Did you know that in 2006 after the Coast Guard budgeted $24 billion to upgrade its fleet in the largest acquisition in its history the new boats turned out not to be waterproof? Or that the hulls buckled in high seas? And that, when the project manager for Lockheed Martin tried to point all this out to superiors, he was ignored—and then dismissed? And that the only way this all ever came to the attention to the public—first through the New York Times, then via 60 Minutes, which called it a “fiasco that has set new standards for incompetence”—was after the manager, whose name is Michael DeKort—posted a video on YouTube?
Did you know that Humvees, those military patrol vehicles that were all over Iraq, were never designed to withstand impact from Improved Explosive Devices? And that, because of this fact, over 60 percent of casualties in Iraq were from IUDs? But that the military did have access to vehicles, called Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicles, that could have prevented virtually all those casualties, through such simple fixes as being raised higher off the ground? A science adviser for the Marines, Franz Gayl, suggested replacing Humvees with MRAPs. After nineteen months of delays, Gayl began working his way through channels to get some action, including alerting the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Do you know what happened next? He was told by a high Pentagon official, “Absolutely not. That cannot be allowed to go forward.” So he finally contacted Sharon Weinberger of Wired’s Danger Room blog, which published documents on the scandal; from there, both Senator Biden and USA Today ran with the story and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates credited the deployment, finally, of MRAPs with saving thousands of lives.
I didn’t know any of that. Or maybe I did. So many outrages passed through during the Bush years that it was tough to remember, or even register, all of them. But I know it now. I’ve seen Robert Greenwald’s new documentary, The War on Whistleblowers, and its stories are now seared into my political brain. Not least for what happened to these guys next. You can guess: DeKort was fired. Gayl was investigated, harassed and suffered an extended suspension of his security clearances, making it impossible for him to do his work. (He only saved his job thanks to the public campaign of the Project on Government Oversight.) In one particularly chilling line in the documentary, DeKort warns other potential whistleblowers not to do it unless you’re willing to take on the worst consequences you can imagine—if you’re not willing to “go 110 percent then don’t do it at all.”
Thomas Tamm knows. He’s the Justice Department attorney who revealed to The New York Times’ James Risen and Eric Lichtblau—after trying and failing to interest the Pentagon inspector general and both houses of Congress’s select committees on intelligence—that the NSA was illegally listening in on phone calls without warrants. He returned home one day from taking his son to school and saw “that there were twelve cars parked all along one side of the street, one of them was blocking my driveway”—and eighteen federal agents, some in body armor, banging on the door, yelling at his wife in her bathrobe, then posting to preassigned spots, waking up his kids, taking personal papers and searching for “secret compartments.” Thomas Drake knows: the famous NSA whistleblower charged under the Espionage Act, against whom the federal case was dismissed after The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer profiled him (“I had to meet people in unmarked hotel rooms in order to get that story. It does not feel like America, land of the free press,” she says), has nonetheless burned through half his retirement savings and had to take out a second mortgage—all for the sin of being correct.
The sin of being correct is a theme of the piece. “I have found all too frequently the government claims the publication of certain information will harm national security,” we read onscreen in an affidavit from The New York Times’s James Risen, “when in reality, the government’s real concern is about covering up its own wrongdoing.” In fact, former Times executive editor Bill Keller says, “I think these stories have helped more than they’ve hurt national security”—and the Times’ David Carr notices a correlation between how secret information is supposed to be and how bad it is for the reputations of the people involved. Or their profits: “We talk about a national security state that’s interested in security,” Seymour Hersh says, ‘but in fact it’s interested in the security of corporate interests.”
And under Obama it’s been worse. That really sinks in watching The War on Whistleblowers. “I was very optimistic about hope and change coming in 2008,” we hear Thomas Tamm say. “I thought the Obama administration would actually say that I had done the right thing, that I had followed the law, and that we would even be honored to have you come back and work for the Department of Justice. In retrospect, how stupid and naive could I be?”
The War on Whistleblowers may not be as stylish as Alex Gibney’s Wikileaks documentary We Steal Secrets, out now in theaters. It’s better, though, at conveying the full context of the chokehold our national security state is exercising on our civic life. You can get a free copy on DVD if you stop in at Greenwald’s Brave New Foundation’s site—or donate what you can. You can also sign up to host a screening.