America’s War on Whistleblowers

This excerpt comes from a paper to be presented at the 2019 meeting of the International Congress of Qualitative Inquiry next month.

On April 11, 2019, London Metropolitan Police forcibly removed Julian Assange from the Ecuadorean Embassy where he had been living since 2012. In a statement, WikiLeaks, the radical transparency group Assange co-founded in 2006, noted that British authorities “entered the embassy at the invitation of the Ecuadorean ambassador” shortly after Ecuador terminated Assange’s asylum. A move, WikiLeaks claims, that violates international law. Assange sought refuge in the embassy to avoid extradition to the United States, where he faces charges under the Espionage Act: the World War I-era law that has been used sparingly, but ruthlessly and with increasing frequency, to punish whistleblowers who expose official secrets and challenge US militarism.

Legal experts, journalists and fellow whistleblowers reacted swiftly to the news. Barry Pollack, Assange’s American lawyer, said the arrest was “an unprecedented effort by the United States seeking to extradite a foreign journalist to face criminal charges for publishing truthful information.” Reporters Without Borders, the international, non-partisan organization that advocates for press freedom and freedom of information, called Assange’s arrest “a punitive measure [that] would set a dangerous precedent for journalists or their sources that the US may wish to pursue in future.” And from Moscow, where he has been living in asylum since 2013, Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor who leaked thousands of classified documents detailing global surveillance programs conducted by the US and its allies, cautioned: “Assange’s critics may cheer, but this is a dark moment for press freedom.”

Among those critics, the editorial board of the Washington Post, who, in a tersely worded rebuttal to WikiLeaks supporters, declared, “Mr. Assange is no free-press hero.”  Acknowledging the significance of WikiLeaks revelations, including classified documents pertaining to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq which were subsequently published in the Post, the editors nevertheless toed the US government line on whistleblowers like Assange:

Contrary to the norms of journalism, however, Mr. Assange sometimes obtained such records unethically – including, according to a separate federal government indictment unsealed Thursday, by trying to help now-former US Army soldier, Chelsea Manning hack into a classified US government computer.

Weeks earlier, a federal judge found Manning in contempt of court for refusing to answer a grand jury’s questions about Assange and WikiLeaks. Claude Hilton of Virginia’s Eastern District court ordered Manning, who served seven years of a 35-year sentence for violating the Espionage Act, to solitary confinement until she agrees to testify or the grand jury completes its investigation.

In a Tweet, freshman congressional representative, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), condemned Judge Hilton’s order: “Solitary confinement is torture. Chelsea is being tortured for whistleblowing, she should be released on bail.” Ocasio-Cortez was not alone in denouncing the judge’s ruling. Daniel Ellsberg – the Vietnam-era whistleblower behind the release of the Pentagon Papers, documents published by the Washington Post among others, and who was likewise indicted under the Espionage Act – echoed this concern. Ellsberg told Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now!:

This is a continuation of seven-and-a-half years of torture of Chelsea Manning, in an effort to get her to contribute to incriminating WikiLeaks, so they can bring Julian Assange or WikiLeaks to trial on charges that would not apply to The New York Times.

Underscoring the duplicity of the US criminal justice system – imprisonment for whistleblowers who leak classified documents; impunity for the establishment press that disseminates this material – ­Ellsberg reveals the process of inclusion and exclusion, of regulating speakers and contents – what Michel Foucault describes as “orders of discourse” – at work today in America’s war on whistleblowers: a flagrant exercise of authoritarian rule with profound implications for freedom of expression, the rule of law, and government accountability.

While much has been made of Donald Trump’s authoritarian tendencies – his inflammatory rhetoric, belligerent foreign policy, and frequent assaults on civil rights and humanitarian law – it is important to remember that Trump did not start this war on whistleblowers. Rather, it was his immediate predecessor, Barack Obama, the self-proclaimed constitutional scholar, who set disturbing new precedents for the criminalization of journalism under one of the most controversial, and increasingly consequential, laws of the United States: The Espionage Act of 1917. In what follows, I examine the orders of epistemic violence underpinning recent use of the Espionage Act to persecute whistleblowers.

The paper begins with a brief discussion of the relationship between discursive and material practices in what I refer to as the discourse of securitization. Doing so, I trace the use of the Espionage Act from its initial deployment during the First World War, through the Cold War, and on into the new century, during the so-called Global War on Terror. Next, I present four mini-case studies emblematic of the war on whistleblowers. Specifically, I identify and analyze the (violent) orders of discourse constitutive of the experience of WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange; convicted Army PFC, Chelsea Manning; former NSA contractor, Edward Snowden; and imprisoned intelligence analyst, Reality Winner.

Throughout, I contend the US national security state punishes whistleblowers for individual acts of conscience, with the broader aim of preempting collective expressions of dissent, through a disciplinary regime predicated on violence, intimidation, and incarceration. The paper concludes with some thoughts on the significance of critical interventions – from classified leaks and legal challenges to political organizing and academic inquiry – for resisting the discourse of securitization that has come to define the post-9/11 era.


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