“If you blow the whistle, you should be thanked. You should be protected for doing the right thing. You shouldn’t be ignored and you certainly shouldn’t be punished.”
These were the surprising words of President Obama on 7 August 2014, as he signed a $16 billion bill to improve veterans’ access to medical care. The bill followed a report from the Department for Veterans’ Affairs, which confirmed many of the complaints whistleblowers had been making – waiting lists were indeed being manipulated to hide how long veterans were having to wait for medical appointments.
The White House again praised whistleblowers this week, responding to a letter sent by the Society of Professional Journalists and 37 other journalism and open government groups urging the Obama Administration to be more transparent. The letter from White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest claims that the Administration has “made important progress” in “protecting whistleblowers” and “disclosing previously classified information.” Earnest cites the 2012 Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act as evidence that the Administration has “fought for and won better protections for whistleblowers.”
But the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act that the White House claims offers better protections for whistleblowers is limited. While the Act was recognised as a step forward by whistleblower organisations like the Government Accountability Project (GAP) and the National Whistleblowers Centre, GAP also recognised its limitations. Blowing the whistle within official channels does not guarantee public disclosure of the information and does little to facilitate what Yochai Benkler has called “accountability leaks… that challenge systemic practices.”
At any rate, it is not the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act for which this Presidency is likely to be remembered but the intelligence whistleblowers who have faced severe reprisals on its watch. The Obama Administration, famously, has initiated eight prosecutions under the Espionage Act – more uses of the 1917 Act than all previous US presidents combined. Former NSA employees Thomas Drake and Edward Snowden, who blew the whistle on mass surveillance; former US Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning, who blew the whistle on US torture and war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan; and former CIA official John Kiriakou, who blew the whistle on US torture, are among the intelligence whistleblowers who have been charged with the Espionage Act during Obama’s Administration.
Ray McGovern, a former CIA senior analyst, founder of whistleblower group Sam Adams Associates for Integrity in Intelligence and co-founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS), responded to Obama’s comments saying, “President Obama is giving hypocrisy a bad name.”
McGovern, who is also a member of Courage’s advisory board, said:
Obama’s record speaks for itself; he has prosecuted more than twice as many whistleblowers – for espionage, no less – than all former presidents combined. As for those whose crimes have been whistle-blown upon, like those who did the torture, Obama continues to call them ‘patriots’. Former CIA operative John Kiriakou, who opposed torture, sits in a Pennsylvania prison because he revealed the name of one of the torturers.
Too bad Kafka is dead.