At a moment when the government is aggressively clamping down on information, it’s worth remembering — and honoring — the importance of whistleblowers like Ridenhour, who tell us the hard truth even when nobody wants to hear it.
Informed by the spirit of Ridenhour’s commitment to truth-telling, the annual Ridenhour Prizes — awarded by the Nation Institute and Fertel Foundation — celebrate courageous individuals who spoke out even when the forces arrayed against them were large, powerful or questioned their motives and patriotism.
This year’s daring winners have spoken out about global warming, illegal immigration, the FBI’s crackdown on student radicals in the ’60s and sexual assault in the military. They follow in the footsteps of earlier recipients who have come forward, often at great personal risk, to expose the lies of government and corporations, to reveal unreported truths, to rally others on behalf of transparency and to call out corruption.
Truth-telling has suffered an all-out assault at the strong hands of the most recent administrations — sometimes literally, as in the case of Pfc. Bradley Manning, who has been detained in appalling conditions and now faces extreme charges that many believe should be dropped.
The Obama administration’s actions against whistleblowers are particularly disturbing because during the president’s first campaign, he called whistleblowers “the best source of information about waste, fraud and abuse in government,” and said that their “acts of courage and patriotism . . . should be encouraged rather than stifled.” Yet this administration has invoked the Espionage Act a record six times since 2009. Passed in 1917, it had been previously used only three times to prosecute government officials, including the spy Aldrich Ames.
One of the latest whistleblowers to suffer under the Espionage Act is 2011 Ridenhour winner Thomas Drake. As another Ridenhour awardee, Jane Mayer, chronicled in a sweeping New Yorker article, Drake was not a spy, but a National Security Agency employee who exposed Trailblazer, an NSA program that illegally monitored civilian communication. He was outraged that the government was spying on its citizens in violation of the law. When Drake’s attempts to report his concerns through traditional channels were ignored, and then punished, his only recourse was to go public.