FIlm Review: ‘Top Priority: The Terror Within’


“Top Priority: the Terror Within” tells the true story of whistleblower Julia Davis, a former DHS/ICE officer who conscientiously tries to prevent a bureaucratic SNAFU from turning into another 9/11.  The government’s response is the stuff of nightmares and provides a disturbing glimpse of the dark possibilities inherent in police militarization and mass surveillance.

The film overflows with abuses of power:  intimidation, warrantless surveillance, malicious prosecutions, obstruction of justice and witnesses that die mysteriously. It can be difficult to follow it all. Details whiz by at a swift pace and the narrative jumps forward and back in time.  For some, the tale may seem too incredible to be true, and it’s helpful to know that Davis (and her husband B.J.) were vindicated in court.

The story begins in July, 2004, at the San Ysidro Port of Entry, a busy gateway between Mexico and the U.S. Davis  discovers that 23 aliens from terrorist countries came across the border the day before, on July 4, and despite a terrorism alert issued for that day, the alien entries were inadequately processed. Fearful of a repeat of the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., Davis dutifully forwards this information to the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force, with the permission of her supervisor. DHS officials, embarrassed that the problem was exposed outside their agency, brand Julia a “domestic terrorist,”and make it a “top priority” to investigate her. No one looks for the 23 aliens.

A torrent of bad news follows. A SWAT team and Blackhawk helicopters descend on Julia’s desert home and rough up her parents. Evidence disappears. Witnesses turn up dead. The tension is relieved only when the film shows a criminal complaint accusing Davis of committing a 1974 murder…while also acknowledging that Davis was born in 1972.  One laughs at the ineptness of retaliating officials; but Justice moves at a glacial pace, and even laughable charges can wreak a lot of harm until vindication comes.

The reprisals conducted against the Davises are unusual in their number and severity, but similar tactics are routinely employed against government whistleblowers. Retaliatory investigations based on lies and trivialities are the bureaucracy’s weapon of choice against insiders who bring serious government failures to light. The Justice Department’s prosecution of NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake was such a case. DoJ ultimately dropped its charges of espionage; but, by then, Drake had been financially devastated by the costs of his legal defense.

It’s also common for agencies to falsely label whistleblowers “security threats” so as to trigger more aggressive forms of retaliation and, additionally, make them unemployable. Those who perpetrate these abuses typically walk away with bonuses and promotions.

If the government hoped its tactics would compel the Davises to recant or fade away, it miscalculated. Julia and B.J., a Hollywood stunt man, fought back with a determination that calls to mind the Nazi-fighting team of Ravenwood and Jones. Having won their legal battle, they are currently pushing for an investigation into the death of Brittany Murphy.  In addition, they promote public awareness of the benefits and perils of whistleblowing.

“Brave individuals who choose to fight against government corruption in courts aren’t commonly perceived as heroes, but they should be.  Those are the brave few fighting for the rights of many.” – BJ Davis

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