The American Whistleblowers who will not be Silenced

Focusing closely on former CIA analyst and case officer John Kiriakou who spoke out against the CIA’s use of torture, Silenced shows the impact on Kiriakou and his family in the lead up to his nearly two year imprisonment, which ended in early February 2015.

In a Q&A following the screening, two of the film’s protagonists – activist and retired NSA executive Thomas Drake, and former DOJ Ethics Advisor Jesselyn Radack, director of National Security & Human Rights at the Government Accountability Project – discussed their struggles as whistleblowers and how journalists can help foster change.

What Could Have Been Done Differently?
Thomas Drake said that both he and the government should have done things differently before and after he blew the whistle on the dubious legality of NSA dragnet surveillance. “I would have gone to the press a lot sooner,” said Drake.

“Despite the huge personal costs, what price do you put on freedom and liberty? We don’t have to forsake the future of freedom and liberty for all. Are there threats to civil society? Yes. It doesn’t mean that we turn everybody into suspects, even if it’s virtual. What it means to be free and what it means to have liberty means more to me now than ever.”

He responded to an audience question about how methods of surveillance could be changed to protect privacy. “You certainly don’t have to go outside of the constitution,” Drake said. “The U.S. unchained itself. Because they had failed to protect Americans, they decided they would unchain themselves from the rule of law. Five days after 9/11, Cheney said ‘we’re going to the dark side.’”

Both before and after bulk surveillance was introduced, Drake said he had continuously advocated for the use of a program called ThinThread, which would have protected the privacy of American citizens.

Foundation of Courage
Much has changed since Radack and Drake first spoke out, not least of which are the mass surveillance revelations by Edward Snowden, who brought international attention to the act of whistleblowing.

Radack praised the establishment of the Courage Foundation last year, set up to help financially support whistleblowers as they navigate the expensive court cases that stem from their revelations. “That foundation is now supporting legal defence for [Edward] Snowden, other clients of mine, other clients of other attorneys. None of that existed back when I blew the whistle and when Tom and John were going through their ordeals,” she said. Even if a whistleblower is found ‘not guilty,’ Radack added, “it’s very hard to recover,” and “there’s still such a price” financially.

Double-edged Media
The media is both a key aspect in “demonising and vilifying the whistleblower,” Radack said, and at the same time their “saving grace” since “robust investigative journalism has been a tremendous help to whistleblowers.”

Whistleblowers “are always painted as being out for fame, or profit, or revenge,” she said. “Some journalists in the U.S. act more like the government lapdog than the government watchdog. And they very much care about maintaining their contacts.”

But the war on whistleblowers is really a backdoor war on journalists, Radack maintained. “There’s been a war on whistleblowers, a war on journalists, a war on hacktavists, and an overall war on information… because information is the currency of power, especially in the digital age.”

When leaks come from official sources, such as in the recent Hillary Clinton email controversy that has seen the former Secretary of State release State Department emails to the public, and former CIA Director David Petraeus’ leak of classified material to his lover, “they’re very self serving,” said Drake. “Whistleblowing is done in the public interest. The whistleblowers, the truth tellers, are really the canaries in this democratic liberty and freedom coal mine.”

Visit the Silenced website for more information on the film and upcoming screenings.