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Whistleblowers assess journalism’s role in national security

Panel ponders ethics and accountability

by Alex Reed
Daniel Ellsberg, Robert Scheer at whistleblowers panel
Daniel Ellsberg, left, with moderator Robert Scheer (USC Photo/Gus Ruelas)

When Daniel Ellsberg released the infamous Pentagon Papers in 1971 detailing the United States’ political and military involvement in Vietnam, he was the first American to be indicted under the Espionage Act for non-spy related activity. He has since been labeled a whistleblower.

On April 8, Ellsberg and fellow whistleblowers Jesselyn Radack and Thomas Drake spoke on a panel moderated by USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism Professor Robert Scheer about the importance of unveiling government wrongdoing.

This is a conversation about what I consider to be one of the most important issues in the country and the world today.

Geoffrey Cowan

“This is a conversation about what I consider to be one of the most important issues in the country and the world today,” said USC Annenberg Professor Geoffrey Cowan, introducing the panel to an audience of students and faculty.

The panel was part of a two-day stop at USC Annenberg on the Government Accountability Project’s American Whistleblower Tour, which aims to educate people on the “phenomenon and practice of whistleblowing.”

Ethics violation

Radack, a national security and human rights attorney, came to be known as a whistleblower after revealing an ethics violation made by the FBI in the interrogation of American Taliban member John Walker Lindh.

As an ethics adviser for the Department of Justice at the time, Radack advised the FBI against the immediate interrogation of Lindh without a lawyer present. Radack’s advice was concealed during Lindh’s trial, and Radack was later investigated for copying and leaking the emails about the Lindh interrogation to the press.

After a lengthy battle with the Department of Justice, Radack decided to dedicate her life to defending whistleblowers.

She and Drake were quick to point out that the terms “whistleblower” and “leaker,” often used synonymously when referring to the release of classified information, have different meanings.

“[Radack] recognized the absolutely crucial distinction between leaking, which is not in the public interest, and whistleblowing, which is,” Drake said.

This distinction, made by Radack in a 2010 op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, was what convinced Drake that Radack should represent him when he was indicted under the Espionage Act in 2010 for allegedly mishandling classified documents surrounding a costly National Security Agency program.

Taking aim at targets

Drake was the second person to be indicted for non-spy related activity under the Espionage Act and the first under the Obama Administration.

Radack had assumed that Drake’s case was isolated, which was not the case. Under the Obama Administration, eight people have been charged with espionage for mishandling information that the government deemed classified.

“The government is deliberately going after targeted individuals, like they targeted me, to send a much larger message to anyone else that might dare come forward,” Drake said. “They’re shutting down the free flow of information that informs the public of what’s going on.”

After the Ellsberg and Drake cases, it has grown more difficult and dangerous for whistleblowers to get information to the public.

“My view is that it speaks volumes that the only safe way to blow the whistle right now if you’re in national security or intelligence and know that level of information, the only safe way is to blow the whistle from another country,” said Radack, in reference to her client Edward Snowden, who released thousands of classified government documents last year to journalists he met in Hong Kong.

The panelists agreed that the government’s crackdown on whistleblowing reveals an even greater need for people willing to expose the truth in the public interest.

“We need more oversight, we need the independent presses and we need whistleblowers,” Ellsberg said.

He added that one way this can happen is if we change how whistleblowers are viewed by the public.

Patriot or traitor?

In reference to the title of the event, “Patriot or Traitor? Whistleblowing and Journalism in the Age of Government Surveillance,” Ellsberg said that “not many people would like the opportunity to defend themselves against being a traitor.”

Ellsberg, who said that he identifies with Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning, has never viewed whistleblowing as traitorous.

Radack added that all journalists should use encryption to protect their sources, no matter the level of secrecy, but she does hope that, with the help of whistleblowers, we can still “reign in the national security surveillance state.”

“I still believe that we can recover our democracy from the police state that it’s becoming,” she said.

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