What's Worse, Illegally Spying on Americans or Talking About It?

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Obama's hypocrisy on whistle-blowers

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It isn't everyday that you hear this from a former NSA employee: "I should apologize to the American people. It's violated everyone's rights. It can be used to eavesdrop on the whole world."

That's Bill Binney, who spoke to Jane Mayer about Thin Thread, a program he invented to track America's enemies abroad, but that was used after the September 11 terrorist attacks to spy on countless Americans completely innocent of any ties to terrorism. You'll recall what happened when The New York Times broke the story, thanks to a leak from a patriotic whistle-blower:

Democrats, including then Senator Obama, denounced the program as illegal and demanded congressional hearings. A FISA court judge resigned in protest. In March, 2006, Mark Klein, a retired A.T.&T. employee, gave a sworn statement to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which was filing a lawsuit against the company, describing a secret room in San Francisco where powerful Narus computers appeared to be sorting and copying all of the telecom's Internet traffic--both foreign and domestic... Soon, USA Today reported that A.T.&T., Verizon, and BellSouth had secretly opened their electronic records to the government, in violation of communications laws. Legal experts said that each instance of spying without a warrant was a serious crime, and that there appeared to be hundreds of thousands of infractions.

That was in 2005. In the aftermath of the leak, the Bush administration insisted it had acted legally, and that the methods it used were necessities in the War on Terrorism. But folks inside the NSA new better. One former staffer told Jane Mayer the following: "This was a violation of everything I knew and believed as an American. We were making the Nixon administration look like pikers." That's Thomas Drake, whose conscience got the best of him. He leaked information about the NSA to a Baltimore Sun reporter (he insists that he never gave her anything classified). He now faces 35 years in prison for having allegedly retained five classified documents at his house.

p>Many are alarmed by the government's behavior in the case:

Jack Goldsmith, a Harvard law professor who served in the Bush Justice Department, laments the lack of consistency in leak prosecutions. He notes that no investigations have been launched into the sourcing of Bob Woodward's four most recent books, even though "they are filled with classified information that he could only have received from the top of the government." Gabriel Schoenfeld, of the Hudson Institute, says, "The selectivity of the prosecutions here is nightmarish. It's a broken system."

Mark Feldstein, a professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University, warns that, if whistle-blowers and other dissenters are singled out for prosecution, "this has gigantic repercussions. You choke off the information that the public needs to judge policy."

During his campaign, President Obama said of whistle-blowers that their "acts of courage and patriotism, which can sometimes save lives and often save taxpayer dollars, should be encouraged rather than stifled." Mayer's story is yet another example of the gulf that separates his rhetoric before he came to power and his White House behavior. Says J. Kirk Wieb, another former NSA employee, "I feel I'm living in the very country I worked for years to defeat: the Soviet Union. We're turning into a police state." Maybe he's being hyperbolic, or he's got an axe to grind. But I get chills when so many former staffers from that agency are publicly making remarks of that sort.

One wonders what we'd hear if whistle-blowers weren't made targets of criminal investigations that could imprison them for decades, even as leakers who don't embarrass the government or have the right friends in high places are seemingly free to break the very same laws with impunity.

Image credit: Jason Reed/Reuters

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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