Barack Obama - Whistleblower Prosecution

Last Updated : Sep 05, 2012


The Obama administration has charged more people (six) under the 1917 Espionage Act for the alleged mishandling of classified information than all past presidencies combined. Prior to Obama, there were only three such cases in American history, one being Daniel Ellsberg, of Nixon-era Pentagon Papers fame. Many of these cases involved whistleblowers using the proper channels to disclose illegal or improper activity only to see themselves prosecuted while those that carried out the illegal activity are not. Many critics have pointed out that while the Obama administration is prosecuting whistleblowers for divulging illegal activity, it does nothing to stop or punish leaks of classified information that shows the administration in a favorable light.

Thomas Drake

Thomas Drake was the first individual charged under the Espionage Act of 1917 by the Obama administration. He is a former senior executive at the National Security Agency, he came across a great deal of fraud and waste in the NSA's largest program and suggested it be switched to a different program. He raised his concerns to the proper people within the NSA and was ostracized within the community. After getting no results, he made legal disclosures of unclassified information to a Baltimore Sun reporter. 

After living for years under the threat of prosecution and being accused of leaking classified information in cases that he was not involved with, the government decided to press charges in 2010. Mr Drake was able to get the word out about his case and get help from the Government Accountability Project. The case against Mr Drake collapse days before the trial against him was to start after several rulings against the DOJ in court. He plead guilty to a small misdemeanor and was given probation..

Jeffrey Sterling

A former CIA officer, Sterling was indicted in December of 2011 for sharing information with an unnamed journalist about a secret operation to undermine unnamed countries' nuclear weapons programs. It's become clear that the journalist is James Risen. Though the information shared with him was not published by The New York Times (the government told the newspaper it could jeopardize national security) it was published in Risen's book State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration, reports The New York Times. Risen was eventually subpeonaed in an attempt to get him to divulge his source.

Bradley Manning

A former military analyst, Manning is suspected of leaking the massive trove of classified government documents to WikiLeaks. The cache is thought to include the 250,000 State Department cables, the footage of a July 2007 Baghdad airstrike and Iraq and Afghanistan war documents. In April he was transferred to Fort Leavenworth, a move reportedly linked to his rough treatment in solitary confinement. In April it was announced that Manning would no longer have to live in solitary confinement and could eat in the dining room with other inmates at the Kansas facility.

Shamai Leibowitz

A former translator for the FBI, Leibowitz was sentenced for 20 months in prison in 2010 for leaking classified documents to a blogger. It's not clear what information Leibowitz shared as even the judge was not allowed to know what was in the documents. Mr Leibowitz stated at his sentencing hearing that he was responding to what he saw as illegal activity. This led many to believe that the information he leaked concerned a strike against Iran or improper or illegal influence by the Israeli lobby on some Congressmen.  

John Kiriakou

In April of 2012, the Obama administration indicted the intelligence whistleblower and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) veteran who headed counterterrorism operations in Pakistan after 9/11. In December 2007, Kiriakou gave an on-camera interview to ABC News in which he disclosed that Abu Zubaydah - whom Mr Kiriakou helped capture - was "waterboarded" and that "waterboarding" was torture. The interview helped expose the CIA's torture program as policy, rather than the actions of a few rogue agents.

However, the charges against Mr Kiriakou have arisen from photographs found in the prison cell of a an accused terrorist. The government is accusing Mr Kiriakou of either providing photographs to defense attorneys or identifying photographs of CIA interrogators. These pictures were then shown to the attorneys' clients - the accused terrorists who have confessed. This was done in an effort to identify the interrogators and claim that the confessions were obtained under duress.

Stephen Kim

Stephen Kim is a weapons expert that consults with government officials on North Korea. In 2009, he began to correspond with a Fox News reporter after being asked to do so by the state department. In 2010, that reporter announced on the news that North Korea would likely respond negatively to a UN resolution condemning their nuclear tests. While this news is expected, government officials were angry that an apparent report had leaked soon after the results were known. Mr Kim has admitted to telling the reporter about the reactions of North Korea and has been charged under the espionage act.


Thomas Drake

Note: Much of this section comes from the Government Accountability Project. Some of it is direct copy.

Thomas Drake served ten years in the Air Force specializing in intelligence and flying spy missions. He served as a CIA analyst and contractor for the National Security Agency (NSA) for 12 years before joining it full time in 2001. His first day at the NSA was Sept 11, 2001.

While working with NSA, Drake became familiar with ThinThread – a data collection program that could efficiently and cost-effectively analyze massive amounts of data. Drake believed that ThinThread could provide pivotal intelligence for government agencies charged with identifying terrorism threats and networks while still  maintaining privacy protections for Americans. It was ready to deploy prior to 9/11 but was mothballed in January of that year.

NSA management rejected ThinThread in favor of a different project – Trailblazer - a vastly more expensive project that was undeveloped and lacked safeguards for Americans' privacy. ThinThread was built with government personel while Trailblazer hired private contractors. Trailblazer's costs were more than a billion while ThinThreads were projected at $3 million. Drake was concerned that the decision to implement Trailblazer amounted to gross fraud that cost taxpayers billions, and that NSA was conducting illegal and unconstitutional domestic surveillance in the aftermath of 9/11.

Drake voiced his concerns through official channels – including senior NSA management and two 9/11 congressional investigations. His concerns were ignored. 

In September 2002, three retired NSA employees and a retired congressional staffer filed a complaint with DoDIG accusing the NSA of massive fraud, waste and mismanagement in connection with NSA's rejection of ThinThread and endorsement of Trailblazer. Drake did not sign the complaint because, still working at NSA, he feared retaliation. However, Drake became a critical material witness for the DoDIG, fully cooperating with the investigation and using proper channels to provide the office with thousands of documents – classified and unclassified. In late 2004/early 2005, after years of investigation and thousands of pages of documents from Mr. Drake, the DoDIG released a report substantiating Drake and the complainants. Using the Freedom of Information Act, GAP later obtained a redacted copy of the classified report.

After his complaints yielded not results and he was rebuked and ostracized at work, Mr Drake contacted a reporter at the Baltimore Sun. A condition of that contact would be that no classified information would be leaked. Eventually, that reporter published a series of award winning articles about the debacle.

Around that same time, the New York Times was exposing the illegal wiretapping activities of the NSA. In November of 2007, the FBI raided his house and that of the other complaintants in the ThinThread case under the pretext of leaks in the wiretapping cases even though they were aware that Drake and the others were not the sources of the leaks. Mr Drake was also forced to resign from the NSA and had to find work at a local Apple Store.

The DOJ finally indicted Drake in April 2010, despite the Obama campaign running on a message of promoting whistleblowers. Drake was charged under 10 separate counts, 5 of which were charges brought under the Espionage Act – a 1917 piece of legislation intended to be used against spies. He was not charged with disclosing classified information to a reporter, but rather accused of the alleged improper retention of allegedly classified information.

Drake contacted the Government Accountability Project and was able to bring publicity to his case. In May of 2011, Mr Sterling was interviewed on 60 minutes. His trial was scheduled for June of 2011, but a series of court rulings against the DOJ prompted them to drop the charges days before the trial began. Drake was eventually awarded a number of whistleblower awards and pled guilty to a misdemeanor offense.


Jeffrey Sterling

Jeffrey Sterling joined the CIA in 1993 and became Operations Officer in the Iran Task force of CIA's Near East and South Asia division in 1995. For two years, he was involved in a classified clandestine operational program designed to conduct intelligence activities related to the weapons capabilities of certain countries - presumably Iran. In April of 2000, Sterling filed a complaint about racial discrimination practices by CIA management with CIA's Equal Employment Office. The charges were related to memoirs he wanted to publish. The CIA revoked Sterling's authorization to receive or possess classified documents concerning the secret operation, and placed him on administrative leave in March 2001.

The government claims that between 2002 and 2004 it intercepted several interstate emails to and from Sterling, and traced telephone calls between Sterling and New York Times journalist and book author James Risen. Although the NYT did not publish the information, much of it appeared in Mr Risen's later book - "State of War."

The content of those discussions between Mr Risen and Mr Sterling concerned Operation Merlin. Operation Merlin was a placed cooked up by the Clinton administration and supported by the Bush administration to use a Russian scientist who had defected to give misleading plans to the Iranians concerning the construction of a nuclear weapon. However, the scientist got nervous about Iranian retaliation and made them aware of the defects within the plan. This may have had the effect of accelerating the Iranian nuclear program instead of slowing it down.

In December of 2010, the government filed an indictment against Jeffrey Sterling for the Unlawful Retention and Unauthorized Disclosure of National Defense Information, Mail Fraud, Unauthorized Conveyance of Government Property, and Obstruction of Justice. Sterling was arrested in January and was charged under the Espionage Act with mishandling national defense information.

The government has subpeonaed Mr Risen twice in an attempt to get him to name Sterling as the person that provided him the information on the Operation Merlin, but he has not yet admitted to that.


Shamai Leibowitz

Shamai Leibowitz worked for the FBI as a translator. His mission was to listen to tapes of Israeli officials speaking at the Israeli embassy in the US in hebrew. Apparently, while those diplomats and workers were concerned about being listened in on in English, they spoke freely in Hebrew.

What is known is that Mr Leibowitz leaked roughly 200 pages of transcripts from those conversations to blogger Richard Silverstein. Although Mr Silverstein destroyed those documents after Mr Leibowitz was arrested in May of 2010, it is believed that the tapes had conversations with a number of American officials and possibly one Congressman.

Even the judge that presided over the case was not allowed to know the contents of the leaked documents. He was sentenced to 20 months in prison, and at his sentencing hearing stated that what he did was "a one-time mistake that happened to me when I worked at the F.B.I. and saw things which I considered were violation of the law, and I should not have told a reporter about it." This led to speculation that what Mr Leibowitz leaked was information on a possible Israeli first strike against Iran and/or improper or illegal influence of the Israeli lobby over some members of Congress.

Not all people agree with this conclusion. He was raised in Israel and practiced law there for several years, representing several controversial clients, including Marwan Barghouti, a Palestinian leader convicted of directing terrorist attacks on Israelis, who Mr. Leibowitz once said reminded him of Moses. This led some to accuse him of leaking information to aid the Palestenians.


John Kiriakou

In 2002, john Kiriakou was the man that photographed the ear of Abu Zubaydah, sent that photo in for ID, and then confirmed that the man the CIA had just captured was indeed the one they were looking for -  a high-level figure in Al Qaeda. Mr Kiriakou decided to resign from the agency in 2004, and worked for several years at the auditing firm Deloitte, analyzing security risks for businesses overseas. 

In 2007, Mr Kiriakou was interviewed by ABC News saying that the practice of waterboarding had elicited good information from detainees, including Zubaydah, but that the country should no longer use the technique because “we’re Americans and we’re better than this.”

After the interview, Mr Kiriakou was asked to leave Deloitte and he was later criticized for stating that Zubaydah began to talk within seconds of being waterboarded when later documents showed he was waterboarded 83 times. Mr Kiriakou acknowledged that he had not seen the waterboarding first hand.

Over the course of 2008, reporters sought Mr. Kiriakou out for interviews about the C.I.A.’s counterterrorism work. Court documents charge that he provided the name of a covert official to one journalist that summer, who in turn passed it on to a legal team defending Guantánamo Bay detainees. Mr Kiriakou is being charged with releasing classified information.

Mr. Kiriakou is also accused of helping another reporter, Scott Shane of The New York Times, learn or confirm the name of another official involved in the interrogation program, which The Times published in a June 2008 article. A Times spokeswoman said that neither the newspaper nor Mr. Shane had been contacted by investigators or provided any information to them. 

In the spring of 2009, some photos were discovered in the cell of Mustafa Ahmad al Hawsawi, an accused Al Qaeda financier and one of 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's four co-defendants. These photos included CIA operatives. One accusation being levied against Mr Kiriakou is that he either provide photos of CIA interogators to defense lawyers for accused terrorists or he confirmed the men in pictures shown to him. Those pictures of the interrogaters were then shown in a line up to the accused terrorists in an effort to determine who was torturing them with the ultimate goal of mounting a defense of being coerced to confess.

The criminal complaint against Kiriakou also indicates that a defense filing in early 2009 contained classified information that the government hadn't provided to the defense. If convicted, he is looking at 30 years. 


Stephen Kim

Mr Kim immigrated from South Korea as a child, has briefed top government officials on the dangers posed by North Korea as an arms expert for over a decade. In March 2009, a State Department press officer asked Mr. Kim to speak about North Korea to a Fox News reporter, James Rosen, and the two began to talk and exchange e-mails. Mr. Kim sent some e-mails under an online pseudonym, “Leo Grace.”

On June 11, 2009, Mr. Rosen reported that “the Central Intelligence Agency has learned, through sources inside North Korea,” that Pyongyang was likely to respond to a United Nations resolution condemning its nuclear and missile tests with more tests and other measures. While this information was not surprising, C.I.A. officials were furious that a top-secret analysis had been leaked almost instantly.

Initially, Mr. Kim claimed that he had spoken to Mr. Rosen only once. He admitted to more contacts only after FBI agents confronted him with evidence. In August of 2010, he was charged under the 1917 Espionage Act. If convicted, Mr. Kim could be sentenced to 15 years in prison.



[1] Website: The Atlantic Wire Article: Obama's War on Whistle-Blowers Author: John Hudson Accessed on: 09/05/2012

[2] Website: Mother Jones Article: Obama's War on Whistleblowers Author: Peter Van Buren Accessed on: 09/05/2012

[3] Website: Government Accountability Project - Article: Obama Indicts Sixth Whistleblower Under the Espionage Act Author: NA Accessed on: 09/05/2012

[4] Website: Government Accountability Project - Article: NSA Whistleblower Tom Drake Author: NA Accessed on: 09/05/2012

[5] Website: Wikipedia Article: Jeffrey Sterling Author: NA Accessed on: 09/05/2012

[6] Website: Wikipedia Article: Operation Merlin Author: NA Accessed on: 09/05/2012

[7] Website: ABC News Article: Ex-CIA Agent Jeffrey Sterling Arrested, Accused of Leaking to Reporter as Revenge Author: Pierre Thomas Accessed on: 09/05/2012

[8] Website: ABC News Article: Federal Prosecutors Try To Force New York Times Reporter To Reveal Sources Author: Lee Farran Accessed on: 09/05/2012

[9] Website: The New York Times Article: Leak Offers Look at Efforts by U.S. to Spy on Israel Author: Scott Shane Accessed on: 09/05/2012

[10] Website: The American Conservative Article: Tapping the Israeli Embassy Author: Philip Giraldi Accessed on: 09/05/2012

[11] Website: Mother Jones Article: John Kiriakou and the Real Story Behind Obama's Latest Leak Crackdown Author: Nick Baumann and Asawin Suebsaeng Accessed on: 09/05/2012

[12] Website: The New York Times Article: Ex-C.I.A. Officer’s Path From Terrorist Hunter to Defendant Author: Charlie Savage Accessed on: 09/05/2012

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