News and Tribune

July 2, 2013

BEAM: Hell hath no fury like a government scorned

By AMANDA BEAM
Local columnist

Silently in a windowless office, she lurks. The light from a government-issued computer screen brightens her face as she clinks and clanks heavily on the keys. Private details of everyday Americans roll before her like pieces of driftwood churning down a river. 

You wouldn’t think this small girl with the mousy hair and not-so-perfect skin would soon be the top threat to the U.S. But just like Satan turned his back on the Almighty, so will this young gal betray the greatest country in the world; though this devil will do it through one simple act — she’ll talk.

We don’t know her name or what will make her break. Perhaps the awareness of a reporter being unfairly monitored or the random calls of a grandma in Wisconsin in a tall stack of phone records will send her over the edge. What is perceived to be a minor transgression from the powers that be can seem like a heck of a lot more to the rest of us. 

Freedom has a price, so they say. And she too will pay. With her job. With her reputation. With her life, if some would get their way.

She is a whistleblower. 

Earlier in this century, those like her would have been deemed an informer or snitch. But in 1971, political activist Ralph Nader devised the term ‘whistleblower.’ Sports’ refs blow their whistles when they witness an unruly act. And while true fans may call them many names, some even vulgar, rarely do people identify them as tattletales. Nader thought the same consideration should be extended to employees that bring illegal or immoral acts to light. 

Like with many things, there can be a fine legal line between exposing perceived government wrongs and actual all-out treason. But lately that line seems to be getting a heck of a lot finer. 

According to an October article on Bloomberg.com, the Obama administration has charged more people under the 1917 Espionage Act than all the other presidents since its inception. Six times has the administration sought this type of indictment, while previously the act had only been applied to three other cases.

Now, at least two of those preceding instances were pretty nasty ones that had dealt with government workers selling secrets to a foreign country. CIA operative Aldrich Ames and former FBI Special Agent Robert Hanssen are examples of these, both justifiably prosecuted under the law for divulging classified — and potentially life-threatening — information to Russia.

Recent charges using the law have been quite different. None of the men revealed “secrets” to an unfriendly foreign government. Instead, five of the six spoke to journalists. The last, Bradley Manning, disclosed documents to the online organization Wikileaks. 

There’s a big difference to what these men unveiled. From waterboarding to wiretapping, those who have been charged seem to generally want to tell stories of governmental abuses. Monetary gain isn’t the primary motive for their actions. Instead, it seems, there is a quest for awareness of these perceived immoral or illegal acts.

Some of these cases have been resolved either through plea deals or charges being dropped. Still several remain active, leading “The Daily Show’s” John Stewart to say that the administration “believes in freedom of the press, just not freedom of speech for people who might talk to the press.”

In different states, certain protections have been enacted that safeguard an average employee’s constitutional right of free speech. Not so much though for those who work for the federal government. 

It’s not necessarily that the laws aren’t on the books. The Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989 protects many federal workers from workplace retaliation for revealing wrongdoings. But members of the intelligence community, including the NSA, FBI and CIA, are all exempt from the law. An Intelligence Community Whistleblower Protection Act does exist and provides an avenue for employees in these organizations to take their grievances to Congress. Yet at times, like in the case of NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake, pleas for intervention are ignored, allowing for retribution from the agency in question.

So how will this affect future whistleblowers like the hypothetical gal in the first paragraph? Until Congress better defines or broadens whistleblower protection in the intelligence community, the Justice Department will most likely continue to prosecute these types of cases. And while some should be looked in to, especially those that endanger lives, quite a few should be left alone. 

For now, our future whistleblower turns off her computer and sneaks home to a cuddly cat and a few hours of light from a different type of screen. Maybe “Silkwood” will be on. Everyone likes to watch an unlikely protagonist take on the establishment now and again. 

— Amanda Beam is a Floyd County resident and Jeffersonville native. Contact her by email at hoosiermandyblog@gmail.com