Kiriakou calls for end to McCarthyist treatment of whistleblowers

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In an op-ed for The Guardian, imprisoned CIA whistleblower John Kiriakou rebukes President Obama for engaging in “modern McCarthyism” by using the Espionage Act to persecute whistleblowers.

Only ten people in American history have been charged with espionage for leaking classified information, seven of them under Barack Obama. The effect of the charge on a person’s life – being viewed as a traitor, being shunned by family and friends, incurring massive legal bills – is all a part of the plan to force the whistleblower into personal ruin, to weaken him to the point where he will plead guilty to just about anything to make the case go away. I know. The three espionage charges against me made me one of “the Obama Seven”.

McCarthyism is the term used to describe a climate of fear and suspicion in the early 1950s, a period known as the Second Red Scare. It is named after Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-NV), a notorious demagogue who, with other conservatives, alleged that Communists had infiltrated the US government and society at large. The motion picture “High Noon,” an allegory for McCarthyism, bears many similarities with the current obsession with whistleblowers, as I described In my article  Do Not Forsake Them: Whistleblowers Critical to Rule of Law.

Kiriakou writes, “[T]he Espionage Act … is so antiquated that it doesn’t even mention classified information; the classification system hadn’t yet been invented.”

The law was written a century ago to prosecute German saboteurs. Its only update came in 1950, at the height of the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg case. The law is still so broad and vague that many legal scholars argue that it is unconstitutional.

The McCarran Internal Security Act of 1950, an amendment to the Espionage Act.  punishes unauthorized possession of classified materials (under Section 793(e) and was used to prosecute whistleblowers Bradley Manning and Thomas Drake.  Congress passed the act over President Harrry Truman’s veto. In a speech he made on September 22, 1950, Truman said:

This is a time when we must marshal all of our resources and all the moral strength of our free system in self-defense against the threat of Communist aggression. We will fail in this, and we will destroy all that we seek to preserve, if we sacrifice the liberties of our citizens in a misguided attempt to achieve national security…

Substitute “terrorism” for “Communist aggression” and Truman’s words are as relevant as they were in 1950.

The use of the Espionage and McCarran acts to prosecute whistleblowers has been condemned for chilling the willingness of federal government employees to report problems ranging from massive waste to national security vulnerabilities. Kiriakou writes, “The only hope of ending this travesty of justice is to scrap the Espionage Act and to enact new legislation that would protect whistleblowers while allowing the government to prosecute traitors and spies.”

Unfortunately, Congress demonstrates no interest in passing such a bill. Instead, the Senate passed a resolution for a National Whistleblower Appreciation Day just before leaving town for their summer vacation. It’s a slap in the face of whistleblowers who are  behind bars due to Congress’ failure to provide meaningful protections for conscientious national security employees.

For information on how you can help John Kiriakou and his family, see this Whistleblower Support Fund post.

For a history of the McCarran Internal Security Act, see the Marc Patenaude’s thesis, The McCarran Internal Security Act, 1950-2005: Civil Liberties versus National Security, University of Arkansas at Little Rock (2006).

For a history of laws censoring political dissent, see the Free Expression Policy Project’s Fact Sheet on Political Dissent and Censorship.

Photo by the_kid_cl at Flickr Creative Commons

Opinions expressed are those of the author.