Whistleblowers and the National Security State

Revelations by National Security Agency (NSA) contract employee Edward Snowden have seized the attention of the world and sparked a national debate about government surveillance and privacy. Snowden’s disclosures pose two questions that strike at the heart of any democracy. What are the American people entitled to know about their government? And what is the government entitled to know about the American people?

Since 9/11, the U.S. has in secret developed a massive surveillance industrial complex, which grows exponentially even as the American public learns of repeated waste, fraud, illegality and abuse of power at intelligence agencies. Under the guise of national security, the executive branch has systematically and secretly spied on millions of innocent Americans, and when caught, demanded changes in the law to retroactively justify its actions—only to secretly violate those even broader legal powers.

The courts, Congress, and the executive branch have abdicated their duties to rein in the national security state and protect individual liberty, leaving that responsibility to a 30-year-old analyst watching his country’s spiral descent toward a “turnkey tyranny.”

The courts, Congress, and the executive branch have abdicated their duty to protect individual liberty.

Although President Obama said he welcomes the debate that followed Snowden’s revelations, our experience representing whistleblowers provided a sobering prediction about how the government would react to Snowden himself. The Government Accountability Project (GAP) began 36 years ago when whistleblowers exposed pervasive executive-branch surveillance of innocent citizens, and massive secrecy about the Vietnam War. We believed then, and history has proven, that whistleblowers are at the forefront of the struggle to preserve democracy.

Secretive institutions such as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court are not up to the task assigned to them. This court issuing secret rulings based on classified arguments is an unprecedented and extraordinary disaster. On its watch, millions of innocent Americans have had their rights abridged and privacy invaded. Until Snowden went to the press, few Americans knew their phone companies, Internet providers or social media facilitators were compelled to secretly allow the government to collect information.

Many of the whistleblowers we have represented over four decades have paid a high price for their courage, integrity and patriotism. Congress has responded by enacting effective whistleblower laws covering over 70,000,000 private sector workers and most federal employees. Yet the rights of national-security whistleblowers were not protected. They alone are now exposed and vulnerable.

The government has fired, blacklisted and financially ruined national security whistleblowers, investigated them as criminals, invaded and raided their homes with guns drawn, prosecuted them under the Espionage Act, and branded them traitors.

Seven years ago, a shaken computer security technologist came to us to describe his experience with one of the world’s largest communications firms. While conducting a security evaluation, he discovered a major cable—euphemistically called the “Quantico Circuit”—leading from the core trunk of the entire system. It granted a mysterious party outside the company access to every type of communication coming through that company’s infrastructure connected with mobile phones. When ordered to forget what he saw, he insisted that he could not do so. He was fired and eventually lost his private business, while the communications firm went on to receive retroactive immunity for its illegal cooperation with an out-of-control executive branch.

NSA whistleblowers and GAP clients Thomas Drake, William Binney and J. Kirk Wiebe spoke out internally against the massive domestic spying operation Snowden exposed, only to have the government ignore their concerns, derail their careers and subject them to protracted criminal investigations, and in Drake’s case, prosecution.

No longer can the courts defer to the executive branch when it asserts broad claims of “national security” and claims that it is accurately representing the facts. No longer can Congress grant the executive branch more authority to spy on Americans and complacently trust that it will use its power responsibly.

If Americans seize the moment created by Snowden’s revelation, stand up against the surveillance state, call elected officials and demand repeal of the over-broad surveillance powers and accountability for the government officialswho exceeded them, we can redirect the country back toward the principles of liberty enshrined in the Constitution.

 

Louis Clark is president of the Government Accountability Project, the nation’s leading whistleblower protection and advocacy organization.