With espionage charges now laid against Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who revealed government collection of data on all Americans' phone calls, the Obama administration has initiated prosecutions of more than twice as many leakers as all previous presidential administrations combined.
Snowden has certainly broken the law, and with his subsequent revelations about U.S. spying on foreign officials, he has arguably ceded the moral high ground as well. But what about whistleblowers who have merely violated the unwritten bureaucratic code of silence? By prosecuting so many leaks, and by creating its so-called "Insider Threat Program" to combat even less serious leaks, is the Obama administration creating an especially hostile environment for innocent officials who step forward to point out wrongdoing and incompetence?
The Associated Press's sources within government seem to think so. AP President Gary Pruitt says they have clammed up, refusing even to provide background information or confirmation of basic facts reporters need, thanks to the Justice Department's recently revealed spying on AP reporters' phone activity. Mission accomplished.
In recent weeks, media coverage has been replete with stories about the hell that awaits officials who dare shed light in the dark corners of the federal bureaucracy. First was Greg Hicks, the former State Department deputy chief of mission in Libya. He enraged Secretary Hillary Clinton's chief of staff, Cheryl Mills, when he spoke with a visiting member of Congress in the absence of his administration political minders. He was subsequently pulled from Libya and given an undesirable desk job. To rub it in a bit, within hours of Hicks' subsequent congressional testimony on the Benghazi attacks of last September, the Obama-linked Center for American Progress was given access to his anonymous detractors in government. It published a report accusing Hicks (among other things) of dressing unprofessionally.
The State Department earned further publicity last week when CBS News highlighted the plight of Aurelia Fedenisn, a former investigator for State's Inspector General. Fedenisn revealed that her office, under pressure, had whitewashed a report on how high-level officials in Clinton's department had covered up credible allegations of pedophilia, sexual assault, solicitation and rampant drug use by State Department employees and contractors, including one ambassador. As a reward for bringing the damning original report to light, Fedenisn had IG staff camped out in her front yard last week, interrogating her children in her absence and trying to bully her into an admission of wrongdoing.
CNN's Anderson Cooper covered another such story last week -- that of Jeffrey Black, a retired Air Marshal who has been suffering bureaucratic retaliation for nearly a decade. Black's participation in "Please Remove your Shoes," a harsh 2010 documentary on federal incompetence in aviation security, was immediately followed by a suspicious IRS audit that is now being investigated. (The audit ultimately showed that the government owed Black thousands of dollars, which it has refused to pay.)
When he was still serving in the Bush era, Black had already suffered for helping Congress identify significant gaps in airline security. He explains in the movie that the Department of Homeland Security began surveilling and harassing him. His mail was stolen, his cable wires were cut, and he came home on more than one occasion to find his door unlocked and ajar, with nothing taken. "It's pure intimidation," he says in the movie. "That's how the agency works. They threaten you. You've got a good job, you've got a secure job. You're making good money."
The results of such intimidation become clear both in the sudden silence of AP's sources and in the failure of anyone at IRS to blow the whistle publicly in that agency's ongoing scandal. Inspector General Russell George, who last month uncovered the tax agency's harassment of conservative non-profit groups, testified before Congress, incredibly, that not one person at IRS would tell him who had given orders to target Tea Party groups.
Acting IRS Director Steven Miller was asked by the Senate Finance Committee about his own efforts to identify the person responsible. He indicated at best a half-hearted attempt to figure it out, after which he simply gave up, much to the consternation of Senators Pat Toomey, R-Pa., and Michael Bennet, D-Colo.
It turns out that the federal bureaucracy is like prison. Snitches get stitches, wrongdoers and their high-level abettors get paid leave and retirement benefits.
President Obama has not necessarily violated his fabled promises of transparency merely by prosecuting leaks that might threaten national security. But the unprecedented number of leak prosecutions, along with this body of evidence, hints that things are getting worse for whistleblowers. At the very least, this claimed but seldom-demonstrated transparency is not making life any easier for whistleblowers -- even the transparently innocent ones.