This documentary, featuring NSA whistleblowers Williman Binney, Thomas Drake and Edward Snowden, challenges the dismissive attitude (Who cares? I have nothing to hide) of many Smartphone and Internet users towards government agencies and corporations that collect all their personal data.
Binney, Drake and Snowden maintain everyone has something to hide. For example, health information collected by dating sites and sold to insurance and pharmaceutical companies. And the 60% of us who engage in minor lawbreaking. And all the free speech activities (following the Christchurch shooting, New Zealand is a prime example) that used to be legal but are illegal now.
Binney and Drake are particularly concerned about all the data governments collect on us – allegedly to protect us against terrorism. Even though mass surveillance hasn’t prevented a single terrorist act. Which is no surprise when you understand the true purpose of mass surveillance. Namely to protect governments against us, ie to suppress activities that might undermine the power of the oligarchs who control our so-called democracy.
To demonstrate this point, the filmmakers interview an East German human rights activist, who has kept the thousands of records the Stasi kept on her prior to reunification. In addition to recording all her phone calls and meetings with fellow activists, 49 friends, including her boyfriend, made regular reports to the Stasi on all her movements and activities.
In Part 2, Digital Dissidents reminds us that Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple daily collect and “monetize” (ie sell) millions of data points about us (including records of financial transactions).
The documentary also features rare commentary by Julian Assange on Sweden’s attempts* to charge him with sexual assault. These charges mysteriously surfaced exactly two weeks after Anonymous hacker Jeremy Hammonds released hacked emails between intelligence contractor Stratfor and the US government about potential charges against Assange under the 2017 Espionage Act. Was this mere coincidence? It seems unlikely.
NSA whistleblowers Thomas Drake and William Binney also talk candidly about the devastating effects of whistleblowing on their personal lives. His career in software systems management ruined, Drake presently clerks in an Apple retail outlet.
Binney, who refers to the NSA as “the Stasi** on super steroids, calls for the total dissolution of NSA. He maintains it has too much power to be reformed.
*Sweden dropped the sexual assault charges against Assange in Sept 2017. As Assange points out in the film, neither woman filed a police complaint and one accuses the police of inventing the crimes she supposedly accused him of.
**As the intelligence/security service for the former East German Republic, the Stasi was one of the most viciously repressive secret police agencies ever.
The video, which can’t be embedded for copyright reasons, can be viewed for free at the Al Jazeera website: Digital Dissidents
Digital Dissidents is about six whistleblowers who risked their careers, financial ruin and imprisonment to expose secret government crimes. In Part 1 of this two-part series, the whistleblowers introduce themselves and speak briefly about the circumstances that led them to leak illicit secret government information – at great risk to themselves.
Daniel Ellsberg, who worked in the US Embassy in Saigon, leaked 7,000 pages of documents to the New York Times in 1971 revealing the US government had systematically lied to Congress for decades about US military involvement in Vietnam. He was charged with theft and illegal possession of secret documents. The case against him collapsed when it came out that Nixon was illegally wiretapping him and had ordered “plumbers” to break into his psychiatrist’s office.
Thomas Drake, who worked for the CIA prior to being transferred to the NSA on 9/11/01. When he learned the NSA was illegally spying on journalists, he spent months “going through channels” to raise the alarm with his superiors. After he went to a Baltimore Sun reporter in 2007 with evidence of his concerns, the US government charged him with 10 felonies under the 1917 Espionage Act. After a lengthy trial that virtually bankrupted him, Drake pleaded guilty to a single misdemeanor of misusing a government computer. He was sentenced to one year probation and 240 hours of community service.
William Binney, who also worked for the NSA (for 30 years) developing a wiretap program capable of filtering large numbers of domestic and foreign communication. He left the NSA in October 2001 and became a whistleblower in 2002. Although the FBI raided his home at gunpoint, he was eventually cleared of criminal charges.
Edward Snowden, who worked for both the CIA and the NSA, leaked thousands of files substantiating Drake’s and Binney’s allegations to a number of journalists worldwide. The US canceled his passport while he was at the Moscow airport (en route from Hong Kong to South America), and he was forced to seek asylum in Russia.
Julian Assange, an Australian national and former hacker, who founded Wikileaks in 2006. The purpose of this website is to allow whistle blowers from all over the world to safely and anonymously leak documents implicating their governments in criminal activities.
David Shayler and his former partner Anne Machon, former MI5 operatives who passed secret documents to The Mail on Sunday about British intelligence involvement in illegal activities. In 2002, Shayler received a six month prison sentence for violating the Official Secrets Act.
Although the video can’t be embedded for copyright reasons, it can be seen for free at the Al Jazeera website: Digital Dissidents
The Snowden Files: The Inside Story of the World’s Most Wanted Man
By Luke Harding
Guardian Books (2014)
The Snowden Files is the fast-paced thrilleresque account of whistleblower Edward Snowden’s dramatic escape from US capture in Hong Kong, following his leak of thousands of computer files documenting Orwellian NSA surveillance activites. Earlier this year, this book was remade as the motion picture Snowden.
Published in the UK, The Snowden Files provides substantial background on the NSA’s British counterpart GCHQ, whose spying on innocent civilians is even more egregious than the NSA’s, owing to the country’s weaker civil liberties protections. In fact, the NSA relies on GCHQ to engage in certain types of snooping (on Americans) that are expressly forbidden in the US.
When Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald first broke the story that Internet giants Google, Facebook, Apple and Yahoo were secretly turning over vast amounts of customer data to the NSA, his editors were forced to release the story online from the Guardian’s New York office to avoid prosecution in Britain. Shortly after the story’s release, British police destroyed all the hard drives in the Guardian’s London office – in the belief they continued copies of NSA files Snowden had released.
I especially appreciated the book’s epilogue about Snowden’s life in Russia, as it dispels much of the western propaganda about his selling NSA secrets to Russia, his refusal to learn Russian (he speaks enough to do his own grocery shopping and is working to improve his fluency), and his (non-existent) job with a Russian tech company. At the time of publication, Snowden supported himself through savings and speaking fees.
Four other government whistleblowers (Coleen Rowley, Jesselyn Radack, Ray McGovern and Thomas Drake) visited Snowden in Moscow in 2013, and the book recounts their meeting.
The book’s major shortcoming is its embarrassing fact checking lapses – for example the assertion that Putin “invaded” Crimea in 2014. Most independent sources confirm that in 2014 the legislature of the Autonomous Republic Crimea held a referendum in which 95.5% voted to secede from Ukraine and join the Russian Federation. The referendum was triggered when a US-sponsored fascist coup seized the government in Kiev.
War on Whistleblowers: Free Press and the National Security State
Robert Greenwald (2015)
War on Whistleblowers details the cases of four US whistleblowers who experienced severe government retaliation after exposing systematic wrongdoing to journalists.
The men profiled are marine Franz Gaye, who broke the story about the Pentagon refusal to replace Humvees with much safer MRAPs in the US occupation of Iraq; NSA senior executive Thomas Drake, who first blew the whistle on illegal NSA mass surveillance; Lockheed-Martin engineer Michael DeKort, who broke the story that Lockheed was supplying the Coast Guard with substandard boats and radios that weren’t waterproof; and Department of Justice lawyer Jim Risen, who first exposed the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretaps.
Their stories are interspersed with commentary by iconic whistleblowers Daniel Ellsberg and Edward Snowden (via Internet linkup), as well as the handful of journalists who have been brave enough to publish evidence of government corruption and criminality and members of the Project on Government Oversight and the Project for Government Accountability.
Each of the four whistleblowers went up his workplace chain of command in his agency and exhausted every option for addressing the problem internally. Each was fully aware of the potential consequences of their actions of going to the press. Yet after much soul searching, they saw whistle blowing as a preferable alternative than to colluding in their superiors’ criminality.
Paying the Price
Only Gaye was allowed to resume his career as an active duty marine. DeKort had his Lockheed position cancelled and was blackballed from further work in the defense industry. In addition to losing their jobs, both Drake and Risen experienced financial ruin, spending tens of thousands of dollars fighting felony charges the Obama Justice Department brought against them. Drake was charged under the Espionage Act, even though the information he shared with the Baltimore Sun was unclassified.
After seven years of persecution by the Justice Department, Drake eventually pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor: excessive use of a computer without authorization. The charges against Risen were dropped after four years of legal battles.
The Distinction Between Leaking and Whistle Blowing
The film makes the clear distinction between leaking and whistleblowing. High level Obama administration officials constantly leak classified information to the press with no legal consequences.
Despite his campaign promises to make government more transparent and accountable, Obama has significantly increased government secrecy, as well as prosecuting more whistleblowers than all other presidents combined.
According to Snowden, the President’s purpose isn’t to make Americans more secure. It’s to protect government agencies and politicians from embarrassment a criminal prosecution.
His crackdown on whistleblowers is also a fundamental violation of the First Amendment. The whole intent of freedom of speech and the press is to ensure citizens’ right to criticize their government without being punished.