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'A Ton More People Were Wiretapped Than We've Been Led to Believe': FBI Whistleblower Thomas Tamm

The man who blew the lid off Bush's spying program believes more details on government spying must, and will, come to light.

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Tamm remains in a sort of legal limbo, with the Department of Justice informing him that no decision on whether to prosecute him would be made until Barack Obama took office. Four months into Obama's term, however, Tamm has not heard anything.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration has blocked efforts by civil-liberties organizations to hold accountable those who unlawfully spied on Americans, even as more details have emerged revealing the broad targets of the NSA program, which included journalists and even members of Congress.

Earlier this month, Obama administration lawyers invoked the "state secrets" privilege to block a lawsuit on behalf of five AT&T customers "to stop the illegal, unconstitutional and ongoing dragnet surveillance of their communications and communications records," according to Electronic Frontier Foundation, the civil-liberties organization that brought forth the suit.

Cindy Cohn, legal director of EFF, called the legal filing by Obama's DOJ "very significant."

"This is the sort of disdain for the rule of law and the role of the courts that he campaigned against," she said via e-mail. "In our case, we have no reason to believe that the warrantless wiretapping has ended, so at some point we have to call it Obama's warrantless wiretapping."

I spoke to Tamm over the phone last week, only hours before the New York Times broke its story and the same week that he was awarded the Ridenhour Prize for Truth-Telling, an award that honors whistle-blowers whose work has helped to "protect the public interest, promote social justice or illuminate a more just vision of society."

Liliana Segura: You come from a long line of FBI officials and grew up with the bureau as a familiar entity -- and the Newsweek article describes you as being sort of disaffected before you discovered the NSA wiretapping program. What was it about the Bush administration that represented the most egregious violation? Was there a particular moment where you felt that you had to break your silence?

Thomas Tamm: Yes. I was disillusioned with the way that the death penalty was being administered, the change from the Reno administration to the Ashcroft administration. [ Editor’s Note: Under Attorney General John Ashcroft, the Justice Department encouraged U.S. attorneys to seek the death penalty as often as possible, reducing Tamm's office, the Justice Department's Capital Case Unit, which reviewed and made recommendations regarding capital cases at the federal level to "a rubber stamp," as he told Isikoff.]

When I was assigned to that unit, I had the privilege of meeting with some of the 9/11 families, and I just felt like I wanted to go after the person who had done that to 3,000 of our fellow citizens.

I was reviewing classified CIA cables [about the 9/11 plot], and I was reading cables about rendition -- people going off to Saudi Arabia or Egypt or wherever -- and the implicit understanding was that they were being sent there to be tortured.

And then I heard our government and the president saying that we don't send people to be tortured. Well, I knew that to be a bald-faced lie.

When I [transferred to the Office of Intelligence Policy and Review] and started doing the wiretapping, where I thought I was going to be contributing to going after al-Qaida, there were just so many tangential, inconsequential people who were tapped, and -- I kind of sniffed out the fact that there was this illegal program going on.

And I said, "Well, they're lying about the rendition; they're lying about the torture. Are they lying about the FISA?" And that's pretty much what pushed me over the tipping point.