Next week marks the 10th anniversary of an event that celebrates truth telling in the public interest and honors the legacy of Ron Ridenhour, a man not often remembered, who irreversibly changed the course of history.
As a soldier in Vietnam, Ridenhour had started investigating troubling rumors of a terrible war crime committed by U.S. soldiers. In 1969, after returning home, he wrote a stunning letter to Congress and the Pentagon in which he described the horrific slaughter of innocent men, women and children. Ridenhour was a key source for the series on My Lai that Sy Hersh wrote for the Dispatch News Service, which later earned Hersh the Pulitzer Prize. The story of the massacre provoked widespread outrage and was a turning point in U.S. public opinion of the war. Ridenhour himself went on to become an award-winning investigative journalist before his sudden, tragic death at the age of 52.
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.
After Drake was indicted for espionage, and endured years of prosecution, loss of employment and opportunity, the government case collapsed. District Judge Richard Bennett, a Bush appointee, cleared Drake of most of his charges, and lacerated the Justice Department for zealous and unwarranted prosecution.
John Kiriakou has not been so lucky. The CIA officer revealed that torture was widespread in the CIA, and, on January 25, 2013, he was sentenced to more than two years in prison. This means that the only CIA officer to go to jail for torture is an officer who never tortured anybody. In October 2012, President Obama issued a directive expanding the Whistleblower Protection Act to cover intelligence officials like Kiriakou – but only if they talk to superiors within the government, not the press.
In a bold new documentary, “War on Whistleblowers: Free Press and the National Security State,” which is being screened around the country, Drake says, “Speaking truth to power is now a criminal act.”
Leaks are what one veteran journalist called “the unfiltered lifeblood of investigative journalism.” Yet the Obama administration has taken steps to criminalize the newsgathering process. Indeed, as Morton Halperin, who served in the Johnson, Nixon and Clinton administrations, warned, Drake’s conviction would have set a precedent to prosecute journalists as spies, posing “a grave threat to the mechanism by which we learn most of what the government does.”
The truth can be treacherous. But let’s not confuse truth-tellers with traitors.
As Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black once wrote, “The guarding of military and diplomatic secrets at the expense of informed representative government provides no real security for our republic.” That’s why whistleblowers like the four courageous men profiled in “War on Whistleblowers” are true patriots.
They uphold a quintessential American value — dissent. In exposing the convenient but poisonous fictions that grow in the cracks of accountability, they deserve not our reproach, but our respect.