By Alex Kane
Edward Snowden is in the crosshairs of the Obama administration. The 29-year-old former employee of the Central Intelligence Agency has just become world-famous for his disclosure to The Guardian of the massive surveillance of Americans implemented by the National Security Agency (NSA).
Now, holed up in a Hong Kong hotel, he’s facing the possibility of being locked up in jail for his actions. But he’s not the only one.
The Obama administration has waged a war on government whistleblowers. So here’s 5 whistleblowers who have been under attack by a president who once said that official whistleblowers were “often the best source of information about waste, fraud, and abuse in government.”
1. Edward Snowden
Snowden is the latest whistleblower to find himself facing the possibility of jail time for leaking information to the press in the hopes of greater transparency and accountability. Snowden gave an interview to The Guardian in which he explained his actions, which included giving the news outlet access to top-secret NSA documents revealing that the phone records of Americans have been collected and that the NSA has direct access to the systems of Internet companies like Google and Facebook.
“My sole motive is to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them,” said Snowden in the interview.
The Department of Justice has confirmed that they’ve launched a criminal investigation into the leak. Snowden knew this was coming. He told The Guardian that the government would “say I have broken the Espionage Act and helped our enemies, but that can be used against anyone who points out how massive and invasive the system has become.”
The Espionage Act has been the favored tool to go after leakers of government information. The act, meant to prohibit the disclosure of information that could help enemies of the U.S., has been distorted into a law that turns government whistleblowers into enemies of the state.
Democratic and Republican members of intelligence committees have also called for Snowden to be prosecuted.
Snowden is currently in Hong Kong, where he’s hoping to stay until he gets asylum from another country. The U.S. will likely try to extradite Snowden from the country, which has a strong tradition of a free press and a vibrant civil society, but is also controlled by China.
2. Bradley Manning
In a strange coincidence, the revelation that Snowden leaked the documents came the same week as the trial of Bradley Manning started. Manning is the military whistleblower who leaked thousands and thousands of documents to WikiLeaks to expose U.S. war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Manning has been treated incredibly harshly. While in confinement at a Marine base in Virginia, he was forced to surrender his clothing at night and had to strip to his underwear during the day. He was also held in solitary confinement for 23 hours of the day–all of this because he was supposedly a suicide risk. This was all before Manning was convicted of anything. A UN investigator blasted his treatment as cruel and inhuman, and a military judge deemed his treatment “excessive.”
Manning faces life in prison for leaking the documents. He has been charged with “aiding the enemy,” because the government says his actions allegedly gave information over to al Qaeda. Manning has also been charged under the Espionage Act.
3. John Kiriakou
The former CIA analyst was recently sent off to prison for his role in disclosing the name of CIA officer who participated in the agency’s torture program to a reporter, though the name was never printed.
Kiriakou emerged as a prominent critic of the CIA’s use of torture after he gave a 2007 interview to ABC News disclosing that a top al Qaeda operative was waterboarded.
Like Manning, Kiriakou was initially charged with violating the Espionage Act. But under a plea deal, that charge was dropped and Kiriakou was ultimately convicted of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act.
His supporters point out that while Kiriakou was blowing the whistle on torture, the people who implemented the illegal policy are walking free. That’s still the case, and Kiriakou is now the only person in jail for his role in the torture program–but it’s for exposing it, not for implementing it.
4. Thomas Drake
A former executive at the National Security Agency, Thomas Drake exposed details about the agency’s Trailblazer Project. For this, he was charged under the Espionage Act, though the government’s case against him spectacularly failed.
Drake became concerned about the Trailblazer Project’s cost–at $1 billion, it was way more than the NSA should have been paying for a program they could have instituted in-house. He was also concerned it would violate the privacy of Americans. But Trailblazer, which was supposed to analyze intercepted communications, was chosen to be the NSA’s vehicle for surveillance anyway. Drake disclosed details about the NSA’s wastefulness to a Baltimore Sun reporter.
The government initially threw the book at him, but their case collapsed. As Marcy Wheeler explained in The Nation: “The Department of Justice had been pursuing Drake for alleged violations of the Espionage Act that might have sent him to prison for up to 35 years. But the government withdrew the evidence supporting several of the central charges after a judge ruled Drake would not be able to defend himself unless the government revealed details about one of the National Security Agency’s telecommunications collection programs.” Drake was eventually convicted on the misdemeanor charge of exceeding authorized use of a computer.
5. Shamai Leibowitz
This FBI translator became the first person under the Obama administration to be prosecuted for leaking information to the news media.
Leibowitz, an Israeli-American, became concerned about what he said was Israeli government efforts to influence Congress to take a harder line against Iran. He passed on secret transcripts to American blogger Richard Silverstein that were collected when the FBI wiretapped Israeli Embassy officials.
Leibowitz also disclosed that “the Israeli Embassy provided ‘regular written briefings’ on Israel’s war with Hamas in Gaza to President Obama in the weeks between his election and inauguration,” among other things.
Leibowitz was charged under the Espionage Act and sentenced to 20 months in prison.