Punishing Speech: America and Whistle-Blowers

Today, as the country turned toward the Capitol to watch the State of the Union, my mind focused on the idea of speech. Who has the power to speak? When is that power taken away? What version of history is packaged and sold to the masses? Who benefits from this? Why do we so often fear the strength of our own voices?

I have always believed that one of the most pernicious effects of oppression is an internalized self-hatred. People are taught to doubt their own agency and dignity. People are taught that their voices are unimportant and inferior. The rest of society, those with privilege, are taught to buy into this hierarchy and develop implicit biases against the oppressed. This is true along so many lines – gender, race, class, sexual orientation, ability, etc.

But voicelessness is not just a feeling, it is a legally enforced condition – through censorship, voting restrictions, imprisonment, and murder. Tonight, President Obama stated, “We defend free speech, and advocate for political prisoners, and condemn the persecution of women, or religious minorities, or people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. We do these things not only because they’re right, but because they make us safer.” I wish this were true. But it is so clearly a lie. America does not want resistance. It does not want transparency. And it certainly does not want its mistakes aired.

Obama’s administration has prosecuted more whistle-blowers than all other presidents combined. Whistle-blowers are truth-tellers; they reveal to the public questionable and immoral acts of the government. We need whistle-blowers. Without transparency, there is no accountability, and democracy becomes a smokescreen. The government can run wild, unchecked.

John Kiriakou’s crime was exposing the CIA’s use of torture. He has served time, his wife was fired from her position at the agency, and his family is in an immense amount of legal debt. His five children see him only in prison. He is being punished for his conscience. Those responsible for the torture, those who harmed and violated other people, have not been held accountable. Those who murdered Gul Rahman and then hid his death from his family for seven years have not been held accountable. Speech is punished; violence is not.

The message is clear: open your mouth, and we will ruin your life; keep it shut, and you will be rewarded.

Kiriakou is not alone. There is the very public case of Edward Snowden. There is Chelsea Manning who revealed the truth about Guantanamo and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even when she was on suicide watch at a military prison, she was forced to sleep naked and confined to a windowless cell 24 hours a day. There is Thomas Drake whose house was raided at gunpoint after he leaked information about an NSA program that was wasting billions of dollars and violating citizens’ privacy. There is Shamai Leibowitz who leaked documents because he feared a deadly Israeli attack on Iran. The names go on. Each of these people has lost their freedom and their careers. They serve as a warning to other potential whistle-blowers, and Obama is responsible for their destruction.

The history of the Espionage Act of 1917, which has been used to prosecute many of these truth-tellers, reads like a page from 1984. Passed after the U.S. entered World War I, it was used to prosecute Socialist Party presidential candidate Eugene Debs. He was sentenced to ten years for making a speech that allegedly “obstructed recruiting.” It was used to support the seizure of a film that portrayed British violence during the American Revolution. The government feared this would create division at a time when England was a wartime ally. The producer was imprisoned and fined. It was used to persecute  Daniel Ellsberg and Anthony Russo for publishing the Pentagon Papers, exposing President Johnson’s lies about the Vietnam War. 

As Kiriakou states, “Washington has always needed an ‘ism’ to fight against, an idea against which it could rally its citizens like lemmings. First, it was anarchism, then socialism, then communism. Now, it’s terrorism. Any whistleblower who goes public in the name of protecting human rights or civil liberties is accused of helping the terrorists.” The Espionage Act is legal way to punish dissent.

If President Obama wants to urge Americans to “defend free speech and advocate for political prisoners,” perhaps he should lead by example. Our right to criticize the government is written into our Declaration of Independence and our constitution. It is fundamental to our freedom and to a just society.

I wanted to feel moved tonight by the State of the Union, but instead it rang deeply false. The past 15 years have been filled with secrecy and violence. It is time we expose the administration for what it truly is.