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Drone Killings, Cyber Attacks, War on Whistleblowers: Does Obama Think He Is Above the Law?

The United States rains Hellfire missiles down on its enemies, with the president alone sitting in judgment of who will live and who will die by his hand.

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This is the sort of thing that happens when reality is suspended in Washington, when the drones take flight, the worms turn, and the president decides that he, and he alone, is the man.

What Happens When Everything Is Classified?

What happens when the very definitions that control life in government become so topsy-turvy that  1984 starts looking more like a handbook than a novel?

I lived in Taiwan when that island was still under martial law. Things that everyone could see, like demonstrations, never appeared in the press. It was illegal to photograph public buildings or bridges, even when you could buy postcards nearby of some of the same structures. And that was a way of life, just not one you’d want.

If that strikes you as familiar in America today, it should. When everything is classified --  according to the Information Security Oversight Office, in 2011 American officials classified more than 92,000,000 documents -- any attempt to report on anything threatens to become a crime; unless, of course, the White House decides to leak to you in return for a soft story about a heroic war president.

For everyone else working to create Jefferson’s informed citizenry, it works very differently, even at the paper that carried the administration’s happy leaks.  Times reporter Jim Risen is now the  subject of subpoenas by the Obama administration demanding he name his sources as part of the Espionage Act case against former CIA officer Jeffery Sterling. Risen was a journalist doing his job, and he raises this perfectly reasonable, but increasingly outmoded question: “Can you have a democracy without aggressive investigative journalism? I don't believe you can, and that's why I'm fighting.” Meanwhile, the government calls him their only witness to a leaker’s crime.

One thing at stake in the case is the requirement that journalists aggressively pursue information important to the public, even when that means heading into classified territory.  If almost everything of importance (and much that isn’t) is classified, then journalism as we know it may become… well, illegal.

Sometimes in present-day Washington there’s simply too much irony for comfort: the story that got Risen in trouble was about an earlier CIA attempt to sabotage Iran's nuclear program, a plot which failed where Stuxnet sort of succeeded.

The End

 

James Spione, an  Academy Award-nominated director who is currently working on a documentary about whistleblowers in the age of Obama, summed things up to me recently this way: “Beneath the partisan grandstanding, I think what is most troubling about this situation is the sense that the law is being selectively applied. On the one hand, we have the Justice Department twisting the Espionage Act into knots in an attempt to crack down on leaks from ‘little guys’ like Thomas Drake and John Kiriakou, while at the same time an extraordinarily detailed window into covert drone policy magically appears in the  Times."

Here is the simple reality of our moment: the president has definitively declared himself (and his advisors and those who carry out his orders) above the law, both statutory and moral. It is now for him and him alone to decide who will live and who will die under the drones, for him to reward media outlets with inside information or smack journalists who disturb him and his colleagues with subpoenas, and worst of all, to decide all by himself what is right and what is wrong.

The image Obama holds of himself, and the one his people have been  aggressively promoting recently is of a righteous killer, ready to bloody his hands to smite “terrorists” and whistleblowers equally. If that sounds Biblical, it should. If it sounds full of unnerving pride, it should as well.  If this is where a nation of laws ends up, you should be afraid.

 
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