'War on Whistleblowers' Film Highlights Dangers of Crackdown

Director Robert Greenwald examines how the government keeps its secrets

A still from Robert Greenwald's film 'War on Whistleblowers'
Courtesy of Brave New Foundation
A still from Robert Greenwald's film 'War on Whistleblowers'
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Since taking office, President Obama's Department of Justice has brought charges against six whistleblowers under the Espionage Act of 1917 – more than every previous administration combined. The chilling effect such prosecutions can have is profound and further insulates those in power from any kind of accountability for their actions. As a report released on Tuesday illustrated in exceptional detail, impenetrable secrecy was part of what allowed the Bush administration to engage in torture and systemic abuse. Obama's era has been defined by an expansion of that secrecy, if not the same policies themselves.

Director Robert Greenwald's latest film, War On Whistleblowers: Free Press and the National Security State, focuses on four whistleblowers who had their lives permanently altered – some almost destroyed – after they went to the press to expose government corruption and illegality. Greenwald also interviews investigative journalists and government oversight experts, all of whom paint a picture of a national security state run amok that makes their work nearly impossible.

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Greenwald describes the philosophical underpinnings of the national security state as two-fold. The first is an ideological belief that extreme secrecy results in increased security – "a notion I believe challenges the very essence of how this country was created," he says. The other element is money. The secrecy business is a profit-driven industry defined by a revolving door between the public and private sectors. "Their incentive," says Greenwald, "is more, more, more."

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence recently reported that an additional 54,199 people had been given security clearance in 2012, an increase of 1.1 percent from the previous year. The total number of people with access to classified information is more than 4.9 million. According to the watchdog website FAS.org, that's the highest number that's ever been published, though they acknowledge there may have been more people with clearance at points during the Cold War.

At the same time that the security state is growing, those who seek to puncture it are facing more and more obstacles. In Greenwald's film, investigative journalist Jane Mayer describes the difficulty in reporting her award-winning 2011 New Yorker story on NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake, one of the four whistleblowers in the film, who at the time was under investigation. "I could not talk on the phone to Tom Drake, I had to fly across the country and meet people in sort-of unmarked hotel rooms in order to try to get the details of that story," Mayer says in the film. "It does not feel like 'America: land of the free press.'"

When asked about Obama's approach to classified information and press freedom by the Columbia Journalism Review, James Goodale – The New York Times' chief counsel when they published the Pentagon Papers in 1971 – said, "Worse than Nixon. He thinks that anyone who leaks is a spy! I mean, it's cuckoo."

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Goodale also said that the "threatened prosecution" of Wikileaks is the "biggest challenge to the press today." Beyond Wikileaks, cyber activists like Jeremy Hammond and Barrett Brown – both of whom exposed the wrongdoing of private intelligence firms – face levels of prosecution that can only be seen as a strong deterrent to anyone who would think to follow in their footsteps.

The best antidote to government illegality is a strong and adversarial press, and as Greenwald's film makes clear, whistleblowers are an integral part of that dynamic. "This crackdown has perhaps had its intended effect," Mark Mazzetti, national security reporter for The New York Times, recently said on Democracy Now! – "which was maybe not to go prosecute the cases that have been brought, but also to scare others into not talking."