First Published: 2010-06-18

Obama's war on whistleblowers?

Row over Wikileaks video of US killings in Iraq highlights crackdown on whistleblowers.


Middle East Online

Out with 'war on terror', in with 'war on whistleblowers'

NEW YORK - The Obama administration has recently crackdown on whistleblowers and leakers of classified information. Pentagon investigators are reportedly still searching for Julian Assange, the founder of the whistleblowing website Wikileaks.

Earlier this month it was revealed the website might be in possession of hundreds of thousands of classified State Department cables, as well as video of massacres committed last year by US forces in Afghanistan.

Wikileaks made international headlines in April when it released a classified US military video showing a US helicopter gunship indiscriminately firing on Iraqi civilians, killing twelve people, including two employees of the Reuters news agency.

The US military recently arrested Army Specialist Bradley Manning, who may have been responsible for leaking the classified video. Manning has claimed he sent Wikileaks the video along with 260,000 classified US government records.

Manning, who was based in Iraq, reportedly had special access to cables prepared by diplomats and State Department officials throughout the Middle East.

During an internet conversation prior to his arrest, Manning explained his actions by writing "I want people to see the truth, regardless of who they are. Because without information, you cannot make informed decisions as a public."

Manning is now being held in pretrial confinement in Kuwait. The whereabouts of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange is unknown.

The arrest of Bradley Manning and the hunt for Assange has put the spotlight on the Obama administration’s campaign against whistleblowers and leakers of classified information.

The Government Accountability Project, a leading whistleblower advocacy organization, has accused President Obama of criminalizing whistleblowing to a greater extent than any other US president.

Last month, a former FBI linguist named Shamai Leibowitz was sentenced to twenty months in prison for disclosing classified documents to an unidentified blogger. The website Politico reports Leibowitz is now poised to serve a longer sentence than any other convicted leaker in US history.

In April, Thomas Drake, a National Security Agency whistleblower, was indicted on charges of disclosing classified government information and obstructing justice in an ensuing investigation. Drake had helped expose details of the Bush administration’s domestic spy program by leaking information to the Baltimore Sun and the Wall Street Journal.

The Obama administration has also targeted journalists who receive classified information. New York Times reporter James Risen has been subpoenaed to reveal the sources of part of his book State of War.

Birgitta Jónsdóttir, a member of the Icelandic Parliament, helped Assange put together the Iraq Wikileaks video, released from Iceland.

"We did decide to send out to Baghdad to fact-check everything in that video before we released it, to make sure that they could not say that this was falsified in any fashion. And we sent out some of our best investigative journalists to New Baghdad," she said.

"I think the most important element about that story is that it showed that the witnesses, the people on the ground, had all along been telling the truth. But the media usually always takes the side of the military reports. And this is, of course, an everyday occurrence in the war in Afghanistan and Iraq. So I think it is important that we bear that in mind," she added.

Daniel Ellsberg America's most famous whistleblower, who in 1971 leaked the Pentagon Papers, a 7,000-page top-secret study of US decision making in Vietnam, said the incident raised many questions.

"Who was it who decided that this was not suitable for Freedom of Information Act release, that it deserved classification on national security grounds? Was that appealed upwards when Reuters was applying for that? Did President Obama himself take a position on that? And if not, who below him? What were the criteria that led to denying this to the public? And how do they stand up when we actually see the results? Is anybody going to be held accountable for wrongly withholding evidence of war crimes in this case and the refusal to prosecute them or hold anyone accountable?"

Ellsberg also urged the press to look at "what was the government saying about these two massacres? How does it stand up when we relook at the facts? And what is the media to make of their own inability to penetrate behind those facts and leave it to Wikileaks?"

Glenn Greenwald, the political and legal blogger for, has written extensively on the Obama administration’s reaction to leakers within the government.

"Even the New York Times and Newsweek, albeit a little late in the game, but better late than never, had articles within the last several weeks documenting that the Obama administration’s assault on whistleblowers is more extreme than any prior administration, including the Bush administration, which was frequently accused of trying to silence whistleblowers," said Greenwald.

Both Ellsberg and Greenwald hailed the work of US whistleblowers.

"What I’ve heard so far of Assange and Manning—and I haven’t met either of them—is that they are two new heroes of mine ... I believe their action is exemplary. I hope others will follow it. For forty years I’ve hoped that someone would put out information on the scale that I did, but in a more timely way than I did, before I chose to do it in my time. And Manning would be the first person in forty years to have done that, if it is true that he’s put out a great raft of cables, which he regards as criminal. And I give him—I’m very gratified, if that’s the case. And I hope he’s not the last," said Ellsberg.

His remarks were echoed by Greenwald, who added: "If Bradley Manning did what he is reputed to have done, he is a hero. Wikileaks is probably engaged in the most important and noble acts of anybody around, and they deserve everybody’s full support and gratitude for doing something to break down the huge wall of secrecy that surrounds our government."



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