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Posts Tagged ‘fahrenheit 451’

The Espionage Act and the War on Whistleblowers

In History, The Revolution on July 30, 2013 at 11:13 PM
if you see something_war crimes

The image of Bradley Manning has become iconified as a symbol against criminal government secrecy.

Although Bradley (aka Breanna) Manning was found ‘not guilty’ of the worst offense of “aiding the enemy,” the young private was nevertheless found guilty of 7 out of 8 espionage charges (not to mention a number of lesser charges, including theft and computer fraud). Given the public outcry, numerous articles, and various organizational press releases pertaining to the government’s harsh penalization of whistleblowing, I’ve been intrigued by what has thus far received little attention from the press: the very meaning of espionage.

Undeniably, the charges used against Manning this month, some three years after his initial arrest, have become more important to the Amerikan people in the aftermath of the NSA scandals. However, the history of the legislation under which he and fellow whistleblower Edward Snowden have been charged has been poorly discussed. So has the fact that this law has been sparsely used since the end of the Vietnam War.  Sparsely used, that is, until President Obama.

Collateral Murder: This video of a 2007 airstrike in Baghdad against mostly unarmed civilians (published by Wikileaks in 2010) made Julian Assange’s news site famous while alerting millions around the world about the newest, video game-like predilections of war.

The “espionage” charges of which I allude to actually trace back to a piece of legislation passed nearly a century ago: the Espionage Act  of 1917 (currently under U.S.C. §794). Passed a few months after the united states’ entry into World War I, the Act builds upon the myths of the nation-state in penalizing anyone held to jeopardize “national defense.” It was based on an earlier Defense Secrets Act (1911), the British Official Secrets Act (1911, 1889),  and has its earliest roots in amerikkka’s Alien and Sedition Acts (1798). The Espionage Act also has, in its relatively short history, been utilized to persecute individuals who have strongly questioned or opposed military activities in a country that has perfected the art of “rationalized barbarism.” This, of course, included revolutionary socialists, communists, and anarchists, such as Eugene V. Debs (Socialist Party presidential candidate and co-founder of the Industrial Workers of the World), Victor Berger, Emma Goldman, and Alexander Berkman–all of whom protested the country’s participation in the first World War.  And following a bombing attributed to anarchists (the Palmer Raids supported by J. Edgar Hoover), the Act and a now-repealed amendment, the Sedition Act of 1918, was used to deport several hundred foreign-born residents, including Goldman and Berkman. Espionage was also the charge used to justify capital punishment for the Rosenbergs.

Since the 1950s, however, the Espionage Act was rarely ever used by government prosecutors (and even more rarely used in a successful conviction). In a case that has since drawn many parallels to Manning and Snowden, Daniel Ellsberg and Anthony Russo were charged with espionage for leaking classified military information they first examined in 1969. The Pentagon Papers, published as a front page article in the New York Times in 1971, detailed the Department of Defense’s involvement in Indochina during the Vietnam War, including previously unreported Marine Corps attacks and bombings in Cambodia and Laos. Fortunately for them, the two men were freed after a judge declared a mistrial given court “irregularities.”

Yet since the release of the Pentagon Papers, and perhaps because of the end of the Cold War, high-profile cases utilizing the Espionage Act have been less publicized. And for reasons that are not all-too-clear, we’ve seen, since Obama’s ascendancy in 2009, nine cases of espionage –more than under Bush, and perhaps more than any other president. (Two news sites, Slate and The Week, report that the Obama Administration has charged more people under the Act than all other presidents combined. This may be referring to charges against whistleblowers specifically, but does not seem to be true in general). Among those charged with espionage under Obama:

  • Thomas Drake, a former NSA senior executive who leaked to a Baltimore newspaper against the government waste within the agency’s use of the Trailblazer program.
  • Shamai Leibowitz, a contracted translator for the FBI who released information about a potential Israeli attack against Iran to a blogger.
  • Stephen Jin-Woo Kim, a nuclear proliferation specialist working as a contractor for the State Department, charged with leaking information about North Korea to Fox News.
  • Jeffrey Sterling, a former CIA officer charged with leaking information about Operation Merlin (an alleged, covert u.s. operation to provide Iran with a flawed design for building a nuclear  weapon) to a journalist.
  • John Kiriakou, a former CIA analyst who was charged for disclosing classified information connecting waterboarding to other CIA officials, particularly in the infamous interrogation of Abu Zubaydah.
  • Edward Snowden, the Booz Allen Hamilton contractor working for the NSA, was charged with espionage on June 14, 2013.

As can be noted in all of these cases–which also have little or nothing to do with an endangerment of Amerikans’ safety–the defendants were punished or harassed some time after leaking to a news agency. That is, not only have there been an unprecedented number of charges under the Espionage Act, but these charges were also distantly removed from what the legislation was originally intended to prosecute against: an infringement upon national security.

Of course, “national security” has been used to justify a panoply of governmental misdeeds, from border militarization to indiscriminate wiretapping. Should we be surprised that whistleblowing, surveillance, immigration, racial injustice, and “national security” were all significant news-making themes this summer? After all, the states of the world–amerikkka in particular–can only maintain their power through intricate, inter-meshed systems of governance that rely on information and knowledge production as much as (if not more than) military arsenal and weapons of mass destruction. And in trying to assess what is happening in our world, what source is more important for civilians than news media? After centuries of empire-building, the united states has acquired a considerable skill set in the art of manufacturing consent.

fahrenheit_451Although many parallels have been drawn with respect to Orwells’ 1984, there is another novel with dire, futuristic implications that is relevant here in the war against whistleblowers. In Ray Bradbury’s dystopian Fahrenheit 451, a fascist regime is able to maintain power by literally setting books–all books–on fire. It is a very simple, well-recognized fact: regimes of control depend most importantly on a regulation of knowledge. And in Bradbury’s grim future, civilians are coerced into obedience using various forms of shallow, technologically-based entertainment, created and deployed to sedate the masses away from critical reflection and engagement. This is not much different than what we see in contemporary amerikkka. Much ink–or, to use a more up-to-date example, ‘gigabyte storage’–has already been used in describing Amerikans’ lack of interest in world events or popular struggles. And there is indeed a correlation between this political apathy and comprehensive oppression through labor-based dehumanization and the ‘need’ to utilize mass technologies of distraction.

Whistleblowing is particularly dangerous in a heavily militarized, faux-republican state like the united states, where all sorts of war crimes need to occur without mass resistance. Whistleblowing is akin to giving books to the people of Bradbury’s world. It punctures the intricately fabricated world the elite have fabricated for the rest of us. And when the damage is beyond repair (as when Manning gave hundreds of thousands of documents to Wikileaks, or Snowden to the Guardian), seek to distract, vilify, or make examples of.  Should we be surprised that the masterful, rhetorical regime that is the Obama administration has been able to conduct atrocities under the aegis of national security–with the masses being none the wiser? Should we be surprised that Manning and Snowden have been vilified, turned into the pariahs of news chicanery at the expense of the actual issue of state violence against civilians? And who ingenuously believes that these two whistleblowers were actually attempting to aid an “enemy” (unless, that is, we interpret the state as considering us, the people, its ‘enemy’)?

Much like with the anti-war activism during World War I, the government is implementing ‘espionage’ to punish anyone who poses a threat to the growing war machine. If history has anything to teach us, it’s that the war against a ‘foreign’ threat is actually a war against something much closer to us than we realize. It’s a war against truth.

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