In his first term, President Barack Obama has gained a reputation as someone who has waged an unprecedented war on whistleblowing. A statistic frequently cited is that the administration has pursued prosecutions against six whistleblowers or alleged “leakers,” more than all previous presidential administrations combined. Individuals like NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake or Pfc. Bradley Manning, the soldier alleged to have released classified information to WikiLeaks, have gained notoriety for being pursued by the Obama administration. What has received less focus is the way that the administration has allowed prepublication review boards to be used to prevent whistleblowers’ stories of government malfeasance from being told.
Classified Woman: A Memoir is a stirring book that takes us through the injustice Edmonds has endured starting during the Bush Administration. In her job as a language specialist, she finds out the FBI has been covering up information related to the September 11th attacks. She figures out the FBI has been penetrated by a Turkish translator named Melek Can Dickerson and her husband, who have engaged in illegal transactions that involve shielding potential targets from intelligence operations. She realizes any investigation of Dickerson would “shine a light on major cover-ups initiated by the State Department ” and expose crimes committed by “high-placed US officials.” She feels uneasy but knows she cannot turn back. And so she decides to pursue appropriate channels to let the proper people know all this but is forced to choose between having a career and pursuing accountability.
The retaliation is immediate. Her supervisor Stephanie Bryan explicitly tries, in a passive aggressive way, to dissuade her from taking action:
…Things work differently in government. While private companies are concerned with efficiency, security and productivity, the government couldn’t care less. Of course, the jobs here come with other pluses: less work, more benefits, retirement…You need to know a little about some policies that are followed religiously in the FBI. Policy one: one for all, all for one. Policy two: problems and embarrassments are always swept under the rug—always. They don’t want to know about the serious and embarrassing problems, no matter how scandalous. They don’t want people reporting these types of issues and cases: especially on the record, in writing.
Bryan informs her the memo she wrote containing her findings that she sent to people higher up in the translation department was produced on her computer and violated “security rules” because the memo contained classified information. Despite the fact that Bryan instructed her to “prepare the memo at home,” she is told to go meet with an agent, Melinda Tilton, who is investigating her. Tilton cannot detect any “malice” involved and sees no reason why Edmonds needs to be investigated.
In the coming days, coworkers treat her as if she is a criminal. Then she is informed the FBI wants a “full-blown investigation” and plans to seize her home computer, which her husband also uses. She asserts her privacy rights and forces them to get a subpoena, making them even more resolute in their pursuit.
She is in London in October 2002 celebrating her ten-year wedding anniversary with her husband. Her husband insists she only check her emails once a day. On the second day, she checks her email and sees an email from her attorney with “very urgent” in the subject line. The email is a notice to Edmonds that Attorney General John Ashcroft is invoking state secrets privilege “to prevent disclosure of certain classified and sensitive national security information. Not only does the Justice Department invoke this privilege on behalf of FBI Director Robert Mueller, but they also file a motion to dismiss the case because “litigation” could create “substantial risks of disclosing classified and sensitive national security information that could cause serious damage” to America’s security. (Note: At the time, a Google search only produces seven hits when one searches for state secrets privilege. As Edmonds’ proceeds in her battle against the American state, that number will increase tremendously.)
The authoritarianism escalates: in 2004, Ashcroft issues an order to “retroactively classify anything that has been said, written, any letters or statements to the media and public, by any member of the House and the Senate.” Edmonds issues a statement that says the Justice Department is gagging Congress. In 2005, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is now defending her in the courts. They have an appellate court hearing. The hearing is closed. No press allowed. Her lawyers state their arguments for the court. And then, absurdly, Edmonds and her lawyers were told to leave the courtroom so that the defense could make their case. (She writes in the book, “Even Kafka would have been shocked.”)
The small possibility of being heard in the Supreme Court exists after that, but it is clear all roads have been closed. What has happened now establishes her case as the “most egregious case of unjustified secrecy and classification” in history, establishing her as “the most gagged woman in the known history” of the United States. She has had her First Amendment right taken away. She has had her Fourth Amendment right, her right to due process and access to the courts taken away.
The book recounts a truly alarming story. Even more stunning, however, is the fact she had to wait over a year to get the book published. The FBI sought to use their prepublication review board to keep her account of what happened to her from reaching the public.
Edmonds was never under threat of being convicted for leaking because she did not go to reporters first. She did what most Americans would expect good government employees to do. And yet, that made her an enemy of the State.
The suppression she endured and the fact that the United States government now wages a wide war on leaks to preserve government secrecy makes Edmonds’ book a timely read and one crucial to understanding the extent that the federal government will go to keep the public in the dark on how it is handling and preserving so-called national security.
[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book and be respectful of dissenting opinions. Please take other conversations to a previous thread. - bev]