign, went on for several years.”

Yet, before this audience, after seeing a film portraying them as American heroes, he continued with a tone of genuine satisfaction and a bit of sweet revenge aimed at those who tried to destroy him and his wife: “The good side is we were able to publish our story in two books which were well received by the American public and resulted in this film.”

Lifting his hand in a mocking gesture, he added with gradually mounting fury, “Every now and then, I raise my glass to Karl Rove, because if it had not been for his treasonous action, his action as a TRAITOR to his country, I would not be sitting here!”

“In some ways, I am a creation of Karl Rove and thank you very much,” he said, glaring triumphantly down from the stage at the now-silenced Libby crony in the theater seats below him, “you have perpetuated that, Mr. Krock.”

It was like a true Hollywood ending for Wilson and Plame, even though the Obama administration’s script isn’t finished yet for whistleblowers like Drake who don’t have the Wilsons’ connections and wealth and glamor. “We don’t have their power and prestige,” says Radack, speaking with some trepidation for all those dissidents who remain fair game for any powerful presidency – past, current or in the future – determined to silence them.

Watch Jason Leopold’s 2007 interview with former CIA operative Valerie Plame:

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