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When I watch the news today, I often get the feeling that the concepts "the public needs to know" and "promote the general welfare" have taken a distant back seat to entertainment value and promoting a political stance that will draw the largest number of viewers. Even the national news now devotes three or four minutes of its precious air time to an 'uplifting' story about a recovering wounded soldier or a cute animal. Avoiding troubling controversy means remaining carefully neutral even when one side of a political issue is egregiously hateful; marginalized figures do not get airtime but popular demagogues do. There's never any summation, and nobody "connects the dots". 60 Minutes will occasionally tackle a controversy, but the NBC White Paper is extinct. In its day, that fine show broke several culture-changing stories to the public at large.
Since 9/11 a genre of reliable, quality documentaries about pressing news topics has emerged. Whether about wars, economic scandals, ecological outrages or the growing power of multi-national corporations, some of these shows have given the public more useful information in ninety minutes than a year's worth of network news. Michael Moore's comedy entertainment approach fizzled out, and Noam Chomsky unfortunately seems limited in his appeal as well. This discussion also does not include the multitude of scurrilous pseudo-documentaries pushing plainly irrational conspiracy theories. Filmmaker Robert Greenwald once produced feature entertainment but now specializes in documentaries on subjects that major news organizations don't follow through on. I reviewed Greenwald's courageous Uncovered: The Whole Truth About the Iraq War back when even a review drew harsh criticism.
A whistleblower is a concerned individual who brings to light crucial information that the public needs to know, that is being withheld or suppressed by a company or a government agency. Because of the ongoing Edward Snowden affair, the term "whistleblower" is now commonly equated with "criminal leaker of secrets " or just plain "traitor." Greenwald's new documentary War on Whistleblowers: The Free Press and the National Security State makes a distinction between a government employee who discloses national secrets wholesale, and individuals that take a brave and lonely stand to bring truly important information to light.
The docu doesn't waste time. It begins with a montage sampling of whistleblowers that have become historical figures: Daniel Ellsberg, Frank Serpico, Jeffrey Weigand, Karen Silkwood. We then are introduced to four more recent individuals that made conscious choices, risking all, to do the right thing.
The one story with a mostly positive ending is that of Franz Gayle, a civilian scientist working for the Marine Corps. Gayle found that the USMC was ignoring a crucial issue responsible for the deaths of many Marines: the Corps was using Humvees as its main personnel carrier, and enemy I.E.D.s blew them to bits. When Gayle insisted that more heavily armored Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicles (MRAPs) were needed, the Pentagon's chain of command either ignored him or told him to drop the issue. When he expended his bureaucratic options, Gayle took the information to Joe Biden, who alerted the Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Public outcry was such that The Marine Corps was forced to reverse its policy. Gayle was initially targeted for poor employee ratings and his security clearance was pulled. When the Iraq casualty rate dropped dramatically activists banded together to defend Gayle, and the USMC finally told him to come back to work.
The docu gives voice to over a dozen major journalists that strongly back the whistleblowers. Tom Vanden Brook of USA Today says that a Pentagon general threatened him with a cutoff of access if he didn't drop the Humvee story. As is pointed out, the information Gayle divulged about the problem wasn't classified. The specter of Eisenhower's Military Industrial Complex is mentioned more than once. As does any large bureaucracy, the Pentagon's priority is protecting itself and maintaining profitable contracts for Humvees. Soldiers in the field receive not the equipment they need but what the industry wants to sell the government.
As a Science and Technology Advisor Michael DeKort was facilitating the Deepwater upgrade of the Coast Guard, which got an enormous influx of Homeland Security money after 9/11. DeKort found that gross purchasing incompetence was responsible for the procurement of dangerously bad equipment on new boats, such as radios that were not even waterproof. Worse, one class of Coast Guard boats were so poorly designed and built that they weren't even seaworthy. When DeKort presented his findings through the proper hierarchy, he was told to go away or was denied an audience. He decided to speak out on a You Tube online blog, which led to a 60 Minutes TV program. Changes were made that saved money and lives. For his trouble, DeKort lost his job and had to 'start over' only few years before retirement age.
Former NSA intelligence executive Tom Drake's story isn't pretty either. After 9/11 he specialized in gathering telephone data to protect America from foreign agents. Drake found that blanket electronic surveillance was occurring with no oversight of any kind. His inquiries got the usual responses -- he was told not to worry about it and to stop asking questions: It's all legal, but don't ask for explanations. Drake reviewed the oaths he had taken to uphold the law and decided to go to the press. Instead of being praised for protecting his country, he was investigated by the FBI. There followed painful, expensive years defending himself in court. His job was gone, of course; he had to start all over again in a different career. When the government ran out of extra-legal ways to punish Drake, they dropped everything except a minor misdemeanor charge no more serious than a parking ticket.
Hurt even worse was Thomas Tamm, an attorney in the Justice Department who grew up in a family of F.B.I. men -- he even shows a picture of himself as a boy posing with J. Edgar Hoover. Tamm too joined a team going after terrorists through surveillance programs and eagerly worked securing court orders for wiretaps. But he discovered a second tier of wiretap cases called "the program" circumvented the legal procedures. His job forced him to break Federal Law. Tamm went to the press anonymously with unclassified information, and caught hell for it. The FBI invaded his house, terrified his wife and children and took everything written down that they could find. Tamm's story on Warrantless Wiretapping resulted in a 2005 Pulitzer Prize for two journalists. Although Thomas Tamm was never charged for a crime, he lost everything.
One reporter calls whistleblowing, "The Sound of Professional Suicide". DeKort advises anyone thinking of blowing the whistle not to do it unless they are ready for the worst. War on Whistleblowers doesn't sell any radical theories, but it does allows its spokespeople to explain and interpret what's really going on, to voice personal opinions and connect the dots. 9/11 was a gift to what several of them call the new National Security State. Homeland Security is now a huge infrastructure the size of five Pentagons. 1200 top-secret government agencies feed from it. A million people carry top-secret clearances. It's an enormous growth of secret power within our supposedly open democracy. Its purpose must be taken on faith and its methods are hidden; it is almost completely unaccountable. Untold billions are spent, mostly going to hundreds of corporations that also don't have to submit to any accountability. The potential for abuse has no bounds, and the structure keeps growing. According to many of the journalists interviewed, a main activity of this new "Security State" seems to be suppressing the Free Press.
When these "leaks" occurred the Bush Administration was furious. Vice President Cheney went public talking about traitors. We see George W. Bush call the men above, "a buncha people who wanna hurt the United States of America."
The journalists stress that President Barack Obama has made things much worse than they were under George W. Bush. Under Obama, Top-secret classifications were extended far beyond previous limits. We're told that the Shield Act includes language making whistleblowing a federal crime. After promising a more transparent government, Obama has essentially bragged about indictments cracking down on whistleblowers. He's very much in step with the secret CIA world.
The journalists are quick to point out that administrations often selectively leak information, sometimes classified information, when it is politically expedient for them to do so. Only the negative stories are prosecuted. It's a chilling environment for journalism, especially when they cannot protect the anonymity of their sources. Even liberal Senator Dianne Feinstein is out to clobber "leakers".
Tom Drake found that he was being investigated under the Espionage Act of 1917 -- for his divulging of non-classified information, he was branded a spy. The idea was of course to make examples of these men. Tamm was offered the opportunity to plead guilty to espionage. He admits to being very disillusioned. Robbed of his chosen profession and starting over in a different line of work, Michael DeKort sums it up -- "Speaking truth to power is now a criminal act."
Director Greenwald gathers an interesting blend of journalists and qualified experts, including Seymour Hersh, David Carr, Eric Lipton, Sharon Weinberger, Danielle Brian, Ben Freeman and Winslow Wheeler. They say that a huge chunk of tax revenue is being squandered on a surveillance-military complex aimed largely at American citizens. It's not said in as many words, but the inference is that money that should be used for education and infrastructure and proper civil government is being given in secret to a bloated National Security State that grows like Topsy.
The neatly constructed show features effective but unostentatious montages and visual effects. Greenwald has his communication skills down pat. The show never bludgeons the viewer or expects him to consider ideas that it hasn't properly established. And it's also paranoia-free -- no fear tactics, no nervous theorizing. War on Whistleblowers joins the ranks of superb public information documentaries like The Corporation. Yes, these shows advocate a particular point of view, but always one sorely in need of dissemination.
Disinformation's DVD of War on Whistleblowers: The Free Press and the National Security State is a high-quality disc with an excellent picture. It carries English subtitles. Greenwald provides a full commentary talking about his editorial choices. He thanks his collaborators for finding all of the excellent film clips and illustrative footage. As extras, the disc contains extended interviews with the whistleblowers, the journalists, and the other spokespeople presented in the docu itself.
The War On Whistleblowers Website has more information about the docu, including home screening opportunities. I still worry about the name of the Disinformation distribution label and its logo that looks like a little devil - they don't seem the best choices to appeal to suspicious conservatives.
The disc begins with a promo for a new Greenwald film about the use of Drone weaponry. As that subject disturbs me deeply I'll be watching out for its release.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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