Those who doubt that the current administration is an enemy of a free press need look no further than a devastating indictment recently issued by Reporters Without Borders in the 2014 Press Freedom Index.
The Press Freedom Index ranks 180 countries according to the degree to which its journalists can operate without censorship or fear of persecution. The country that is responsible for the Bill of Rights currently ranks 46th.
This assessment is troubling for conservatives and other defenders of constitutional liberties. This poor ranking, which placed the United States behind such countries as Ghana, Botswana, and Romania, is largely due to the enthusiasm with which the United States has punished so-called whistleblowers under the Espionage Act.
The Espionage Act, which became law in 1917, has been used by the Obama administration repeatedly to intimidate government employees, including Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning, who have spoken out against what they perceived to be abuses of federal power. It is notable that none of those so prosecuted are accused of having leaking information to enemy governments; rather, their crime is to have shared classified information with American journalists.
The poor ranking the United States received in this year’s Press Freedom Index was issued in the wake of significant revelations by Edward Snowden concerning the extent of the National Security Administration’s global surveillance programs. Edward Snowden, of course, has been charged under the Espionage act with “unauthorized communication of national defense information” and “willful communication of classified intelligence with an unauthorized person.” He is in fact the eighth such person so be so charged under Barack Obama. This is three more than under George W. Bush. Significantly, it is more than the total number of Americans who were charged under the Act between 1917 and the year Obama ascended the throne.
Once freedom of speech becomes merely a phrase on a piece of parchment, journalists begin to censor themselves. The shockingly aggressive prosecutions of whistleblowers under the Espionage Act serve as a stern warning to other would-be whistleblowers and the journalists who would enable them that opposition to the national security state will not be tolerated.
The word “liberal,” from the Latin word liber, meaning free, has a much different meaning than it used to when it comes to matters of free speech. These days it is the so-called liberals in Congress who champion the imperial overreach of the president while it is left to conservatives such as Rand Paul to challenge it. Modern liberals are reliable defenders of the status quo and all its constitutional collateral damage including drone assassinations, NSA surveillance, and incarceration of those who invoke their 1st Amendment right to free speech.
Who are the Americans who have been targeted for expressing their 1st Amendment rights? Thomas Drake, an NSA senior executive who leaked information about his agency’s unconstitutional “Trailblazer” program to reporters for The Baltimore Sun, was initially prosecuted under this law but ended up pleading guilty to much lesser charge, a misdemeanor related to unauthorized use of a computer. John Kiriakou was an official with the CIA who was charged under the Espionage Act for sharing “the names of two former colleagues who interrogated detainees using harsh practices including waterboarding.” He too pled guilty to a lesser charge and was sentenced to jail for over two years. Whistleblowers Stephen Jin-Woo Kim of the State Department, CIA officer James Sterling, and Navy linguist James Hitselberger are still facing litigation under the Act. Shami Leibowitz, who worked for the FBI as a Hebrew translator, was sentenced to twenty months in prison for giving documents transcribing conversations in the Israeli embassy to a blogger named Richard Silverstein. Chelsea Manning, of course, was convicted under the Act in 2013 and sentenced to prison for thirty-five years for giving classified material to Wikileaks. Edward Snowden, the Great White Whale of unauthorized leaks, remains at large.
It may be tempting for conservatives to dismiss these whistleblowers as traitors who are being justly prosecuted for messing around with military secrets and classified intelligence memos where they should not be. This sort of kneejerk reaction is no longer something we can afford. Regardless of what you can say about Mr. Snowden’s reluctance to come home and face the charges against him, no conservative can deny that he initiated a substantial dialogue in this country about constitutional liberties, one that has been overdue for many years. An administration, whether Republican or Democratic, that restricts freedom of the press to the degree that Obama’s has done is a tyrannical administration and should be viewed as such by any true conservative. It may seem difficult to imagine, but twenty years from now websites like Newsslinger and others that present points of view unwelcome to the ruler in the White House may be flushed down the memory hole and replaced by yet another site detailing the exploits of Miley Cyrus or Justin Bieber or any other person sufficiently shiny to distract the citizenry from the fact of an omnipresent dictatorship.
It will be interesting to see where our country stands in 2015 on the Press Freedom Index. I, for one, will be paying attention.
Thomas Davis – NEWSslinger Contributor