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Whistleblower Crackdowns, Self-Censorship, Stonewalled FOIAs: The 1st Amendment Under Attack

What we've lost since 9/11.

| Tue Jun. 17, 2014 7:00 PM EDT

Government Efforts to Stop Journalists

Reporters need sources. Increasingly, the government is classifying just about any document it produces—92 million documents in 2011 alone. Its intelligence agencies have even classified reports about the over-classification of documents. As a result, journalistic sources are often pressed into discussing, at great personal risk, classified information. Forcing a reporter to reveal such sources discourages future whistleblowing.

In one of the first of a series of attempts to make journalists reveal their sources, former Fox News reporter Mike Levine stated that the Justice Department persuaded a federal grand jury to subpoena him in January 2011. The demand was that he reveal his sources for a 2009 story about Somali-Americans who were secretly indicted in Minneapolis for joining an al-Qaeda-linked group in Somalia. Levine fought the order and the Department of Justice finally dropped it without comment in April 2012. Call it a failed test case.

According to Washington lawyer Abbe Lowell, who defended Stephen Kim, significant amounts of time have been spent by the Department of Justice in the search for a legal rationale for indicting journalists for their participation in exposing classified documents. A crucial test case is James Risen's 2006 book, State of War, which had an anonymously sourced chapter on a failed CIA operation to disrupt Iran's nuclear program. When Risen, citing the First Amendment, refused to identify his source or testify in the trial of the former CIA officer accused of being that source, the government sought to imprison him. He responded that "the Obama administration... wants to use this case and others like it to intimidate reporters and whistleblowers. But I am appealing to the Supreme Court because it is too dangerous to allow the government to conduct national security policy completely in the dark."

In June 2014, the Supreme Court refused to take Risen's case on appeal, essentially ratifying a US Court of Appeals decision that the First Amendment didn't protect a reporter from being forced to testify about criminal conduct that the reporter personally witnessed or participated in. That decision makes clear that a reporter receiving classified information from a source is part of the crime of leaking.

Risen has said he will go to prison rather than testify. It is possible that, having secured the precedent-setting right to send Risen to jail, the government will bring the suspected leaker to trial without calling on him. Attorney General Eric Holder recently hinted that his Justice Department might take that path—a break for Risen himself, but not for reporters more generally who now know that they can be jailed for refusing to divulge a source without hope of recourse to the Supreme Court.
 

The Descent Into Post-Constitutionalism

As with the King of England once upon a time, many of the things the government now does have been approved in secret, sometimes in secret courts according to a secret body of law. Sometimes, they were even approved openly by Congress. In constitutional America, the actions of the executive and the laws passed by Congress were only legal when they did not conflict with the underlying constitutional principles of our democracy. Not any more. Law made in secret, including pretzeled legal interpretations by the Justice Department for the White House, opened the way, for instance, to the use of torture on prisoners and in the Obama years to the drone assassination of Americans. Because such legalities remain officially classified, they are, of course, doubly difficult to challenge.

But can't we count on the usual pendulum swings in American life to change this? There were indeed notable moments in American history when parts of the Constitution were put aside, but none are truly comparable to our current situation. The Civil War lasted five years, with Lincoln's suspension of habeas corpus limited in geography and robustly contested. The World War II Japanese internment camps closed after three years and the persecuted were a sub-set of Japanese-Americans from the West Coast. Senator McCarthy's notorious career as a communist-hunter lasted four years and ended in shame.

Almost 13 years after the 9/11 attacks, it remains wartime. For the war on terror, the driver, excuse, and raison d'être for the tattering of the Bill of Rights, there is no end in sight. Recently retired NSA head Keith Alexander is typical of key figures in the national security state when he claims that despite, well, everything, the country is at greater risk today than ever before. These days, wartime is forever, which means that a government working ever more in secret has ever more latitude to decide which rights in which form applied in what manner are still inalienable.

The usual critical history of our descent into a post-constitutional state goes something like this: in the panic after the 9/11 attacks, under the leadership of Vice President Dick Cheney with the support of President George W. Bush, a cabal of top government officials pushed through legal-lite measures to (as they liked to say) take the gloves off and allow kidnapping, torture, illegal surveillance, and offshore imprisonment along with indefinite detention without charges or trial.

Barack Obama, elected on a series of (false) promises to roll back the worst of the Bush-era crimes, while rejecting torture and closing Americas overseas black sites, still pushed the process forward in his own way. He expanded executive power, emphasized drone assassinations (including against American citizens), gave amnesty to torturers, increased government secrecy, targeted whistleblowers, and heightened surveillance. In other words, two successive administrations lied, performed legal acrobatics, and bullied their way toward a kind of absolute power that hasn't been seen since the days of King George. That's the common narrative and, while not wrong, it is incomplete.
 

Missing Are the People

One key factor remains missing in such a version of post-9/11 events in America: the people. Even today, 45% of Americans, when polled on the subject, agree that torture is sometimes necessary and acceptable to gain information that may protect the public. Americans as a group seem unsure about whether the NSA's global and domestic surveillance is justified, and many remain convinced that Edward Snowden and the journalists who published his material are criminals. The most common meme related to whistleblowers is still "patriot or traitor?" and toward the war on terror, "security or freedom?"

Its not that Americans are incorrect to be fearful and feel in need of protection. The main thing we need to protect ourselves against, however, is not the modest domestic threat from terrorists, but a new king, a unitary executive that has taken the law for its own, aided and abetted by the courts, supported by a powerful national security state, and unopposed by a riven and weakened Congress. Without a strong Bill of Rights to protect us—indeed, secure us—from the dangers of our own government, we will have gone full-circle to a Post-Constitutional America that shares much in common with the pre-constitutional British colonies.

Yet there is no widespread, mainstream movement of opposition to what the government has been doing. It seems, in fact, that many Americans are willing to accept, perhaps even welcome out of fear, the death of the Bill of Rights, one amendment at a time.

We are the first to see, in however shadowy a form, the outlines of what a Post-Constitutional America might look like. We could be the last who might be able to stop it.

Peter Van Buren blew the whistle on State Department waste and mismanagement during Iraqi reconstruction in his first book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. A TomDispatch regular, he writes about current events at his blog We Meant Well. His new book, Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent, is available now. In future pieces at TomDispatch he will consider other amendments being dismantled in the post-9/11 era. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here.

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