I have been shouting for well over a year that Obama’s war on whistleblowers is a back door way of attacking the media. We have seen a hint of this attack in the Obama administration’s attempts to subpoena journalist James Risen to testify about his sources in the Espionage Act prosecutions of former CIA officer Jeffery Sterling. (It should now be common knowledge – but still bears repeating – that Obama has brought more Espionage Act prosecutions against whistleblowers than all previous presidents combined.)

Glenn Greenwald’s explosive Salon article on Sunday details how the U.S. government repeatedly detained, searched, and harassed Laura Poitras, an Oscar-and Emmy-nominated filmmaker – with no probable cause or even suspicion that Poitras had committed a crime. Not only is the detention, search, and interrogation of an innocent American – who the government does not even suspect committed a crime – completely enraging to any civil libertarian, but I am particularly disconcerted as Poitras has filmed three of my National Security Agency (NSA) clients and no doubt countless other courageous whistleblowers. My clients have already been put through a years-long retaliatory criminal investigation, and should not be forced to endure further persecution because they are brave enough to continue to speak out against NSA’s illegal actions.

Greenwald described what typically happens when the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) detains Poitras:

She has had her laptop, camera and cellphone seized, and not returned for weeks, with the contents presumably copied. On several occasions, her reporter’s notebooks were seized and their contents copied, even as she objected that doing so would invade her journalist-source relationship. Her credit cards and receipts have been copied on numerous occasions. In many instances, DHS agents also detain and interrogate her in the foreign airport before her return, on one trip telling her that she would be barred from boarding her flight back home, only to let her board at the last minute. When she arrived at JFK Airport on Thanksgiving weekend of 2010, she was told by one DHS agent — after she asserted her privileges as a journalist to refuse to answer questions about the individuals with whom she met on her trip — that he “finds it very suspicious that you’re not willing to help your country by answering our questions.” They sometimes keep her detained for three to four hours (all while telling her that she will be released more quickly if she answers all their questions and consents to full searches).

In the latest detention and search just last week, U.S. officials banned Poitras’ note-taking:

This time, however, she was told by multiple CBP agents that she was prohibited from taking notes on the ground that her pen could be used as a weapon.

Were these federal agents really worried that this documentary filmmaker would violently attack and overcome them using a pen? This not some Jason Bourne movie. More likely – the supposed “security” measure was used as a pretext to stop Poitras from documenting such wildly inappropriate detention, harassment, and intimidation.

The reports of Laura Poitras’ repeated detainment come on the heels of new guidelines from the Justice Department that permit the federal counterterrorism investigators to collect, search and store data about Americans who are not suspected of terrorism, or anything.

It should be a given that innocent American citizens should be permitted to travel without harassment from their own government, that a filmmaker should be able to return home without the embarrassment of being met on the plane or at the gate by federal agents and escorted to an interrogation room, that the federal government will not collect and store innocent Americans’ private information in criminal databases. Unfortunately, such freedoms are not a given – and for Poitras, not even expected any more. Greenwald eloquently explains the danger:

If you’re not somebody who films the devastation wrought by the U.S. on the countries it attacks, or provides insight into Iraqi occupation opponents and bin Laden loyalists in Yemen, or documents expanding NSA activities on U.S. soil, then perhaps you’re unlikely to be subjected to such abuses and therefore perhaps unlikely to care much. As is true for all states that expand and abuse their own powers, that’s what the U.S. Government counts on: that it is sending the message that none of this will affect you as long as you avoid posing any meaningful challenges to what they do. In other words: you can avoid being targeted if you passively acquiesce to what they do and refrain from interfering in it. That’s precisely what makes it so pernicious, and why it’s so imperative to find a way to rein it in.

These are not issues Americans can afford to ignore until they are individually affected. By then it will be too late.

On a separate note: please be sure to read this wonderful piece by another of my clients – Peter Van Buren, author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. Van Buren too understands the danger of criminalizing whistleblowing:

With its aggressive and sadly careless use of the draconian Espionage Act to imprison whistleblowers, the Obama administration has, in many cases, moved beyond harassment and intimidation into actually wielding the beautiful tools of justice in a perverse way to silence dissent. More benign in practice, in theory this is little different than the Soviets executing dissidents as spies after show trials or the Chinese using their courts to legally confine thinkers they disapprove of in mental institutions. They are all just following regulations. Turn the volume up from six to ten and you’ve jumped from vengeance to totalitarianism. We’re becoming East Germany.


Jesselyn Radack is National Security & Human Rights Director for the Government Accountability Project, the nation’s leading whistleblower protection and advocacy organization.