Monday, July 12, 2010

Obama and Whistleblowers: Should Progressives Be "Disgusted"?

With the arrest of an Army intelligence analyst in the Wikileaks case, a question comes to mind: Should more progressives be disgusted with President Barack Obama for his treatment of those who uncover government wrongdoing?

The question hits close to home here at Legal Schnauzer because of the abuse heaped on Tamarah Grimes, a former U.S. Justice
Department paralegal in the Middle District of Alabama who blew the whistle on misconduct in the Don Siegelman prosecution. Is mistreatment of whistleblowers becoming an alarming trend in the Obama administration?

The director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) might have been ahead of the curve when he recently said that he was "disgusted" with Obama, partly because of the president's tendency to protect the powerful at the expense of the powerless.

Those feelings of disgust might be heightened after the arrest of Pfc. Bradley Manning in the Wikileaks case. Reports The Washington Post:

Manning was detained in May after, a Web site that aims to expose government and corporate secrets, released the video it had allegedly obtained from him. The footage, taken by cameras on U.S. Apache helicopters, shows several civilians, including two Reuters news agency employees, being killed in a U.S. strike in Iraq in July 2007.

The Manning case presents some thorny issues. On the one hand, Manning brought serious wrongdoing to light. On the other hand, it appears he went to considerable trouble to unearth classified material. It seems Manning did not just witness wrongdoing in the normal course of his duties; he went to great effort to find it. Does that mean he acted in an unethical, or even unlawful, fashion?

The Obama administration apparently thinks so. But the Tamarah Grimes case shows the White House generally has not been friendly toward whistleblowers, no matter how ethically they behave. The Manning case seems to provide another example of the administration talking about transparency on one hand but retaliating against those who actually provide transparency on the other. And there is this question: Did the material that Manning allegedly disclosed qualify as being classified? Reports the Post:

The case against Pfc. Bradley Manning, 22, reflects the tough stance the Obama administration appears to be taking against the disclosure of classified information. A memo by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates last week warned that such leaks would not be "tolerated" and would be prosecuted when proved--an attitude that some analysts suggested could carry a cost.

What is that cost? Wrongdoing is likely to go undetected--and unpunished:

"Potential whistleblowers may judge that the risks of revealing classified information are too high," said Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists. "When real misconduct is involved, that would be an unfortunate conclusion to draw. Many of the most important violations of law and policy, from warrantless wiretapping to torture of detainees, have become public through unauthorized disclosures of classified information."

As we approach the 18-month mark in the Obama administration, the Wikileaks case just adds to the profound sense of disappointment many progressives have in the president's performance.

To be sure, Obama has been hamstrung by the colossal mess he inherited from George W. Bush. And our country certainly is in better shape than it would have been if Republican John McCain had been elected in November 2008.

But how do you explain this? On June 1, 2009, Tamarah Grimes wrote a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder outlining prosecutorial misconduct in the case against former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman. Eight days later, Grimes was fired from her job as a paralegal in the Middle District of Alabama. Grimes remains without a job, but Bush appointee Leura Canary still is in place at U.S. attorney in Montgomery.

Grimes almost certainly can relate to what is happening to Bradley Manning. Like him, she was referred for criminal investigation. And the ugly episode can't be blamed entirely on George W. Bush. Consider this passage from one of our earlier posts about the Grimes case:

. . . it no longer is a matter of "looking back" at abuses under the Bush administration. The abuses are happening right now--under Obama. And there is little sign that they are going to be addressed anytime soon.

How long are progressives, who put Obama in the White House, going to tolerate an administration that turns a blind eye to grotesque abuses in the justice system.

In fact, Obama seems to have turned a blind eye toward the concerns of progressives in general. Considering that progressives are largely responsible for his victory, that doesn't seem like such a smart idea. The head of the ACLU perhaps spoke for many progressives when he said recently that he was "disgusted" with Obama.

Anthony Romero, executive director of the ACLU, tried to back off slightly from his original remarks. But we think Romero has every right to be disgusted with a president who once said "no one is above the law," but has taken little action to show he actually means that. Writes Josh Gerstein, of Politico:

In an interview with POLITICO, Romero confirmed the gist of the quote, though he emphasized it wasn't intended as an ad hominem attack.

"I'm not disgusted at President Obama personally. It's President Obama's policies on civil liberties and national security issues I'm disgusted by. It's not a personal attack," Romero said.

Then, in words I wish I had thought of myself, Romero got right to the point:

Asked why he's so animated now, Romero said: "It’s 18 months and, if not now, when? . . . Guantanamo is still not closed. Military commissions are still a mess. The administration still uses state secrets to shield themselves from litigation. There's no prosecution for criminal acts of the Bush administration. Surveillance powers put in place under the Patriot Act have been renewed. If there has been change in the civil liberties context, I frankly don't see it."

After eight years of a Bush presidency that seemed to have little respect for the rule of law, progressives were hoping for a quick about-face from Obama. But it hasn't happened:

"The unwillingness of the administration to stick by its guns and prosecute the Sept. 11 defendants in criminal court does not bode well for the broader civil liberties agenda," he said. "The fact they've not announced anything raises the specter of doubt that, in itself, is debilitating to the Justice Department and raises serious questions about the administration's commitment to the rule of law. Their silence speaks volumes."

The silence indeed speaks volumes. And if the administration does not soon begin to speak up on justice issues, we suspect Democrats are going to pay a price at the ballot box in November.

Romero long has been a prominent voice calling for the prosecution of Bush-administration officials. He has said that the rule of law must hold fast, that no one down the chain of command should be viewed as "too small-level a criminal" to prosecute--and no one up the chain of command should be "too much of an untouchable criminal" to pursue. That, Romero says, includes George W. Bush himself.

Here is a video from about a year ago in which Romero makes a very clear statement about his position. It's a position we think the Obama administration should adopt pronto.


Robby Scott Hill said...


Tamarah Grimes said...

In my experience, the risk of revealing any information likely to expose wrongdoing or unethical conduct in the current political environment is too high.
Sadly, the current administration appears to have readily assimilated into an organizational culture which values image over truth.
It is my firm belief that whistleblowers are crucial to ensure the integrity of an organization. As the free flow of information about the internal processes of our democracy continues to be constricted, the danger to our civil rights and liberties continues to expand.
We are witness to the demise of the last line of defense against total control of information. It is indeed an alarming trend.

legalschnauzer said...

Very well stated, and thanks for your insights from someone who has been on the front line. I remember being ticked off at Ralph Nader back in 2000 when he suggested that there was very little difference between the two major parties--and that's why he was running for president as a third-party candidate. I became even more ticked off when we learned that Nader voters probably cost Al Gore the election--with a major assist from the U.S. Supreme Court and vote thieves in Florida. But I'm starting to think Nader had a point. Certainly there are differences between the two parties on a number of important issues. But on matters of justice--awfully important matters for many Americans--it's hard to see where the differences lie these days. That's particularly appalling for Democrats. Since Barry Goldwater led the fight against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, no one expects Republicans to stand up for justice. But how can a Democratic administration be on the wrong side of justice and expect to thrive? And this coming from our first black president. Talk about irony.