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Thomas Tamm: An American Hero | The Nation

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The Notion

Unfiltered takes on politics, ideas and culture from Nation editors and contributors.

Thomas Tamm: An American Hero

I had the privilege yesterday of attending an awards ceremony in Washington DC honoring Thomas Tamm, the recipient of this year's Ridenhour Prize for Truth-Telling, which is given out annually by the Fertel Foundation and The Nation Institute. Were it not for Tamm, a former Justice Department lawyer, Americans might never have learned about the Bush administration's warrantless wiretapping program, disclosed in a 2005 New York Times article by Eric Lichtblau and James Risen, who first learned about the secret surveillance of US citizens from him. Risen and Lichtblau won a Pulitzer Prize for their piece. Tamm was rewarded for helping to disclose the unlawful program they wrote about by having his house raided by FBI officials, who seized his laptop, personal papers and family Christmas card list. He fell into a depression, resigned from the Justice Department, and may still be prosecuted and sent to jail for having leaked information vital to national security.

The irony is rich, not least since, as this front-page article in yesterday's Times revealed, the National Security Agency has continued to intercept private email messages and phone calls on a scale vastly exceeding the limits established by Congress. In one instance, the agency actually wiretapped a member of Congress without warrant. "It's stunning," Tamm told me after receiving his award. "If this doesn't prompt Congress to hold hearings, nothing will."

Senator Diane Feinstein has vowed that hearings will indeed take place. Tamm suggested another step that's long overdue – releasing the Bush-era legal memorandum that authorized the warrantless wiretapping program. The Obama administration did, of course, release the long-concealed (and predictably grotesque) memos authorizing torture yesterday, overriding the strenuous objection of some members of the national security establishment and upending the notion that citizens must be prevented from knowing about the nefarious things being done in their name, as was standard practice under Bush. But transforming the culture of secrecy that has reigned in Washington for the past eight years will take a lot more than this. Making sure Thomas Tamm isn't prosecuted – and that the people who crafted and authorized the illegal program he helped bring to light are – would mark real change.

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